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.

My Mum's Perspective on Card Sorts

Tonight on Twitter, Tessa Matthews, of the incisive blog Tabula Rasa Education wrote:

Now, given that learning styles have been ‘debunked’ I sympathise with the viewpoint. There’s simply no evidence that students only learn while moving, singing, running, jumping, etc. HOWEVER! I, unlike most teachers, was not raised in a house full of people who loved learning. My mum is distinctly anti-learning (and she won’t mind me saying that). Not only did she fail to turn up to a single one of her exams at school (in fact, she told me to say that bit) but I have known her over the years to purposely NOT learn – indeed  to REFUSE to learn – on training courses/workshops, etc, she’s attended.
She does, however, occasionally get won over to learn. The common theme is when she is involved either verbally or with moving things around. For her I can imagine that a card sort might work if the subject was akin to it. Tessa was rightly sceptical as cognitive science suggests people aren’t so shallow with their learning. But cognitive scientists generally don’t have my mum – or some of the other kids I have taught – up in their face and refusing to learn.
Tessa asked: “What do you think explains your mum’s preference for this kind of activity?”I didn’t have a clue. So I rang her. And here’s what she said (and was very happy for me to write):

I just hate being talked to when I’m supposed to be learning. I hate it. I pretend I’m listening but I’m not. I just look out the window instead or daydream.
Why? Well, either because I think, “this person isn’t interested in me and what I’ve got to say”, and their voice is doing my head in, and so I just think that I’d rather daydream about other stuff. Or it’s because I get lost with what they’re saying – and I don’t understand it – and I think there’s no way of asking questions because they’re busy listening to their own voice, so I just stop listening and start daydreaming. But either way they’ve lost me.

I then asked her if it matters that there’s a consequence for not listening (thinking about exams, or getting in trouble because you can’t do work):

No. You can show them my schoool certificate if you want. A in everything. For Absent! It gets EVEN WORSE if people start shouting at me. Then I think I’m really not going to listen now.

I asked her what does help with learning:

I want to know the person is interested in what I have to say, and also that I am following what they are saying. Like, I like activities where I can do things and get feedback. Next week I have to go for training about chairing meetings, but if when I get there they talk to me for an hour then I’ll switch off. But if they get me involved, maybe practice a meeting, then I’d like that because they could tell me what I’m doing wrong – or I could tell for myself.
But I can’t bear it if they just talk at me. I always think, “just give me the stuff to read and if I don’t understand it I can just ask questions”.

I then asked about a card sort, and whether she thought that sounded useful:

I’d like it because I could see if it was right. Because at the end I’d know if the bits matched right. And I’d also like to be able to talk to other people around me to see what they got. I like doing things because it makes me feel involved, and not like it’s just the other person going on about things.

Finally she told me something she’s said a lot:

Of course, if you were up there talking about people and their lives, then I’ll listen. Or if you’re funny, or if you tell a story. Then I’ll remember it.

At this point I suggested that what she was describing sounded more like entertainment rather than learning:

Well, yeah. I like to be entertained. But that’s because learning’s harder isn’t it? And if it’s hard and I don’t know if I understand it, and no-one cares if I’m listening or not, then I might as well just look at the window.

And that was pretty much it. In essence: unless she feels like she’s involved she will just pretend to listen but tune out as an act of defiance. The problem of science is that it often forgets about such acts of free will.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Tessa should do a card sort. There are many reasons – practical and pedagogical – why it could be an inefficient or pointless exercise. But do I believe that for some students it helps? Definitely. My mum may not love learning, but she is honest to a fault.

