Jesus is the Elephant

Owly Images

“If you tell people not to think about elephants, they will think about elephants. And, in US schools, Jesus is the elephant.”

Last Friday, the TES published my longest US feature yet: “The Godless Delusion”. The piece muses on the fact that American schools are most definitely not allowed to involve religion. Perversely, school leaders spend waaay longer than necessary worrying about it.

Many of the case studies described in the piece were raised in an ethics class I took last semester here at the University of Missouri. It’s amazing the cultural differences in such things. During one class we read a case study about a 17 year old student who was strip searched by the school principal and his assistant. The student had been watched for a few days due to an “unusual bulge” in his trousers (the case studies words, not mine). At the end of the school day he was therefore prevented from getting on to the school bus and instead escorted to the principal’s office. The principal called the student’s mother to ask permission for a pat-down. She refused. The principal therefore escorted the student to the changing room, where he locked the door (apparently for the students’ privacy) and then instructed the pupil take off all his clothes, in full view of both male staff members, before putting on his sports kit.
The lecturer stopped at the end of the case study: “Who felt that this was inappropriate?”
My hand shot up. A few other hands see-sawed. Most stayed down.
Not only did the people in the room not see it as problematic (in fact several defended it), but the Supreme Court’s conclusion on this case was that while the student’s right to privacy was contravened, the school district nevertheless imposed no punishment on the teachers. No disciplinary, no nothing. Mind-boggling.
Thankfully, this article is a little more gentle – looking as it does at US nativities and the Plastic Reindeer rule- but I hope it is still interesting. It certainly was to write.

The Jonah Complex: Why We Are Afraid Of Being Brilliant

The ‘lack of wanting to be clever’ problem is something anyone working in classrooms will encounter.
One of the things I learned to ask disaffected students was: what would you have to sacrifice if you suddenly did really well, academically speaking?
This is how the conversation usually went:

  • Me: I’m guessing you don’t really want to get an A because it wouldn’t suit something about yourself, right?
  • Kid: What? No.
  • Me: Really? Only none of the friends I see you with are in the top set, and you seem to like chatting more than working, so… why would you work? If you work won’t you lose your friends and your ability to chat?
  • Kid: Are you trying to, like, reverse-mind me or sumfin?
  • Me; No! [I genuinely wasn’t] I’m just wondering what things you would have to give up to do well at school and if I can see why it might not be worth it.

After the goading I would step back and let the student figure it out for themselves a bit. Sometimes I would lead the way in discussing what’s scary about being even just “a bit more clever” than they currently are.
I was brought to this technique by a little-known theory of Abraham Maslow’s called “The Jonah Complex”. It is first mentioned in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, and explains why humans who want to be brilliant also find the idea terrifying:
Jonah Complex
(The excerpt is taken from The Farther Reaches of Human Nature – a brilliant book which I cannot recommend enough).
Maslow continues by pointing out that if we do the best possible, we (a) are stuck out on our own, because being at the top entails being lonely, and (b) are only able to move down afterwards. How terrifying! How utterly awful! To spend one’s life at the top is to be afraid that at any moment you can tumble. This would be too much for most people to cope with, let alone our hormonally-charged teenage students. Hence, many of them spend their life fighting to stay away from being brilliant, fearing that if they should reach their potential it will only make them lonely and stressed.
As an example of how common this fear is, Maslow would ask his university students: “Who is going to write the next great psychology textbook?” No-one would ever admit to it.
But then he would say something which I think is one of the most important phrases in all of life:

If not you, then who?

I’ve used this phrase a lot with kids. “I’ll never get into Oxford”, they would say. “Well someone has to,” I would respond, “why not you?”. [Same goes for being prime minister, taking a person they fancy to the prom, getting a top mark on coursework….I mean, someone has to. Why not them?].  Of course, we don’t always get what we want. Not everyone can do these things. But Maslow would also tell his students that if they purposely plan to be terrible (or not be prime minister, etc) then they won’t somehow escape misery. That’s not how playing it safe works. Like Jonah, they will run away only to find themselves scooped up and asked to face other challenges. But by taking the path of least resistance they’ll now be less prepared for the challenge and without a shot at achieving their dream. He ends by pointing out that while we cannot avoid unhappiness, we can learn to be less scared of brilliance.
That sounds a bit sappy, I know. But The Jonah Complex is a real thing in our classrooms and I’m not above a bit of cheesy sloganeering if it helps students overcome achievement-fear. So, to that end, I have produced the following meme. Feel free to download and stick on your classroom wall. Stick it on all four of them if you can.
And always remember to ask that kid who is about to give up in despair: “If not you, then who?”

