Sunday, 17 April 2016

Professional Judgement and Standards in Educational Assessment

Note: This is a slightly adapted version of a lecture given to Adult Literacy Organisers in Galway, Republic of Ireland in April 2013, under the title: Initial Assessment - What Works? The lecture was organised by The Republic of Ireland's National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). A video of part of the lecture is available here.

I’m here to talk about Professional Judgement and Standards in Assessment.  Most of what I want to say doesn’t just apply to initial diagnostic assessment in Adult Literacy work, but to teaching in general, and to many other areas of human activity.  It builds on a paper written for my doctorate (Derrick 2013).

I want to start by giving you all some questions to think about.  How much experience do you have as an adult literacy practitioner – hands up: more than ten years?  Five to ten years? Under five years?  Anyone in their first year?  Can I ask the people with more than ten years’ experience – would you say you are good at Initial Diagnostic Assessment?   What is it that makes someone good at it?  For example, is experience essential?  How important is formal training?  How can you learn to get better at it?  Is there a formula, or a recipe for getting better at it?  Is Initial Diagnostic Assessment a science?  Is there, or could there be, an instruction manual for it?

The answers to these questions are vital for sorting out the role of standards, skills frameworks, levels, etc in the work of adult literacy teaching.

The three main propositions of my talk are these:

  • Expert teaching (and within this, expert assessment) is essentially about the exercise of professional judgement in making decisions
  • Professional judgement can be supported by all sorts of tools, resources, measurements, rubrics, standards, etc, but cannot be replaced by these
  • Learning to become better at teaching and assessment is a process of training professional judgement.

30 years ago, Donald Schön, writing about professional practice in general, said this:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is the swampy lowland where situations are  confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solution.  The difficulty is that problems of high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern. (Schön 1983 (1991), p42)

Schön suggests that professionals need to be able to deal with, not just technical, generic problems for which there is a recognised procedure, a standardised routine, but also other, more complex, essentially unique problems for which there is, and can be, no standard ‘correct’ response, and which are therefore amenable only to judgement calls. 

A practical example of this type of problem might be the question of whether to take a child into local authority care, which has to be considered all too often by social workers.  There can be no absolute instruction manual for making a decision like this, because every situation is uniquely different.   

Standard procedures, checklists, etc are helpful, but in the end a decision like this is not reducible to standard procedures – we can only try to ensure that they are made by people highly motivated to make the best possible decision, and who have as much knowledge as possible of the particular situation – and note that ideally this knowledge is not just technical knowledge of the law, of child and of family psychology, etc, but also personal knowledge of the unique pattern of the individual circumstances of the people involved.

Schön’s work is a sustained argument against the dominance of what he calls the ‘technical-rational’ view of professional practice.

Procedures and rubrics are models or hypotheses which always simplify and ‘clean-up’ the ‘messiness’ of real-life situations.  As Goethe warned:
Hypotheses are scaffoldings erected in front of a building and then dismantled when the work is finished.  They are indispensable for a workman, but you mustn’t mistake the scaffolding for the building.’ (Goethe Posthumous (1998), p154)

The scaffolding is useful, even perhaps essential, but it cannot replace the building which it supports.  This it seems to me, is an accurate metaphor for the role of rubrics, standards, technical terminology, pro-formas, skills frameworks, assessment criteria, grade descriptors, diagnostic assessment tests and procedures, and the like.  They have their uses, but ultimately teachers need to make the decisions, because each situation, each learner, is essentially unique.  This is why we should resist talking about education as if it was like mass-production – it is not about using standardised raw materials to produce identical objects.

Addressing educational problems as if they can be reduced to a technical model of one kind or another ignores the local knowledge, practical wisdom and perhaps the long experience of the professional in making similar decisions.  It also ignores the moral dimension: that the professional is motivated to find the right way forward for the clients and others concerned – by which I mean the best and most just response to the situation, not just a technical solution which ‘will do’.   A hypothetical model cannot be relied on to do this because it is a simplification of the situation, and by definition ignores factors in it which in a particular case may be critical.

