Friday, 16 December 2011

Professionalism as profound involvement with material rather than detachment

The Cygnus Loop Supernova Remnant

I just read the latest post on Solid Gold Creativity, entitled Possibility 3, which includes a story about a singer who, in order to achieve a great interpretation of a Schubert song, discovered - with help from a coach - that he needed to 'stop taking himself so Goddam seriously'. He needed to lose himself in the material, to give himself up to it, to submit to its demands. This language is not too strong: on the contrary, it is precise. The craftworker aims for a moment to become one with his/her material. This is exactly what I mean in my analysis of craft when I argue that the craftworker's identity is completely bound up with their work, and that consequently their work truly and uniquely reflects the person they are. We talk of a singer 'interpreting' the song, with the connotation that every interpretation is unique (for better or worse!). But even to say this plays down the active role of the material in shaping the identity of the craftworker too - every piece of work they produce changes them, makes them the person they are, becomes part of their lived experience and their identity.

In the same way, we can say that teachers are formed by their students, provided they allow themselves to be so formed, provided they don't take themselves too seriously.

Monday, 12 December 2011

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry

The wonderful Spitalfields Life blog does it again! I know of this poem, written around 1760 by Christopher Smart, but I had no idea that he probably wrote it while confined inside the St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, where he was first described as 'curable' and later as 'incurable'. This institution, according to 'the gentle author' of the blog, stood where the CoOp and Argos are today, on Old St.

The post tells the sad story of Smart's life, and publishes the whole heart-warming poem.  The gentle author wonders whether Smart, known to many as 'Kit', might have seen an image of himself in Jeoffry which may have helped him rise above the 'tyranny of his circumstances'.  Certainly we can all relate immediately to the poem.  The blog post is at:

Paul Bommer, a friend of 'the gentle author' of Spitalfields Life, has produced a beautiful and witty poster, parts of which are shown here, illustrating every line of the poem (see  If anyone very generous wants to give me the perfect Christmas present, this is it!

Note that Bommer has put the cat into a frame alongside a bust of Montaigne (the main inspiration for Optimistic but Sceptical).  This is a coincidence, but absolutely appropriate, for one of Montaigne's most famous quotations is:  'When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.'   He was clearly also a close observer of cats, and would I'm sure have been very amused by Smart's poem.  There's an interesting book to be written on humanists and cats: or perhaps a bigger one on the different animal companions preferred by different kinds of philosopher.  Did Diderot have a cat?  We know Nietzsche was moved, possibly to madness, by the sight of a horse being whipped.  Did Kant take a dog with him when he went on his walks in Konigsberg at exactly the same time every day?

Any more information on this vital question will be very gratefully received, and published here.  In the meantime, look up Spitalfields Life, read For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry, and glow inside....while shedding a sad tear for Kit Smart.


Saturday, 3 December 2011

Justice for celebrities!

An Australian colleague told me yesterday that when arriving for a tour of Australia years ago, Frank Sinatra was rude and contemptuous to an immigration official. When it came to leaving at the end of his tour, the highly unionised Australian immigration staff refused to process his passport, causing him to be delayed for days. Finally, according to my friend, he had to be flown out of the country in a military plane, from a military airport. If any of the highly unionised production staff at the BBC consider themselves to be public sector workers, perhaps they might consider boycotting any future programmes involving Jeremy Clarkson, thus keeping him off the airways altogether, for the benefit of everyone, and in the interests of popular justice. Just a thought.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Metaphors for our time

In my last speculation I drew attention to William Morris being memorably compared to a bell that rang true however you struck him.  The immediacy and physicality of this metaphor, carrying with it suggestions of sound (the double meaning here is pure poetry) as well as of touch, got me thinking about the possibility of more contemporary comparisons.  After all, few people nowadays actually engage in striking bells, and fewer and fewer even hear real bells very often.  So how might Morris's character have been described so succinctly using a modern metaphor?

'His customer service was always of the highest quality'
'Whatever the problem, his code was bug free'
'You never got to the end of his game'
'There were never any leaves on his railway'

I'm afraid this could easily become the sort of parlour game that Victor Meldrew would spend his life playing - I always have to control my VM tendencies, but I mean it seriously: are these solid, real life, physical metaphors thinner on the ground in the digital age?  Or am I just stuck in an unimaginative time warp?