Who Needs to Grow Up?

I am an avid notebooker. Last week I re-read my 2009 notebook and found this. Back then I didn’t blog, so I thought I’d share this week. Seems even more relevant after Gove’s speech yesterday.  
At the focus group tonight I invited four ‘average’ students to give their views on homework to our Sixth Form Teaching & Learning Group. We had chosen homework because many of the teachers relentlessly complained that the students were “wasting” free time rather than studying, but we also knew that homework was not routinely being given out by Sixth teachers. The meeting was interesting, for a number of reasons.
First, it was ages since I heard teachers so openly asking pupils’ opinions and being interested. Second, because the students were distinctly chosen because they are the ‘middle kids’ that rarely ever get selected for prizes or punishments there was a refreshing honesty to their words. They weren’t trying to suck up, nor were they trying to irritate. They were just…honest.
Third, it was interesting to watch the teachers grapple with the fact that the students’ expectations were different to theirs. For example, students said they preferred highly structured homework activities because they felt they learned more yet many teachers argued (with them) that this was “dumbing down”. Many staff appeared morally outraged at the fact that the students were expressing difficulty with vague homeworks, with one student giving “read around your subject” as an example.
Afterward I asked the staff how we could reconcile explicitly and with our class the difference between our expectations and the students’ expectations. But there was more outrage. I agreed that as professional we do ‘know’ what activities are best for students, and how to structure learning, but we do also have a duty to move to where the learners are – at least initially – if we do not want to alienate students. Our job is to walk over the bridge, grab the students by the arm, and guide them back over it. Not stand on the far side of the stream compelling them to jump. After all: if I thought that jumping involved the risk of drowning I don’t think I would chance it either.
So, what do I do? When Janie says she needs super-structured homework in order to learn and Mrs F says “Janie needs to get over herself and grow up” – what do I do? Should Janie step up, or should Mrs F step down?
NB: Four years on and I still don’t know the answer to this question. I can see the logic in making students jump. I can also the logic in a student who decides not to bother. But I still can’t bring myself to leave a student stranded if all it would take from me is one or two attempts at meeting them at a level with which they are uncomfortable and then dragging them into new terrain. 

A Further Word on Educational Inequality

Yesterday I explained why inaccurate use of the term “educational inequality” makes me uneasy. But then I started thinking about a gross educational inequality that is hardly ever mentioned, and it made me madder and madder.
Here is the school building that the teachers and pupils of Rugby School see when they arrive to learn:
Here is the school building me and the pupils I taught saw:
Spot any differences?
Here is a corridor at Westminster School:

Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi (ruggaugga)) on
Westminster School by Ruggero Rossi

Here is the corridor my classroom was on. In one direction and then the other:
Yes the bucket was necessary for a roof leak.
Here is a classroom at the very expensive St. Paul’s School:
Here is the classroom I taught in during the second year (and a later year):
This second one looks great, until you realise that three of its wall are surrounded by the playground where students are doing PE, and it has a plastic roof which means if it’s raining you have to shout at 100 decibels before anyone can hear your instructions.
Here are the 45 acres of sporting fields that St Paul’s School in London has:
Here’s the…oh wait…we don’t have any fields.
Here’s the library at St Paul’s Girls’ School:
Here’s the….oh no…wrong again. The library was taken over by the exclusion unit.
Here’s the drama studio at Eton which has a flying system, orchestra pit, revolving stage, make-up studios, a stocked wardrobe, dressing rooms, a full-time designer and a fleet of technical staff.
Here’s our drama studio that had plants growing through the walls.


