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Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.
– Benjamin Lee Whorf
Education is complex field. In it there are folks who specialise in behaviour management, assessment, professional development… And so we have assessment experts, CPD experts and even government appointed behaviour tsars. Hardly anyone would refer to these folks pejoratively as being obsessed with their chosen field of specialism. Oh, but not educational technology. If your field of expertise happens to be educational technology, I have news for you: you’re not an expert, you are a zealot. Get used to it. If your interests lie in finding out about how digital technology can support teaching and learning, this is not a legitimate pursuit, it is an obsession and so you should find a good psychiatrist.
Hyper-puppy evangelists of the new
There are various reasons for this perception. Firstly, we need to consider that digital technology has only made it into our pockets in the last ten years or so. My youngest son is still six years old and he is six months older than the iPad. So mobile technology for academic purposes is still very much wet behind the ears, almost literally toddling its way into our classrooms. The natural conservative – with a small c – approach for many of us is to stick with what we know best, which in most cases is not digital technology. I find this very understandable.
Secondly, there is the gaping, self-inflicted wound of unreasonably high expectations borne out of the promises made during the “paradigm shift” years, when we were assured that the 21st century would “change everything”. You see, “the 21st century changes some things, but quite a lot of other things will remain the same” wouldn’t sound quite as alluring and punchy over melodramatic music. But the revolution never really happened. Like a child high on sugar, it bounced about like crazy for a while only to suddenly fall asleep in an awkward position when the fuel suddenly run out. John Hattie, he of the effect sizes, is fond of saying “technology evangelists have been promising a revolution in education for the past thirty years. I am still waiting”. And who can blame him.
Thirdly, there are the “hyper-puppy evangelists of the new”, memorably and incisively described by Tom Sherrington: “It is all too easy to be dazzled by bright new shiny things – the latest fad or gizmo that is going to change everything” says Sherrington. “Teachers are often deeply resistant to being sold things – it happens too often; they’ve learned to be cautious. It is a giant cringe to listen to someone rave about their new idea when they appear to be all Enthusiasm and no Substance.” Amen to that, Tom.
But the the conondrum is that, despite all of the above, technology remains helpful. That’s why we use it. All of us. For a variety of purposes. Of course it’s not always helpful, that goes without saying, but it’s helpful sometimes. To some teachers more than others. In some some schools more than others.
Yet, at some point many folks have decided they’ve had enough of hyper-puppy evangelists and 21st century this that and the other, and, instead of taking a pragmatic approach as to when technology works, for whom and for what purpose, they appear to have eschewed technology altogether. The final solution.
And so we have celebrated educationalists in this country are on record as saying that children would be better off if we “turned all the screens off”, that tablet computers only encourage children to “surf the net and look for photos of Kim Kardashian” or that they “don’t need any technology in their classroom”. In a bizarre and completely befuddling trend, it’s as if one’s expertise in education were directly proportional to how vociferous one was in repudiating technology. The less technology you use, the better teacher you are and the more you learn. Why? Because of <insert pseudo intellectual nonsense and cite technological dystopia>.
The thing is that technology is nothing more and nothing less than “the application of technical knowledge for practical purposes”. This knowledge is helpful. Instead of proclaiming the virtue that apparently derives from forswearing technology – as if academic rigour and using computers were somehow antithetical – wouldn’t we be better off by remaining open to the notion that using technology, in certain circumstances, may actually contribute to improved teaching and learning? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to develop teachers’ expertise so that they are able to make discerning use of whatever technology may be most helpful at any given time for any given purpose?
So, I ask you: who is really letting their technology obsession get in the way of education? Is it the schools exploring how mobile technology can potentially support teaching and learning? Or is it those banning it outright? Is it the teachers researching and developing pragmatic strategies so that technology can be applied for practical purposes in their contexts? Or is those who chant just-turn-it-off inside their echo chamber and deny technology’s utility altogether because, don’t you know, “there is no evidence”?
Taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme is not something that I ever did when I was at school. I must have missed the meeting or something; either that, or I took no notice of it, after an unhappy week spent at the Dartmoor Adventure Centre when I was twelve, and I was the only one who turned up without a sleeping bag. Sleeping bag inners were provided, the letter said, so my mum took it at its word and, while other girls unpacked their own pillows and pillow cases, I was left to make do with a sleeping bag inner and a ripped and dirty sleeping bag with half the stuffing falling out. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that week, and my enthusiasm for the outdoors and adventures was dimmed.
I didn’t really enjoy the activities either, it must be said. My group got lost when we ‘orienteered’ around a short course. I fell in the water, after going round and round in circles for a while, when it was me at the end of the canoe raft and I had to swap places with the one at the other end. I was too thin for the climbing harness and had to have a rope tied around my waist (I chickened out of the abseiling, which was probably a good thing). It wasn’t long before I was longing to go home.
The husband, on the other hand, loved it. He went and achieved his gold award, and, after we married, introduce me to the delights of hiking with bikes, and walking up mountains. Up until our Scottish Holiday, my only experience in tents had been in my parents’ garden and was Not Good. I still get a bit funny about sleeping bags. Sam, with the support of his dad, has decided to give the Bronze award a go. Volunteering at a charity café, check. Sport (football), check. Skill (guitar), check. All we have left to do is the adventurous activity. He’ll go camping at forest school and we’re off up Pen Y Fan in a couple of weeks.
Sam though, bless him, is not the happiest of campers. It always seems like so much fun until you actually have to go to bed, and then it all becomes a bit of a trial. He can’t get comfy in the sleeping bag. The ground is all slopy. There are funny noises. There’s weather. Last year, in the middle of a week away, he disappeared in the dark, only to be found, arms crossed and a most pugnacious of expressions applied, sitting in the car, determined to be taken to Grandma’s. Despite my early antipathy to life under canvas, tenting has become part of what we do, and so we persevere.
For some people, though, it’s an amazing thought that someone with special needs should have been camping with his family. Only the other week, I was given a leaflet about it by someone who was surprised when I handed it back and suggested that they gave it to someone for whom it would be a new and exciting experience. It felt weird, and terribly middle class to tell her the tale of the camping trip to the sailing club, and the fact that Sam has his own boat (a kayak). It was a shock, because, once we moved away from the mainstream, and we grew away from the nursery years and we chased off the home visits from the social worker and all of those other things that happen when there is special needs in the family, I got used to not being patronised.
You see, some people, and I include members of my own profession in this, forget that learning disability, or special educational needs, or whatever you want to call it, is no respecter of class or income. It’s as if special educational needs only happen to the disadvantaged, the poor or the working class. You know, the people you can blame for the whole Bad Parenting thing. That the answer to special needs is somehow to educate parents (send them on a parenting course, especially the mother), or get the children away from the parents (like the school for two-year-olds thing), to get the parents, those ignorant mistake makers to do as they are told because we, the professionals, are the ones who know what we are doing.
It used to be said that illness and disability, or the Bad Things That Happen were the wages of sin. You did Bad Things, and you got what you deserved. The way of thinking that thought that Bad Things didn’t happen to Good People. Sad to say, when you get thinking about it, when you get to mulling over attitudes to special educational needs, how they must be the fault of the parents, for not doing as they are told, it doesn’t feel like we have moved on very far.
Nancy Gedge, April 2016
This post first appeared on my blog http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com
There is a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones runs into a bazaar in pursuit of the Nazis who have kidnapped his ‘girlfriend’. Looking this way and that, he jumps up onto a cart full of straw to get a better view, but there is no sign of them and with a heavy sigh, frustrated and hot, he jumps back down. At that moment the crowd parts to reveal a six foot five sword-wielding assassin, dressed from head to foot in black. Smiling manically, the assassin twirls his scimitar from one hand to the other, inviting Indy to take him on. Tired beyond measure, covered in sweat, breathing hard, the American, with only the tiniest of shrugs, points his gun and shoots the assassin in the head. Indy’s a pragmatist.
It’s not that he is without honour or belief, it’s just that in the day-to-day experience of his life (jumping out of burning buildings, being dragged behind tanks, fighting Nazis) and in the pursuit of his goals (collecting, saving, and protecting unique archaeological artefacts), he generally takes the most pragmatic option – the quickest, most efficient, and effective way to get the job done.