The holistic argument I am making here highlights the importance in decision-making of local distinctiveness: a nuanced awareness of what is distinctive in the features of a particular locality or situation.  Schön might put it as appreciation of the distinctiveness of each particular ‘swamp’, so as to make informed decisions about appropriate actions.  This view is a critique of the kind of overly-simplistic ‘technical-rational’ modelling of situations that  makes decision-making (for example about whether to build a new supermarket in a country town) appear to be easier, perhaps to the long-term detriment of the locality and its community.  Sue Clifford and Angela King (2009) argue against the homogenising tendency of technical-rational modelling in all aspects of life, emphasising the importance of detail, particularity, patina, authenticity, fineness of grain, divergence, messiness, and quality in the everyday.  This may be caricatured as a conservative critique of regulation through standardisation, of technocratic policies and procedures: but it is an argument primarily against shoddiness, against work in any field that will merely do, rather than reflecting the best efforts of the practitioner.  Research (eg Black and Wiliam 1998, Hattie 2009) tells us clearly, for example, that teachers’ sense of the particularity of situations is central to their understanding of the specific needs of individual students at a given moment in the learning process: this sensitivity is also undoubtedly a foundation of trust and mutual respect between learner and teacher.  It is clearly possible to teach without this detailed knowledge of students and their situation, and perhaps even to teach ‘adequately’, but professional practitioners are deeply and morally concerned about ‘local distinctiveness’ as part of doing the job as well as possible.  Attempting to encapsulate this sensibility in a rubric will always tend to diminish it: minimum standards tend to produce work that simply satisfies the minimum acceptable level of quality. 

In England, much has been made in recent years about the use by teachers of data in their decision-making: it has been suggested, perhaps with some justice, that they have relied too much on hunches and on their intuition, and not enough on ‘objective’ data about their students’ progress.   There is also evidence that teachers and other professionals have sometimes been discriminatory in their practice (for example, having lower expectations of students from particular backgrounds), and this too has been used to support arguments that their work should be regulated within procedural and externally-imposed quality standards.

In my view this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater: it is to argue that the work of teachers is simple rather than complex; it is to argue for the production of an instruction manual for teaching, one consisting of a highly intricate flow-chart, that would provide teachers, whether qualified or not, with a procedure for correctly addressing every teaching problem, or, in terms of our topic today, for correctly the assessing the skills of every new student.

I think that most people would agree that this is not what teaching is about: they recognise that the work of teachers is essentially complex and cannot be reduced in this way.  On the contrary, teachers should be supported to develop their intuition and their capacity to make good judgements, just as surgeons, doctors and social workers do.  So what is the role of all these frameworks, rubrics, standards, pro-formas, tests, etc? It must be to provide information that teachers can use in their decision-making, and in discussing with students their learning goals, their attainments, feedback on their work, and, most importantly, how they can get better at supporting their own learning – in a word, these tools can be used to support formative approaches to learning, provided the information they provide supports, rather than determines, the authentic judgements and feedback of the teacher.  In this way, tools can also support teachers’ own professional learning.

From this perspective, it is not the tools themselves that are good or bad, it is how the teacher uses them that matters.  It is important, though, that teachers are free to determine for themselves how best to use them.  If they are not free in this way, then a particular technical-rational model is being imposed on them, and this may lead to students being sold short, and also to the deskilling and demotivation of teachers.  The problem for policymakers is that education is full of swampy, messy situations, which by definition are hard to predict, control and regulate.  To make the best of them we need teachers who are confident in weighing up situations, highly effective communicators in terms of knowing the kinds of questions to ask and how to listen, expert at qualitatively judging students’ strengths and weaknesses, and motivated to make the best decisions possible about the right courses of action for the student and for the next stage of teaching and learning.  They are very likely to find supporting technical information useful in making these judgments and decisions, and they should certainly pay attention to such data.

It is difficult for policymakers to regulate teachers without imposing limitations on their professional autonomy which may limit their scope for action, as well as reducing their motivation.  But this difficulty does not justify the misconception of learning as merely a technical issue of standard procedures, and teaching as a simple, technical job involving the obeying of standard rules.

If we had time I would invite you all to consider how best we should organise the training and development of adult literacy teachers in a non-technocratic policy environment.  Instead I’ll leave you with an inspiring story of exemplary professionalism that illustrates many of the issues we have been addressing here: on January 15th 2009, a commercial aircraft with 150 passengers and crew on board took off from La Guardia airport in New York.  The pilot in command was 57-year-old Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot who had been an airline pilot since leaving the United States Air Force in 1980, and who is also a safety expert.  During the plane’s initial climb, it struck a flock of Canada geese. The bird strike, which occurred about three minutes into the flight, resulted in an immediate and complete loss of thrust from both engines. When the crew of the aircraft determined that they would be unable to reliably reach any airfield, they turned southbound and glided over the Hudson, finally ditching the airliner in the river about three minutes after losing power.  All 155 occupants safely evacuated the airliner, which was still virtually intact though partially submerged and slowly sinking, and were quickly rescued by nearby ferries and other watercraft.  The recording of the incident makes it clear that, immediately following the bird strike, it was obvious the plane had to land as soon as possible, and there was intense radio communication from the air traffic controllers, concerning availability of nearby runways, and the distance to each one.  After about a minute of listening to this information, the pilot asked just one question about the possibility of landing at New Jersey but then suddenly seems to make up his mind: ‘We are gonna be in the Hudson.’  He then said nothing more, apart from ‘Brace for impact’, until the plane was down.  In interviews afterwards he said that there were two factors that helped him pull off the manoeuvre safely: that the plane’s design was state of the art, and that he himself was 55 rather than 25.  ‘In a sense my whole career had been training for this event’ (Couric 2009).