The value of quotations

This post comes from thoughts while ironing a shirt this morning and listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4.  A wonderful epitaph tribute was quoted about Sir Robert Shirley, who died in 1656: 'Sir Robert Shirley built this church, whose singular Praise is this: to have done the best of things in the worst of times'. This is indeed a heart-warming tribute - Shirley's times were undoubtedly hard for everyone in the country, whatever their circumstances, during the years of the civil war, but this expression somehow transcends the horrors even of that period, and ends up being about Shirley as just another man - one of us indeed - and so somehow also manages to inspire any of us also to rise above the challenges of the times we live in. This chain of thought led me to one about a similar quotation that has stayed with me ever since I read it in Edward Thompson's biography of Morris (these sentiments tend inevitably to be expressed following the death of the individual concerned). This was said by Robert Blatchford in the Clarion, the high-circulation socialist newspaper in his obituary of Morris written in 1896: 'However you struck him, he rang true'.

As any reader of this blog will know, I like quotations, and in a rather unsystematic way, collect them. I think this is for a number of reasons: a good quotation encapsulates in a memorable and concise way an important thought, so it can be a useful practical tool for thinking; and paying attention to quotations embodies the idea that the thoughts of people in the past are potentially relevant to contemporary living, and so imply the unity across time of humanity - we are no different from our forebears, and our most important problems and challenges were theirs also. They are tools for reflection, and so potentially of great value to anyone with a professional or indeed craft attitude to their activities.

Suggestions for more inspirational quotations welcome.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Grayson Perry exhibition: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Notes taken during my visit to the exhibition: names of pieces, and direct quotations from GP, are in italics

Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience of the world

Ceramic works that appear to be metallic, or made of wood

Examples of one culture's early and uninformed view of people from another culture: eg white settlers by native Americans

The Rosetta vase

Hold your beliefs lightly

Quote from Beuys: In places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of 'enchanter' to appear

Like a world war 2 mine washed up on the beach encrusted with the boiled down essence of empire in the form of tourist tat

The map of truths and beliefs

Maps of imaginary lands: perhaps someone today should devise a satnav app for moral guidance

An accompanying display of badges excavated in Bosch's home town showed that much of the surreal iconography in his paintings derived from the popular imagery of the day

Grumpy old god: Alan Measles is unimpressed with the 21st century. He sees the facebook generation distracted by their smartphones and obsessed with celebrity. The multimedia collage of modern life makes it hard for an upcoming god to establish himself without a web presence

Gateway guardian figures, often scary


Herms were also sited outside houses for good luck where the genitalia would be anointed or rubbed by passers by

Wear, damage, dirt, repair, corrosion and decay are a large part of the language of authenticity

Billy and Charlies: I love fakes for they make us think about what it is we see in the authentic

Roman cameo fragments

Ralph Simpson and Ralph Toft earthenware plates, late 1600s: graphic boldness and relaxed fluency.

Craftsmanship is often equated with precision, but I think there is more to it. I feel it is more important to have a long and sympathetic hands-on relationship with materials. A relaxed, humble, ever-curious love of stuff is central to my idea of being an celebrating craftsmanship I also celebrate artists, well most of them.

Model boat with skeletons, Mexico, 1980s

The tomb of the unknown craftsman: it takes the form of an iron ship sailing into the afterlife. In the central reliquary is an example of the original tool which begat all tools, a flint hand axe 250000 years old.

Added much later: here's a link to the notes from my second visit to this exhibition:

Monday, 28 November 2011

Stanislav Lem

Stanislav Lem has recently been memorialised interestingly by Google, as hinted at in a post from last week. The Google interactive animation did indeed display many of the traits of Lem's writing: whimsicality, humour, machines with human characteristics, rather flat human characters, exactitude in matters of science and scientific procedures. I've not heard any account of why Google chose to highlight Lem in this way - I quite like the idea that he tends to be a secret enthusiasm - certainly I've not met anyone else determined to read everything he wrote.  I've tried to get hold of all his stories over the years since I came across him after seeing the stunning Tarkovsky film version of Lem's novella Solaris as a student in the early 70s, but it's hard to be sure what his total output has been - he has certainly been prolific. I've done quite well, but every time I'm in a second hand bookshop I'm half hoping I might find another collection, or another short novel.

A repeated theme of Lem's, one he returned to over and over again, is the idea of non-human entities behaving like humans, or acquiring the characteristics of humans, for better, or more often, for worse.  In Lem it is often the humans who are dangerous to non-humans, rather than the other way around.  There is the short story about a mining robot on the moon which fails to report back after a mission.  The human cosmonauts track it, finding it smashed at the bottom of a sheer cliff, and gradually realise that it decided on a whim to go for a climb.  Chris's wife's alter ego in Solaris is in the process of becoming more and more identical to her, and implicitly begs the question: from a moral point of view, shouldn't she be treated like a human, like his wife, even if she clearly is not?  What is the difference between a creation of the planet Solaris and Dolly the sheep?  Neither have been 'born' in the normal sense, but both demand recognition based on how they appear to be, and on how they behave, rather than their origin.