People often ask: Why didn’t the school look after its buildings better? It did. They ploughed thousands into  keeping it together and resolving issues, but they almost invariably reared their head again and again because the school needed knocking down and redoing. In 2003, even Ofsted concurred, reporting in their inspection documents that the building had “reached the end of its useful life”.
The period I taught in was after this as the school waited patiently for a new site to become available. Then, when it did, the school was six weeks away from beginning its new BSF school and the money was cut. The site of the planned new build was given to a Free School. Only after a lengthy battle – which has meant the school has been in unsatisfactory condition for a decade – the school has finally been granted Priority Schools Build money and thankfully building works will start this summer even if progress is going to be slow.
But it doesn’t resolve the fact that THIS is educational inequality. Living in a country where some children spend 5 hours a day in freezing classrooms, with plastic leaking roofs and mould growing through walls while others are not just in ‘comfort’ but are fully surrounded by facilities beyond the imaginations of most is inequality of input – it is giving children a fundamentally different experience. Yet it’s never what I hear challenged, and it certainly isn’t going to be changed merely by ‘improving teacher quality’.
And if anyone tells you that “buildings don’t matter” or “kids in other countries learn in mud huts” then ask them if they want their child to grow up, day-in day-out, in horrible physical conditions. I’m fairly certain I know what the answer will be.

A Word on "Educational Inequality"

The phrase ‘educational inequality‘ has crept quietly into England’s edu-policy lexicon and displaced the previously much-used phrase ‘educational disadvantage‘ – but we need to be careful. There is a crucial difference between the two and I’m concerned that the first is being horribly misused.
Educational inequality is a salient concept in the US and rightly so. Schools in the US are predominantly funded via local property taxes. Ergo, schools in poor areas harvest far lower amounts of funding than in wealthy areas – e.g. in Chicago the richest area provides $24k per child, in the poorest just $7k. Given that schools in poorer areas usually serve more complex populations and need to pay higher wages to recruit quality teachers, it is quite ludicrous that the poorest areas get the lowest amount of funding because it means inequality begets inequality.
In England the inequality is not the same, at least in terms of inputs. Schools with the most complex needs have typically been given the largest amount of funding, and since the introduction of the Coalition’s Pupil Premium students from lower income families go to schools that are systematically given greater amounts of money. The inequality is therefore in favour of poorer students.
None of this means that inequality of outcome does not exist in education. When students in poorer families are still achieving significantly lower GCSE results than wealthier counterparts it is clearly the case that there is a difference. But the phrase ‘educational inquality’ makes it sound as if poorer students are getting a worse education which isn’t necessarily true.
It is this kind of language issue which partly* caused the upset over TeachFirst’s recent charity campaign. The US sister company, TeachForAmerica, uses “educational inequality” in its funding drives because in the US it makes sense. Some areas really do have far less funding and struggle to recruit and retain excellent teachers given the low salaries they can pay. In the UK, when you say that students are ‘suffering educational inequality’ it makes it sound as if some schools in poor areas are merely ‘choosing’ to do a terrible job even though they have the same funds as others and that TeachFirsters are going to swoop in and try harder. Which isn’t true, and I honestly don’t believe is what the organisation intended to portray.
The second problem of the term “educational inequality” is that it seems to set groups against each other and conjures an image of poor children being ‘saved’ from a poor education at home by their school, even though a growing body of evidence shows that many poorer families do a great job of supporting their children’s abilities and aspirations. The term ‘educational disadvantage’ isn’t as easy obvious to grasp because there isn’t the ‘inequality’ visual, but for me it meant I thought about the disadvantages that individuals or groups faced. For example, a student may come from a reasonably wealthy family but if her mother is an alcoholic and her father doesn’t believe in girls learning, say, maths or science – then that child has educational disadvantages in a way that ‘educational inequality’ doesn’t seem to capture. Arguably coming from a home where your family is not supportive of you is a type of educational inequality, but somehow that nuance has been lost in an argument about ‘poor’ and ‘wealthy’ families when the reality is more complicated.
I will end by again pointing out that I do understand inequalities of educational outcome exist. Inequalities in educational input also exist. Some students will have less access to books, the internet, parents who talk to them, etc,. But we need to be careful that we don’t use ‘educational inequality’ as a shorthand for ‘poor children go to worse schools’ which is what that phrase can fast be taken to mean, and which isn’t useful at all.
* I know this is not the totality of the reasons why people are upset about TeachFirst. Those are too numerous for here. What I will say on the matter is that I was a TeachFirster between 2006 and 2008. I have also worked on numerous projects with the organisation ever since, and I know the phenomenal work it does providing extended CPD for its ambassadors way after the programme has finished and for providing mentoring/extra-curricular/internship opportunities to the students in the schools that TeachFirsters work in. It was those projects and CPD that kept me excited and involved in education and I think the charity is an important, useful, pathway for people who want to get into teaching. For those who disagree I am happy to answer any questions on this matter in the comments below, or on twitter.

