A Critical Friend

It’s very interesting to see feedback getting so much attention as a concept in education at the moment. It’s lovely to see so many examples of teachers using critique in such complex and intelligent ways. Unfortunately for me, though, the word feedback always makes me think of that moment when you go too close to a speaker with a microphone, and you hear that awful whine of sounds being bent out of shape. Feedback has the potential to be positive, but it also has the habit of being negative. We should take care not to forget, in all the talk about feedback, that critique can be hurtful. If you look around yourself on the Internet you will often see adults upset because someone said that something they did wasn’t good enough, or true enough, or worth the words it was written with. When feedback turns into pure criticism, it has the power to destroy. So I reckon we need to be really careful about how specific our feedback is to individuals in front of a whole class. Not everyone in the world wants their work put on the stage.

One of the things I think about writing is that you need a bit of space to do it badly. To figure out how to do it by yourself by making mistakes and then repairing them. For sure, you need a teacher to pick you up on technique, and accuracy, but you also need time to understand what you want to throw away and what you want to keep. If you are going to be a writer, eventually you have to find your own voice, rather than having one given to you. Writing is both deeply personal and horribly public – it takes courage to put your words out into the world where people might not like them. And feedback can be the thing that makes the difference. Years and years and years ago, I wrote a story called Palomino, Little Horse. My teacher wrote a comment on my story that made me feel that she liked my writing. I liked it too, and I still have the exercise book. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that feedback doesn’t have to be a loud noise, in a public place, with immediate impact. It can be a moment between child and teacher – a moment when one is a writer, and the other is a reader. Because maybe what you most needed just at that point wasn’t someone to critique you publicly, maybe what you needed was a critical friend.

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Kindness is Power

Power is a funny old thing. It’s thrilling to have, but I definitely wouldn’t want too much of it. As a writer I love it when the words that I use turn out to have power. If I’m lucky they have the power to engage, to inspire, to amuse. If I’m unlucky they’re a damp squib. Power is fickle like that. Power thrives on networks, word of mouth, and confidence. The more powerful people you know, the more powerful you tend to get. The more confident you are, the more people believe that you know what you’re talking about. The big problem with power, though, is how easily people can abuse it. The news at the moment is full of people who drunk too deeply on the elixir of power and did the wrong thing with it. I’d imagine there are a lot of people currently thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The theme du jour in education is that “knowledge is power”. That school is about “making kids cleverer”. That we should get children to memorise stuff, pass lots of tests and then the keys to the kingdom will be theirs. It’s interesting to pick this idea apart. To ask what the power we’re talking about actually consists of, and to what extent people want it. To consider whether power is truly available to everyone who gets a good set of exam results. And to think about whether knowledge does end up being power and whether education should be framed in terms of IQ or income anyway. (Thanks to Nancy Gedge for getting me thinking about all this.) We need to ask what different people’s values are, before we start to make grand statements about ‘what really matters’. Given the state of the world we live in, the political problems we face, and the nature of the people who have caused those problems, I can’t help but think that maybe education shouldn’t be about making people cleverer. Maybe it should be about making them kinder instead.

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An Attitude of Mind

I mostly let debates about creativity wash over me, because these days this is one bit of learning where I’d rather be doing the thing, than discussing how it works. I mainly want to know how it happens for me. Creativity is pretty much impossible to define anyway, and it’s very difficult to predict which people will achieve it. Who can say where the genius of Van Gogh or Einstein came from? Who can tell you how to get a Harry Potter on the page? So I reckon my best bet to figure all this out is by trying to be creative myself, or aiming to inspire creativity in other people, rather than spending time debating how it might or might not work. That way I can think about how it happens to me, when and if it does. How do I learn to do it? What conditions do I need to have in place? Maybe metacognition will help me work this out, and also how other people could get there as well. And having thought long and hard, here are some things that seem to offer a path to creativity for me.

