Is traditional teaching oppressive?

chalk-and-talk

On Tuesday, I had to take my 8-year old son with me to attend a meeting after school with our new acting principal. He brought along a book with him to read and was admonished to be quiet and well behaved, which thankfully he was. This was the first time I had brought my son to my workplace and the following day, several colleagues came up to me with fulsome praise for him. Naturally, this filled me with tremendous pride but on the back of this came the thought: “if only they knew how bloody hard it’s been to get to this point!”

Civilising a young child is not easy and often involves a battle of wills. I’ve lost count of the times my son has called me “meanie”, “the worst mummy in the world” or simply told me he doesn’t love me anymore. The last time I got on his wrong side, he looked at me crossly and said “you need to go to mummy school!” Thankfully, such episodes are becoming few and far between as he matures and learns how to moderate his behaviour. He is also, by the way, delightfully affectionate, more so now than when he was younger. Far from oppressing him, my discipline has liberated him. He is a happy and secure boy who feels loved.

No one I think would disagree that parenting involves putting boundaries and saying “no” from time to time – being “the bad guy”. Yes of course, encouragement and praise are given but there are going to be times when you have to be the adult and say “no”.  It’s not easy to do this. You love your child and don’t want to see him unhappy. But you know, ultimately, that it is your responsibility to teach him the social skills he will need to live a contented and fulfilled life. I want my son to have good manners, to have self-control, to be kind and respectful to others, to be well-read and knowledgeable. I want to pass on my values to him and yes, I want to influence the way he sees the world. Does that mean I am brainwashing him and thereby oppressing him in some way? I don’t think so. As he grows up, he will increasingly get more freedom to choose what he wants to say and do. I hope that he will remember what we his parents have taught him and heed our advice but once he reaches adulthood, he will be free to follow in our footsteps or tread a totally different path. He will take with him the knowledge and habits we have instilled in him and make of them what he will.

One could approach this argument from the opposite perspective. What if I had not given my son boundaries, what if I had let him indulge in whatever habits he pleased? Would that not be considered a form of oppression? Surely that would be child neglect? We have a responsibility towards our children to teach them what we think is best. I’m afraid, the child doesn’t get to choose this, we do. We know better because we are older and more knowledgeable – and we were taught much of this by our own parents when we were children. Anyone who has read Lord of the Flies is aware of what chaos results from children being set loose without adult supervision. What we do as parents is a sort of benign dictatorship, not a democracy. We listen to our children, we care for their wellbeing but what we say goes. We are the boss, not them.

A similar argument can be put forward towards schools: they are not democracies but benign dictatorships. There are rules that pupils must follow. The teachers have authority. If a teacher asks pupils to write something in their books, then that is what they must do. Imagine if a pupil said “no, I want to have a chat with my friend right now”, what kind of problems would ensue. If we agree that teachers must have authority in schools, it is not much of a stretch to then agree that they should be the ones imparting knowledge not the other way around, and that this balance of power is needed, not to oppress but to liberate our children through furthering their education.

Why am I discussing this particular issue today? It is because I just read Martin Robinson’s blog entitled “The Problems with Traditional Education”. In it he discusses the philosophies of Dewey and Freire, and how they viewed traditional education to be oppressive. According to Freire:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers.

Many of these ideas have percolated into the way teachers today view their role. Didactic teaching, where the teacher explicitly instructs the pupil, is considered to be not only a retrograde but a kind of fascist way of teaching. Better to have group work and activities where the pupils can feel a sense of agency rather than turning them into passive “receptacles”.  This in turn feeds the idea that pupils will not learn unless they are actively doing something. Simply listening to the teacher will not result in learning. I have seen a few examples of this in year 10 history lessons at my school, where I think this approach is counterproductive. Here are two sets of activities we did in our last lesson that illustrate my point.

The activity: pupils were given a sheet with three columns, and a handful of questions at the top of each column. They were told to look at a page range in their textbook and use that information to answer the questions on their sheets within 20 minutes. To help them with their work, they were allowed to listen to music on their headphones.

My verdict: rather than explaining, discussing and shaping a better understanding of this topic through questions and answers, the teacher expected pupils to pick up the required knowledge from the textbook. The pupils in turn, were mostly successful at finding the correct answer in the textbook but instead of writing it in their own words (literacy being particularly poor) they copied the text word for word. In this instance, it feels to me that the teacher abrogated his responsibility to teach and allowed the textbook to do the teaching for him, all on the mistaken belief that more learning will take place if a task is undertaken independently. This kind of independent learning can occur but only when the people doing the reading are already experts, that is, they already have the skills needed to gather information, process it and formulate an answer in their own words. Finally, allowing the pupils to listen to music on their headphones while they worked sent out the message that we don’t have an expectation of them being able to work quietly, without the distraction of music.