Why Learn?

In a recent email chain with the ever-thoughtful Harry Fletcher-Wood he asked me to write something short, building on a comment I’d made on Twitter, about why I believed in education. First I pointed him to David Foster Wallace’s speech about education, as it is similar to my own feeling. But Harry wanted something to share with his Year 7s, and Wallace’s speech is not really made for 12 year olds. So I wrote this shorter version of my sentiments with a personal example included. Possibly it’s a bit trite, but it is entirely what I believe about the importance of, and reasons for, learning.
When you live somewhere boring – and we all live somewhere boring -then we have a choice about the way we will see that place. We can spend our days thinking like everyone else, seeing the same things over and over, and never once wondering about how they got that way, or why they stayed that way, or how they could be better. Or, we can learn. And if we make the choice to learn, and to be curious about the things around us, then we are essentially making the choice never to be bored again.
As an example: While I was at college and university I worked at McDonalds. During the daily breakfast shift I might break and cook 400-plus eggs, one after the other. Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Repeat! Smash, crack, sizzle, remove. Doing that every day is soul destroying. But when you learn that eggs cook because of coagulation; a remarkable process that involves protein becoming so excited with heat that it changes its soluble nature as it lays down in defeat and says “it’s too hot, I’m staying here”; then suddenly we are looking at something quite different. Suddenly, I saw those eggs as mini-battlefields where proteins fought heat warriors. I began observing which soldiers lay down first (do you know which part of an egg cooks first, the outer part or the middle?), and I began thinking about better ways of getting the proteins to become solid more evenly, or how they could hold off the heat for the longest time. On other egg-cracking days I would think about different lessons about eggs. I’d think about history class where I learned that due to hyper-inflation in Germany between the world wars the cost of an egg rose from a quarter of a Reichsmark (think 25p), to 4 billion Reichsmarks in just 5 years. Imagine: that would be like having to pay 4 billion pounds to buy an egg by the time you left school. Sounds stupid, but it happened. And whenever I remembered that story I would treat the eggs as if they were precious jewels aware that at any moment their price tag might start rising.
On other days still I would I look at the eggs and think about morality, and what people had taught me of right and wrong. If I was feeling particularly miserable, I would become angry: Why are we stealing another creatures by-products and eating it? What if this egg had been fertilised, and had become a baby chicken? Would it have been happy to have survived, or did making it available for eating now simply save it from becoming a chicken nugget later down the line? And like many philosophers before and since I wondered: am I happier than a chicken? How could I even know?!
But worse than the fate of the nugget-bound chicken were the fates of people around me who never asked these questions. The fate of the people who saw how terrible our town was – with its power station, and shoddy buildings, and terrible unemployment – but they didn’t ask why, or how, or imagine what could be. Instead, day-by-day as we worked in that dingy kitchen for hours at a time, and as my mind danced with protein soldiers, hyperinflated eggs, and sad chickens, instead they looked down and simply saw each egg as…. an egg. A simple, boring – really boring – egg.
And that’s when I decided I had a choice. I could spend my life learning or I could spend it being bored. If I chose learning I would get to think, do, see, go wherever I wanted – hopefully in all of life, but even if I failed at that, at least I could go anywhere in my own head. But if instead I chose not learning, if like so many other people I chose boredom, then an egg …would only ever be …an egg, and that seemed like a truly terrible waste of a really quite amazing world.

Why Philosophy is Worthwhile

I am a big fan of useful and practical. But I was reminded today of Simon Blackburn’s fabulous defence of university philosophy departments written in the Times Higher Ed magazine in 2009.  He’s completely and utterly right in all that he says, not least that if anyone thinks research might not be ‘worth’ it then perhaps they should consider that the bank bailout of 2008 could have run the Arts & Humanities Council for 10,000 years.
You can read the full thing here:
But my favourite line is right near the end when he says this:

“As to access, from the academic point of view the sole barrier to participation is the hurdle of being sufficiently educated and competent to have profited from understanding and controlling the central categories of thought. From the social and financial point of view, the barriers include deprivation at an early age, insufficiently stimulating schooling and entrenched inequalities giving few people the confidence ever to become both curious and articulate.”