These stories might be termed 'hard science ficition', but Lem also writes in a genre which harks back to Swift and Voltaire: I'm not sure if there is a special academic term for this genre, but I think of them as satirical parables, often featuring a rogue celebrity scientist and space traveller called Ion Tichy.  His adventures often start as conventional science fiction but plunge into surreal comic episodes poking fun at scientific conferences and demonstrating the enormous collective self-centredness and lack of imagination of earthlings.  Another series of such pieces takes the form of spoof reviews of fictional scientific and literary works, including some apparently written by Lem himself. 

My favourites include Solaris, the most memorable moral and philosophical work of science fiction I know, and The Invincible, the depressing and at times terrifying record, expressed in an admirably downbeat 'ship's log' style, of a futile encounter on a distant planet between visiting humans more or less of our time and a type of entity that once again defies categorisation, this time as either animal or mineral.  Whatever the answer to this conundrum, they are potentially lethal, and impossible to negotiate with.  The humans eventually work out the genesis of these 'creatures', which is impeccably plausible in scientific terms, if not how to deal with them.  After episodes of extraordinary mutual violence, there is a stand off, and the humans leave, realising that there is absolutely no point in staying: this is one planet they will not be able to colonise, though their 'enemy' can hardly be said to be even aware of their existence.  Lem seems to be once again expressing a message about the limits of human experience and the dangers of hubris: we are partially familar with the natural world on this planet and think we understand it, though how much is debatable.  But 'the natural world' extends in reality to other worlds too, where it certainly expresses itself in ways beyond our ken - this should be a matter for awe and humility, he seems to be saying.  We should be more aware of our cosmic insignificance and the accidental and serendipitous nature of our very existence.

Stanislav Lem 1921-2006 b.Lvov, Poland (now Ukraine) 
'The world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created ... intentionally'.   An Interview with Stanislaw Lem by Peter Engel. Missouri Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1984

Upmarket binge drinking

From the same issue of Prospect:

Lord Byron writes to Thomas Moore from Piccadilly, 31st October 1815:

Yesterday I dined out with a largeish party, where were Sheridan and Colman, Harry Harris and his brother, Sir Gilbert Heathcote, Kinnaird and others, of note and notoriety.  Like other parties of the kind, it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk.  When we reached the last step of this glorious ladder, it was difficult to get down again without stumbling; and to crown all, Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a damned corkscrew staircase, which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves.  We deposited him safe at his home, where his man, evidently used to the business, waited to receive him in the hall.

Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, makes it clear how much drinking was endemic to the culture of the ruling political classes in the early nineteenth century, and particularly the Whigs, of which Sheridan was a leading member.  Is it still true today, I wonder?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Binge drinking, a great British tradition

A brilliant 18th century primary historical document collected by Prospect magazine:

Thomas Turner, a grocer in Sussex, writes in his diary, 22nd February 1758:

'About four pm I walked down to Whyly. We played at Bragg the first part of the even. After ten we went to supper on four boiled chicken, four boiled ducks, minced veal, sausages, cold roast goose, chicken pasty and ham. Our company, Mr and Mrs Porter, Mr and Mrs Coates, Mrs Atkins, Mrs Hicks, Mr Piper and wife, Joseph Fuller and wife, Tho Fuller and wife, Dame Durrant, myself and wife and Mr French's family. After supper our behaviour was far from that of serious harmless mirth; it was downright obstreperous, mixed with a great deal of folly and stupidity. Our diversion was dancing, or jumping about, without a violin or any music, singing of foolish healths, and drinking all the time as fast as it could well be poured down; and the parson of the parish was one of the mized multitude....About three o'clock, finding myself to have as much liquor as would do me good, I slept away unobserved, leaving my wife to make my excuse...

This morning about six just as my wife was got to bed, we was awaked by Mrs Porter. My wife found Mr Porter (the parson), Mr Fuller and his wife, with a lighted candle, and part of a bottle of wine and a glass. The next thing was to have me downstairs, which being apprised of, I fastened my door. Upstairs they came and threatened to break it open, so I ordered my boys to open it, when they poured into my room. Their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed, as the common phrase is, topsy-turvy. Instead of my upper clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife's petticoat; and in this manner they made me dance, without shoes or stockings, until they had emptied the bottle of wine and also a bottle of beer.'

This is the kind of material that should be used much more in history lessons.