The activity: the pupils watched a video of a documentary about Elizabeth 1st by David Starkey. They had a sheet with questions, the answers to which would be revealed in the documentary. The video was often paused, and even rewound, to allow the pupils to note down their answers. Many of the questions on the sheet would not make sense unless you were watching the video. So for instance, “why were the rebels surprised?” does not make sense unless you are following the narrative in the video.

My verdict: again, the teacher is letting someone else do the teaching for him, in this case, the eminent David Starkey. It points to a disturbing trend in history teaching, in line with the idea that you can look up facts on Google so don’t need to know them, where the teacher is no longer an expert in his subject and lets either the textbook or the academic on the YouTube video dispense the knowledge. The teacher is now more of a facilitator than a teacher. The other thing I noticed is that, by constantly pausing the video, the flow of the narrative was lost and the pupils were actually spoon-fed the answers so there wasn’t much effort or thought involved (and therefore very little likelihood of anything entering long-term memory from this exercise). If you are going to use a video documentary, then watch it all without pausing and then discuss with the class what has been learned.

I do not believe that traditional teaching – and by this I mean explicit teacher-led instruction that focuses on the transmission of knowledge – is oppressive. On the contrary, it is progressive methods, usually effective only when the student is already highly skilled (thereby favouring the more wealthy children in society) that are oppressive in the way they can reinforce societal inequalities. The ideology that says teacher talk is authoritarian and should be kept to a minimum has been very damaging to our students (as well as to our teachers who have been thoroughly de-skilled). In many instances, explicit instruction from the teacher is the most effective way of learning important knowledge. Far from being oppressive, this knowledge is empowering.

I will end with one last example. I have recently taught my son how to use a knife and fork to cut his food (for far too long we were relying on finger foods). I explained how to do it, and demonstrated how to hold the fork and how to cut with the knife. I watched him try it out and corrected his mistakes. Imagine if instead, I had given my son a knife and folk and said to him “go and independently work out how to use them”. I rest my case.

Today’s musings

Today finds me in an introspective mood. Perhaps it’s the fact that my holiday is nearly over and it’s back to the gritty reality of school tomorrow. Or perhaps not. Those who have read my blogs may have the impression that I have strong and deep set views about education but actually, like many people, I am constantly beset by doubts as to the validity of my position.  I read the comments and blog posts made by people with whom I don’t have much in common or with whom I tend to disagree, and sometimes, a point or a sentence here and there grabs my attention and forces me to re-evaluate. I also have a partner who often challenges my opinions and gives me new perspectives to think about. I think it’s fair to say, clichéd as it might sound, that I am on a journey.

If this opener has given you the impression that I have suddenly discovered myself to be a born again progressive, then let me disabuse you of this notion straight away. I still believe that didactic teaching, or as I prefer to say, explicit instruction, is on balance a more effective way of teaching than discovery learning. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with the binary way in which the progressive/traditional debate is being framed, as it sometimes feels to me as though complex issues are conflated into a simple argument. Everything is either black or white, with no grey area in between. I am particularly uncomfortable with the confident rhetoric that claims a return to traditional teaching will solve all our educational problems. It won’t. I am glad, though, to see the pendulum is shifting back in favour of more focus on knowledge as I can’t help but feel that there has been an inexorable dumbing down in education for the past decade or two. But swinging back the pendulum shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is much else to focus on and ponder.

The ones that got away

I read an interesting blog by Ed Podesta in which he talked about how he is sometimes haunted by “the ones that got away”. This seemed to strike a chord with many other teachers on my Twitter feed and I can understand why. Many of us enter teaching because we want to be a force for good, helping disadvantaged children overcome their disadvantages and forge successful lives. I myself am not immune to that kind of sentiment. Part of my decision to get into teaching was, I’m sure, prompted by a wish to do my bit and give back to society. But while teaching does have a public service element to it, I think it can sometimes be dangerous and counterproductive to get into that mindset of being a “saviour” of the poor children in society.

It puts too much pressure on teachers to perform and heaps terrible guilt on them when they perceive themselves to have failed a particular pupil. It also, more importantly, diminishes the pupil’s sense of responsibility for his or her learning. If a child’s lack of academic achievement is attributed primarily to the teacher and not to the child herself, what kind of message does that send? I failed my exam because you were a crap teacher, not because I didn’t listen in class and put in the necessary work. As teachers, we do need to have a reality check every now and then. Some kids, no matter how much effort you expend on them, will just not play ball. It’s not in our powers to “fix” everyone. As the saying goes, you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink.

There is another issue here too, quite apart from teacher guilt and pupil responsibility. Sometimes, when we have a difficult or challenging pupil, we spend too much time focussing on them, trying different approaches to make them engage, and forget about the other pupils in class who are doing the right thing, trying hard but not getting the attention.