Something to Think About
If you’re going to be creative, you need experience, information, knowledge, whatever you want to call it. It’s not so much about memorising stuff, as about imbibing ideas and sensory responses until you’re full, and then letting them bounce around in your head.

Something to Think With
Next you need a form for your thoughts. That form can be anything – it can be plants, or paints, or cardboard boxes, or a guitar, or equations, or all of them simultaneously. It’s great fun to mix up forms – often the breakthroughs lie in weird combinations.

Top of your Game
Technique is a funny old thing. The better I can do something, the more I can ignore the process of doing it. I was a dancer before I became a writer, and my best creative moments could happen when I was able to forget about technique and focus on expressing the idea.

A Room with a View
It’s strange how places and spaces can help you harness your creativity. The artist’s studio. The view from a bridge. The shadows thrown by cork oaks in the late afternoon sunshine. Creative inspiration often strikes when you’re in nature. The world is wonderful like that.

International Mud Day
It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be muddy. You just have to accept that. Experimenting is part of the deal. You have to throw away 99% of what you come up with. And then you have to work tirelessly to make the 1% worth keeping.

Tie your Leg to the Desk
The most annoying yet amazing thing about creativity is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. I once wrote a blog about how this works, and I honestly don’t think I can better it, so I’ll shut up already about that.

Skin in the Game
You can talk about creativity all you want, but if you’re not actually being creative, I reckon you need to do that first. Get some skin in the game, see how scary it feels in reality, then wonder how on earth it is that kids find it so easy, but adults don’t. (See below.)

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
The reason more people are not creative is not because they lack knowledge, but because they’re scared of what other people will say if they are. (See above.) I have a great (if rude) motto for such occasions: I think you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a shit.

The most important thing to remember about creativity is that it is open to everyone. Anyone can be creative, in any form. It’s not something that is confined to a small elite. Creativity is fun, and life affirming, and a great way to express yourself. I reckon more people should do more of it, rather than less. Most of us will be rubbish at being creative at first, but no one got any better at it by talking about it. We have to DO IT. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now. Most especially if we’re children. Because all creativity really is, is an attitude of mind. And there ain’t no one who can tell you how to have that.




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A rainy winter’s night. A shabby office at the DfE. Somewhere near Watford. 

Sir John: We’re thinking of rebranding knowledge post Brexit.

Jasper: [splutters] Rebranding knowledge? John, surely you’re not serious?

Rupert: Not enough workers, Jasper. No one wants to pick the fruit anyone. It’s rotting on the trees. We don’t need knowledge anymore. We need skillz.

Jasper: [takes a large swig of whisky] Skillz?

Sir John: We did it once before, when we rebranded skills to knowledge back in the day. No reason why we shouldn’t do it again. [he lights a cigar]

Jasper: [coughing] I don’t remember that, Sir John. I’m only 25. But, but skills? Aren’t those a bit common?

Rupert: Jasper, Jasper, remind me. When you had a burst pipe last year, who was it who came out to mend it?

Jasper: Well obviously it was that fabulous Polish builder that we had … before … well, you know what. [mutters under his breath] sodding Brexit

Rupert: We just need the kids to understand that all the knowledge in the world is no use if you can’t put it into action. Is that so bad?

Jasper: Well, since you put it that way, I guess I can get into the Skillz agenda. Raising the bar and all that. Hit the reboot button.

Sir John: Good lad. Good lad. So, we were thinking, Jasper. That you wouldn’t mind doing something for us.

Rupert: We’re sure it’ll be no problem. And if it is, stiff upper lip, jolly good show and all that.

Jasper: [shaking slightly] What do you need me to do?

Sir John and Rupert: Tell Nick.

