Engagement, behaviour and the knowledge-rich curriculum

Last weekend I watched the debate held at the Global Education and Skills Forum entitled: “This House believes that 21st Century learners need their heads filled with pure facts”. Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, and Ark’s Daisy Christodoulou, speaking in favour of the motion, managed an impressive feat, winning the debate after initially getting only 20% of the audience’s vote.

The problem I identified, as did Nick Gibb, was the false dichotomy presented in the title, based on the idea that proponents of a knowledge-rich curriculum are only interested in filling pupils’ heads with facts and nothing else. This is a dangerously inaccurate representation of the debate, framing it in terms of a choice between rote-learning of facts and the teaching of higher order skills such as critical thinking.

As I listened to the speakers on both sides of the debate, I realised that actually, there wasn’t much disagreement about what they wanted to achieve, what we all want to achieve: capable, thinking, creative people who can rise to the challenges of the 21st Century. The differences occur in how each side proposes to reach this goal.

I have written before about the schooling I had in the early 1980s and about how copious reading enabled me and my peers to arrive at our lessons already well prepped for learning. The quantity of books I got through each month is pretty mind boggling by today’s standards. Without realising it, as I devoured each story I absorbed, osmosis-like, tons of knowledge about history, science, human nature, vocabulary and syntax. When we learned about the industrial revolution, it wasn’t totally new to me as I had already encountered aspects of it in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South” and in Hector Malot’s “En famille” (I read in both English and French), and Dickens’ work meant I was already familiar with the poverty and social problems of the era.

Imagine, if you will, a situation where your classroom is filled with pupils who, like me, are widely read. Immediately, as a teacher, you are gifted with the following:

  • Pupils who are much more likely to stay on task and not to be disruptive. Why? Because in order to read, you need to be able to sit quietly for hours and focus.
  • Pupils with a high degree of literacy – you are thus able to set them complex writing tasks.
  • Pupils who will contribute knowledgeably to class discussion so that you can discuss a topic in greater depth.

In such a classroom, there is no need for rote-learning of facts – a lot of the base knowledge is already there. This is the classroom where critical thinking and problem solving happens. This is the classroom where so called “higher order” skills are developed, honed and sharpened.

Now imagine another classroom, one you are more likely to see today. It is filled with children who have not developed the habit of reading. These children have not yet learned how to sit still, how to listen, how to work quietly. They struggle to string together a single grammatically-correct sentence. Their vocabulary is poor and their knowledge is limited. How on earth do you propose, in such a classroom, to develop those higher order skills, when the “lower order” ones are not yet there? More likely than not, there will be low-level disruption too.

As I have discussed before, the challenge we face in today’s world is that we have children who for the most part, at home, spend their time glued to their computer screens or playing video games. They are exposed to fast moving action on their screens, constantly changing graphics and noise. Put these children in a classroom and they are going to struggle to sit still and focus their attention on the analogue world of textbooks or worksheets. From thence comes the perceived need to engage them with fun activities, colourful slides and videos. One thing I have noticed about the resources shared by many teachers on my Twitter feed is the amount of games and group activities that are involved. One blog even went as far as to suggest that we could engage our pupils’ attention by teaching them through the medium of a video game.

This puts me in mind of mothers who hide pureed vegetables in their kids’ pasta sauce in order to surreptitiously feed them their five-a-day. Through these “engaging” activities, the hope is that we can sneak in some educational nuggets here and there. My fear is that by doing this, we are exacerbating the problem rather than dealing with it. If we keep trying to make things fun, we are not addressing the main obstacle to the children’s learning: their inability to sit quietly and focus. At what point do we say, “enough is enough, these kids should be able to concentrate on their work by now”? Is it right that year 10s are still having to be spoon fed their curriculum through card sorting activities? What’s going to happen to these kids when they leave school, enter the workforce (if they find a job) and find they are unable to cope with the repetitiveness of it or the lack of fun activities? What will they do then? Have a tantrum? I think not.

So here we are, this is the challenge that we face. And here is where the two different schools of thought, knowledge-led/skills-led, diverge. The knowledge brigade is clear that we need to instil as much knowledge as possible, through extensive reading, knowledge organisers, drills and yes, even rote-learning, so that the pupils are able to tackle those higher order skills we all want them to develop. For this to happen, discipline and strong behaviour systems are also essential. The skills brigade would rather skip ahead to the end product and engage in project-based learning and to practice generic skills which they believe (erroneously in my view) can be transferred from one subject matter to another.

To say, as some do, that there isn’t really a debate to be had, that all teachers teach knowledge, is to miss the point. There is an ideological fault line. However, let’s keep well away from those misleading tropes about the mindless, rote learning of facts.

Ordinary Men – Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

ordinary_men

One of the joys of my Twitter feed is that I get given recommendations for great books to read. I don’t exactly remember who it was that recommended Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men, but I’m grateful to them. I thought I was quite knowledgeable about the Holocaust until I read this account of a police battalion of ordinary, working class, middle-aged men and how they became mass killers.

This book challenged my assumption that the Final Solution was executed primarily by the zealous members of the SS, and that ordinary Germans were for the most part ignorant of what was happening, or at the very least, turned a blind eye. The evidence from the testimony of 200 or so members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 tells a different story. As the title tells us, these were ordinary men, many of whom had never shot a single person in their life before, but when ordered to by their leaders, went on to become mass murderers.

These weren’t evil, psychotic people. Many of them were run-of-the-mill family men who had no inkling of the type of mission that awaited them when they arrived at the village of Jozefow, in Poland, early one morning in 1942. They were addressed by their commander, a tearful Major Trapp, and told they were to round up the 1,800 Jews living in the village, take them to the forest and shoot them. Anyone unable to face this gruesome task was invited to step forward and excuse themselves from the mission. Only a handful of men, however, took advantage of this offer. The rest, with a few exceptions, followed the orders they were given and killed all of the Jewish men, women and children in the village.

The experience was a traumatic, but also a brutalising one. Once the “Rubicon” had been passed, it became easier and more commonplace for them to kill, and the battalion went on to take part in many more murderous actions over the next year or two. Browning estimates that only 10% to 20% of the men in the battalion refrained from the killing. The overwhelming majority did as they were told, some taking pleasure in it but most, gritting their teeth and getting on with an unpleasant job.