How I Survived the First Year of Teaching

“Nobody said it was easy, but no-one ever said it would be this hard” – Coldplay
On my fourth day as a teacher I was assaulted by a pupil who came back after school to attack me. A few months later I suffered a rib fracture from a student who tried to punch another kid – missed – and got me instead. One student ripped up his exercise book and set it on fire in my corridor, blocking me in behind a blaze. I was even in a serious bus crash during a school trip to Alton Towers. And, like most new teachers, throughout that first year I endured a never-ending monotony of poor behaviour leading to little learning in my classroom. As a consequence I regularly cried my entire trip home on public transport – a journey that took the best part of an hour.
By the end of the next year I was awarded the TeachFirst Excellence Award and the students in my classroom received the best results in the school. What caused the transformation? Trust me, it wasn’t glamorous; it was just down to sheer hard work. And any suggestion that it looked like Dangerous Minds will be treated with contempt. Mostly it looked like me writing detention forms and marking books.
First, what it didn’t involve. It had nothing to do with innate teaching ability. The first time I ever taught – and a lot of the subsequent times too – were complete and utter disasters. It is entirely to the credit of fellow TeachFirst Ambassador, Josie Brett, that I didn’t walk out in a wreck of tears on that very first teaching occasion. Sent to a school in Kent as part of our initial training we were to partner-teach a session about ‘global warming’ to Year 7s. Sweet kids, excited to be having lessons by young people parachuted in to give teachers a rest in the last week of term, they were easy fodder for cutting our teaching teeth on before ‘real school’ in September. Josie and I had spent several supervised hours planning our session. It all sounded great – I don’t remember much about it now – but in my head it was learning mecca.
What actually happened is that I froze. We opened the door and a seemingly endless number of children stood there looking at us, and I just….froze. Josie stepped up immediately: “Come on in!” she said in a warm, friendly, compassionate voice, as if she was naturally channelling an inner Julie Andrews completely alien to me. She told them where to sit, she outlined rules about their conduct, and she began playing some slides we had created as an introduction.
I was still open mouthed.
Little else is memorable from that session. I’m guessing my tongue arrived back in my mouth at some point and I ambled through the ‘great’ plan, all the while thinking that none of it was actually that great. I do remember a young girl who was diabetic explaining that she couldn’t recycle her injection materials and how mad it made her. In response I shuffled and looked apologetic.
Really, it was terrible.
Hence whenever teachers recount their first awful weeks at school I feel fairly confident in telling them that the way you start out is not an indication of anything. Josie also struggled relentlessly over the next two years, though she’s now an incredible SENCo.  I didn’t just struggle, I continually crashed and burned. But I also got there in the end.
Still, how? Just one thing repeated over and over again in my head got me through: Is life really worse for me than it is for these kids? The answer, always, was ‘no’. What I saw students going through in their lives, and yet still getting up every day and getting into school (and a school that was at times very chaotic), was truly humbling. Children whose parents neglected them. Children who were bullied by other children because they didn’t look right. Children in mixed race relationships who had people spit on them in the street. Children who’d left countries where they had seen family members killed in front of their eyes. Children who cared for sick parents. Children who had no parents. All of them, children. All of them still getting on with it.
In comparison what was I really complaining about? That I didn’t know how to do something? That when they took all the hurt inside them and threw it out at me that it pissed me off?  Well, I would think to myself – even through tears and gritted teeth – I can take it. Plus, while the students were often trapped inside their lives – too young, without the monetary or intellectual capital to get themselves out – I was not trapped. I could (and I did) read everything about teaching that I could lay my hands on. I had friends in ‘the outside world’ who listened, and empathised, and who got me resources for my classroom from their own organisations (I lived off Google pens for about 3 months).  I had colleagues who helped with behaviour, I had food, drink, shelter, people who listened to me cry, and cry, and cry. And I had a genuine belief that I (a) wanted to make a difference, and (b) could make a difference – at least some of the time.
If you want to get through your first year of teaching in a challenging school, there is no behaviour tip or lesson plan template I can give you that will matter as much as reminding yourself – every single day – that if your kids can make it through a day at school so can you, and that just by being there and giving it everything you have you are making a difference. It may not be the greatest difference anyone has ever made. It may not be a difference that you can see immediately. Heaven knows there were times when I was convinced I was making everything worse. But if you can stick it out, that you did so will matter – not least to the students who will be grateful for your consistency and efforts.
As for the practical stuff – the behaviour, the lesson plans, and so on. My best advice to you is to read. Read these books. Read other books. Try things out, work out what helped with the learning and what didn’t. Keep going.  If everything gets really black (and at times it will) you can be 100% certain that you are not the only person in your cohort going through it. Every single year when I taught on Summer Institute I would get a raft of emails about this time (Feb/March) from participants telling me how miserable they were and how no-one else on the cohort felt the same. Except I would always have emails from at least three or four other people in their cohort saying the same thing!
You are not alone in how terrible the first year is.  What matters, however, is your sanity. So if it gets too bleak, speak with your tutor, speak with your mentor, give yourself time off at the weekends, put it all in perspective. You are making a difference by turning up and trying. You are making a difference when you teach the kids something new. You are not making a (positive) difference when you hate the world and you ruin your health. No-one is expecting that of you. (And for some new teachers who I have seen get to that point then they have been absolutely right to walk away).
But if one or two (or fifteen) classes make your life hell – ask for help. And if the first person you ask doesn’t provide it, ask someone else, and then someone else. There were times when I burst into tears in the middle of corridors convinced no-one was able to help me – but someone always did. You know why? Because I was crying and that finally signalled to people that I needed help. What I had thought were fairly clear calls for help in my previous complaints had been interpreted as ‘just complaining’ and not as me asking for action. This does not mean you need to actually cry. But if you’re not ‘crying’ for help (in the talking, rather than actual tear sense) then no-one is going to know you need it. Make it clear when you need people and my experience is that even in the most hellish school someone will try to help – and when they do, let them, and then be grateful for the rest of time. The best way to show that gratefulness, of course, is to be the person who helps the next unfortunate soul in the new teacher assembly line (TeachFirst, PGCE, or otherwise). Because you too one day will be wise, and will be facing a newbie burbling wreck in the staffroom.  No really, you will.
If I was you I might now be bridling at the fact that I’ve read 1400 words and the only thing I’ve learned is “keep going”. Sorry about that. If you want more practical help – try my stuff about detentions, read Tom Bennett, read Learning Spy, etc. But, honestly, know that keeping going is about 90% of the difference. Keep turning up, keep thinking about learning, and keep pushing relentlessly toward it. After all, it’s only what we expect from our pupils.
Good luck. x