This story illustrates how all sorts of tools, procedures and data made important contributions to the successful outcome of this manoeuvre, but these would have been irrelevant without the skills, experience and professional behaviour and attitudes of Captain Sullenberger and his crew.  None of these guaranteed success, because off the technocratic map (ie, when the unexpected happens) success is never guaranteed.  The experienced and motivated professional aims to optimise the chances of success.  Even though teachers rarely deal in life or death decisions like the ones Sullenberger found himself taking, in reality the various parts of their job, including initial assessment, are more often off the technocratic map than on it; and this means that the question ‘What Works?’ is misconceived. 

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998).  ‘Assessment and classroom learning: Principles, policy and practice’. Assessment in Education 5 (1), pp 1-78
Clifford, S. and King, A. (1993: 2009 edition). Losing Your Place, in Local Distinctiveness – Place, Particularity, Identity.  Accessed 05-04-13 at 
Couric K (2009).  Interview with Chesley Sullenberger accessed 05-04-13 at
Derrick, J. (2013). ‘Practitioner learning’, not ‘professional learning’: towards a non-technocratic model of autonomous development for post-compulsory sector teachers.  Research in Post-Compulsory Education. 18 (3) pp269-279
Goethe, J.W. (Posthumous, 1998 edition). Maxims and Reflections, ed P. Hutchinson . London: Penguin
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning. Abingdon: Routledge
Schön, D. (1983, 1991 edition). The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year! And a plug for Eddie Playfair's blog

Very pleased to discover recently that a colleague who has worked for many years in FE in London is also a blogger (much more productive than me!), and seems to have many very similar interests and enthusiasms.  This is Eddie Playfair, whose blog is now listed in the right column of this page.  I have been particularly stimulated recently by his posts on the keyboard and the music and on xenophilia.  The keyboard one follows on nicely from my last post on Thelonius Monk.  Eddie has also posted on William Morris, xenophilia, Hugh MacDiarmid, and George Clinton, just to give a hint at his eclectic range of references - but all are related brilliantly to arguments for more progressive policies and practices in further education, particularly as these affect young people in East London.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Monk's wisdom

Here is a terrific, witty, but also slightly scary image of one of the most creative and innovative musicians of the last century, together with some handwritten advice aimed at musicians he's playing with.  I think some of these guidelines have relevance in much more general contexts too.

For me they have great resonance, as I am a very amateur and inexperienced keyboard player in a rather good pub band, which for me is an intense context of rather feverish learning!  The next step up for me is for a one verse solo in the middle of a standard Bluenote number such as Horace Silver's 'Song for my Father' to become something I can attempt without feeling I am doing a slalom without ski-poles down the steepest run at Val d'Isere.

The assumption in Thelonius's notes that everyone is learning, even if they are good enough to play in his band, and that this is a collaborative process taking place as a result of doing the job itself, is very encouraging for novices like me....

At the last gig I managed to survive at the bottom of two solos, hot, breathless and excited - and as Marcus encouragingly pointed out, that's more than the number of goals scored by Rooney in the World Cup!

Thanks to Perse for these gems, and for his excellent and formative leadership!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Angelus Novus

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History IX, 1940

Benjamin is reported to have owned this little Klee drawing and to have carried it around with him, presumably among the notes for his Arcades project, also carried with him on his ultimately futile flight from the Nazis.  I heard that it had disappeared after his suicide.  Klee actually produced a number of similar drawings.  I was disappointed that none of them are included in the numinous Klee exhibition on at the Tate Modern at the moment.

Teachers and the cult of amateurism: enthusiasm isn’t enough


Would you want your child to be taught by the person appointed to this post?  If not, why not?

The coalition government has removed the basic requirement that teachers should be qualified for many state-funded schools and for all institutional providers in the Further Education sector.  An opposition motion that teachers in state-funded schools and colleges should have to be qualified or working towards qualification, was debated three weeks ago in the Commons, and defeated by about 40.   ‘What next’, asks Mark Steel in the Independent, ’surgeons and submarine commanders?’