Browning provides us with many theories as to why the men became killers. While anti-Semitism played a part by inducing in them an indifference to the plight of the Jews, this in itself was not a deciding factor. Other theories revolve around the tensions induced by the war itself and the psychology of the group, of not wanting to let other members of the battalion down.

Whatever the complex rationale was, it makes for uncomfortable thinking. The more recent events in Rwanda and Bosnia, again with ordinary men committing untold atrocities on their neighbours, invite us all to wonder what kind of situations can turn people into mass killers, and how could we prevent this from ever happening again. I find myself asking the question: had I been in the same situation, would I have killed or would have I been one of the few to refuse? I’d like to think I would have said no, but I can’t be too sure. A guilty memory from my childhood reminds me just how suggestible I can be.

Let me recount my shameful secret. I would have been around 10 or 11 years old when this happened. At the time, I was a pupil at the French Lycée in London, having moved to the UK from Geneva a few years before, not able to speak English. Several Lebanese pupils had joined the school, escaping the civil war, and so my best friend Tanya and I had befriended this girl called Myrna, who had just arrived in the country. One day, Tanya (also known as Iago) suggested to me that we should play a game in which we “tested” Myrna’s friendship by pretending we didn’t want to be friends with her anymore for the duration of the lunch break, at the end of which we would tell her it was just a joke and that we didn’t really mean it. I wasn’t too sure about this but I went along with the plan. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t say no to Tanya. I won’t forget the look of shock and hurt on Myrna’s face when we went up to her and told her we weren’t her friends anymore. At the end of break, we told her we hadn’t really meant it, but unsurprisingly, that didn’t wash with her. She refused to have anything to do with us from that day onwards – and I don’t blame her.

Ah, confession is good for the soul. I’m glad to have got my dirty secret off my chest. I know I was young but I can very clearly remember my dilemma, being told to do something I didn’t want to do but doing it anyway because objecting would have been too difficult. Knowing this, I am not so confident about how I would act if I were put into a situation where someone in authority orders me to kill. Would I have enough courage and independence of mind to say no? This is a question we should all be asking ourselves. The very act of us exploring this issue prepares us for this hypothetical scenario and, I hope, makes it that much less likely that we would allow ourselves to be manipulated.

Room needed for a conversation on young girls and the hijab

Yesterday evening I responded to a tweet on my timeline showing a young girl celebrating St Patrick’s day by wearing a green hijab.

Presentation2

Almost as soon as I posted the tweet, I felt a twinge of regret – not for what I had said, which I stand by – but because I knew that such a tweet would inevitably invite attention, some negative; the Twitter mob can often be rather cruel. As it happens, the mob was not quite a mob, but nevertheless, there was enough criticism there for me to want to write this clarification.

First of all, I should perhaps have made it clear that I myself am a Muslim, and thus the tweet was not in any way an anti-Muslim rant. I am, however, increasingly concerned about the direction mainstream Islam is taking at the moment and in particular with its increasingly patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies, most notably demonstrated in the increasing “hijabification” of Muslim women and girls.

Second disclosure: I am a Muslim who does not wear a head covering, nor do I believe in it. That of course influences my perspective on this issue, but let me get some clear facts into the ring before my opinion is dismissed out of hand. Firstly, wearing the hijab is not a pillar of Islam. You do not have to wear the hijab in order to be a Muslim and there is no injunction anywhere in the Qur’an that says a woman must wear a hijab. There is a verse, widely cited, which asks women to cover their bosoms with their “khimar” but that verse can be interpreted in many ways. Some see this as a clear instruction for women to cover their hair while others interpret it as meaning a woman should cover her cleavage and not “flaunt her assets” – i.e. dress modestly in a way that will not invite undue sexual attention.

The verse asks women “not to show their adornments except that of it which normally shows. They shall cover their cleavage with their ‘khimar’.”

suraThe word “khimar” has been taken to mean a hijab (or head cover) by some, but the etymological meaning is simply that of a cover, such as a curtain or a dress.

Now, I don’t mean to meander into a theological discussion here but the point I want to make is this: the issue of women’s dress in Islam is open to interpretation; it is not set in stone. The Qur’an is meticulously detailed in some parts, but when it comes to women’s dress, it is not so. The spirit of the message is very much one of modesty but the degree of that modesty is left to our own personal interpretation. Unfortunately, the manifestation of Islam today, in large communities and in the mosques led by their imams, gives the impression that there is just the one interpretation. Women must wear a hijab, no ifs, no buts, case closed.

The imams in the mosques do not represent all Muslims, neither does their message represent the one truthful prism through which Islam must be interpreted. There are many thousands of Muslims like me, who no longer feel comfortable going to mosques because the message being preached there does not chime with our beliefs. There are a small minority of “progressive” mosques out there that preach a much more inclusive and tolerant message, but they are few and far between, and don’t get heard very much by non-Muslims. The net result is that the overwhelming impression non-Muslims have of the faith is that it requires women to wear a headscarf.

There is another factor to bear in mind here: the relatively recent spread of the “hijabist” ideology. If you go to any Muslim country today, or visit a strongly Muslim-populated area, you will see the majority of women wearing a headscarf. Scroll back forty years or so, and the opposite would have been true. Watch an Egyptian movie from the 1950s or 1960s and you will be hard pressed to find a single woman wearing a veil.

If I go back in time to my own childhood in the 1970s, I cannot recall any member of my family wearing the hijab. My family hails from Medina, in Saudi Arabia, the city that welcomed the prophet Muhammad and where he is buried. My grandfather was a very pious man who spent a lot of his time praying and reciting the Qur’an. And yet, I have photos from the mid 1970s of my grandparents and aunts visiting us in Geneva (where we were living at the time) and not a single headscarf in sight. Visit my family in Medina today and everyone of them is in a hijab. What has happened in the meantime?

I don’t have definitive answers to this question but I have already attempted an explanation here. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of “hijabification” has come at the same time as the rise of Islamism. The two are connected somehow – they are on the same continuum. It is in this context that I find the celebration of a picture showing a young girl wearing a hijab slightly troubling. The spread of the hijab has become insidious. First, it was a handful of women here and there, then it slowly but surely spread to whole communities. Next, it spread to girls, getting younger and younger as time has gone on. My son is in year 3 and there is a girl in his class who has worn the hijab since the beginning of the school year – from the age of 7. Where do we draw the line?

