Tag: Education (page 4 of 23)

On (not) working in academia.

On (not) working in academia

I’m with Doug Pete in really liking the Zite app.

Although it’s a proprietary, closed product I haven’t come across anything close to it for discovery. Take, for instance, a post entitled On Leaving Academia by Terran Lane, someone I’ve not come across before. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico.

Terran is off to join Google.

His post is neatly organised into section titles listing the reasons he’s leaving academia to join Google:

  1. Opportunity to make a difference
  2. Workload and family/life balance
  3. Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
  4. Funding climate
  5. Hyper-specialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
  6. Poor incentives
  7. Mass production of education
  8. Salaries
  9. Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academia

I’ve written about this kind of thing before in You need us more than we need you. As Terran explains, it’s not (just) about money.

Whereas he’s decided to quit academia, I’ve made a conscious choice from the start to stay on its sidelines. Around the margins. On the edges. Whilst the logical thing to do after my doctorate would have been to apply for a research position or lectureship at a university, I decided against it.

Why?

Not only would I be earning half the amount of money I am now – and less than when I was teaching in schools – but it seems a spectacularly bad time to decide to become a career academic. No money, no status, no freedom. And with the introduction of a market into UK Higher Education it’s increasingly difficult for academics to even claim the high moral ground.

That’s not to say academics aren’t doing good, publicly-useful work. Of course they are. It’s just crunch time in their industry.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this talent-drain from academia. In fact, we’re already seeing a new generation of people not satisfied with traditional career structures and ways of working. I’m not sure if this is good or bad in the scheme of things, given the direction the universities (in the UK) seem to be headed under the current government.

What I do know is that universities need to do something, and fast. The Bank of Goodwill doesn’t have infinite reserves…

Image CC BY-NC-SA Patrick Gage

Is Michael Gove systematically dismantling English state education?

Would you trust this man with your kids?

Is Michael Gove systematically dismantling state education in England?

I’m not sure.

To believe so presumes competence, intention and strategy on his part. Most of what I observe is an ill-informed sociopath flapping about at seemingly-random educational targets.

See what you think by looking at these BBC News stories since the beginning of the calendar year:

So no need to be a qualified teacher in England any more. This news, of course, was buried by being announced on a Friday in the school holidays, on the very day of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Perhaps that was to avoid another strike by teachers like the one in November 2011?

From where I’m sitting, this looks like part of a wider move to centralise schooling in England. There were huge financial incentives for schools to become academies. Now, even if the money’s not there, there’s certainly political and other kinds of pressures bearing down on headteachers and governors.

Once English schools all become academies they’re outside of local authority control but under the direct control of Whitehall. Gove may bleat that academies have powers to do this or that, but when there’s no buffer between the headteacher and the all-powerful politician in control of the money, there’s no real contest.

Michael Gove is the most power-hungry, dangerously reactionary, and misguided millionaire Secretary of State for Education we’ve had a for a long time. He proposes yachts for over-privileged, taxpayer-funded families and gives out religious texts inscribed with his name. Meanwhile extra cash for the most deprived boroughs is turned down and, in the midst of one of the most sustained attacks on the profession in living memory, teachers are expected to roll over and accept performance-related pay.

Who will rid us of this troublesome beast?

Image CC BY-NC staticgirl

Education: sometimes it’s not complex (a reply to Nick Dennis).

This is a longer post than usual. You may want to add it to your Pocket, Readability or Instapaper account?

Walled garden

In a way I don’t really want to write this post.

Over the last few months my good friend Nick Dennis and I have been debating the merits and otherwise of independent schools. I made my position clear in this blog post.

Nick – who, unlike me, is still working as a classroom teacher and senior leader in an (independent) school – has finally had time to respond. He’s written a thoughtful, considered post entitled Beyond stereotypes and raincoats. You should go and read it in its entirity before reading this post any further.

I don’t really want to write this post because I’ve tried very hard to separate what I see as Nick’s implicit justification of his position with my criticisms of the independent schools sector. I don’t want to attack my friend.

