Sunday, 26 January 2020

If you tolerate this then your NQTs will be next - tribalism in education

This week I buried my grandfather. A very special man. If I am honest, he is the person who has had the biggest impact on my thinking and ideas. He was and still is my role model. He was grand in so many ways. One key thing he taught me was the power of talk and discussing an idea.  

I have become a bit annoyed with Twitter at the moment and that is because there is a real problem with issues being polarised. A complex issue is being simply polarised into two extremes. Over the years we have seen things polarised in terms in knowledge, skills, progressive and trad. Rather than have an exploration of an idea, we have things reduced to right and wrong categories. 

The latest casualty of this has been ‘isolation booths’. Instead of having a discussion about it and testing ideas out we get instant polarisation of the topic. We have phrases like ‘ban’ and ‘blanket ban’ banded about with glee in tweets, talks and conversations. Words like this offer no variations or room to think. You are either with us or against us. Ban it or support it! 

So when people have drawn the ‘clear lines’ in the sand, they start wheeling evidence. That polarisation is then supported by evidence from the extreme ends of the issue. The time when a student had to memorise the complete works of Charles Dickens by a misguided teacher. The time when a student was criminally locked in a room for a whole day. These bits of evidence are catnip to newspapers and politicians. They love them because they take the issue to its extreme angle and in some sort of backwards thinking it is assumed that these extreme examples are common practice. The examples cited are never the norm. Yet, the norm is never explored, because of the tabloid-bait examples are emotive and more compelling for an argument. Plus, if there is more than one example of the problem, it then is a pattern and, therefore, it is rife in our schools. Where are the national studies? 

Then, you add emotion to your polarised argument. You make someone seem like a victim or the villain. In the knowledge debate, the knowledge people were viewed as Gradgrind figures and the children were losing all sense of fun and creativity of their life. Polarisation of an idea needs victims, villains, winners and losers. Each one a bundle of emotions. The knowledge debate had teachers vilified and seen as tyrants and students seen as prisoners in a dreary system. There weren’t various shades of grey but clear views of black and white on the issue. There wasn’t a thought about all the different types of teacher. No it was ‘Knowledge Villain’ or ‘Creativity Freedom Fighter’.  

Once the polarised argument has its victim and its villain, it is now time to form your tribe. You are either with us or you are a vile human being. Yes, you are so bad you don’t deserve to breathe oxygen or teach. It does get this vile. They’ll then get a bit personal and like a cult. I wouldn’t want you to teach my child. I asked my cat and they said they wouldn’t want to be fed by you. It helps if you use the tribe title as an insult. Oh, shut up you trad! 

The problem with this tribal element is that a lot of us don’t fit at either ends of the argument. We tend to be the funny middle. We might agree with one bit of argument, but then we are against another bit. We can’t sit in either group. When issues are polarised, most of us are isolated and left out. We are neglected. There’s an assumption you are for or against an idea in education, which leaves a lot of us in a difficult place. 

An issue or an idea needs exploring, but it needs to be done intelligently and not emotionally. We aren’t doing serious concepts in education justice if we polarise things from the beginning. We need to talk, discuss, argue, convince and explain. At the moment, there is an assumption by many that something is clearly wrong from the start so there isn’t a healthy exploration of ideas. It puts us in a difficult situation where to explore an idea is to seem to be attacking the polarised idea. It is hard to deal with things because any questions or discussion is seen as attacking. 

I think education Twitter needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask itself questions. A complex issue doesn’t have a simple solution. It is complex for a reason. A complex solution is needed, yet I am not hearing people talking, writing and blogging about complex solutions.  All I am seeing tribes and posturing on one side or another. No one side it right. 

Let’s not make Twitter polarised and read like the tabloids. It should be our education symposium. A place to bounce and mould ideas. Discuss the issue rather than emote the issue. Leave the emotions to Facebook or the tabloids. Emotions get in the way of dealing with the issue. 

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 19 January 2020

Quotations, all alone in the moonlight. Let’s keep them in the moonlight.

Each set of mocks brings new frustrations, issues and worries. This year we noticed that students were neglecting the writer choices (A02) in the Literature mocks. The frustration we had was that over and over again students didn’t mention a single thing in reference to choices. They’d have these great points but it was never grounded in the text. We’d have the quotation floating in a paragraph or the odd mention of phrases, but nothing of relevance.