At this point, I may hear people say, so what? What’s wrong with girls wearing a headscarf if that is what they believe in? Shouldn’t we have religious freedom and tolerance? After all, it’s just a scarf, no need to get into a lather about that. But let’s go back and remember what that headscarf represents, what the Qur’anic verse quoted above is taken to mean. A woman must cover her bosom and her adornments with a “khimar” which some take to also include covering her hair. This is all about a woman covering her sexual attractiveness so as not to tempt a man into sin. The headscarf is not just an item of clothing, comparable to a suit or a tie. The hijab has sexual connotations and it is used, like it or not, to subjugate women. It is women who are made to wear it, not men. In the sweltering heat of last summer, I saw Muslim couples stroll in the park, the men wearing comfortable Bermudas and T-shirts, the women swaddled from head to toe. It is women who have to endure this discomfort, not men.

Now, if a grown woman decides of her free will to dress in this way, then that is her choice and must be respected. Can we say the same of young girls though? In his responding tweet, Dr. Umar AlQadri said that it had been his daughter’s choice to wear the headscarf. I think he was being slightly disingenuous here. It may be true that the young girl was not forced to wear a hijab but equally it is clear that at some point, she would be expected to do so. The fact that she chose to do so sooner rather than later doesn’t take away from the fact that in reality, she has very little choice in the matter. Girls in certain Muslim communities are expected to wear a hijab or face opprobrium. They are not invited to view the evidence, explore interpretations and then reach their own conclusions. There is only the one acceptable interpretation.

So yes, I am deeply uncomfortable at the sight of young girls wearing a hijab. The indoctrination starts from an early age. I am not sure I would go as far as to say that I would ban it in primary schools, but I am certainly troubled by it and don’t think I should apologise for questioning the practice. The problem is, that in these febrile times of Trump and Marine Le-Pen, people are wary of criticising because they don’t want to be seen as intolerant. There needs to be room for a conversation about this issue without it being tainted by accusations of Islamophobia.

Putting my oar into the knowledge versus skills debate

queen-elizabeth-1Nearly everything I read on my Twitter feed these days seems to be connected, in one way or another, to the knowledge versus skills debate that is currently raging in certain educational circles. I was initially rather bemused by it, thinking it strange that people should need to make a case for what seems to me to be the blimming obvious. Knowledge is good. Duh!

It has rapidly dawned on me though, that part of the disconnect for me is a generational one. It’s been nearly 30 years since I took my A-levels and the educational landscape has changed immeasurably since then. What was the norm in my day – didactic teaching of a knowledge-led curriculum – has become something rather contentious. When I talk about a knowledge-led curriculum, I don’t mean that we had to memorise lots of facts unthinkingly. I don’t remember doing much of that. I do remember the teacher, standing at the front of the class, giving us information which we would hastily write down in our exercise books (I had to learn shorthand pretty quickly), probing questions, class discussions, and writing up lots of essays that were then marked with a very critical eye. We were usually expected to read a designated chapter from the textbook before each lesson so that we came prepared to discuss whatever the topic was. There was real depth to our discussions too.

There never was any separation of substantive from disciplinary knowledge – the two went together. Yes we learned about lots of historical events but then we discussed different interpretations of these events, causal factors and tried to explain why particular decisions were made. The type of essay questions we were given almost invariably included discussing different interpretations of a historical figure or event. For example, questions like Examine the view that Edward the Confessor was too much influenced by Normans, or “Not one of the English rebellions during the early years of the reign of King William I seriously threatened his authority.” How far do you agree?

So, while there was a great deal of depth and breadth to our curriculum (what would now be called a knowledge-led curriculum), it was never rote learning or simply copying down lots of facts without thought or analysis. One thing we didn’t do, not even when I went to university, was to analyse original sources just for the sake of it. Naturally we had a look at the Bayeux Tapestry and text sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Orderic Vitalis , we discussed the context in which the sources were written and implications for us as historians, but we never actually had to annotate a source and examine its usefulness for a particular enquiry or discuss what other evidence we would need to back it up.

From a personal standpoint, I don’t really get the obsession with source material in history as it is taught today. I know primary sources are critical for professional historians, who are undertaking research, writing articles in journals and publishing their works. I also know that very often, specialised skill is required to be able to read and understand these sources. If you watched the TV programme about 1066 currently airing on the BBC, you will have seen historian Mark Morris, wielding a magnifying glass and easily reading the Latin text which to us would be unintelligible. This is a very specialist skill, and not a particularly transferable one. Would Mark Morris be able to decipher an ancient Arabic scroll and tell us what useful information could be gleaned from it? Probably not. So while there needs to be a general  understanding of how we piece together information about the past and the problems inherent in our approaches, I don’t think the “skill” of analysing sources should be overstated.

I get surprised when I hear other history teachers essentially describing their subject in terms of the ability to understand and analyse sources, as if that is what makes a historian. To me, history the subject, is all about stories of our past and piecing together our shared humanity, unravelling the complex web of events that led to where we are today. How our parliamentary democracy was born with the Magna Carta, which itself was the culmination of the reign of a greedy and incompetent king, whose powers in turn were the result of the unique circumstances following the Norman conquest of England. History is about understanding who we are and how we got here. That’s the real power and draw of the subject, not some abstract skill for analysing a source.

So, is there room for all our different approaches to history teaching to co-exist? Should we just agree to live and let live? While I would love to say yes, I do have some very serious reservations about the so called “progressive” approach, where skills are emphasised, often at the expense of substantive knowledge. I am sure most of my fellow colleagues blogging on Twitter, no matter where they stand in this debate, teach an awful lot of knowledge in their lessons. But I have seen the other side of progressive history education, and it’s deeply worrying.

I have seen teachers that are not expert in their subject, teaching the knowledge superficially, practically in bullet points. Today, in one history lesson, I heard the teacher talk about Elizabeth being “coronated” in 1559 (whatever that means) and another teacher repeatedly mispronounce the word “recusants” as “rescuants”. One task we had in class today was for the students to pair and share to discuss how Elizabeth should settle the problem of religion at the start of her reign. Most of them concluded that Elizabeth should just let people practice their religion freely (and then presumably everyone would live happily and freely side by side). This was the perfect opportunity for the teacher to explain why this was not possible in 1559, why Elizabeth needed England to be a Protestant country, how otherwise her legitimacy as the daughter of the union between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII would be called into question. Of course none of this happened, as the lesson starter was quickly followed by a brisk look at the actual religious settlement – a sheet with a column each for the Act of Supremacy, the Act of Uniformity and the Royal Injunctions filled out with bullet points, without any particular depth of discussion. No wonder the students don’t particularly seem to engage with the subject when it is taught at such a shallow level!