 Of course all teachers need training, just as plumbers or brain surgeons do, for the protection of the public if for nothing else.  Teachers are brain surgeons, for goodness sake, the only difference is that, for better or worse, they operate on everyone, not just people who are ill.  To argue against the need for training is to argue for teachers to be cowboy traders, when actually more than ever we need them to be professionals, trusted as a body to set their own entry criteria and standards for working in the field, in the same way that doctors, lawyers, physiotherapists, plumbers, and the police now do.   To argue against the mild and practical motion debated in the Commons three weeks ago is to resurrect the Victorian cult of amateurism, which has many virtues, but which doesn’t cut the mustard in occupations as critical to an advanced 21st century economy and society, as teaching. Competitor economies such as Germany, China and South Korea recognise the importance of nurturing innovation, which requires critical and collaborative thinking, creativity, team-working and research skills as well as knowledge.   The effective development of these capacities depends, for better or worse, on teachers.  
As well as subject knowledge, teachers in any setting need ‘know-how’ about the application of that knowledge, and also ‘practical wisdom’  a term used by Aristotle 2500 years ago to mean expertise in managing the vagaries of human behaviour and motivation for the benefit of the individuals and of the community.   Without ‘practical wisdom’ teachers will be less able or interested in inspiring and motivating learners, or encouraging and supporting them through difficulties: they will miss insights and unexpected ‘teaching moments’ that bring about learning breakthroughs, because they won’t be looking for them.  Their emphasis and focus will be on the content rather than the process and purposes of learning, on the subject rather than on the learner, on the shortterm, narrowly defined outcome rather than on learning for the future. 

Good teaching is not just a matter of knowing stuff, and then following a checklist of simple rules.  What works in one situation may well not work in another, because one group of learners is not the same as another group.  OFSTED regularly amends its list of quality criteria, and no doubt it will do so again, because they are trying to pin down something which cannot be pinned down.  Teachers so glibly described as ‘brilliant’ by one politician after another, cannot be certain they will do well on the day they are observed by inspectors, because teachers are like navigators – however good their subject knowledge, they can and do find themselves steering a leaky boat through a storm.    Teaching is an inherently complex business, requiring not just expert subject knowledge and technical knowledge about pedagogical practices, but knowledge of the world of work and of people, empathy, superb communication skills, and an unpredictable range of different kinds of knowhow.

As Aristotle recognised, it is also an essentially ethical business, aiming to support good outcomes for learners, communities, and society as a whole.  Its practitioners need the capacity to make judgement calls as they work, which bring into play each teacher’s individual dispositions and character, as well as their previous experience, and of course, their knowledge and skills.  This is because a key part of the teacher’s task is not just to know about, but to model appropriate roles: as an adult, as a citizen, as a more experienced practitioner.  Initial training helps start and focus the process by which teachers develop these capacities, skills and dispositions.

In further education there have always been teachers who started work unqualified, coming into FE as experts in various vocational or creative industries.  Most of them appreciate that training has helped them to present their experience and knowledge of practice and of the world of work more effectively than enthusiasm on its own could do.   Teaching is a very serious business: the days when it could be left to amateurs, however enthusiastic and well-meaning, are long gone.

Photo: Hubble
Toni Fazaeli from the Institute for Learning has made similar arguments in a recent Guardian blog-post, whose title echoes mine: Bring back FE teacher qualifications: learners deserve more than pot luck.  Her article responds to another by Ian Pryce, Principal of Bedford College, who argues the opposite.  I think he's wrong: his college's students, like those of many other colleges over many years, have benefitted from the freedom they have had to use vocational and industrial experts who have not been trained as teachers, and there is no suggestion that this should change, though it is being suggested that these people should be supported to develop their teaching skills. 
What is really needed for the post-compulsory, lifelong, or further education sector, whatever you want to call it, is a discussion about what professional development all teachers need at all stages in their careers, and what infrastructure is needed to support it properly.  Ian Pryce admits that even good teachers can improve.  He denies that there is any danger of employers exploiting learners using government funds, and suggests that quality assurance can be left to OFSTED: 'Many people fear that if qualifications are optional then colleges will simply replace qualified staff with unskilled, lower-cost people. But colleges deliver state-funded education and are accountable to the government and Ofsted.'  The trouble with this is firstly that the advert at the top of this post demonstrates that it is likely that some employers in the newly deregulated sector will all too readily take the chance to draw down government funds to pay for second rate educational opportunities for students who can't afford to go to the high quality college in their town; and secondly, that relying on OFSTED for quality assurance is no more than shutting the door after the horse has bolted.  They can close down a low quality provider, but not before hundreds or perhaps thousands of students have been sold short, not to mention the tax-payer.
Ian Pryce also suggests that the present teaching qualification is a one-size fits all model: this is absolutely not the case, or at least, it doesn't need to be.  The programme I work on serves the enormously complex and diverse post-compulsory sector in London - it couldn't do this effectively if it consisted of one size fits all.  The issue isn't how the training is organised, at what point in the teacher's career it takes place, or the content of it: all those things can and should be updated continuously to reflect the needs of the local and regional sector, local and regional employers, and its students.  His argument brings us back to Mark Steel's question: if teachers don't need training, what about plumbers, police officers (who as a matter of fact have a new Police College), and paediatric nurses?  Where does this argument end?  What next, volunteer teachers?  There are already an alarming number of internships being used to provide teachers in classrooms, in front of real students.  This seems to me an inevitable consequence of deregulation.  Professional standards aren't just about knowledge, but about behaving as a professional and a responsible person, as I argue above.
It is absolutely essential that we have a professional teaching and support staff workforce so that public funds are spent as productively as possible.  All the international evidence supports the view that high educational attainment at a national level is associated with highly-trained teachers who enjoy high status culturally and in their communities.  