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“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (wo)men to do nothing.”
Edmund Burke

As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, I’m quite happy to give Ofsted a hard time when I think it’s due. And the DfE for that matter. I’m not trying to make any friends in high places by writing what I write. But things that I’ve read and heard this week have reminded me that we all have a role to play in letting bad things happen. Of course, there are some groups of people who have very little say in the face of bad education policies – the children, for instance – although sometimes they rise up and make their voices heard. Parents are hardly listened to in the current system (choice is a fallacy for many of us), so if what we get isn’t what we wanted, we are left to express our opinions via the ballot box or to vote with our feet and home educate. (From the conversations I have with other parents, I can’t help but think that the approach at the moment is based on a false impression of what we want, rather than on the reality of it.) Some CEOs and SLT have a lot to answer for, for where we are at, especially when they dance to the DfE’s tune. But someone had to agree to pin that badge on the child’s blazer; someone had to agree to go along with something this awful.

I completely understand how difficult it is to fight against the system when you’re trapped inside it – when your livelihood depends on doing what you’re told. When all you want is to do the best for your children and your own family. History teachers could tell us a story or two about how powerless people feel when they’re at the bottom of the ladder. But there comes a point at which we just have to shout “NO!” And that’s when we are complicit in doing things that might damage children’s mental health (not just our own children, but other people’s as well). So I swear that I will never ever give any child a “most able” badge, no matter what. Because I can’t be complicit in this.

Posted in Children, Mental Health, Testing | 3 Comments

The Blame Game

When Michael Wilshaw was HMCI, he had a very bad habit of announcing his opinions in The Sunday Times. One particularly striking moment was when he called for a “Renaissance of Respect” in the nation’s schools, which first of all made me laugh, and which then made me so cross that I found myself using the words “a tidal wave of tripe” in a blog for the first and hopefully the last time. The new HMCI, Amanda Spielman, has been a lot quieter than her predecessor since she took up her post. Some might feel that this is evidence that she is thinking things through. Being of a cynical nature, I suspect that it is more because she has been too busy wondering how on earth the DfE made such an almighty mess of the accountability system, and trying to figure out what the hell she can do to fix it, to have time to sound off in the Sunday press. Clearly, she has been taking a different approach to Mr Wilshaw’s combative one (which let’s face it, isn’t hard.) And then today’s ‘commentary‘ brought an abrupt end to her silence.

The ‘commentary’ was a strangely robotic sounding piece that used phrases such as “Exams are our best measure of what has been successfully transmitted to the pupil’s cognition” and “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 … are set an appropriate level of rigour.” (This despite Ofqual telling us a week ago that the 2016 reading test was “unduly hard“.) No one would dispute most of her findings – that accountability has led to a narrowing of the curriculum. (I was going to call this blog “Stating the Bleeding Obvious”.) Clearly, there is an issue with schools putting ethics to one side, to focus on getting good test results, as I explored here. This is not okay. We’ve all been shouting about this for years. But the problem is not with her findings, the problem is with the way she skates over the role of the DfE and Ofsted in creating the situation that schools find themselves in (particularly those schools in areas of disadvantage). There are a few hints that Ofsted might have had something to do with it, but effectively it is an exercise in passing the buck.

Oddly, for a speech that claims to be about the substance that knowledge can bring, it is hard to find much that is substantive in this piece. I have to admit that I smiled at the obligatory paragraph on how skills are killing off knowledge – this is such an oft visited trope that no speech on education emanating from the government can do without it. There are some strangely political sounding claims that “the new SATs at the end of key stage 2 and revised GCSE and A-level qualifications are a marked improvement on their predecessors” and that schools should be “fulfilling the promise and potential of the 2014 national curriculum”. (I was under the impression that Ofsted was meant to be apolitical.) The DfE seems to get off scot-free, and despite a couple of admissions that Ofsted might just possibly have had some role to play in the problems we face, the underlying message of the speech is that it’s all the fault of schools and teachers.