Knowledge matters, not just in the curriculum but also within the teacher himself or herself. I hate to say it but what I am seeing is a dumbing down, a teaching of the basics needed to pass the exam but no deeper texture or meaning. I hope you would all agree that this is not the way forward.

Survival of the fittest – time to let our students sink or swim?

There is a striking passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “The signature of all things” – which I heartily recommend by the way – where the protagonist, a 19th century woman with a bent for scientific investigation, travels to Tahiti after having her heart broken. There, she searches for answers about the husband who deserted her. In the course of her stay on the island, she finds out the sad truth about her husband’s love affair with another man and his suicide. She also befriends the local Tahitian women but stands apart from them, her scientific, educated mind at odds with their local customs.

One day, however, she is forcibly dragged into the sea by them to take part in a ritual game called haru raa puu. The usually smiling and placid women turn into aggressive opponents in the water, pushing her down and making her fight for her life. This proves to be a life-affirming experience for Alma, as well as the light bulb moment in her research about mosses and why there are variations in the different species over time: what we would now refer to as the survival of the fittest (the novel uses artistic licence to argue that Alma discovered the theory of evolution years before Darwin did, but never had the courage to publish her findings). Here’s a fairly long excerpt from the book, describing the event:

“What happened next was an impossible thing: a complete halting of time. Eyes open, mouth open, nose streaming blood into Matavai Bay, immobilized and helpless underwater, Alma realized she was about to die. Shockingly, she relaxed. It was not so bad, she thought. It would be so easy, in fact. Death – so feared and so dodged – was, once you faced it, the simplest thing going. In order to die, one merely had to stop attempting to live. One merely had to agree to vanish. If Alma simply remained still, pinned beneath the bulk of this unknown opponent, she would be effortlessly erased. With death, all suffering would end. Doubt would end. Memory – most mercifully of all – would end. All her questions would end. She could quietly excuse herself from life. Ambrose had excused himself, after all. What a relief it must have been to him! Here she had been pitying Ambrose his suicide, but what a welcome deliverance he must have felt! She ought to have been envying him! She could follow him straight there, straight into death. What reason did she have to claw for the air? What point was in the fight?

She relaxed even more.

She saw pale light.

She felt invited toward something lovely. She felt summoned. She remembered her mother’s dying words: Het is fign.

It is pleasant.

Then – in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all – Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life, she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

She came up out of the water. She flung away the body on top of her as though it were nothing. Nose streaming blood, eyes stinging, wrist sprained, chest bruised, she surfaced and sucked in breath. She looked around for the woman who had been holding her under. It was her dear friend, that fearless giantess Sister Manu, whose head was scarred to pieces from all the various awful battles of her own life. Manu was laughing at the expression on Alma’s face. The laughter was affectionate – perhaps even comradely – but still, it was laughter. Alma grabbed Manu by the neck. She gripped her friend as though to crush her throat. At the top of her voice, Alma thundered, just as the Hiro contingent had taught her:

‘OVAU TEIE!

TOA HAU A’E TAU METUA I TA ‘OE!

E ‘ORE TAU ‘SOMORE E MAE QE IA ‘EO!”

THIS IS ME!

MY FATHER WAS A GREATER WARRIOR THAN YOUR FATHER!

YOU CANNOT EVEN LIFT MY SPEAR!’

Then Alma let go, releasing her grip on Sister Manu’s neck. Without a moment’s hesitation, Manu howled back in Alma’s face a magnificent roar of approval.

Alma marched toward the beach.

She was oblivious to everyone and everything in her midst. If anyone on the beach was either cheering for her or against her, she could not possibly have noticed.

She came striding out of the sea like she was born from it.”

Why, you may ask, am I quoting the passage above and what could it possibly have to do with education? Before I answer, let me give you another vignette, gleaned from a “Good Morning America” video about China which we watched in a Geography lesson today.

In the video, we found out about all the goods produced in China, at very low cost in their factories and the effect this has had on local industries in America. There is a memorable interview with the author, Thomas Friedman, in which he says:

“There ain’t no such thing as an American job, ok, there’s just a job, and in many cases it will go to the most efficient, cheapest, smartest person who can do that job. You as an individual have to locate now increasingly globally and think of yourself as competing with people globally… My parents used to say to me, Tom, finish your dinner, people in China and India are starving. And what I tell my girls today is: girls, finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your jobs.”

Do “survival of the fittest” and globalisation have implications for education? Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not for a minute advocating entering into a rat race with China and other Asian countries for just how hard and long we can make our students work. I do think though, that our child-centered education where pupils are taught a sense of entitlement and often given an inflated idea of their uniqueness, is at odds with the realities of the world out there.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how well-meaning actions often have unintended consequences. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the world of education which is filled with decent, caring people who want to make the world a better place. I like to think I am one of them. And yet quite clearly, despite our best efforts, far too many students are leaving school with few qualifications, poor social skills and weak literacy and knowledge.

I could talk about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions on poorly behaved students and how the “some excuses” as opposed to “no excuses” approach to behaviour management has created a culture in which certain kids think they can get away with outrageous behaviour.  It’s true that a lot of them are unhappy, unloved and worthy of our sympathy. So they get taken out of their classes and sent to us in the SEN department, where they get lots of attention and the added bonus of not having to sit in boring/challenging lessons. Of course they know that if their behaviour improves, they will be compelled to go back to their lessons. Instead, they let loose with every tantrum under the sun, knocking over displays, chairs and bins, kicking and banging on doors. And thus we go from one crisis to another, talking and complaining about so and so’s behaviour, but never acknowledging our collusion in it.

But our softly softly child-centered approach also has unintended consequences on other students. One of the students I support in my school is very well behaved, yet here too our well-meaning approach is having a detrimental effect on her. This student is a refugee from Syria, who arrived in the UK last Summer with very little English and huge gaps in her education. As I speak Arabic, I was asked to support her in classes and also tasked with teaching her English. In lessons, I sit beside her with my mini whiteboard, translating for her and supporting her as required. What has happened is that she has very quickly learned that none of her teachers have any expectations of her, so she sits back passively and puts very little effort beyond copying things off the whiteboard. Lately, I have started to wonder whether my presence in class with her is more a hindrance or a help.