Yet, although his actions are driven by pragmatism (rather than ideology), Indy is not without morals; he has a passion to protect the past, a commitment to the preservation of historical artefacts, a hatred of Nazis, a willingness to take risks, and a readiness to do what’s necessary. These values, among others, shape his relationship to family, friends, institutions, and rivals; they motivate him, they drive him to act, and they justify his actions. So, when Indy acts, he acts pragmatically, but always within a framework of ideas, beliefs, and values that represent his standpoint in the world.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
In my last blog, I argued most teachers are, by disposition, neither traditionalists nor progressives, but generally work somewhere in-between. By this I meant they don’t adhere entirely to one philosophy or the other (taking ideas from both) and are quite prepared to use strategies from either, as and when they think it appropriate. This I called ‘pragmatism’.
This is fine up until a point, but it doesn’t really capture the whole picture. Like Indy, Teachers, although pragmatic, do not operate in a moral vacuum and their beliefs, ideals, and values affect how they act in the world. When they make a choice of strategy in the classroom, their moral compass affects that choice, just as Indy’s moral compass (however different) affects his choice to shoot the assassin. What I’m getting at here is that all of us operate within a moral framework and this framework is what guides us when we make choices about the kinds of ways we operate in the classroom. They are not ideological, in the sense of being researched, formulated, and applied, but are rather the kinds of moral choices we make in our wider lives, formed through family, community, and experience.
So, when faced with a new strategy, a teacher will test and evaluate that strategy, based on their moral framework. If it fits, they will try to incorporate it; if it doesn’t, they won’t. This is why teachers can use strategies from both ends of the traditionalist-progressive spectrum without fear of contradiction. Since, although they might conflict with these philosophies ideologically, they don’t contradict the deeper, underlying, moral framework that the teacher operates from. Thus, you see teachers using direct instruction in one lesson and then switching to inquiry in the next. What matters is not whether the strategies comply with the diktats of one side of the ideological divide or the other, so much as, whether they are the best method to teach that part of the curriculum at that time. For these teachers there is no contradiction in using both DI and inquiry, they are just tools in the toolkit, what matters is finding the best way for students to learn – that is the teacher’s moral purpose for being in the classroom.
In fact, I would argue, very few teachers are genuinely ideological in the sense of planning and applying their classroom practice based on heartfelt ideological tenets. The ones that do are outliers; people operating on the margins of the bell-curve. They’re the ones who might be called traditionalists and progressives, because they genuinely believe and act on these philosophies. But for the others (I’m suggesting the vast majority) they don’t work from ideology, they work from a sense of pragmatic idealism.
These are the Indiana Joneses of the classroom, people using and applying whatever they find to get the job done (without the whip, sorry).
Footnote 1: The actual scene between Indy and the swordsman was meant to involve a lengthy battle between whip and sword. However, (apparently) Harrison Ford had eaten something disagreeable the night before and spent most of the day running between the set and the toilet in his trailer. Consequently there wasn’t time to film it properly and the alternative (much shorter and funnier) scene was used in the final film. You can read the whole story here and see the deleted scene.
Footnote 2: My argument concerning moral frameworks draws heavily on ‘The Righteous Mind‘ by Jonathan Haidt. If you haven’t read it, try to find time over the summer. It is excellent.
John Finney @JohnFinney8
‘… a confident discourse surrounding the nature of musical knowledge, one that is understood and is fluently expressed amongst teachers and music educators; a confident discourse surrounding musical understanding; a confident discourse surrounding musical meaning.’ 
What are musical knowledge, musical understanding and musical meaning? And wouldn’t it be good if we were more confident in talking about these things?
The curriculum since 1980 has been framed by ‘knowledge, skills and understanding’. It trips off the tongue. And each subject is expected to set out what knowledge, skills and understanding form the content of its curriculum.
Despite distinguished attempts to set out how knowledge can be thought about in the case of music  there has been little enthusiasm for talking about it. Understanding does better and best of all is skills.
A while ago there was a wave of music teachers talking about a skills-led curriculum. Teaching musical skills seemed to make sense. After all music was a practical subject and you need skills to be practical and make music, and skills are developed through practising.
