Do not Teach Them to Comply

It’s really been fascinating to read the series of discussions surrounding the practice of a Certain London School and it’s forced me to think about my own position on several of the associated arguments – discipline, authority, trad/prog, etc.

I don’t instantly dismiss nor praise the place. I can’t really pass judgement as I haven’t visited and I don’t know what it’s really like there. Many have and many rave about how effective it is. I confess that I’m drawn to the idea of being able to focus on teaching in a quiet, orderly environment where I don’t have to waste any time on dealing with disruption and behaviour. Nevertheless, I feel that something isn’t quite right. I’m reminded of the town of Stepford. If it all seems to work so well, why am I a trifle uneasy?

What comes to mind is that there appears to be a sense of pride in the compliance of the pupils. The teachers’ authority is paramount and total. The problem is this: compliance and submission to authority are not attitudes we should be teaching. I can hear the counter arguments already. ‘How can we teach if the pupils don’t do what they’re asked to do?’ My answer is that the pupils should do what they’re asked to do, not because they’ve been trained in compliance, but because they’ve been trained in courtesy and good judgement. That may not be as straightforward as drilling to conform, but it’s a lot, lot safer.

One of the most important lessons I teach in the school year is the one that tells the pupils that they should not do what an adult tells them to do.* That’s the one in which they learn to recognise that adults do not have absolute authority over them and that they have a right to say ‘no’ if what they are being asked to do is wrong. Famously, the pupils of the school in question would pick up someone’s grape off the floor, without argument or complaint. Whilst the total authority of the teachers in this school appears to be underpinned by kindness and concern – a benevolent dictatorship, if you will – administrations and contexts change. Would they comply if it were something considerably less pleasant? If it were someone considerably less pleasant?

I recently responded to a question as to whether I would send my daughter to such a school. The answer was easy. Of everyone I know, my daughter is one of the people least likely to respond to Milgram’s disturbing but important experiment and I’m very proud of that. She’s also one of the first to help someone in need, or to intervene when she sees bullying or injustice. At school she was not compliant for the sake of it, but she was respectful if respect was warranted (invariably to teachers with good subject knowledge, as it happens). I admire her bravery and I wish I could be more like her. We should never forget why Milgram and others set up their investigation in the first place, in response to the events that had happened some 15 years previously. Of all the arguments that were put forward to justify actions during the war, the one of, ‘only following orders’ was considered to be the most lame. It was argued that we know the difference between right and wrong and that we should not do the wrong thing just because we are submitting to authority. Milgram demonstrated that it’s a great deal more easily said than done. If it’s seen as a good thing to train a population to be compliant, then we should ask ourselves the questions, ‘For whom and for what purpose?’ Who gains by this?

Which brings me to the second half of this musing. The pupils in this school do well by the measures we use. Apparently they’re all being trained to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Since I’m a fan of high expectations, why do I feel uneasy about this too? I was trying to think of an analogy for my discomfort with the current atmosphere of social mobility, high attainment, grammar schools, PISA results etc. Although it’s not perfect, I came up with the dieting comparison. If we take weight-loss as the measure (who would argue with that?) then the quickest route is to eat nothing at all. If we take a measure of attainment at a certain point, as one-off tests do, then we also are measuring who gets there by the quickest route and there are winners and losers. My concern is that, as in the dieting analogy,  it might not be the best route. As always, I’m trying to argue that what we measure in attainment is not necessarily the most indicative of a good education. It may be that attainment can be massively improved by doing the wrong things – narrowing the focus and reducing the curriculum, for example. This is why, although I’m very much a ‘traditionalist’ in many ways, I cannot completely embrace the philosophy. The evidence is that traditional teaching methods have more impact on attainment, but I don’t think the argument should therefore be that we do nothing else. There are reasons for doing things in schools, with pupils, that are not about their attainment in the things that we currently measure. For example, projects done by the pupils on areas of their own interest have apparently been shown to have no positive impact. But we don’t currently measure the things that project work is all about. Anecdotally, I would argue that all the projects I did before the age of 12, had a long term effect on how easy I found doing research later in books and online, but I couldn’t prove it!