What follows, whilst borrowing quotations from Nick’s blog post, shouldn’t be taken as an attack on him per se. Instead it should be seen as a critique of those who seek to justify the existence of a private walled garden of education available only to those who are able to pay.


As far as I can see it, Nick makes five main points in his post:

  1. Those who are anti-independent schools lack a nuance of approach to the ‘complexity’ of the UK school system
  2. Some state school places attract a de facto ‘price tag’ as houses in the catchment area are disproportionately expensive
  3. There are some independent schools that cater to minority interests – faiths, ethnicity, learning difficulties, and so on
  4. Independent schools are caused by an unequal distribution of wealth
  5. The founders of independent schools were virtuous individuals with noble intentions, therefore independent schools have a moral purpose

At the end of his post, Nick presents a dichotomy inspired by the film The Matrix, asking the reader to choose between different ‘pills’:

[Y]ou can take the pill of the state/private stereotype as it stands and the story ends and the debate will continue with no real resolution. Alternatively, you could take the pill that allows you to move beyond reductionist stereotypes and be part of something life changing

I would reject this dichotomy. As I hope to show by going through the five pillars of his argument in turn, what he terms a ‘stereotype’ is based on a very real (and very divisive) truth that pervades our education system,

1. The simple truth

Nick claims, mainly through the anecdote that introduces his post, that we often jump to conclusions based on mental models. These shorthand ways of thinking he refers to as stereotypes. It is implied that stereotypes are bad. And, for the most part, I would agree.

Another caveat: I have never worked in an independent school. I went for an interview at one, but withdrew from the selection process as I felt I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself had I taken the job. As I mentioned recently, I think we should be aiming for the high ground in our lives more generally.

Why do I see independent schools as occupying anything other than the ‘high ground’? Because they’re an extreme example of market forces in education. Independent schools are walled gardens that charge for entry. Pointing to the fact that some independent schools have bursaries is like saying Glastonbury gives away free tickets. It’s still a paid-for event.

There’s a market in the state sector. Of course there is. Sadly. There’s grammar schools, selective schools, girls’ schools, faith schools, and now Academies, Free Schools and almost every kind of school you could imagine. But two wrongs don’t make a right: markets have no place in the education of our young people. End of story.

2. The mobile middle class

My wife works as a teacher in a Primary school one day per week. We were considering moving to that area at one point but couldn’t afford the house prices in the immediate vicinity to the school. That’s an example – even in the North East – of inflated house prices caused by Ofsted deeming a school ‘Oustanding’.

Middle-class parents moving to ensure their children get a place at the school of their choice isn’t an easy problem to solve. Even if you remove the market-based rhetoric of ‘choice’ in state-funded education provision, the problem would remain. Some people use their capital – financial, cultural, intellectual – in an attempt to gain advantage over others.

The fact that people act in selfish and sociopathic ways does not mean, however, that we should institutionalise such behaviour in the system itself. It be morally wrong for middle class parents to move houses to secure a state school place but, I would argue, it’s definitely wrong for them to buy a place outside of that system in an attempt to advantage their offspring.

3. Special cases

The debate between Nick and I has, on occasion, spilled out onto Twitter and led to some interesting exchanges. Many people have pointed out to me that some parents send their children to independent schools out of sense of desperation. The state sector, they argue, just doesn’t provide what their children need.

I realise there’s sensitivities in this area. My children do not have learning disabilities (that I’m aware of at the moment). We’re a white, British, middle-class family. Our aggregated religious beliefs are not strong enough to make it a factor in school choice.

Despite all this, I do feel that it’s still dubious to send your child to an independent school instead of fighting for understanding and better provision within the state sector. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but often (again, in my limited experience) sending a child to an independent specialist provider is seen as a ‘solution’ to the problem rather than the beginning of a campaign.

I have to say that I have more sympathy for this argument. But I still think it’s problematic to argue that fixing the problem for your children is anything other than, at the end of the day, a selfish decision.