Getting Zero

I got zero on a maths test this week. Zero. On a maths test. I’m good at maths, and I’ve never got zero on anything in my life.
Afterwards I was shell-shocked for about fifteen minutes. The tests are given at the beginning of a weekly matrix algebra class I’m taking. Being 30 and studying algebra is already infantalising, but I do it because it’s wonderful. Flashes of GCSE Maths keep coming back to me and making sense in new ways, and I’m finally understanding (really understanding) statistical models that I’ve ran for years in SPSS but which I could only previously complete mechanistically rather than conscientiously.
The tests, however, are less exciting. First of all they’re multiple choice, which is a long-known  achilles heel of mine. Secondly, they’re at 3pm on a day when I have usually been working since 7am and so haven’t had a chance to revise before I get there. Still, I like tests and for the first few I did self-chuffingly well.  Then came the zero.
What surprised me was my reaction. The depth of my humiliation was burning, and that was even though no-one other than my tutor and me were ever going to see the score. Then there were the self-scorns. You know what I mean, the internal radio that starts blaring: “Oh God. ZERO. You’re terrible at maths. Really, terrible. Well, not terrible, I mean you panicked, you blanked.” [It’s true, I did. For the first time ever in my life I looked into my brain and the usually detailed whiteboard of memories was, unfortunately, wiped-clean]. Then my mind began the climb-down: “Anyway, this test doesn’t matter so much. You’re allowed to sub one score. Also, you did well on those others. See, you’re not entirely bad at maths….”
The internal dialogue carried on for the next fifteen minutes. Periodically the not-so-nice stuff would rear up “Why am I so bad at this?” and I could feel myself overcome with waves of blushing [my poor tutor must have thought I was coming down with flu]. Then the other side would kick in and I’d have to talk myself back down again. For the whole thing I was entirely impervious to whatever it was we were being taught next. Not until I had finally calmed the inner voice could I re-concentrate.
What particularly blind-sided me is that I regard myself an avid learner. I love learning. I love classes, and tests, and I’m not one to be easily knocked-over when things go wrong. And yet there I was, lumbering and panicking about a tiny multiple choice test. Euck. Afterwards I started thinking about students I’ve taught who really struggled with their work. Imagine if every lesson at school felt like this – if every time I did something there was a good likelihood of a zero, and the burning humiliation, and the exhausting mental battle. No wonder some kids give up.
As a teacher it’s so very easy to forget how complicated learning is and anything that can remind us of how messy, and embarrassing it is the better. Learning an instrument, a new language, a new craft [even matrix algebra if you’re feeling particularly masochistic] will soon make you see the enormous mental and emotional effort involved in being in a classroom, and how important a teacher can be in making things bearable. I keep imagining what would have happened if the tutor had read out the scores (as I sometimes did in the past), or if she had made a comment about “expecting more from me” (yuck), or – on the positive side – how great it might have been if a student with a higher score had found out and had offered to spend some time revising with me before next week. I’m also trying to model what I would tell a student to do in this position – to learn from this mistake and try and do it better next time.  We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes.