This is where I am reminded of Alma, moping for her lost love, but jolted out of her complacency by having to literally fight for her life. Perhaps we should be removing the crutches and challenging our students to sink or swim. It may not be as high stakes as life or death, but let’s at least jolt them into fighting for their place in the world or, fighting to keep up with their classmates.

I’ll finish with this little example. Delving through my stash of old essays and school books, I found my English book from when I was in Lower 5th (the equivalent of year 10 today). This was my first year in an English school (as I grew up in Geneva and subsequently went to a French school in London), so English was very much a second language for me. Nevertheless, I had managed to write a three-page story entitled “The inheritance”. Did my teacher shower me with positive comments and encouragement in her feedback? Not a bit. One paragraph has her comment of “cliché” in the margin. And her final remarks put my work firmly in its place: “B+  This is accurate but I did not find it convincing. Do be careful with fantasy: this reads like something you have read and it does not make me believe in it. Try taking a simple incident from your own life as a basis.

essay3essay2essay1

 

 

Questions regarding curriculum which have turned into a call to arms to read more

I have read with interest Michael Fordham’s recent blog posts about different approaches to history curriculum design and their problems. I must confess, as a newbie to the profession, to feeling more than a little overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with a lot of the theories and concepts he mentions.

Being the kind of person I am, I often try to simplify complex arguments I read into clear and intelligible statements just so that I am able to make sense of it all. For this reason, I tweeted the following response:

screenshot1

I got to pondering, in my own small way, the implications of this. If there are no shortcuts to becoming good at history, if lots and lots of knowledge about different things is needed in order to be able to make analysis, inferences and form opinions, how on earth can we deliver this knowledge in schools given the limited hours available to teach it?

This was far easier to accomplish in my day because, quite simply, we read a lot. I remember a childhood filled with books, not because I was particularly erudite but because books were the only real source of entertainment available to me, the only escape I had from boredom. With no Netflix, no social media, no Google to look things up and no cheap travel, I lost myself in countless books and transported myself to exotic locations through the stories I read. I was not prescriptive in my reading. The only criterion was that it should entertain me. Thus I read Agatha Christie mysteries, Georgette Heyer romances, Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, as well as the anointed greats such as Jane Austen or Tolstoy. I remember spending an entire Easter holiday ensconced in my room devouring “War and Peace”. My mother despaired of ever seeing my face, I had to be dragged to the dinner table under duress because all I wanted was to continue reading this all-engrossing saga.

Again, I reiterate, I was not particularly scholarly. What I was doing was not uncommon in my time. I read about a book a day, but then so did many of my friends. My best friend would do a fortnightly trip to the library with her two siblings where each of them would take out 10 books and then share the 30 books between each other before going back for more. Without ever consciously realising it, we were accumulating that fingertip knowledge that Christine Counsell may have been talking about last week at the WLFS conference (I was unfortunately unable to attend). And so we came to our lessons already well briefed, well primed for the accumulation of more knowledge and for developing our writing and analytical skills.

The problem, as I see it, is how do we develop this knowledge with the current generation, living in the modern world full of distractions? My personal experience of trying to foster a love of reading in my 8-year old son demonstrates just what a challenge this is. By comparison with his contemporaries, my son is an able reader and has a wide and sophisticated vocabulary. By comparison with me at his age, however, he does not fare so well. How do we bridge this impasse?

I have read about Michaela school with great interest (and hope to visit in the not too distant future) and I know it garners a considerable amount of criticism, but one thing (out of many) that I admire is their utter commitment to getting their pupils to read as much as possible the great literary works in our canon. Perhaps what needs to happen, is for that process to start much sooner, in primary school. Imagine primary schools with the Michaela ethos, insisting that children read a whole load of great books before they finish year 6. Imagine this being a priority, embedded in the school day and curriculum. There is no other place for that reading to take place and schools have to acknowledge this. Realistically, children are not, in today’s world, going to read these books at home – they will be on their computers and game stations. The reading needs to happen at school if it ever stands a chance of becoming a habit.

Teacher training here I come

Last week I posted on Twitter a screen shot of the lesson plan template sent to me by a school I was going to for a history teacher training interview. The accompanying caption said something like “Learning Styles alive and well!”

Presentation1

The Twitter post received a fair amount of attention (and gained me a dozen new followers) with admonitions to run a mile from this behind-the-times, anachronistic school.

Well, salaried history school-direct places are in short supply, so running a mile was not an option. It was to be my fourth teacher training interview. Needless to say the previous three had not gone my way.

The first interview, with one of the large multi-academy chains, was conducted in a central London office rather than in a school, and so there was no opportunity for me to even teach a lesson. Instead, I was grilled by two self-important looking women who sat across from me and didn’t crack a single smile the whole time they interrogated me. In the feedback at the end, they told me it wasn’t that they didn’t think I would make a good teacher but rather that because their schools were in very disadvantaged areas, they didn’t think I would “fit with their ethos”. Interpret that as you will.

My second interview went a lot better and I genuinely thought I made a positive impression. The feedback this time was that I had interviewed very well but that, unfortunately for me, there had been another, better candidate on the day. Just what kind of calibre of people am I competing with, I wondered? The disappointment though was tempered by the invitation to my third interview, this time with my first choice of school. I really wanted this one because it was an outsdanding, highly over-subscribed school with a very solid reputation that was an easy commute from my son’s school (important consideration for breakfast club drop off etc).

I was told to prepare a 15 minute lesson on “the problems William faced after the battle of Hastings” and I spent hours preparing the lesson and rehearsing it in my bedroom. On the day I thought I did alright given the circumstances, though 15 minutes didn’t feel like enough time to do anything meaningful and they were very strict about the time, cutting me off in mid-sentence, ushering me out just as they ushered in the next candidate to teach the class. The interview after the lesson didn’t gel. I felt they were a bit half-hearted in their questions and ended it much too soon before I had a chance to give a good account of myself. I was fairly sure I hadn’t got the position at that point, but wanted to get some feedback to find out where I had gone wrong.

The feedback, when I got it, was rather dispiriting. They felt my teaching was too didactic and would have liked me to have talked less and given the students more independent work to do. Talked less? I had asked a lot of searching questions and got interesting responses from over a dozen students, we had read a passage together and then discussed. I had drawn a spider diagram on the whiteboard. If we’d had more time, I would have asked them to do a write up but there’s a limit to what you can do in 15 minutes. Nevertheless, learning happened. Just not, it seems, in the style they wanted it to.