Since September, I have been supporting a Syrian girl who arrived here as a refugee last summer. I have been teaching her English one-on-one as well as supporting her in the classroom during other lessons. Initially I was filled with enthusiasm and a satisfying sense of pleasure at the idea of actively helping alleviate the suffering of someone affected by war, rather than watching ineffectually from the sidelines. My enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat over the last few months. She has made some progress, but teaching her is a rather unrewarding experience because of her extremely passive nature. She is not particularly hungry to learn. When faced with a slightly difficult problem, her standard response is to say she can’t do it and refuse to put in any further effort. She has quickly worked out that her teachers have zero expectations of her and that everyone is bending over backwards to make excuses for her, so she just doesn’t bother to put in much of an effort.

One day when she was absent from school, I made myself useful in the class and sat next to another EAL girl from Spain who, funnily enough, arrived in the UK at around the same time as the Syrian girl. This Spanish student has picked up English a lot quicker, probably because there is more in common between Spanish and English than between Arabic and English, but also because she is bright and proactive in wanting to learn. The Spanish EAL student doesn’t receive any additional support, compared to the Syrian girl who is literally smothered with support. That day, I redressed the balance and what a satisfying experience it was, having someone listen, respond and take heed of my instruction. What a pity that the rest of the time, this poor girl doesn’t get a look in.

We should be careful not to let our pity for someone’s plight, or frustration with someone’s lack of response to all our input, divert us from the ones who sit quietly in the background and are easily forgotten. At the end of the day, every person must tread their own path, make their own mistakes and deal with the consequences. Sometimes it is these very consequences that are the making of them. We can’t play God and think we are responsible for the success or failure of pupils (as long as we have reasonably fulfilled our duty as teachers).

Is traditional education prioritising the academic over the practical?

I also recently came upon Sue Gerrard’s blog, which gave a critique of Martin Robinson’s recent arguments regarding the differences between traditional and progressive education, with the former primarily subject-centred and the latter more child-centred. I was much struck by these two paragraphs:

“Recent events suggest that policy-makers who attended even ‘the best’ private schools, where cultural literacy was highly valued, have struggled to generate workable solutions to the main challenges facing the human race; the four identified by Capra and Luisi (2014) are globalisation, climate change, agriculture, and sustainable design. The root causes and the main consequences of such challenges involve the lowest, very concrete levels that would be familiar to ancient Greek farmers, coppersmiths and merchants, to mediaeval carpenters and weavers, and to those who work in modern factories, but might be unfamiliar to philosophers, scholars or politicians who could rely on slaves or servants.

An education that equips people for life rather than work does not have to put language and ideas on a pedestal; we are embodied beings that live in a world that is uncompromisingly concrete and sometimes sordidly practical. An all-round education will involve practical science, technology and hands-on craft skills, not to prepare students for a job, but so they know how the world works.  It will not just prepare them for participating in conversations.”

I can’t help but see the truth in a lot of this. Was it not David Cameron, that intellectually brilliant Oxford PPE graduate, who insouciantly precipitated the uncertain times in which we live in? I see time and again, not just in politics but in other professions too, highly intelligent and intellectual people make rather ill judged decisions, unaware or uncaring of the impact they will have on ordinary people. This disconnect between the privileged rich and us more common mortals is brilliantly illustrated in this Guardian article about Steve Hilton. And let’s not forget Michael Gove, that soi-disant purveyor of clever phrases. Has his towering intellect given him a real insight into societal needs? Maybe not.

Focussing on knowledge as the foundation for critical thinking is important, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about? The best that has been thought or said, is usually the stock answer. Yes, knowledge of language, history, geography, literature, maths and science is crucial, but there is other, practical knowledge, which far too often gets forgotten in academically driven institutions. I myself received a privileged private education for which I am very grateful. But sometimes, I wish that someone had taught me how to change a car tyre or fix a punctured bicycle tyre. I wish I had learned how to use a power drill or how to grow vegetables and make compost. I wish someone had taught me about how to navigate the politics of office life and not let other, more extrovert colleagues, steal a march on me. This is not an exhaustive list by the way.

Yes let’s shout out about the benefits of traditional education, celebrate rigour, knowledge and discipline. Let’s not, along the way, forget that there is a whole lot more to education than the classic academic disciplines. Naturally, with school time in finite supply, it is not possible to learn everything, but it would be nice to have a truly rich and broad curriculum that takes into account those less than academic subjects. Does this mean I’m a traditionalist with a hint of progressive in me? Perhaps so.

Grammars or Michaela-style Free Schools?

Today, I read a fascinating exchange of ideas between Heather Fearn and Katharine Birbalsingh regarding grammar schools. It was refreshing to hear an alternative point of view to the usual one peddled about grammars: namely that they are full of middle class children and that they adversely affect the other children in the area by turning local comprehensives into secondary moderns.