Saturday, 9 November 2013

Ken Bodden, an inspirational life

A wonderful guy I got to know over the past three years, as a conga player and singer with King Toadfish, who died two weeks ago.  I keep discovering more things about his extraordinary life.  He was born in Panama, half Irish-Jamaican and half Honduran, became almost blind in early childhood, was fostered for a part of his childhood in Manchester, a piano tuner, pub musician and songwriter, crosscountry skier and para-Olympian, Manchester United supporter, communal housemate, community and political activist, inveterate maker and keeper of friends.  So many people were at his funeral yesterday (in spite of appalling rain) that about 50 couldn’t get into the crematorium.  Wonderful explicitly atheist event with South African songs, Irish ballads, Bob Marley songs, and very moving tributes.  
This is an obituary written by his anti-apartheid comrades:

This is a youtube of Kenny playing at a party in his house in Hackney:

(l to r) Bob Peachey, Pete Lamont, Kenny, Tsafi Ledermann and Percy Aggett, playing at a King Toadfish street party gig, Harberton Road London  N19 in summer 2012

'Kenny, it always looked as if we were leading you, when in fact it was you leading us' (John Maloney, tribute at the funeral)


Sunday, 15 September 2013


‘Man makes plans,’ goes the Yiddish proverb, ‘and God laughs.’

‘To draw up in advance an exact and detailed plan is to deprive our mind of the pleasures of the encounter and the novelty that comes from executing he work.  It is to make the execution insipid for us and consequently impossible in works that depend on enthusiasm and imagination.  Such a plan is itself a half-work.  It must be left imperfect if we want to please ourselves.  We must say it cannot be finished.  In fact it must not be, for a very good reason: it is impossible.  We can, however, draw up such plans for works whose execution and accomplishment are a mechanical thing, a thing that depends above all on the hand.  This is suitable and even useful for painters, for sculptors.  Their senses, with each stroke of the brush or chisel, will find this novelty that did not exist for heir minds.  Forms and colours which the imagination cannot represent to us as perfectly as the eye can, will offer the artist a horde of these encounters which are indispensable to giving genius pleasure in work. But the orator, the poet, nd the philosopher will not find he same encouragement in writing down what they have already thought.  Everything is one for them.  Because the words they use have beauty only for the mind and, having been spoken in their head in the same way they are written on the page, the mind no longer has anything to discover in what it wants to say.  A plan however is necessary, but a plan that is vague, that has not been pinned down.  We must above all have a notion of the beginning, the end, and the middle of our work.  That is to say, we must choose its pitch and range, its pauses, and its objectives.  The first word must give the colour, the beginning determines the tone; the middle rules the measure, the time, the space, the proportions.’  (Joseph Joubert, 1798, The Notebooks)
‘The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane.  In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.  The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it.  Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.  Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.  The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas.’ (Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, 1925-26: Chinese Curios)

I'm not sure I agree wholly with Joubert that the work of poets, orators and philosophers is qualitatively different to that of painters or sculptors, so that the role of planning is different.  From a craft perspective, all planning is to some degree provisional, hence the truth of his aphorism: 'A plan is however necessary, but a plan that is vague, that has not been pinned down.'  Joubert's view is that 'sticking to the plan' reduces the possibility of surprise and pleasure in the work, but Benjamin says something stronger: that over-reliance on planning results in the shutting off of possibilities, the denial of perspectives.  Over-dependence on planning suits those who want to avoid surprises, who wish to control, and those who are afraid of freedom.  In some sad cases it is all of these things.
Perhaps also relevant here is Andrew Lang's remark, which was actually about statistics rather than planning: 'He uses planning as a drunk man uses lamp-posts: for support rather than illumination'. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Django Bates, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker

This is another post inspired by a concert of music, and coincidentally is about another great band-leader, following on from my post on Jerry Dammers eighteen months ago.  Last night I went to see Django Bates, who was playing at the proms - I'm obviously out of date as I still find it slightly surprising to hear that they have jazz as part of the proms, but Django actually first played there more than twenty years ago, with his band Loose Tubes.