Many of my discussions recently have been with the ‘losers‘ of the system we’re currently in, and one of my concerns is how partisan that particular school is. They win because others are not as good. I’m interested in education, per se – not just of my pupils, but of other pupils in other schools, not just of the most academically able, not just in this country but everywhere. We have a right, not only to be well-educated, but to have well-educated people around us – in positions of responsibility and leadership, for example! If that is the case, we can’t measure success by those we have fast-tracked to a ‘top’ university, as much as that might be a desirable outcome for some of us. There are other desirable outcomes. I often have to let people know that working for and sitting exams does not have to be done within the time-frame and context of school. It’s great to see the burgeoning of MOOCs and open access education and I imagine a future where technology gives us a truly global and responsive curriculum, accessible to nearly everyone, but even that would only be tiny fraction of the whole education domain. Not attaining a set of acceptable grades in some GCSEs at the end of year 10 becomes less of an issue. Attain it within a different time-frame… or attain something else.

It’s possible to look at many great achievers and see that they were most significantly not compliant or they’d never had done anything remarkable. Rather than teach us to submit to authority in order to avoid punishment and to achieve a reward, a better education teaches us to question authority and to develop an analytical approach towards notions of reward and punishment – but we’d only know that, if we hadn’t been taught to comply.

 

  • Edit for those who really found that bit too cryptic. The lesson in question is on ‘Protective Behaviours’, i.e. protecting oneself from being abused.

 

 

 

It’s 2017 – What on Earth can we do?

Though I felt I would have preferred to be at home drinking cocoa, I played saxophone for a small, local gig on New Year’s Eve. The revelry seemed suitably subdued as the clock struck midnight and the guitarist wished me a ‘Happy New Year’, saying that there was no way 2017 could possibly be worse than 2016. I sadly disagreed and prophesied that we would look back on 2016 as the last year of Recognisable Things before we really began to notice that nothing was ever the same again.

Anyone who has read my blogs before will see that they tend not to be very upbeat, generally. Nobody would describe me as a ‘bubbly’ personality and  I’m generally inspired to write when I have something to critique. As much as I admire spirit-lifting attempts, I perceive them as fundamentally flawed and self-centred in the sense that they seem to ignore reality.

So how do I manage to work with primary school pupils? Basically, I lie by omission. I can not possibly tell them what I believe their future holds and were I to openly discuss with them what’s going on in the world, I would risk censure for ‘extremist views’.

It was in a staff room, over 20 years ago, that I said that I was pretty sure that climate change would be the biggest challenge we would face in the new millennium. The reaction then was along the lines of, ‘Oh, really? Is that because of CFCs and things? I don’t really know much about it. We can’t be doom-mongers. Well I’m not really into the environment and all that – it’s more your sort of thing.’ Over the decades, everything that I said was likely to happen, has happened and sadly, the reaction I get now is pretty much the same, in spite of the global scientific consensus and the general acceptance that it is no longer a conspiracy.

On a day-to-day basis, I engage with the business of ‘business as usual’, and in 2016 I made some efforts to push against what I felt to be detrimental to the education of our pupils. I actively responded to every government consultation and was gratified to give evidence on primary assessment to the Education Select Committee. I try to promote an agenda that a quality education is a global citizen entitlement and is not about toxic notions of ‘attainment’ and ‘social mobility’. I agree that curriculum subjects should be rigorously taught by teachers with excellent subject knowledge and I welcome the increase in attention to evidence over mythology. Perverse incentives aside, I do continue to try to do my best to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding in the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects of our National Curriculum, as though the future will resemble the past. Deep down, I have misgivings; I probably should spend more time teaching them basic survival skills. From how things are currently panning out, the next few decades will be an escalation of the challenges we have faced this year:

It was wrong to make heroes of those who have climbed the greasy pole over their fellows, those who have risen to the top of their chosen career and gained huge amounts of wealth, and those who have dominated nations through displays of power and authority, because their big noise drowned out the voices of reason to which we should have listened and now we have to face the consequences as well as we can. Knowing that we have tipped the climate balance, it’s very difficult to see how things could improve or even stay the same but there is something to do.

If things are going to get a lot trickier, then I see that there is a need to remember that many of us are not psychopaths. We know about co-operation, consideration and compassion and we should exercise these. If we possess the trait of empathy, we know about the suffering of others and we have to be kinder – to humans and non-human animals. If we know the difference, we need to be emphatically better to each other, because there are those who will be emphatically worse. How we treat each other should be a matter of concern – in school, the supermarket, on the road, and in our (t)wittering online which appears often to deteriorate into childish insults and point-scoring. If we have the wit, let us use it to exercise consideration and circumspection in 2017.