Don’t get me wrong, I have much sympathy for that viewpoint and in fact, have first-hand experience of the predicament it describes. My stepson grew up in Kent and failed his 11-plus by a whisker. Had he had access to tutoring and the right kind of academic support at home, as is commonly the case in well healed middle class families, he would most likely have passed. However, instead of going to the grammar, he found himself enrolled at the local high school, where his academic output plummeted. He obtained a fairly dismal set of GCSEs and soon dropped out of sixth form to become a NEET (a young person “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”). He did eventually enrol at a college and got an engineering diploma, and is now gainfully employed, but it took him a while to find his feet and arguably, his job prospects and income have been negatively impacted.

So no, I am not an advocate for more grammar schools. However, I can understand why so many parents are desperate for their children to get into them. If I lived near enough to one, it’s quite possible that I would be too. This is why I find myself conflicted on the matter. On the one hand, I can see the negative impact they can have on communities. On the other, I can see that for the lucky few, they offer fantastic opportunities for a great education. In an ideal world, a great education would be within everybody’s grasp but this has yet to be achieved in over a century of public education and frankly, I suspect such a utopia is unlikely to ever be reached. Short of achieving educational nirvana, just what is it realistic to aspire to?

As Heather Fearn rightly points out, there are winners and losers in all the scenarios. We have already seen how socially disadvantaged children lose out from the “secondary modern effect” of having grammar schools in their locality but, in the absence of grammars, there is also another set of losers: those academically gifted children who are held back from achieving their true potential in comprehensives. Despite some notable exceptions, most comprehensives just don’t manage to develop enough of a critical mass to be strongly academic institutions. Whilst I think it is possible to talk about significantly raising standards in comprehensives, I doubt it is realistic to raise it, across a majority of schools in the country, to that high academic standard achieved in some grammars and independent schools. In order to do this, you would need to have high calibre teachers and leaders in all these schools, but there is a finite supply of such people.

Let’s take a look at the remarkable Michaela school, led by Katharine Birbalsingh. It is a non-selective school with a high percentage of children on free school meals, an indicator of social disadvantage. I have not yet had a chance to visit, but by all accounts, the school is a hotbed of academic excellence. It shows what can be achieved, without selection, when the right ethos is in place. When asked if the Michaela system could be replicated in other schools across the country, Ms Birbalsingh has emphatically stated that it could. Here, I would respectfully disagree with her.

There is a lot that can be learned from Michaela school, and I know that many teachers and leaders who have visited it have been inspired to make changes at their own schools. However, I don’t think it’s feasible to envisage a large proliferation of schools achieving Michaela’s standard. In many ways, Michaela is unique. Its leadership has an almost revolutionary zeal and that level of commitment and motivation is rare to find. The school has recruited a great many Oxbridge and Teach First graduates. Let’s put it this way. If you are academically average, you are unlikely to be employed as a teacher at Michaela. The problem is that there are just not enough of these academic A-listers to staff all the schools around the country and thus I would very much doubt that you could get a critical mass of high achieving schools like Michaela. At best, you would get clusters of excellence here and there, but not across the board.

Inevitably then, you will get winners and losers. And wherever there is an excellent school, be it a grammar or other type of school, you will find ambitious middle class parents muscling their way in. So what should we do? For starters, let’s stop trying to approach education through the prism of social mobility. Let’s just try to raise standards for all children, whether they go on to become lawyers or road sweepers. While not all comprehensives can reach the dizzy heights of top grammars, let’s raise the bar so that they don’t lag so far behind. Tackle behaviour, improve literacy, develop a rich curriculum.

At the same time, let’s accept that there is space for a variety of different options to be on offer, whether it’s faith schools, free schools or even grammars. What’s important is that such schools do not dominate an area. So for instance, if you were to have a grammar school in one area, you shouldn’t be able to open another one nearby or even within an x mile radius. Very bright, academic children, should have the opportunity to attend highly academic institutions, whether they are middle class or not (and I don’t think that middle class children are any less worthy). Surely that can be done without blighting the opportunities of other children.

Reflections on the education debate

One week into my Easter holiday and I feel renewed. School stresses and worries are a million miles away. I have pruned my garden and mowed the lawn. It all looks rather lovely now with the tulips in full bloom. My kitchen received a massive spring clean resulting in an entire black bin bag of stuff thrown into the bin and pristine looking worktops. I wish I had taken a before photo so that I could compare it with the after, but believe me, it has been transformed. To top it all, I have just spent an afternoon going through my wardrobe and disposing of all the clothes I no longer wear. A very satisfying exercise.

Cleaned kitchen!
Cleaned kitchen!

So now, feeling mellow, I am sitting down to write about the different ideas that have been swirling around my head lately. Much of this is shaped by my EduTwitter experience, where I have been following and contributing to various debates. My main questions are these:

Am I firmly in the “traditionalist” camp or is there a “progressive” in me? Does this dichotomy exist or is it a false one?