Out in the wider world, and increasingly this means the world of social media often linked to official sources, have you noticed the clamour for a knowledge-based curriculum, a knowledge-rich curriculum and the bringing back of knowledge? Not a wave but a tsunami.
In my meeting with this wider world I run up against the desire to view knowledge as most definitely one kind of thing that approximates to fact or knowing that. To suggest that this kind of knowledge poorly represents what musical knowledge is is frequently met with distain.
While there is some recognition that ‘knowing how’ may be a legitimate way of expressing what knowledge is, there comes the proviso that ‘know how’ be subordinated or reduced to ‘knowing that’, to a body of knowledge or even the theory of music. 
To introduce into the debate the idea that to know music is for it to be embodied (embodied knowledge) leads to either incredulity or quite reasonably, a call for clarification.
‘Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you wont get the music.’ … ‘Don’t try for accuracy before you get the feeling of the motion …’ (Yeheudi Menhuin) 
‘The grooves are the feeling and the participatory experience of music …’ (Steven Feld) 
Thinking of musical knowledge as chiefly ‘knowing how to’ make music well is a good place to start. 
‘Knowing how to’ provides the teacher with a powerful start to a learning objective, for example, and solves the ‘doing – learning’ problem.
And ‘knowing how to’ as practical knowledge embodied is the most powerful knowledge of all. We could then talk about a knowledge-led curriculum and that would go down well in important places.
 From Chris Philpott’s address at a Music Education Symposium, London, September, 2014.
 One fine example is Keith Swanwick’s ‘Musical Knowledge: Intuition, analysis and Music Education.’ Routledge.
 The upcoming GCSE is a good example of a poor grasp of the nature of musical knowledge
 Cited in Louis Arnaud Reid’s ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’. Studies in Education 18 University of London.
 Cited in Charles Keil’s ‘Music Grooves’. The University of Chicago Press.
 By knowing how to make music well I imply something more that mere skill. See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/knowledge-academic-rigour-and-music-education/ (November 11, 2015) for an example of practical wisdom.
by Jarlath O’Brien (@JarlathOBrien)
Headteacher, Carwarden House Community School
Inclusion of children with special educational needs is one of the most emotive subjects we debate or argue about as teachers and, unusually for our profession, is even more emotive for parents, for obvious reasons.
It is considered by many to be a basic human right and the ideal is that all children should be taught well in their local mainstream school and have their associated needs met. Anything different is seen to deny them at least some part of their childhood that others take for granted.
This is not something that I believe is possible. It is not possible because there are some children whose needs are so complex, or require such specialist skill and knowledge from staff, or some specialist equipment, or can exhibit extreme behaviours that they cannot be meaningfully included and well educated in a mainstream school. To pretend to include them in the life of a mainstream school is far more damaging and, in my view, robs them of their entitlement.
We rarely, if ever, have this discussion about other forms of segregation. We celebrate the diversity of a system that allows some children to be educated apart from the opposite sex. We are content for religious organisations to play a major part in running some of our schools, and for religion to be a factor in how some schools select their children. We are in love with our selective independent schools and, having heard this myself, breathe a sigh of relief that those sons or daughters don’t have to mix with the other 93% of the population. Despite the evidence, many in this country bemoan the lack of expansion of grammar schools who, presumably, are single-handedly churning out soon-to-be management consultants and hedge fund managers who otherwise would have been chimneysweeps or match girls. We regard segregation by all of these methods as a positive choice for parents. It is not seen as a zero sum game – their presence or absence does not disadvantage other children. Not so for children with special educational needs whose presence in a school in the name of inclusion can be regarded as lowering the average, making it harder for others to learn or dominate the attention of adults to the detriment of other children.
No school is inclusive. My school is highly exclusive in that sense. We cannot admit 97.5% of the school-age population because the possession of an Education, Health and Care Plan is a condition of entry. Every school has limits on who they can educate well. Those limits are flexible, and the degree of flexibility depends on the Headteacher and the institutional confidence of the school. I have seen the ripples that spread through a school that admits a child with Down syndrome when no-one in the school has worked with a child with such a condition before. If the values of the Headteacher and school are strong enough and they are willing to learn they will be successful. If they simply expect the child to fit in with how they operate then the road ahead will be long (or short) and rocky. The special school that used to state brazenly on its website that it didn’t admit children with either learning difficulties or emotional and behavioural difficulties is one such sad example. This is where the tension arises.