One of the things I tried most hard with in my own teaching was bringing about the confidence to be curious and articulate. It’s so easy for it to get knocked out of any child – rich or poor – and though it takes a long time to shove it back in, most often it can be done as long as you have the time and the energy required.

Why Being Wealthy Doesn't Mean You Automatically Have More Aspirations Or More Life Choices

One of the things guaranteed to annoy me is when people assume that poor children all have low aspirations, and that ‘choice’ is something only preserved for the ‘middle and upper class’ children.  Life just isn’t that simple.
Reviewing more works from Dora Russell – one of Bertrand Russell’s wives and founder of a 1920s ‘progressive’ school – I came across this sobering quote:

“Moreover, she knew that even for children at a school like Beacon Hill, the possibilities for freedom were limited precisely because they were privileged children. The child of an architect, for example, would encounter barriers if he wanted to be a carpenter” (from Deborah Gorham’s wonderful paper – “Dora & Bertrand Russell and Beacon Hill School)

In some cases this won’t be true; some wealthier families will use their social networks and monetary capital to enable their child to take an ‘alternative’ path – maybe becoming an artist, or DJ, or as mentioned in the article: a carpenter.  Limits on choice are not the preserve of the poor though. For each time I’ve heard a poorer parent say they don’t think their child needs to go to university I’ve also heard a wealthier one say that their child must go, even if they really really don’t want to.  In fact, I’d say, that second situation is more common.
When I was young my dad would say there was no point having a big house because you can only rest your head on one pillow.  I’d point out that at least in the big house you’d have a choice about which pillow to lay your head on. However, if someone you love (& whose values you want to emulate) tells you only one type of pillow is acceptable, then that big house – no matter how large or great its array of choices might be – becomes absolutely, even tragically, superfluous.  Education should provide us with as many spaces as possible where we can rest our heads; anything less, and we’re selling our children short.

Education Cannot Just Be A Deficit Model

In 1873, the first ever Kindergarten opened in St. Louis, Missouri. It was going to solve all the problems of poverty.  Sound familiar?
Leader of local schools, William Torrey Harris, had decided that the best way to civilise ‘slum children’ and ensure they did not follow corruption was to get them into school early. He said:

“The child who passes his years in the misery of the crowded tenement house or alley, becomes early familiar with all manner of corruption and immorality.”

This view is commonly present even among our own education policies.  Far too often I hear MPs – on both sides of the house – saying that school is going to solve all of the evils of poverty and that ‘civilisation’ of the poor is all that is needed.
What’s most extraordinary is how similar this sounds to the kind of logic that was applied to the civilisation of immigrants in Britain’s ‘newer nations.  In both the US and Australia baording schools were created for native children. In these boarding schools they were taught ‘correct English’ and the required morals and manners of the day.  Some will argue that in doing so it enabled them to flourish in a society that had changed immeasurably and wasn’t about to turn back; others might call it cultural and linguistic genocide.
Perhaps neither view of our history is correct but what it does show is the way education is too often used to correct an assumed deficit. Too many political leaders exhibit Pymgalion fantasies, believing that they are going to ‘bring to life’ the poor-but-bright children who are simply waiting to be saved and made into a modern-day Eliza Doolittle. Unfortunately, they all too often forget that other story of a person who tried to create an idol in their own image.  The story is that of The Modern Prometheus, though you may know it by a different name!                            

Why More 'A's Don't Necessarily Devalue the Currency

When people point to the greater number of students now getting ‘top grades’ in their exams and then they say this shows how Britain has ‘dumbed-down’ I am urged to remind them of the statistics on literacy. For example, the rate of literacy for Black females in the United States went from 30% to 70% in just forty years. Reading didn’t get easier; access to education was what changed in that time and hence, more people became better at reading. Similarly, a rise in people doing better in a test does not necessarily mean an unwarranted grade inflation, it can mean quite simply that more people know more things because we are teaching better.
The naysayers then say:  “But if everyone gets As then the whole purpose is devalued”. Well, only if you see the purpose of those exams as being about sifting people apart from one another.  Was reading suddenly devalued because twice as many people could do it?  No. Reading is a good thing in and of itself regardless of how many others do it. If one day 30% of people get an A on a reading test and four decades later 70% of people are getting that A, that is a good day for society. More people know how to read and have more flexibility with their future.
More people getting As is neither a sure-fire sign that standards have dropped nor that the A has become meaningless. If you wish to argue that more As is a bad thing, you need to do better than this.