The music last night was mostly inspired by and as a tribute to Charlie Parker, though Django also played his own composition called A Study of Touch.  Nearly all his band were Swedish - a superb rhythm section, a guitarist whose main role was to provide texture and subtle special effects, and a 13-piece brass band consisting of trumpets, trombones, clarinet, saxes and a tuba.  Django plays piano and often conducts at the same time.  The pieces were at times lyrical, at other times noisy and energetic - lots of complicated rhythm changes, and continual development and change, but often a sense of return to a simple pair of chords - perhaps echoing Charlie Parker's way of playing a basic tune, then going way off piste, before returning to the initial tune.  The music reflected more of Parker's fast, tight style, than of the slow, reflective numbers like Embraceable You.  I thought the band was astonishingly tight!

Django told a story about Stravinsky going to see Charlie Parker play in a New York club in 1951.  Parker recognised him, and quoted from the Firebird Suite in his solo, at which Stravinsky banged his drink down on the table with satisfaction.  It is only superficially strange that these two should appreciate each other's music - two of the most innovative composers in the world at the time.  As Django said, Stravinsky would have appreciated the proliferation of As, B flats, Bs, Cs, C sharps, Ds, E flats, Es, Fs, F sharps, Gs, and G sharps!

The Danish drummer also had a message for the audience: there are more people alive today than have been alive at any time in the world's history.  This means that if everyone alive today wanted to perform Hamlet, there wouldn't be enough skulls to go round.....

It was a wonderful evening, and the result of pure serendipity: I'd heard of him, but had never seen him before, didn't really know what he looked like, but I did know that he lived somewhere near me.  Two days before the gig, I passed a bunch of guys loading a car.  One of them pointed to my T shirt and said 'Montreal Jazz Festival - were you there?'  When I said I was, he said they were too, they performed there this summer.  So we got talking and I realised who he was, and then he told me about the gig at the Royal Albert Hall.  And as it's the end of the summer, and we are all feeling relaxed enough to go for a good thing when it presents itself, we went.  As Sartre says: 'We only have this life'.....I hope I bump into him again to say thankyou in person!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Walter Benjamin - the work of learning: writing and thinking as collecting

'Benjamin, always working, always trying to work more, speculated a good deal on the writer's daily existence.  One Way Street has several sections which offer recipes for work: the best conditions, timing, utensils.  Part of the impetus for the large correspondence he conducted was to chronicle, report on, confirm the existence of work.  His instincts as a collector served him well.  Learning was a form of collecting, as in the quotations and excerpts from daily reading which Benjamin accumulated in notebooks that he carried everywhere and from which he would read aloud to friends.  Thinking was also  form of collecting, at least in its preliminary stages.  He conscientiously logged stray ideas: developed mini-esays in letters to friends; rewrote plans for future projects; noted his dreams (several are recounted in One Way Street); kept numbered lists of all the books he read.' (Susan Sontag: Introduction to One Way Street and Other Writings, Walter Benjamin, London: New Left Books, 1979)

I once wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin.   I argued that his charcteristic style of writing, collecting wreathes of aphoristic, tentative and often gnomic paragraphs which delineate his themes as it were from the outside, indirectly, rather than presenting them descriptively and directly, could be compared to a gestural, bodily style of communication as opposed to the more direct and familiar use of spoken language. He believed that copying a text was the best way to understand it, as a landscape is best understood by walking through it rather than by flying over it. 'All the decisive blows are struck left-handed'. Benjamin's work first suggested to me an idea which has come to seem more and more important in my work as a teacher: that writing (or drawing, composing music - the making of any cultural artefact, or as Raymond Williams and Stephen Yeo would say, cultural production) - is a mode of thinking and therefore of learning.  But should 'copying' be seen as production in its own right, or merely a stage or tool of the production process?  Ultimately there is no difference - copying is always a process of re-creating, re-contextualising.  My smallest utterance, in whatever form, is both completely original and a 'copy' of other people's work, made new by the act of my uttering it, and the context in which I am uttering it.  All work consists both of archeology and craft, and as well as existing for itself, it also exists to be recycled



Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The true size of Africa

This is mind boggling - Africa is actually bigger in area than China, USA, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, PNG, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, UK, Nepal, Bangladesh and Greece combined!
Also a great example of the power of visual/graphic data display.
More info and an enlarged version of the image above at:
Thanks to Izzy for this.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Scepticism: it's a tough job, but someone has to do it