"Let's Talk About Love"

Click if you dare

Carl Wilson so hates Celine Dion that he begins his book by arguing she is “bland monotony raised to a pitch of obnoxious bombast”. Harsh. Given his burning dislike, when he’s subsequently requested to write a retrospective about Dion’s 1998 album “Let’s Talk about Love” (the one involving the nauseating My Heart Will Go On) he feels entirely unprepared for the task. In order to avoid writing pure bilge Wilson throws himself into a three-month quest, finding anyone, anywhere who has ever loved Celine Dion, all of which culminated in him writing the most strangely powerful book I’ve read all year. In its pages Wilson weaves a complex history of Canadian Kitsch acts alongside stories of ballad-loving refugees and transvestite impersonators. Through the journey Wilson’s icy heart begins melting until – suddenly and quite inexplicably – he finds himself weeping inconsolably as he watches Celine belt out her album’s title-song at a Vegas sell-out uber-concert. Accompanied only by the tiny Filipino lady sitting alongside him (a woman who we come to presume has spent her life savings to be in this precious moment) is also teary and she, like everyone else in the room, is understanding what he feels. It’s at moments like this throughout the book that Wilson can barely remember why his hatred was ever so important. Love, it seems, really does matters – even to a cynic.

Yet love is hard to talk about.  Just last week a conversation on Twitter blindsided me about this very matter and it’s stayed with me ever since:

As the words above leapt from my keyboard I could hear my inner demons yelling. “You’re going to get hammered for this” I thought, hearing the sound of hard-line dissenters on the horizon…. “LOVE? Love’s all very well but what about exam results? What about life chances? What about escaping poverty? Must teachers do it ALL?”

And, of course, I don’t disagree. Exams are important. Life chances are important. But lack of love also affects how many children do in exams and, far more importantly, in their life going forward. In my opinion, lack of love (and the confidence it belies) is one reason why even the most incredible schools – despite all their money and selective testing – still can’t manage to get every child to achieve as well as could be expected given talents previously shown in the classroom.  Some of it is neurons, or rubbish teachers, or “lack of motivation” (though at what cause?) – but at least, in part and for some children, this difference is down to love.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think such children have parents or carers who are consciously not loving; often they’re trying their damndest in the face of inadequate models from their own childhoods. This inadequate modelling is all too commonly paired with the thinly-veiled ‘adulthood’ coping mechanisms – addictive behaviours or abusive relationships – which then compound things even further, so that as the parent . And attempts loving their own child they miss the mark and the end result is a child who does’t even have a minimal feeling of being loved. And before you jump to conclusions; this isn’t about poverty. It’s about love. I can assure you that being wealthy doesn’t protect anyone from addictive behaviours, abusive relationships or the emotional markers of lost love.

You see it all the time in teaching (particularly if, like me, you’ve ever worked in a classroom on a hidden corridor away from prying eyes). You see children who sit in your classroom and sob because they’ve been abandoned to an aunt they barely know, or they’ve been ignored for weeks in favour of a parent’s new partner, or their clothes aren’t getting washed because their parent is busily drinking the night away, and now they know they smell but there’s no detergent left and they don’t have the money to go and get some. While still young, some of these issues are notionally resolvable through child protection pathways, though inner wounds tend to hang around even once the immediate neglect dries up. Then, as students get older options wane and all too often they end up taking on more and more responsibility – so that by 17 they’re feeding, clothing, consoling, paying for their younger siblings: an army of the unloved trying to stop their fate from spreading.

Now imagine among the neglect, and lack of love – and the practical problems it brings – there’s school to traverse with its weird bundle of daily lessons. Do you have a protractor for trigonometry? Possibly not, if your parents have never bothered to get you one. Food is of course provided to students most in financial need, but this is about love, not cash. And there are many children who’ve looked in wonder at children whose parents always provide a ready-wrapped meal, or who remembered to put their money out for lunch each morning, and wondered what it must feel like to have someone care about how hungry you are every single day.