Have I changed my mind about anything since getting involved with education on Twitter?

What kind of teacher do I want to be and ideally, what kind of classroom do I want to teach in?

Every so often, it is important to reflect on these kinds of questions as otherwise, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and just get lost in the minutiae of a particular argument. I know that I am instinctively sympathetic to the traditionalist philosophy, mainly because that’s the kind of education I myself received and I feel it served me well. If you were to compare me with the rest of society, I would perhaps be in the upper quartile in terms of education.  Children in school today could do a lot worse than to receive the same kind of schooling I did. Perhaps I am a pedantic old fogey, but I seem to notice more and more these days that the younger generation just doesn’t seem to be as literate or knowledgeable as mine. So this is the bias I start out with.

However, I am not entering the world of education simply to entrench myself in my own viewpoints. I want to learn, to refine my ideas and ultimately, be a force for good. The prog/trad debate is an important one for me because it allows me to examine my beliefs and to look at alternatives. Would I have been better off, if instead of being taught didactically I had been given more group work and independent learning projects? This is a difficult question to answer without going back in time and entering a parallel universe of progressive education. One way through this is to look back at the subjects I struggled in or didn’t do that well in, and see if the discovery learning approach would have helped me more. With this in mind, I would like to cast a look back at some of my less than stellar O-levels.

Art

I have the particular distinction of having obtained a “U” in my art O-level (so poor that the mark is “unclassified”). It was actually an art and pottery O-level, which comprised two sections: a still-life drawing and a piece of pottery (I recall the theme was to make a piece of pottery inspired by a fossil so I had made a decorative plate which I lovingly etched with fossil markings). Quite early on, it was clear that my work was not of a particularly high calibre and I remember looking rather jealously at some of the fabulous artwork being done by other girls in my class. I failed my mock exam (got a D) and I decided to speak to my teacher about dropping out but she would have none of it. She just smiled at me encouragingly and said I was sure to get better.

And so I struggled on in my corner of the art room, trying to make my plate look more appealing. Every so often, the teacher would come my way and smile, then move on to admire the much more interesting works elsewhere in the room. I don’t recall her giving me any explicit instruction or constructive advice about my little project. She just beamed goodwill at me and let me get on with it as best I could. Maybe she was a closet progressive. In any case, this experience of discovery learning did not do me much good.

Physics

I am ashamed to say that I failed not one but two of my O-levels: art and physics (in which I got an E). We had been taught by an eccentric old lady who was so enthused by her subject that she would talk about it at length and in great depth. Nevertheless, I did alright on my mock exam, getting a C. I was one of only two girls to pass the mock. All the other girls failed and such was the outcry that the teacher was summarily replaced with a young go-getting new recruit. For me, this was disaster. Physics went from a subject I found interesting though a little tricky to one I found utterly confusing. While the rest of the class improved and managed to pass with reasonably good grades, mine went plunging down. I think the problem, here again, was that there wasn’t enough explicit instruction. I remember we did lots of experiments and group work, which suited the more extrovert girls in the class but didn’t suit me.

Biology

I passed my biology O-level, but didn’t distinguish myself particularly as I got a C. I can’t remember very much about it now, except for the fact that for many, many weeks, I didn’t do any of the homework and got away with it for a long time until finally it got discovered. I had just joined the school and was having trouble getting accustomed to the way things were done. We had a blue-coloured exercise book in which we did our work. Miss Field, our teacher, would set a different homework to do each week. What I didn’t understand was that we were supposed to hand in our books in her pigeon-hole outside the staff room – I had no idea even where the staff room was.

So I arrived on the second week, with my homework done, and was puzzled to find Miss Field entering the room with a mountain of blue exercise books which were handed out to everybody except me, as mine was in my bag. This kept happening each week, and I was too shy to ask the other girls where I was supposed to hand in my homework. All I knew was that the teacher miraculously had them all marked and would hand them out in class. She didn’t seem to notice that mine was missing, so after a while, I stopped bothering to do the work. I just focussed on being as invisible as possible so that she would not notice me. Inevitably, some months later, I was discovered. When I explained that I didn’t know where to hand in my homework, Miss Field gave a big sigh and marched me out to the staff room and showed me her pigeon-hole. I had to spend time catching up after this, which is possibly why my memory of biology is of endless drudgery.

Looking back, it is clear that what let me down was being left to my own devices without proper oversight and direction from the teacher. Again, I don’t see that group work or project work would have helped me do better in this subject. What I needed was explicit instruction, practice and retrieval.