4. The rich get richer

To his credit, Nick points out in his post that there’s a clear link between independent schools and the most powerful, privileged and wealthy individuals in our society:

Despite this, all the differences seem inconsequential in light of what many see as the burning issue with the ‘independent sector’ – the dominance privately educated students have on British ‘Public’ life which recent government reports and speeches confirm. The phrase ‘morally indefensible’ was used to describe this influence and the waste of talent within the country and this was picked up fairly quickly by those who buy into the ‘stereotype’ of what an independent school is.

Nick’s conclusion is that this link obscures the ‘real’ issue which is the unequal distribution of wealth within our society. This, somehow (he seems to claim) means that this unequal distribution is the root of the problem.

To be honest, I don’t really understand Nick’s argument here. I absolutely agree with his central premise that we need a more equal distribution of wealth but his acknowledgement that independent schools specifically militate against this seems not to tally?

One last rejoinder to this point. Nick claims throughout the state/independent dichotomy is problematic and that this lacks nuance. I’d agree with this to the extent. We’ve internalised the logic of the market to such an extent that we find it difficult to criticise those who choose to pay for their education. Somehow, access to money is seen to be ‘earned’ within our society – no matter how this has come about.

5. Intentions last forever?

When I studied for my MA in Modern History at Durham University my dissertation title was ‘Educational ideas in mid to late Victorian England: their origin and application’. In the course of my research I found out that, surprisingly, when state schools were introduced in 1870 attendance attracted a fee.

Previous to the 1870 Education Act the only education provision was through Dame schools or those set up by men of privilege. Nick’s argument is that because these schools were set up by individuals of (perceived) high moral fibre that this somehow gives them a perpetual raison d’être.

I’d argue otherwise.

Not only that, I’d argue that such a position is hypocritical. Many, if not most, independent schools have charitable status – at the same time as charging £30,000 per year for tuition. This makes a mockery of charities who do valuable work and actually need the tax breaks and other perks that charitable status provides.

Conclusion

I like Nick. I respect his position. I’ve tried very hard in this post to examine the arguments he put forward in his post – arguments that others have also presented to me over the years. I hope I’ve gone some way to responding to these and why I feel they’re not strong defences for the continued existence of independent schools.

And for those who say that things aren’t like to change anytime soon, I present you Evidence A: the introduction of Academies over the last few years: state-funded and under direct ministerial control. I’m against those as well (and have worked in one!)

It’s not likely given that most ministers themselves attended independent schools, but an Act of Parliament could oblige all parents to send their offspring  to state-funded schools. Of course, at the same time I’d like to see the abolition of grammar schools, faith school, selective schools, and any type of system in education that allows for walled gardens.

What I’ve proposed may be utopian. It may have you quoting lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine at me. But I refuse, whilst I still have breath in my body, my own children, and a strong interest in education, to believe that de facto situations can’t be changed.

(and I hope I haven’t upset Nick!)

Image CC BY recursion_see_recursion

Lesson plans, social bookmarking and the purpose of education: a response to the latest Hack Education podcast

Hack Education

I was fortunate enough to meet the amazing Audrey Watters and Steve Hargadon when I was over in San Francisco earlier this year. The authenticity of the ‘Irish’ pub in which we met was questionable, but their commitment to furthering education certainly isn’t!

Steve and Audrey have a weekly podcast in which they reflect on Audrey’s (prolific) written output over the past seven days. Today I listened to the one embedded at the bottom of this post (also here). They’re both so insightful that I wanted to be part of the conversation. The only way I can do so at the moment is by adding my thoughts here.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Lesson plans

Steve brought up the point that companies build business models around the idea that teachers want to share lesson plans. He questioned whether that’s actually true.

Not in my opinion.

In my experience, the needs of classroom teachers (which used to include me) are on a spectrum related to interest. So, for example, I’d spend hours researching and creating resources around 1066 and the Norman Conquest. I love that period of History.

On the other hand, I tried to get the Agricultural Revolution out of the way as soon as possible, and used resources in my lessons almost entirely created by other people.