At that point, I had to regroup and rethink. Was teaching in the state sector really for me? Maybe I was just too old (46 years) and too “traditional”. After all, I had been privately schooled over 30 years ago when ‘O’ levels were still around. All the teachers had taught us didactically from the front. We didn’t have interactive whiteboards, group work, handouts every lesson, writing frames to copy or ‘engaging lessons’ with the occasional video footage. We just had a textbook, our exercise book and our handwritten notes of what the teacher was saying. We wrote lots and read a whole lot more. So maybe I am a dinosaur of a bygone age – but I think I got a pretty good education.

I remember feeling very puzzled the very first time I observed a history lesson in a secondary academy last year. Puzzled because it seemed to me that there was no teaching happening. The lesson had started with the teacher handing out assessment books and asking the pupils to read the feedback and write the follow up questions in green pen. This activity took up the first half of the lesson. Then the pupils were given a “do now ” sheet with a source quoted in captions and a set of questions to answer. Once the pupils had had a chance to tackle these questions, the teacher went through them with the class and then in the final 5 minutes of the lesson, he finally taught some new content to the class. For the most part, from my perspective as an observer, the teacher had acted more as a facilitator and enforcer of behaviour management rather than as an imparter of knowledge. It seemed a million miles away from my experience of teaching.

So maybe I just wasn’t a good fit for the state sector. I had read with interest about how lessons are taught at free schools like Michaela and the West London Free School, but these were outliers, not the norm. Perhaps I should turn my attention to finding a teaching job in the independent sector, where the ethos might be more in tune with my ideas on academic rigour. I started looking through the job ads but I kept coming back to the main obstacle: my lack of QTS. I decided to look through the UCAS site one more time to see what salaried history teacher training vacancies still remained and on a whim, I applied to this, my fourth school. An hour later, I got a phone call at home from the vice-principal of the school inviting me to interview.

Of course, my heart sank when I saw the lesson plan template. It seemed awfully micro-managed, either doing episode patterns with VAK activities or doing something called the 5 ‘E’s. Why can’t it be kept simple, as in stating what the learning objective is, explicitly teaching that new content, practising it then giving feedback? However, I went along and did a lesson plan guided by these 5 ‘E’s. “I better do some independent group work activity”, I thought, “and make sure I don’t talk too much then.” This time the lesson was on the feudal system under William the conqueror and I had 40 minutes to get my teeth into it. I prepared some worksheets and thought we could do some role play of barons and knights taking their oath of allegiance to their lord. Nothing too didactic, nothing too directed from me.

Miracle of miracles. They loved it, they loved me! The last 20 minutes of the interview were spent with me bemusedly listening to the vice principal extolling the virtues of her school and all the reasons why I should choose to train there. So there it is, I finally cracked it (or toed the line more like). To be fair, I really liked the atmosphere at the school. Everyone was friendly and supportive, and the behaviour of the pupils was good, especially compared to my current school. They didn’t balk but nodded approvingly when I talked about how I was interested in evidence-based practice and how I was keen on the ideas of spaced practice and retrieval practice. Maybe not so anachronistic after all. We shall have to see. Teacher training, here I come!

My long journey into teaching and an ode to my parents

My teenage mother
My teenage mother

During the heated grammar school debate a few months ago, I read a few excellent blogs such as this one, from teachers who were the first in their own families to go to university and how their bright and intelligent mothers had been denied the opportunity to better themselves because of a poor education in secondary moderns. That got me thinking about my own mother and her legacy to me, and I have finally got around to writing my thoughts about it.

I wasn’t the first generation in my family to go to university. My mother was. It was all the more remarkable because of the difficult circumstances of her early life. She grew up in Damascus, Syria, at a time in the early sixties, when women were not generally expected to get a university education. Her father died when she was two, leaving her widowed mother virtually penniless with five children to care for. Her mother eventually remarried but her new husband was not interested in bringing up or funding some other man’s children. And so my mum and her siblings were left to mostly fend for themselves and times were often very hard. She told me once how she would wear two skirts on top of one another in order to fatten her skinny frame up.

In spite of all this, my mum did well at school while having to overcome the handicap of being forced, as a left hander, to write with her right hand. She was also very politically engaged from an early age. Those years in the late fifties and early sixties were full of political turbulence in Syria. This was the time of the disastrous political union between Syria and Egypt and my mum was a vocal opponent of the union, sometimes openly disagreeing with her teachers at school who toed the party line. Somehow, and now I wish she were here today so that I could ask her for more details, she got offered a place to study commerce at Damascus University. Going to university was how she met my father.

He was not a student at the university. In fact, when they got married, my mum was the one with the degree, not my dad. He was from Saudi Arabia but had a Syrian mother and had grown up in Damascus until his late teens when his father had summoned him back to his home town of Medina to help with the family shop keeping business. This did not work out very well and after a falling out, my dad headed to the coastal city of Jeddah to seek his own fortune. As luck would have it, the newly established Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for some recruits. My dad sat the civil service exam, passed and entered the diplomatic service.

His first posting was to Franco’s Spain in the early sixties. In Spain, he lodged with a landlady who taught him about social etiquette, dallied with Spanish girlfriends and learned to speak the language fluently. My grandmother was not happy. On every visit home, she tried to pressure him into marrying, putting forward as a candidate the next door neighbour’s daughter. My father was having none of it but as his posting in Spain came to an end and he had to return to Saudi Arabia, he knew that his mother would continue her insistent nagging about him getting married unless he did something about it. He decided to give in gracefully but find a bride of his own choosing.

With this in mind, he said his goodbyes to all his friends in Spain, packed his belongings into his smart new car, and decided to drive down to Syria in one last road trip as a bachelor. On arriving in Damascus, he sought out an old school friend of his and asked if he knew any nice girls he could be introduced to. This old school friend happened to be at university with my mother and immediately thought of her. My father promptly turned up at the university and my mother was pointed out to him from afar. He obviously liked what he saw because he soon presented himself to my grandmother as a suitor for her hand. Now it was my mother’s turn to have none of it. She wasn’t about to give herself to an unknown, uncouth Saudi Arabian. She initially refused to come out of her room to meet him but eventually deigned to do so. One look at him and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following her marriage (in a hand-me-down dress from her older sister’s wedding), my mother left Syria and started her new life as the wife of a diplomat. There was no opportunity for her to find a job and develop a career. In any case, she soon fell pregnant with the first of her four children, each one born in a different country. While my mother settled into a life of domesticity, my father’s star was rising rapidly. He obtained a degree in politics, a master in international relations and even started a PhD at Oxford University though he never had the chance to complete it. He steadily moved up the ranks of the civil service and, two years or so before his untimely death, was made a deputy minister of foreign affairs.