Inevitably someone will now suggest that “children are resilient” and that “lots of children with miserable childhoods nevertheless do great”. It’s true, they do. Some children turn school into their escape and learning is their joy. These students become ‘miracle stories’ and teaching them is unbelievably inspiring. But, sadly, other students seek belonging elsewhere – gangs, sex, sometimes both. Or they turn their lack of love into self-hatred, and then turn that hatred into eating disorders, self-harm, obsessive behaviours, aggressive behaviours, all of which begin to distract from studies and start stripping away the chance of getting those longed-for ‘test results’ which were perhaps once thought might bring the so-desperately-craved love but it now all seems like more effort than it’s worth. After all, if no-one’s going to love me, whatever I do, why bother with this school crap? Especially if it’s difficult and the people that do love me (the gangs, the partners) don’t care about it? And that’s when we start to lose them – not because the curriculum is ‘too easy’ or because of ‘low expectations’ but usually because of the hopelessness. And with time, and effort, listening, consistency, we teachers can try to be a proxy for that love, but it’s not our priority and it never can be when we must (rightly) worry about the academic minds of 30 people all at once six times a day.

Yet, though we teachers know this and see the issue time and again, we never even breathe a word about it. Maybe because we fear there’s nothing to be done. Instead, as Sam says, we talk of ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’ ‘school culture’. We don’t talk about why, really why, some of our students never make adequate progress. No, we talk about levels and pedagogy – the important adult rational stuff. But if we can’t talk about the lack of love in some children’s lives then there’s no chance for trying to improve it. We’ve given up before we’ve even tried because we taken the cynic’s pill and we believe it’s just not possible. Not trying, however, seems too defeatist – and even if I think it can’t be solved, I’ll be damned if I think we should continue pretending it doesn’t matter.

So the ‘policy’ I suggest is this: Let us, whenever it feels appropriate, not be afraid to talk about the importance of love and its impact in education. We must mention how the lack of it (or a wonderful abundance of it) has made a difference to children, to staff, even to us. It’s not really a policy, of course, it’s more a… personal stance. But it’s one that I’m asking you to think about taking. People won’t be impressed at first. They’ll want to get back to the ‘safe’ and manageable concepts: knowledge, ‘engagement’, exams. That’s okay, it makes sense to want to focus on what we “can do”. Plus those things are all very, very important and I don’t want to constantly distract from them. But, no matter how much we want to kid ourselves, they are also not everything, and the occasional reminder – when it feels relevant – shouldn’t require an argument with oneself in order to be able to ‘say it out loud’ either in reality or on Twitter. And from now on if it seems important I’m going to speak up.

And what of the hard-hearts among you still left crying that love is irrelevant? Those who say it’s only for the weak-minded with no interest in knowledge? About you, I do not worry. Somewhere out there in the world I am certain that a small Filipino lady is awaiting you and one day, when you least expect it, she will be right there to remind you that you are a human too, and that being so is difficult, it involves pain and it means needing to feel like others are willing to stand with you and understand you. Because that’s what love is. And it matters. Even to a cynic.

White Free School Meal Pupils do considerably worse at GCSEs than any other ethnic group

In Thursday’s Parliamentary Written Questions, information was released about the GCSE results of pupils who attend mainstream state-funded schools, have no special educational needs and are eligible for free schools. In essence: “poor kids”.
The results were broken down by ethnicity and show the % of students in each ethnic group who did not get a C grade or above in either Maths or English GCSE or both.
The numbers show that White Free School Meal students are, by some way, the group least likely to pass either a Maths or English GCSE. The number of White FSM students not passing English was 54.7% and in Maths it was 59.9%. The nearest classified ethnic group were ‘Mixed race’ FSM students of whom 42% did not pass English and 50.5% did not pass Maths. All other ethnic groups were lower again.
By this measure it appears White FSM students are nearly 10% more likely not to pass their English or Maths GCSE than a FSM student in any other ethnic group.
I’m offering no explanation for this. It’s nothing something I’ve looked at in enough detail to guess as to why. But I find it intriguing, and interesting, and something I thought I would shared – particularly as here in the US, where I am studying, I am sometimes looked at as if I am crazy when I try to explain that race is an important but ultimately very different issue here in the UK.
PS – I have no idea how the phrases ‘While’ and ‘Slack’ got into a Hansard publication. No doubt it’s the fault of schools who no longer teach spelling.
PPS – I am guessing the data is for 2010/11 because the 2012 data was not yet available.