And that’s the difference: if you’re a motivated teacher, you don’t want prescriptive lesson plans for stuff that excites you. Of course, if you’re an ineffective, demotivated teacher, you’ll grab as many lesson plans as you can.

Lesson plans are different to learning resources. I used to have a huge collection of both physical and digital resources, neatly categorised, upon which I could draw. Very motivated and effective teachers within the UK History teaching community would share these – but do different things with them.

Sharing lesson plans as a business model misses the point, I think. Learning, as both Audrey and Steve pointed out, is about relationships not content-delivery.

Social bookmarking

One of the tangential conversations Steve and Audrey had was around social bookmarking. Steve ‘confessed’ to not really using social bookmarking services such as delicious or diigo any more.

I’m glad it’s not just me.

Since delicious has changed hands from Yahoo! to some randoms, I haven’t even got the bookmarklet or Firefox extension installed. I re-find things either through a search engine, my Thought Shrapnel tumblr or Evernote. As Steve mentioned, the personal (primary) benefit is more important than the (secondary) social benefit in this regard.

What I did find interesting is that Audrey uses Pinboard which positions itself as ‘social bookmarking for introverts’. I’ve got a (paid) account there, so I may give that another try.

The purpose of education

Time and time again, Audrey came back to the purpose of education. It’s not about content delivery. It’s not about power. It’s not about money.

This is something that’s obviously close to my heart.

I really enjoyed listening in to Steve and Audrey’s conversation and shall do so regularly. I just hope that as the podcast develops they summarise the stories before analysing them. What’s huge in the US (for example) is sometimes barely reported over here in the UK. I had to read between the lines of the Penn State controversy, for example.

But that’s a minor, nitpicking point. Listen to the podcast. It’s awesome.

Some clarification of my position on private schools.

After mentioning in today’s newsletter that I was getting more militant in my opposition to private schools, I received some pushback and a request for me to explain my position.

the same horizon

I don’t like people paying for their children’s education.

I don’t like people having to pay for their own education.

I don’t like school league tables leading to ‘parental choice’.

I don’t like education being used as a ‘political football’.

I don’t like people moving houses to get their children into ‘good’ schools.

I don’t like selective schools, such as grammar schools, that ‘cream off’ the ‘best’ students.

I don’t like faith schools, especially when it leads to parental hypocrisy.


I do like people sending their children to the local comprehensive.

I do believe in a broad education.

I do like schools at the centre of communities.

I do like people getting involved in the education of not just their own children, but that of other people’s.

I do like the state paying for education to whatever level you want to aim for.

I do like people refusing to compromise on their educational values when it comes to their own children.

I do like people walking the walk.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Norma Desmond

Some thoughts on the Department for Education’s consultation on ‘Parental Internet Controls’.

The Department for Education's consultation on 'Parental Internet Controls'

If you’re in England and a parent, guardian and/or educator you should be responding to the Department for Education’s consultation on Parental Internet Controls.

The assumptions behind it are quite staggering.

It would appear that the government believes that the best way of ‘protecting’ young people is to shield them from ever accessing ‘inappropriate’ material online.

This is wrong for several reasons:

  1. Despite your best efforts, all young people will at some point come across inappropriate things online
  2. Any tool you use to block inappropriate sites will be a fairly blunt instrument leading to false positives
  3. Blocking tools tend to lead to a false sense of security by parents, guardians and educators
  4. Who decides what’s ‘inappropriate’?

The best filter resides in the head, not in a router or office of an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

I don’t want my internet connection to be filtered in ‘the best interests of my children’. I don’t want to be subject to censorship.

I’ve responded to the consultation. I’ve pointed out that their questions are sometimes unfairly worded. For example, I want to respond for one particular question that I don’t think ‘automatic’ parental controls should be in place in any households.

It’s about education, not censorship. Make sure you respond to the consultation, please!

Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

Gnome heads

Back when I was a lowly trainee teacher I engaged in a debate with someone high up in the local authority after a training session. They were arguing that ‘skills’ are all we need to teach young people. I argued (as a History teacher) that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, however, I realise that we were both wrong.