My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister
My mum the housewife, with me (far right) and my sister

On the face of it, my mother was a conventional stay-at-home housewife but her keen mind was constantly whirring. She taught herself French in our posting in Geneva and then English when we came to London. She read avidly in both of these languages as well as her native Arabic. She followed the news and discussed politics with my dad when he came home from work. But then, as the years went on, things changed. Her children grew up and didn’t need her so much anymore and dad’s work took him away from home far too often to summits and meetings all around the world. All alone in her big house in Riyadh, she got lonely and drifted into depression. When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 55, she nursed him with utter dedication until the day he died, but then her depression deepened even more. Just over a year later, she died suddenly of an aneurism, a much loved, deeply intelligent but lonely and diminished woman.

How does my mother’s story relate with my decision to enter teaching in my mid-forties? Let me explain.

I am an extremely lucky person. I grew up with loving and supportive parents who encouraged me to make my mark in the world. I was educated at a select private school for girls and went to a Russell Group university. One of my dad’s proudest moments was when I graduated with an MBA. The world was my oyster when I started working as a business consultant. I had grown up watching Joan Collins strut her stuff in shoulder pads on Dynasty, and I pictured myself walking into board rooms and making power deals. The reality was rather different. There were no power deals in board rooms. The work was sometimes interesting, often dull, and all around me were alpha males in suits who were massively better than me at self-promotion. By the time my parents passed away, I knew the business world wasn’t for me and I eventually jacked it in and decided to re-train as a reflexologist and aromatherapist. I wanted to do something that involved daily positive interaction with other human beings and I wanted to feel useful. For a few years, I eked out a living as a complementary therapist. I think I was good at it and it was satisfying though not hugely challenging.

Then my own little thunderbolt happened. I met and married a wonderful man and welcomed my son into the world. Following in my mother’s footsteps, I dedicated myself to my family. We bought an old house that was a bit of a wreck and I spent hours meticulously planning the refurbishment. I immersed myself in happy domesticity but after my son started school, I found myself at a bit of a loose end. I started thinking about resurrecting my complementary therapy career but kept putting it off for inexplicable reasons. A new Netflix membership two years ago saw me lounge on the sofa for hours on end watching one episode after another of popular drama series. Throughout, the memory of my mother kept nudging my mind, reminding me what happens when an intelligent and educated woman wastes her talents away. I don’t think I was depressed but I did lose a lot of my self confidence. I applied for a part time job in the administration of a newly set up local primary school but didn’t even get an interview. I had been so thoroughly de-skilled that even my BA, my MBA and my business experience couldn’t get my foot through the door.

So what saved me? Well, the first nudge I got into teaching was when I found out my son had been placed in the middle ability group in his class. Outrageous! How could my bright and clever son ever be considered to be of middling ability? Why were they streaming five year olds in the first place? Why hadn’t I been told of this? I had never before in my life encountered streaming in practice. The closest I ever came was when, as a teenager, we were divided into 4 “teaching groups” for maths. I hadn’t expected or ever thought that young children in year 1 would be judged on their ability and separated in this way. I was galvanised by outrage. Following a meeting with the deputy head of my son’s school, I scoured the internet for all the information I could find about ability grouping. I bought Carol Dweck’s book on mindset and Alison Peacock’s “Learning without limits”. I encountered blog after interesting blog about education and I read and read and read. I decided to do some extra tutoring with my son at home, and found great satisfaction in seeing his rapid progress once I took his education into my hands.

Then last year, at Christmas, I turned 45. The clock was ticking and I was no closer to finding a way to make my mark on the world. Next day, I happened to read an article about the crisis in teacher recruitment and how there was a particular shortage in secondary teachers. The day after that, I saw an advert on TV encouraging people to get into teaching. Could this be something for me? I sought advice from my husband and siblings and was surprised to find it uniformly positive. “You’d be a great teacher”, they told me, “fantastic idea”, “go for it”. I set about trying to arrange some school experience by volunteering, which was easier said than done. My first day at the inner city academy where I now work was scary and nerve racking. This was a world away from the girls’ school I had attended. I stuck with it though. It has been incredibly challenging at times but I have stuck with it and I know I will go the distance. The alternative, as my mother’s story keeps reminding me, is far scarier.

A beginner’s guide to inset days

One of the new concepts I have had to adjust to in my journey into teaching is that of the inset day. On a purely intellectual level naturally I can understand that time needs to be set aside for professional development and so on. However, the experience of such events (my third so far) leaves me slightly befuddled.

Today, there was of course the obligatory speech from our leader, instructing us in his vision for the school in true messiah style, and the repeated mantra of us “going from good to outstanding”  – unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Speech over, clapping done, and then we had to sit through one or two further speakers. In the midst of all this talking, there were genuine nuggets of information, but these could just as easily have been transmitted in an emailed press release. Did I have to sacrifice my 13th day of holiday for this?

But no, more was to come, something I had not experienced before: the education consultant (aka the keynote speaker). At least the tedium was relieved. For an hour, we got distracted with a very slick performance. He had us out of our chairs (good because my joints were getting rather stiff), made us laugh and was careful to plug his most recent book – which one lucky person got to take home in the raffle, hooray! It all sounded interesting and plausible but I’m not sure I took away anything that is going to improve my practice in any meaningful way.

At last, break time came and the caterers did us proud with a wonderful array of pastries. New Year’s resolutions had to be put back another day but hey.

The second half of the morning consisted of a short SPOT session on “Using questioning for differentiation: using Bloom’s to scaffold and extend”. Again there was nothing much there which was going to improve my practice in any great way. I had Googled Bloom’s the night before and read up a little on it but as an LSA, there is not much opportunity for me to pose higher order questions to the students I support. In any case, I learned much more about it from reading a few articles online than from our little work session. Still nothing so far, apart from the pastries, to justify my coming in to school today.