Maths

I didn’t do too badly in Maths, I got a B. I could have done better though. One problem was, again, that I had transitioned from the French Lycée to an English school and had to adjust to a different way of doing things. Maths is taught very differently in English to the way it is done in French. For starters, decimals in French have a coma not a dot. We were taught to do divisions and multiplications in a different method. All in all, it felt a bit alien to me, so the school decided to put me in the bottom set. At the Lycée, I had been one of the top at Maths and it had been one of my favourite subjects. Now I was in the bottom set and I found it frustratingly easy and boring. Still, I quickly adjusted and was soon moved up a set. The next set up was also quite easy, and I found myself often switching off in class while the teacher explained something for the zillionth time. I couldn’t be moved up to the top two sets because by this time, they had taken their Maths O-level a year early. So I stayed stuck in set 3, finding it very boring and repetitive. So why didn’t I excel?

Here’s where progressive ideas don’t hold much hope but new, evidence-based research on how we learn do. As Daniel Willingham puts it so well, memory is the residue of thought. In order for something to enter long term memory, you have to have thought about it and struggled a little with it. This didn’t happen for me in Maths. The teacher would explain a new concept, whether it was in algebra or trigonometry, and I would immediately understand it and do the exercises quickly in my book. Then I would switch off. Very often, new content would be learned and quickly forgotten before it had a chance to enter long term memory.

In the O-level exam, I ran out of time and didn’t finish the paper because, when trying to answer questions, I didn’t have the automaticity of fingertip knowledge from my long term memory. Instead, I spent precious time trying to work things out logically or trying to remember a particular formula or trying out different calculations to see which one would work. If I could go back and do things differently in Maths, it would be to have more spaced practice, where we revisited a topic a few weeks after first learning it and re-learned it. I would also have benefitted more from regular tests, as retrieval practice helps fix things in your memory. Funnily enough, regular tests are what we used to do in my French school. At the French Lycée, you didn’t do a big exam at the end of the year. Instead, we had a test every Friday and at the end of term, the average of all the marks would be calculated and given in the report. Maybe that might explain why I did better in Maths there and then struggled in a system where a big body of knowledge was tested in a one-off exam at the end of the year.

New research excites me

Looking back now, I can see that I didn’t actually receive the best of education. What helped me was the fact that I was such an avid reader. This meant that I found writing much easier than many students do now, and it exposed me to a much larger domain of knowledge. This part of my childhood, I would recommend. I don’t think children read nearly enough nowadays. But in other respects, I don’t necessarily look to the past for inspiration and ideas about teaching, and in the past I would include progressive ideas about discovery learning and group work. These ideas have had their time and gone. What excites me now, is looking at what new research is telling us about how the brain works and how content is learned.

As already mentioned, the two most powerful methods for me are spaced practice and retrieval practice. I am also very keen on the idea of over-learning topics and getting that fingertip knowledge, so that working memory is free to analyse, think critically and be creative. I do believe in explicit instruction – from personal experience, I don’t think it’s a good idea to let children work things out for themselves.

Lastly, I have been very influenced by Michael Fordham’s blog and in particular, his assertion that we need to focus on what we are teaching more than on how we teach. The curriculum is key. For me, as a novice teacher, it means focussing on improving my subject knowledge. History is such a broad subject that inevitably, there are gaps in my knowledge. My shelf is now groaning with new books which I plan to read before I start at my new school in September.

Some people claim to be put off or bored by education debates on Twitter. I am not one of them. So much of how my thinking has developed is thanks to the wonderful input from other teachers. Yes, it can get a little bit confrontational at times, but that’s not a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Debate energises and helps you develop a more informed opinion. It can only be a good thing.

This last week…

The first week of my Easter holiday has flown by much too quickly. I have mostly lazed about at home, watched “Jane the Virgin” on Netflix, enjoyed afternoon siestas and done some gardening. Also, I have an 8-year old to entertain, so we have had a few play dates and budget days out – how does aeroplane spotting at London City airport strike you? In between all of this, I have found time to occasionally dip into my Twitter feed and keep up with all that’s happening in our education bubble.

As far as I can tell, there have been two main strands of conversation: Twitter trolling and the merits/demerits of Labour’s new policy on taxing private schools in order to fund free school meals for all primary school children. Here’s my take on these.

The Trolls

It never ceases to amaze me how disagreements over pedagogy degenerate into ad hominem attacks on the people who dare spout a contrary view. This inability to show respect to people with opposing viewpoints displays a lack of maturity and intellectual reasoning skills. I do agree with Anthony Radice on this.

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This issue of trolling was highlighted in Andrew Old’s blog, together with sound advice on how to tackle the problem. I was also saddened to hear that Michael Fordham, who writes about education with such clarity and wisdom, has also been subject to Twitter abuse lately.

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AdrianFGS, you are now blocked. I will not allow anyone who tweets personal insults on my timeline; I strongly suggest others follow suit and make clear that personal attacks are not to be tolerated in our discourse on EduTwitter.