'Scepticism does not suit everybody.  It supposes a profound and careful examination.  He who doubts because he is not acquainted with the grounds of credibility is no better than an ignoramus.  The true sceptic has counted and weighed his reasons.  But it is no easy matter to weigh arguments.  Which of us knows their value with any exactness?  Out of a hundred proofs of the same truth, each one will have its partisans.  Every mind has its own telescope.  An objection which is invisible to you is a colossus to my eyes, and you find an argument trivial that to me is crushing in its efficacy.  If we dispute about their intrinsic value, how shall we agree upon their relative?  Tell me how many moral proofs are needed to balance a metaphysical conclusion?  Are my spectacles at fault, or yours?  If, then, it is so difficult to weigh reasons, and if there are no questions which have not two sides, and nearly always in equal measure, how come we to cut knots with such rapidity?  How do we come by this convinced and dogmatic air?  Have we not a hundred times experienced how revolting is dogmatic presumption? "I have been brought to detest probabilities", says the author of the Essays [Montaigne], "when they are foisted on me as infallible; I love words which soften and moderate the temerity of our propositions - peradventure, in no wise, some people say, methinks, and the like; and if I had to teach children I should train them to answer in this hesitating and undecided manner: 'What does that mean? I do not understand; maybe; is it true?' that they would have the appearance of apprentices at sixty years of age, rather than of doctors at ten, as at present.'  Denis Diderot, Philosophic Thoughts XXIV, 1747, translated Jourdain.

Diderot was so modern.   Compare this with, for example, Nietzsche: 'All seeing is perspective, and so is all knowing', virtually identical with 'Every mind has its own telescope'.  Of course I am even more pleased to see him quote Montaigne, and I am resolved to use the words peradventure and methinks whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I am reading a collection of Denis's early works, and expect there may be more quotations from it here before long....

Friday, 31 August 2012

Amnesty for international students at London Met: Petition

Sign this e-petition to support an amnesty for international students enrolled at London Met, who unless they find another course within 60 days, face deportation.

Without warning these students have been told that they are unable to continue at London Metropolitan University, due to management failings in complying with the Government's 'Points Based Immigration System'.

The petition simply calls for an amnesty so that they may complete their studies. The reasoning is that the priorities of the government "taskforce" announced today should aim to put right the problems at LMU, not merely seek to move students around the UK as a consequence of the decision to withdraw the University's sponsorship status.

If there are management failings for which London Met is responsible, it seems wholly counter to elementary natural justice to deport some 2,700 international students - which is the inevitable result if they are unable to find (or accept) university places elsewhere in the UK.
Please sign the petition here, and forward to colleagues:

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Outernet

No comment needed:  I feel it could probably be extended with a bit of thought....

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Benjamin and Dali in Catalunya

One of the things I most wanted to do when I visited Catalunya for the first time in 1989, was to go to the town where Walter Benjamin died and is buried.  In the event on that occasion I wasn’t able to, but what did happen is that my personal interest in his life and work was put into strong relief by a visit to another Catalan shrine, a place I didn’t even know about before I went.  This was the Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres.

At the prospect of visiting this item, one friend, who had OD’d on Dali while working in the Tate Gallery giftshop during the big Dali exhibition in 1980, was interested but critical: ‘All tits and bums’, was her succinct summing up.  I remembered weird landscapes and melting clocks.  I recollected his moustache, his reputation for publicity stunts, and that he had died about two years before.  I had the idea that he could still be seen embalmed and lying in state, and this added a frisson of ghoulishness to the attraction of going to Figueres.   I said to myself that I didn’t really like Dali, but we were only staying 30 kilometres away.   And, after all, he was a surrealist: hadn’t Benjamin written an important essay on Surrealism?   The visit to Dali’s museum would also be a kind of homage to Benjamin.  So we went….

The Museum building, though bizarrely decorated, merges structurally with the surrounding buildings right in the centre of Figueres.  The entrance is down a narrow street which opens into a tiled Plaça surrounded by the Museum, a Library of Surrealism, and the tables and chairs of a bar.  In front of the main entrance is a huge decorated tree stump, which with an egg shape for a head, looks like a seated person, head in hands.  Bit and pieces of plaster and sculpture are stuck into the niches of the stump, which is closely hugged by railings.  Also in the courtyard are two columns of tractor tyres, each with statues of enthroned kings on top, about thirty feet high or more.  There is also a totem pole of TV sets, covered in plaster that looks like petrified semolina.  The building itself is Theatre Del Arte-style, like a paper cut-out model, but full size.  Golden science-fiction figures with raised hands and no features are arranged around the parapet.  There are decorative eggs everywhere you look.  A huge bearded head in a glass case has a TV in its forehead and dolls eyes for eyeballs.  Its case is dotted with eggs stuck to the walls and floor.