This post by Oliver Quinlan about A.C. Grayling’s presentation at the recent Education Festival got me thinking. Especially this bit:

What we should be looking for is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of understanding. Many schools recognise that theory of knowledge and learning about learning are supportive of the rest of the curriculum. Grayling feels that this should be at the centre of the curriculum, not as an added extra.

And then yesterday, Tim Riches tweeted me the link to this post, pointing out how scary it is that the government are preventing people from talking about ‘skills’ in a curriculum review:

Among the wilder, though double-sourced by me, rumours I’ve heard about the curriculum review were that the word “skills” was banned from any documents by ministers, simply because they wanted to emphasise “knowledge”. While I am not going to get into the knowledge versus skills debate here, suffice it to say that most university prospectuses stress the importance of both.

But then I realised. What we should be developing in young people are capacities. Skills and knowledge flow from these.

It’s what employers look for when hiring people. It’s why we have phrases like “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” We recognise that certain people have greater capacities in certain areas than others.

I look forward to seeing an education system that promotes capacities.

(oh, and when we get there, we should award badges) 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA amy_b

Purpos/ed: #500words Take 2

Purpos/ed #500words Take 2

We had a great response to our second call for 500-word contributions to the Purpos/ed campaign. The aim was to get people to reflect on what they believe to be the purpose(s) of education within a constrained word limit.

You can find all of the contributions at http://bit.ly/purposedu500 or by scrolling through the 500 words category on the Purpos/ed website. 🙁

Changing thinking vs. Changing systems.

I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the moment. It’s a bit of a classic, so I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it.

Last night, I came across the following passage. It must be quite famous as I’ve stumbled across it before:

But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

This made me think about Purpos/ed. Andy and I are often asked when we’re going to produce a manifesto, or what the ‘next level’ is. Well, that’s the kind of thinking that got us here in the first place.

Pirsig reminds us that even things that seem purely physical (such as steel) are nevertheless human constructs. Despite seeming permanent and ‘natural’ steel is not a substance that exists in nature. It’s the product of human imagination.

Likewise, there is no ‘state of nature’ for education systems. No natural way that we should organise learning.

We’d do well to remember that sometimes.

This is why teachers leave teaching.

Exit

On Thursday, Mark Clarkson wrote a blog post that started off like this:

I seriously considered leaving education today. And if I had a viable exit strategy I might have taken it further.

Note the end of that sentence: a young, talented teacher with so much to offer the world feels like he has no ‘viable exit strategy’. There are thousands of teachers up and down the country feeling the same thing.

I should know. A few years ago I was one of them.

You should go and read Mark’s post. If you’re currently a classroom teacher you’ll be nodding your head at the bullet point after bullet point of bureaucratic, administrative nonsense he (and most other teachers) put up with. And if you’re not a teacher, you’ll be shocked.

On top of the ridiculous workload teachers like Mark experience each year, he notes that the benefits aren’t exactly stellar:

At the same time I am told that I will have to work for another 36 years. That I will receive less pension than I was promised… That tests are too easy. That my subject is not good enough. That I need to solve gaps in parenting. That I should receive performance related pay. That teachers are paid too much. That public sector workers in the north are paid too much. That teachers ‘cheat’ when the watchmen come. And today I’m told that ‘teachers don’t know what stress is‘.

I’ve been out of the classroom for just over two years now. And already my wife, a Primary school teacher, has to remind me what it’s like. I consider setting off together for work five minutes late a minor inconvenience. But for her, and many teachers, it can make or break their day. I’m fairly sure teachers know what stress is.

Although I would say this, I think we need a review of what we’re doing when it comes to schools. We can’t keep cannibalising the goodwill of people in an underpaid, overworked, increasingly-attacked profession. I think we need a public debate about the purpose(s) of education.

I’ll give the last word to Mark. He echoes something I used to say repeatedly – until I decided enough was enough:

I’m not leaving teaching today, because there are still too many moments that I enjoy.

TEACHING is a great activity. Teaching, at the minute, doesn’t always feel like a great job.

 Image CC BY-NC paulbence

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