Jeremy Corbyn’s great idea

Full disclosure here, I am not an objective critic as I would be adversely affected by this. My son has been accepted and will start at an independent school in September. I have been saving up for a few years to afford the fees and well, you can imagine that I’m none too pleased at the prospect of the goal post moving even further. Here’s the thing though. As a family, we already pay our fair share of tax, plus, by taking our son out of state education, we are saving the taxpayer money that would otherwise have been spent on my son’s school place. So here we are, already well out of pocket, but hey, at least it will go to a worthy cause. Oh, hang on a minute. The extra money will subsidise free meals for loads of middle class children. Sounds like a bit of an own goal to me.

Then of course, I am asked what I have against state education. The honest answer: for the most part, it’s not as good as private education. My son is not a social experiment. I want him to have the best possible education and in our case, this means going private. I make no apologies for this. In an ideal world, the best possible education would be available to all but unfortunately, we have not yet reached this utopia.

Interestingly, there was another related thread which touched on this issue. Mr Pink (@positivteacha) posted something to the effect that he hated his university experience because mixing with privately educated students made him feel out of his depth. I hadn’t been aware until now of the difference in attainment between state and privately educated students at university.

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All of which leads me to say. State secondary education (with some honourable exceptions) still has a very long way to go. There is much work still to be done. I hope, in my small way, to contribute to this work when I start teacher training in September.

School leaders must be held accountable

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Today was a very strange day. I arrived in school with a degree of optimism, knowing it would only be half a day before the Easter holidays officially began.  One last final push and I could go home and relax for a fortnight.

Anyone familiar with my blog will know that life in my school is no picnic. Just a few days ago, things got so desperate that I was tempted to resign on the spot. That day had been beset by one incident after another of rudeness, disrespect and insolence. To cap it all, I encountered a student in a rage, who had grabbed hold of a fire hydrant hose and was banging it hard against the wall. “Let it go”, I asked repeatedly, “let it go before you set it off”. And what does he go and do next? “I know how to set it off”, he says and begins spraying water all over the place.

Fortunately, I only got a little bit wet. But later, as I sat in the LSA staff room and reflected on the events of the day, my mind kept coming back to one thing only: “I really don’t need to take this sh*t”. I could just give my notice and find a part time job elsewhere or stay at home until I start my schools direct teacher training in September. There is only so much I can take; I should have the right to go to work without being assaulted, degraded and disrespected.

I slept on the decision and next morning felt a little more sanguine about the whole thing. Keep calm and carry on – but if things get any worse, quit.

This morning, I arrived in a stoic frame of mind and that’s when I heard the news. Our principal has been asked to step down, effective immediately. Someone from within the academy trust is to take over as temporary principal next term, while a nationwide recruitment process takes place to find a permanent replacement to start in September. Wow!

No guesses for what my reaction was. Call me heartless but I have very little sympathy for our departing head. First of all, his incompetence was plain for all to see. The school, judged “Good” by Ofsted two years ago, is at crisis point. Behaviour is out of control, student attainment is poor and staff morale is low. Actually, let me re-phrase this. Morale is low for most staff but not all (more on this later). As the leader of the school, the buck stops with him.

My personal interactions with the principal up to this point had not been all that positive. Earlier in the school year, I asked, through my line manager, if I could go and visit Michaela school for CPD, and got a firm veto from him. He did not approve of Michaela’s methods. Next, I had to go ask him for a reference when applying for teacher training through UCAS but found it very hard to get hold of him. He is never visible around the school and when I went to his office his door was closed – though I could see him through the glass partition. There was a note on the door saying something to the effect of: “if the door is shut, do not disturb me and speak to my assistant instead”. His assistant not being there, I decided to send him an email. No luck with that approach either, even with a follow up email sent a few days later. To cut a long story short, it took close on 4 weeks before I finally got the reference from him, a delay that cost me my first choice school. And then just last week, I was in the school corridor when I witnessed a pupil kick another boy. I went over to ask his name so that I could sanction him but instead of replying, this kid ran away from me. I had to give chase, passing our principal along the way, who smiled vaguely and walked off without getting involved or helping me.  So no, I am not favourably disposed towards this guy. Just desserts and all that.

My opinion, however, is not shared by all staff. What became evident as the day progressed was the deep rift between his supporters and others, like me, who were unhappy with the way he ran the school. Unsurprisingly, most of the LSAs (no one is more on the front line than us) were lacking in sympathy. Not so for the SLT. Some were in a state of shock, some were tearful and others extremely angry at the unfair way the principal had been sacked. The union rep addressed us in a meeting and spoke about possible strike action in protest. Other teachers looked visibly shaken and worried for their own jobs – would they be next for the chop? Then of course, there was the obligatory talk about evil academies and how they could so easily sack people.