Inside the building is a small courtyard surrounded by four floors of enclosed galleries and show rooms.  These contain pieces of Dali’s collection, much by himself.  One floor contains dozens of paintings of human shapes discovered in piles of stones.  A life-size statue of a naked woman, painted to look real and with no pubic hair, is in a glass case brightly illuminated with neon lights.  A nude human shape is painted on polystyrene boards, with a shell placed at the crotch.  One doorway is a brightly-rouged mouth, festooned with corn-cobs.  In the courtyard is a black Cadillac our of a Bogart movie, with three figures inside and a lot of ivy growing around them.  There is also a column with a real fishing boat on the top, painted yellow and white, from which blue globules are suspended as if falling.  All around the fourth gallery level, visible from the courtyard, are yellow reliefs of washbasins.

At the back of the courtyard on a sort of enclosed stage, serenaded by a white plaster orchestra with real instruments, is an amazing 20 foot-high portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  From close up his face consists of a nude woman and a series of square blocks of colour.  From afar it’s an uncanny portrait of the man.  You can’t stand far enough back in the room to be able to appreciate this, and I can only tell you about it because I happened to catch sight of a postcard of the picture in the gift-shop window, from the other side of the Plaça.

There were hundreds of people, and the galleries narrow and no complete circles, so that you have to keep retracing your steps, squeezing past those behind you going forward.

 This building and its decorations and artefacts are Dali’s tombstone, and his 1000 decibel-epitaph.  He is buried beneath it.  (I was mistaken about him lying in state, though I feel it would be perfectly consistent with everything else here.)  It represents homage to Dali from himself.  The public are amused and bemused bystanders, in fact voyeurs, in the great show Dali is giving to himself.  His throwing together of images and textures is done with dazzling technique and pazazz.  He made a stupendous effort to achieve immortality, amazingly consistent throughout his career, by apotheosising the effort itself.  His life’s work has no purpose but itself, and its meaninglessness follows from this concentration on effort – meaning diverts attention from the star of the show.
What would Walter Benjamin have made of it?  His great essay on Surrealism, published in 1929, makes no mention of Dali.  Benjamin’s interest was in the extent to which Surrealism was revolutionary and subversive by making revelation which could be utilised in political ways.  To me Dali’s effort seems to have been to domesticate and channel the dangerous energies unleashed by Surrealism.  His Museum provokes at best a kind of urbane amusement: it does not shock or disturb, and few of the images and objects provoke thought, as opposed to bewilderment or sniggers.  There is nothing here remotely as shocking as Bunuel’s image of the razor slicing through an eye in Le Chien Andalou, and nothing half as powerful as an insight, or with as much metaphorical content.  Dali’s stuff is not particularly funny either.  One gazes, impressed by the undoubted energy and technique, but there is no answer to the question implied by this: what is it all for?  It is possible that people looking for significance and meaning will be assured that it is there, even if they cannot detect it, just because of the impenetrability of the images.  But this impenetrability is the adman’s illusion of a world of surfaces and appearance.  There is nothing to penetrate, no underlying significance or point to uncover, not even a joke to get.  Significance can be attached to meaninglessness in an alienated world, but Dali in no way represents pressure for change.  He was a public supporter of Franco, who won the Spanish Civil War with the support of the Nazis, and who suppressed Dali’s own Catalan language.

Walter Benjamin died and is buried at Port Bou, on the French Catalan border, about 35 kilometres from Figueres.  He was fleeing from the Nazis, and, held up by the Spanish authorities after an asthmatic climb to the border, he committed suicide, in September 1940.  His life’s work, a collection of essays and notes for unfinished projects on a huge range of cultural activity, have nonetheless a consistency, which is his struggle to articulate the real complexity of the relation between history, culture, politics and human experience.  His memorial is a gravestone overlooking the sea at Port Bou.  His legacy is a provisional whisper of wisdom, in contrast to the shouting fairground medicine show of Dali.

I didn’t get to visit Walter Benjamin’s grave on that trip.  My friends dropped me at Girona on their way to the beach, from where I planned to take the train the relatively short distance to Port Bou, but found after they had left that there was a train strike that day.  Somehow, after I got over my disappointment, it seemed appropriate.  Benjamin lives on in his ideas, not lying in state.  Nevertheless, I said to myself, I will go there one day.

Benjamin, W. (1929, 1979 edition) Surrealism.  In One Way Street and Other Writings. London: New Left Books