Next we had departmental meetings, with Humanities in my case. We trundled through the agenda, with nothing much for me to contribute. There was an interesting tug of war between the teachers and the department head about the number of CTL assessments in the red book which they had to do this term, and complaints about how the marking and feedback with the green pen was taking too much time. They suggested dropping one of the KS3 assessments but then of course, what to do in its stead to demonstrate to Ofsted – we await an inspection any day – that we are on top of feedback and assessment? I did once or twice want to pipe in about some of the fantastic blogs I have read recently concerning this very issue, Toby French, Daisy Christodoulou and all the good folks at Michaela. Is nobody else at my school accessing this goldmine of information that is available online? As they kept going around in circles, I did mention doing low stakes quizzes using knowledge organisers but then the question arose: “who would write up the knowledge organisers? Us? Sorry, don’t have time to do that.” So that was dead in the water. In the end, a compromise was reached. They would drop one of the CTL assessments and instead do some spelling and definitions tests that could be peer assessed quickly.

Lunch came around and again, the caterers did us proud. I had a lovely strawberry tart and chocolate éclairs. Maybe the day wasn’t a total waste of time after all.

Afternoon was slightly more interesting. We were split up into working parties – mine was on how to put together our more able and talented provision. Apparently, this was highlighted by Ofsted as one of our weaknesses during last inspection, so we need to focus on demonstrating improvement on that front. We whiled away the hour with some constructive discussion, helped along by the box of Lindor chocolates on the table.

Then finally, it was home time. First day back at work done and dusted. Still not convinced that this was the most effective use of my time but if that’s what they want me to do, I have no objections as long as they keep up the good supply of pastries and cakes.

Change is in the air

I have been following the bitter arguments on Twitter between educational traditionalists and progressives with interest lately. A lot of the anger has come about as a result of the event last weekend held at Michaela school to promote their new book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”. There was a very memorable moment in the debate where Michaela head, Katharine Birbalsingh, made an impassioned speech about reclaiming authority and discipline in our schools. I won’t paraphrase it too much, best listen to it here.

The speech, which was not everybody’s cup of tea, struck a real chord with me because I am witnessing on a daily basis what happens to a school when respect for teachers is lost and behaviour gets out of hand. It isn’t pretty. Actually, it’s tragic and I feel desperately sorry for the students at my school who are unlikely to get much of an education at the end of their time here. I feel particularly frustrated because the school I work in is new – it opened only 4 years ago. The leadership had a perfect opportunity to start something from scratch and embed the right kind of culture in that first year where there was only one year group to contend with, but that precious opportunity was squandered away. Instead, we have a set of year 10s who behave with impunity because they know they can get away with it, and in turn they set a poor example for all the other year groups.

Our head’s big mantra, as far as I can tell, is grit. Yes he wants the students at his school to do well academically, but more importantly, he wants them to show grit and resilience. A lot of what he says to us on inset days could be lifted straight out of “Educating Ruby”, a book I found incredibly disheartening in its approach to education. The main message, if you have not read it, is that there are some things more important to learn at school than the academic curriculum. It’s alright that the mythical Ruby in the book leaves school without any A-C GCSEs because she has learnt something else more valuable: grit and resilience. Such skills, we are to infer, will allow her to make the most of her lot in life (i.e. she will probably stay poor but she will be a more contented poor).

This kind of message, I believe, stems from a defeatist attitude to education born out of decades of low achievement in schools. So the paradigm gets shifted. Instead of focussing on academic results when it’s frankly clear that these are just not going to improve for a large chunk of the school population, we shift our measures of success to more intangible things that all sound good in theory: creativity, problem solving skills, grit etc…

But what happens when a school like Michaela comes along which unashamedly says the opposite? Poor children can achieve, they can do as well if not better than privately educated children, if only we have the right culture of discipline and high expectations. What happens if, as is becoming increasingly clear, such a school manages to demonstrate that this can actually be done in practice? How will others react to this? Some, like me, are curious to find out more, to see what can be learned from the Michaela experiment.

I don’t have any axe to grind or any record to defend though. I think it may be a lot different for teachers and school leaders who have invested a lot of their time and effort doing the progressive thing and have not been able to show the same degree of success. How difficult must it be for them to see a school doing everything they have been taught to believe is wrong and regressive, actually helping the most disadvantaged children get on in life. This is where the concept of the sunken cost fallacy comes into play. Too much has been invested in a course of action to turn back and change course, even when the evidence is there for all to see. So instead of greeting the new approach with curiosity and interest, far too often the reaction is to denigrate, to accuse, to attack.

I am watching the battle of ideas raging on with great interest. What must it be like for teachers who entered the profession a decade or so ago, when the orthodoxy was all about progressive education (as evidenced in Andrew Old’s recent blog) to be confronted with the complete opposite? Human beings are generally a conservative lot (with a small c). We don’t generally like to be jolted out of our comfort zone. And we certainly don’t like to be told that what we have been doing for the last ten years or so, what we have toiled at with the best of intentions, was actually the wrong thing to do. It’s little surprise that the reaction of many is one of anger.

This brings to mind something that I witnessed when I was a mere slip of a girl during my gap year when I worked at the Handicapped Children’s House in Riyadh. My parents lived there at the time and managed to help me secure a job as a teaching assistant in the Early Childhood Program (ECP), working with 3-5 year old disabled children. I had playgroups and one-to-one sessions where mostly I was told to play ball games to help their motor skills and sing lots of cheesy songs. One month into the job, the American head, a lovely lady named Dr. Ann Gerard, announced her retirement and the appointment of a new head, who was Saudi Arabian and who had recently returned from the USA with two masters in special education. The new head soon started making some changes. She introduced us to the Portage development scale and how we could use it to assess the development of our pupils to set appropriate goals for them. I remember being delighted at the prospect of doing something new and meaningful, something a little bit more directed than ball games and songs. But my colleagues were not so happy.

They wasted no time in showing their hostility to the new regime. I was shocked at the level of antagonism and resentment towards the new head, just because she had the temerity to change the way they had comfortably been doing their work for years. At every opportunity they tried to sabotage what she was doing and they made her life hell, to the point where she resigned from the job two years later (after I had left). Interestingly though, when I caught up with my old colleagues a few years later, they were happily using all the new techniques she had introduced.

I think that was my first real insight into the human condition and for this reason, I have not been all that surprised at the reaction of the progressives to the resurgence of traditional teaching. I have been quite energised by it actually because to me, it shows that it has hit a nerve: change is in the air and the low expectations of progressivism inexorably on their way out.