The difference between a school reasonably and correctly saying that, hand on heart, it cannot meet the needs of a particular child, no matter how much support or money is offered, and a school meaning that it does not want to meet the needs of a particular child is a fine one. How our culture of accountability and performativity influence the behaviour of Headteachers will have to wait for another blog.
When I hear inclusion it sometimes comes with a subtext of compromise, dumbing down, doing things that a school shouldn’t have to do, stifling the clever ones or of risking its academic status, or an exact quote which is my personal favourite
“He cannot keep up at the pace we teach.”
The parents at our school are very strong advocates for their children – wouldn’t you be? They tell us in very clear terms that they want us to relentlessly focus on their child living and working independently. Think about that for a second and reflect on the last time you questioned whether that was possible for your own children. That is not too much to ask, but the bald statistics show dire life outcomes for people with learning difficulties. In my job those numbers are a professional context, but for the parents it is on their mind and in their gut the entire time. If attempts at inclusion do not directly work towards improving those life chances then it is not working. It may well make the adults involved feel better themselves as they see a child superficially experiencing the same curriculum as their peers, but in reality that child is losing touch with them at a rate of knots. It is this kind of veneer of inclusion that leads to Nicky Morgan stating that
“every child should study maths, English, history or geography, a language and the sciences up until the age of 16.”
Inclusion is the wrong word. I prefer to talk about a child’s entitlement. An entitlement that drastically improves their chances of being an independent and successful adult. If that’s not what my school is about then I’m in the wrong job.
By Tim Taylor, @imagineinquiry
After the execution of Louis XVI a vacuum opened up at the heart of French revolution. Parties who had once been united in opposition to the monarchy and the Ancien Régime splintered into different factions all competing to have their version of the revolution realised. Terror ensued, thousands were killed (estimates range from 16,000 to 40,000 executed) and friends turned on friends, each accusing the other of counter revolutionary ideas, first Desmoulins was sent to the guillotine, then Danton, and finally Robespierre. The three leaders who had fought hardest to create the revolution were torn apart by their differences and engulfed by the anarchy that surrounded them.
Two hundred and twenty years later, the differences in their political opinions seem trivial and insignificant. What categorises them for us is their status as leaders of the revolution. Yet to them their ideas were everything and they died struggling for them to succeed. They knew the dangers and they could have fled, but they stayed and argued because ideas matter. Ideas, articulated, wrangled over, contested, and disputed, matter. They matter because that’s how we change the world.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the ongoing struggle within our own community in education is anything like the French Revolution (although you might like to imagine who would play the different roles) yet there are parallels.
The first is the passion. Very few people who write about education don’t care about education. If they did why would they spend their time writing about it? We all want to find the best ways for students to learn, we all want to raise literacy rates, improve kids’ writing, make them better at maths, increase their banks of knowledge, their capacity to think reasonably and critically, these things go without saying. And because we care, there is always going to be passion, there are always going to be disputes, disagreements, and falling out, it’s inevitable. Obviously we draw the line at political tribunals and summary executions, but you get my point?
The second is factionism. Across our community there is a wide range of ideas and beliefs that fall broadly into two camps – traditionalists and progressives. Within these camps (much as there are among any ideological groups) there are disagreements. Some are quite minor – where parties broadly agree on most matters, but disagree on one or two details – whilst others involve major disagreements over large and significant areas of practice. Here are two Venn diagrams to illustrate my meaning:
From reading and observation, I’d suggest Fig.1 largely represents the traditionalist camp, since there is a broad agreement on ideas and beliefs, whereas Fig.2 is more representational of the progressives, since there is a much wider divergence of opinion and much less agreement.