What was missing in this whole discourse was the concept of accountability. Leaders have great power and privilege but this comes along with immense responsibility and accountability. If things go badly wrong, they must be held responsible. In all walks of life, whether it’s politics or the corporate world, leaders that fail are held up to account. David Cameron lost his premiership when he failed to convince the electorate of his case in the referendum. He resigned that very day. It’s tough, it’s cruel but it comes with the territory. Nobody seeking a top leadership position should be under any illusions. It’s a high stakes game, being entrusted with the education of thousands of pupils, many of them from very disadvantaged backgrounds. They deserve better than what they are currently getting at my school. So, goodbye to you, ex-principal, I’m sure you will land on your feet somewhere else. Now it’s time for a change.

Getting to grips with poor behaviour in schools

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I was very keen to read Tom Bennett’s report on behaviour in schools, which was published yesterday. The issue of poor behaviour has been on my mind for quite some time, as anyone who reads my blogs may know. This is because I work in a school where the behaviour is getting progressively worse, to the point where it feels like we the teachers have totally lost control.

Every day, the talk in the LSA staff room (we have separate compartmentalised staff rooms for each department) is about behaviour, in one form or another. Whether it’s a moan about a particular pupil or a general “I can’t take this abuse anymore”, the morale of staff is at an all-time low. I try not to let it affect me but inevitably, seeing pupils upend tables and chairs in class, kicking down our doors, cursing and shouting can be mentally draining. I feel desperately sorry for these kids who obviously have trouble dealing with their emotions and whose internal angst manifests itself as angry behaviour.

Last Thursday, I witnessed a pupil punch another on the arm. I immediately told him: “that’s a gross misconduct” and this unleashed a torrent of verbal abuse at me. I had to escort him to “The Bridge”, with him cursing me all the while. Half an hour later, once he had had a chance to cool his temper down, he came back to the class room to collect his things and dropped a note on my desk.

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Reading it gave me a rather poignant insight into this boy’s plight. I was already familiar with his poor behaviour but I had never realised just how much of a struggle it was for him to write a short note of apology. It’s the chicken and egg thing all over again: poor behaviour means that he has missed out on vital parts of his education; the gaps in his education mean he finds it hard to follow the lessons and makes it more likely he will misbehave in class. He often reacts angrily at perceived slurs from the other pupils; he hates the idea that other pupils may think of him as stupid. On Friday morning, when I next saw him, he looked at me sheepishly and apologised once again. I accepted his apology and told him we’d wipe the slate clean, but all the while knowing that it won’t be long before he explodes once again.

There are several such boys in my school, and I say boys because this is predominantly a masculine problem. There are plenty of badly behaved girls too, but this manifests itself more in rudeness and disrespectfulness rather than outright anger and violence. These boys have had the whole gamut of school sanctions thrown at them, both internal and external exclusions, and mentors who counsel them – all to no avail. I don’t know what’s to be done with them and neither, it seems, does the school. And so we continue with this rigmarole, excluding them then re-integrating them, only for them to disrupt the class and be sent out again.

Quite apart from the disruption to lessons, there is another effect which accumulates over time. The other pupils in class witness this outrageous behaviour and notice that the perpetrators are, effectively, getting away with it. Slowly, over time, this erodes their own self control. The psychology of “well, if he can do it, then I can too” starts to seep through. My year 7 tutor group were reasonably well behaved at the start of the school year. Now, they are an unruly mob, disrupting lessons in varying degrees depending on the experience of the teacher. At the lower end of the spectrum, I estimate that we only get about 20 minutes of teaching time in a 50 minute lesson. At the higher end, it’s still not great, with at least 10 to 15 minutes of teaching time lost.

Given this context, you will understand my anticipation at reading Tom Bennett’s report. On the whole, my reaction to it is positive. I agree that:

  • It is the responsibility of school leaders to set the culture and be highly visible within the school (our school principal is remote, spending his time hob knobbing with big cheeses at meetings outside school or in his inner sanctum).
  • There should be better accountability for behaviour in Ofsted inspections and school leaders should get more training on best practice in behaviour management.
  • Activities that are done routinely should be part of a well-understood behaviour system (e.g. walking on the left in corridors, how to enter lessons etc).
  • There should be attention to detail, whole-school buy-in into expected behaviour and follow through with these expectations.
  • Inductions for pupils such as Michaela’s boot camp can be a useful way of explicitly teaching pupils in the behaviour expected of them in school.
  • There should be better quality CPD for teachers helping them to improve their ability to manage behaviour in their classrooms.
  • Schools in particularly disadvantaged areas should receive extra support to help them deal with behaviour.

My only problem with the report is that it does not go far enough. I wanted to get answers to our seemingly insuperable problems and I didn’t find them. My school is in a very disadvantaged area of London – it’s not too much of an exaggeration to call it a ghetto. We are dealing with pupils whose home life is chaotic and often abusive in one way or another. I suppose I wanted to hear more and get ideas about how to deal with particularly angry and disruptive pupils. Would the above measures be enough to turn things around at my school? I’m not entirely convinced.

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

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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.

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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.