No matter how much I wish that some schools wouldn’t game the exams system, no matter how much it infuriates me when school leaders narrow the curriculum and focus on endless mock tests, I cannot bring myself to lay the blame more than partly at the door of the worst offenders. No matter how much it pains me to see writing being taught as an exercise in naming the parts, or how much I hate the thought that some children’s last year of primary is little more than getting ready for and hopefully passing SATs, there is no way that I can lay the majority of the fault at the feet of hard pressed school staff. And this is because I know for a fact that they would not be in this position in the first place if it was not for Ofsted and the DfE. So they can state what the problem is all they like, but unless they change the way that schools are held accountable, they are never going to find a solution. And if Ofsted want to play the blame game, I know exactly where they should start. By taking a long hard look in the mirror.

Posted in Accountability, Ofsted, Testing | 1 Comment

A Tale of Two Cities

Once upon a time there were two cities, which sat on either side of a wide river plain, with a yellow river running like a cross of gold between them. The city on the south side of the river was the first to develop, in the time when we first landed on this planet. That city has been around for hundreds of years – it is the original settlement, the one where we first made land fall in this strange new place. We grwmps were in charge of the settlement. We had to be, because we got here first, so we had to survive. Luckily, there were grwmps who knew how everything worked. We knew how to mend a broken fusion reactor and we quickly learned how to grow crops in the harsh astral winds that scoured the planet. We brought with us Earth knowledge. We knew about the old ways, the ways that we had left behind when we set off from Earth but that we needed to pass into the future of this colony. Most every Grwmp thought that this was an excellent plan.

The hard bit was when we came across the yununs, a fluffy round species that was native to this planet. (No one had told us that we would encounter fluffy round aliens here.) The yununs weren’t aggressive (mostly) but they were certainly hard work. We decided to corral the yununs into temporary schools, so that we could keep a lid on them and maybe pass on the Earth ways to them if we were lucky. We were pretty sure that we knew what the yununs needed. but unfortunately some of the yununs didn’t take to things quite as we had hoped. Being in charge of the yununs involved a lot of skill and determination (and a fair few painful bites). Most grwmps didn’t want this job. They wanted to be out setting up the institutions for the new planet, making the laws or working the fields. The yununs were liable to make a mess and throw green slime around the place (this stuff grew everywhere on the new planet but at least it was nutritious).

One day not so long ago, some of the older yununs were standing by the yellow river. They were forbidden to dip even in a toe into it, on pain of they didn’t even want to know what. They had been told that the water would burn their feet off if they so much as went near. Since they were native to this planet and yunun history told them that this wasn’t true, I’d guess they found their grwmp teachers very confusing. They probably didn’t get why we wouldn’t use the planet’s technology, it had been around for what felt like millenia, but some grwmps didn’t take kindly to being told. Anyway, this group of yununs had a feeling that if someone wanted to swim one way or the other over the yellow cross shaped river, or perhaps even fly across to go and make a town of their own, like this one, but not quite, then they could. Of course it was important for them to remember that the river was fast flowing and dangerous for swimmers, and that vicious gusts of winds sent up whirlwinds of sand that would down a space hopper, but surely it wasn’t impossible?

As time passed, the yununs wondered how much right anyone (aka ‘the grwmps’) should have to say about how things should be for them. Especially since it wasn’t their planet. They started to think about whether they couldn’t just be treated almost exactly like us grwmps (apart from the passing on of Earth knowledge bit, they found that bit very useful). They spoke to their teachers, and some of the grwmp teachers agreed with them. Not all by any means but definitely a lot. And then they just kind of got together and agreed that there should be equity in how the grwmps treated yununs. It wasn’t their fault after all that they were smaller and fluffier. (Plus the yununs had found a document called the “UNCRC” on an ancient grwmp device, and some grwmps looked very shifty every time they mentioned it.) This story doesn’t have a dramatic ending. There is no happily ever after. Just a slow drip, drip, drip like the green slime on which we all feed. If you look across the river, you can see the new city, although it’s only half built and it’s shaky in parts. But the yunyuns and grwmps who went aren’t planning to come back, and as time passes more of us think that we might follow. Especially since they put up their new flag, which reminds us of something from Earth. Although we can’t yet quite place exactly what.



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