I have never been a big fan of learning quotations. Know the text well enough and you will not need a page of quotations. Quotations breed over-confidence in a text. A quotation becomes something to crowbar in an essay and not something to aid explanation. An obsession with quotations is dominating English at the moment. It has become the new ‘flashcards’ of revision. We are drilling them into the brains of students, when in fact we are creating false confidence. They think they know the text when they don’t. Quotations give, in my opinion, false confidence to students by the buckets. They feel they know everything about the text. Yes, they can regurgitate a text, but can they explain it. A few quotations are handy to know but there is a must better way.

‘An Inspector Calls’ is one of those texts where they don’t have a bit of text to help them reach that A02 objective. And does isn’t scare you? I was so sacred of it I wrote a blog about A02 things so students could have something to say about it in the exam. When we teach texts like ‘An Inspector Calls’ we obsess with quotations. In fact, we don’t blooming teach the play, but spend the whole text quotation making, searching and picking apart. We teach quotation skills rather than the text. And, this is a big problem in English. Quotations have become the quick marker of learning. Which is a bit crazy, given that we are trying to instil a love of literature. I wouldn’t walk into an A Level in English after a diet of quotations. The ideas are the enjoyable things.

I decided I had to change my approach to A02 and quotations. We as a school haven’t been a big fan of the obsession with quotations and it hasn’t affected us badly. I put the choices at the heart of the lesson rather than quotations.

I make one PowerPoint a lesson with this format:

Section 1 –p2

Gerald: Giving us port, Edna? That’s right. (He pushes it towards ERIC) You ought to like this port , Gerald. As a matter of fact, Finchley told me it’s exactly the same port your father gets from him.

What’s interesting about these choices?

What technique is being employed by the playwright?

What are we learning about the characters / motivations / personalities / messages in the play?  

Now, this format goes against the ‘ye olde faithful quote exploding’. Instead of mining a quotation within an inch of its life, we, I mean I, pick out three choices. We explore those choices and why the choices have been made. For this one, we explored the role of port in the story and how it fits in with Birling’s obsession with status. Added to this is Birling’s obvious name dropping. As a group we explored the choices and the meaning associated with the decisions made by the playwright. Then, we moved on to another aspect of the text. However, the lesson was dominated by these choices. I returned to them at the end of the lesson and at the start of the lesson. I might rephrase the question, but I kept banging on about those three choices.

How does Priestley make us dislike Birling from the opening?

How does Priestley make us understand Birling’s motivation?

Then, in the next lesson, we looked at another quotation and three choices. This time another character and a different section. Another three to add to our original three. Six choices to think about in the exam. I continued and continued in this way.

After a week, I had several choices that students could quickly or should I say easily recall.





       - dashes






At the end of the week, I’d collect them all together and get students to think about how they could use them to support particular questions.


Oh – women easily express emotions when younger

Clothes – sexist attitude of men

Potty – how men don’t value what women think and feel

They had a board of choices to help feed an idea. They were not sifting through page after page of quotations. A quotation is tricky because you have to remember the quotation, the meaning of it and the technique or choice used in it. That’s three things. Students can remember the fact that Birling drinks port at the start. Port is easier to remember. It takes less memory space, in theory.

From a teaching point of view, it has made teaching ‘An Inspector Calls’ easier. Instead of cramming every lesson with quotations. Quick five minutes left, let’s find five examples of social inequality. It is structured around learning three choices. Three things. Three things a student will remember. At the end of teaching ‘An Inspector Calls’, I will have a page of choices. A page of A02 things to learn. A page that students can revise and use their revision time effectively.

I’d say that changing the focus away from quotations has been quite invigorating. Instead of cramming, I am exploring and discussing texts in far more detail than ever before. We are constantly modelling exam technique, but we exploring the text in a meaningful way.

To put it simply, how many A02 comments does a student need to make. Possibly two or three a paragraph. In one week, they cover twelve with me. Plus, we reinforced terminology and helped aid their ability to explain things. The emphasis is on explaining. By spending a lesson working on explaining simply three choices, we are developing the students' ability to explain things.

Better to spend time doing one thing well, rather than spend time doing lots of things ineffectively.

Thanks for reading,