Now, I have to be careful not to be beguiled here by the neatness of my explanation. For although I might think it describes how our community is shaped, it is a very long way from capturing the whole picture. In reality there is a wide range of ideas that people use not because they are ideologically committed to them, but because they believe they work in their classrooms. For this reason many people don’t like the idea of a dichotomy, arguing it doesn’t truly reflect the reality of their experience – “Teaching,” they say, “is a practical business and I use methods from both sides” And this is a reasonable argument. It goes a long way to describing what actually happens on the ground. It’s pragmatic, and to be honest, in education, most people are pragmatic. They don’t care from which camp the idea comes from; if it works they’ll use it.
So, with this caveat I’d like to introduce another diagram, this time a bell curve, which describes where I think most people are within the education debate:
As you see I believe most people are somewhere in the middle, neither entirely traditionalist nor entirely progressive. For this reason a teacher might sometimes arrange the tables in her classrooms in rows and sometimes in groups, or even sometimes stacked up against the wall, if the activity calls for it. Or they might create a list of class rules in collaboration with their students at the start of the year, whilst still using a system of detentions for children who break them. My point is they use strategies based not on where they appear in the traditionalist v progressivist dichotomy, but on whether they work for them in their day-to-day practice.
At this point you might want to disagree. Andrew Smith (AKA Old Andrew) has argued consistently that this pragmatism is only a smoke screen for hiding people’s real beliefs and that if you fail to endorse any of the key disagreements between the two sides you in effect are an “heir to the progressives”. He highlights three main areas of disagreement – content, authority, and methods – marking out clearly where the dividing line is. In Andrew’s version of the dichotomy you either are or you are not a traditionalist. Any disagreement with the tenet of traditionalism will make you a progressive. They are binary opposites, like darkness or light, good or evil, revolution or counter-revolution, there are no grey areas, nowhere in-between, just true-belief or heresy.
Now, such a binary approach has its advantages. For one, it’s simple. You’re either with us or you’re against us, like a battlefield. For another, (again like a battlefield) you can identify your enemy and attack them. This Andrew and others in the traditionalist camp do consistently (some might say fervently), blaming all educational ills on the evils of progressivism. But, and this is the important point, does this framing of the debate as a binary opposition genuinely reflect reality or is it rather a trick with words designed to make the argument suit a particular purpose?
Andrew is right when he says progressivism is “not a coherent ideology”, but he can’t have it both ways. Hot is hot and cold is cold. They do not encompass the range in between and are not defined by not having the qualities of the other – hot is not: not-cold; and cold is not: not-hot. There is a range of other variations in between – warm, lukewarm, ambient, tepid, cool, etc – which all have their own qualities. By defining progressivism as not-traditionalism Andrew is trying to deny the range of ideas and beliefs that exist between the two and involve qualities of both.
This I think is why most people resist labelling themselves as progressivist, not because they are in denial, but because they don’t see themselves as entirely progressive in ideology. It would be like saying I’m a Communist because I don’t embrace every tenet of UKIP. Said like that it sounds crazy, but that is what Andrew is claiming.
So where does that leave us?
There is a genuine divide, people do disagree about education and they often disagree passionately, so it would be wrong to deny that the debate exists. Yet, by polarising the debate and classifying people as either with us or against us, the situation grows worse, people are driven further apart, and it grows harder to find a common ground. This is what frustrates me most about the education debate. I don’t see it as a battlefield where we have to fight for every square foot and when I read blogs written by Jon Brunskill or Katie Ashford or books by E D Hirsch or Doug Lemov, I look for ideas that can make my teaching better. I genuinely don’t care which side of the educational debate they come from, I’m not thinking “are they a traditionalist or a progressive”, I’m thinking “would this idea work for me?”
And this is where I’d like the debate to go in future, away from battles and fights to be won, towards a place of greater respect and mutual inquiry. In July I’m debating at the Big Homerton debate in Cambridge. Now, I’ve never been in a debate, we didn’t have them at Gaywood Park secondary modern in the 1970s, so to be honest I’m not sure what to expect. I’m up against Michael Fordham, who is a formidable opponent and someone I respect enormously, so I’m expecting a passionate and committed argument about ideas. I don’t suppose Michael and I will agree on everything, but that’s fine, that’s what genuine debate is about. But I hope we will find some areas of agreement, some areas where we can move forward, and some areas where our views align.
That would be good, that would be progress. And hopefully no one will lose their head.