More historical documents of excess in the pipeline, suggestions welcome.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Lemistry from Google: a mysterious tribute

On the google front page a strange animation incorporating mini-games has appeared. Check it out. I won't say any more right now, you need to see it for yourself. but here are some pictures:

More on this in the next day or two.  Thanks to Julia Jeanes for pointing this out!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Aiming for perfect truth and authenticity

Apparently, when asked why he didn't paint representational pictures, Jackson Pollock replied  'Because we have machines to do that'.

Robert Hughes asserted that it is impossible to make a forgery of Pollock's work - I think this is making a  similar point from the other direction. True authenticity cannot be forged, though it is also, of course, impossible to achieve perfectly....

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Creativity and leadership: Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra

I went to see this wonderful band last week.  It was an absolutely brilliant concert: surprising, stimulating, awe-inspiring, tender, funny, and above all musical: it made me think again about tunes I thought I knew, and introduced me to wonderful songs new to me (in particular Blue Pepper by Duke Ellington, and I'll wait for you by Sun Ra).  The band consists of...wait for it....27 musicians (or thereabouts - there were also a number of mannequins positioned in and around the band, some of them apparently playing instruments, which made counting people difficult!): 9 brass and woodwind, 5 strings, 3 guitars, 2 keyboards, 4 drums, percussion and vibes, and 4 singers.  The music was eclectic (an overused word I know but absolutely precise in this case), encompassing Captain Beefheart, 'Library Music' (not sure what this is), Ellington, Coltrane, a reworked and even more doom-laden Ghost Town by the original Specials, cheerful ska classics, Edgar Broughton, Johnny Clarke, Dvorak, In the Bleak Midwinter, and especially the music of Sun Ra, pioneer and promoter of black consciousness and interplanetary travel, spiritual mentor and forerunner of George Clinton and Funkadelic.  Spatial AKA, like the Sun Ra orchestra, were kitted out in glittery and vaguely Egyptian robes, hairpieces, sunglasses and/or masks, arrived on stage piecemeal from amongst the audience, while making a collective sound like a gathering storm of didgeridoos (one instrument unaccountably absent from the proceedings).  They played continuously for three hours, and then for another half an hour out in the lobby as everyone was leaving!

Visually, the movements of the band members and their costumes were augmented by a strange set involving already mentioned mannequins, three of which were painted silver and suspended above the band as if flying, along with what I gradually realised was a small lunar module about to crash to earth.  Behind the band was a continuously changing and layered projection of slides, videos, and psychedelic lightshow, the like of which I haven't seen for years: it took me happily back to New Riders of the Purple Sage at Surrey University in about 1972!  But this backdrop wasn't just for decoration, it imparted a powerful cultural and political flavour to the music, so that even though there were almost no overt political statements or references during the set, the whole experiene was flavoured with a clear enough set of political messages and affiliations.

There were so many terrific musical and visual moments: Alcyona Mick playing whirlwind piano solos while apparently motionless, a kettle drum solo involving continuous de-tuning and retuning of the drums during the solo, wonderful ensemble arrangements and solos amongst the brass, woodwind and strings sections, complex textures added by percussion and vibes, and poetry and scat singing as well as a joyous impersonation of the late great Captain Beefheart by Edgar Broughton, himself something of a legend in his own lunchtime for those of us of a certain age, singing Frownland from Trout Mask Replica.  Johnny Clarke, the great Jamaican reggae singer, came on like a cheerful psychedelic Santa Claus, all in yellow and with locks reaching down to his calves!  For me the single best moment was Francine Luce singing Sun Ra's I'll wait for you, in memory of her father.  The band's website has a few short clips of music, and there are more on Youtube, but don't let anything stop you from seeing them live if you can.

Why am I writing about the Spatial AKA Orchestra here, in a blog focussed mainly on education?  Well, the sheer size of the band got me thinking about the kind of organisation needed to put a concert like this together, and this led on to a perennial topic of thought and conversation with me: the qualities needed by the people who run such enterprises.  I'd love to talk to Jerry Dammers about this: his must be an incredibly complex and difficult job.  He is thought of as a song-writer and arranger, but he's obviously much more than that.  The economics of big bands can't be easy: many, if not all, of the individual members of the Spatial AKA are absolutely at the top of the tree in their various specialisms, and they all need to make a living.  I read somewhere that Miles Davis's legendary Birth of the Cool septet only existed long enough to make a  single record, and didn't play any gigs, because even with only seven they couldn't earn enough in New York in the late 40s.  Ellington and Basie managed it somehow, but for them it may have been easier because popular musical taste demanded large dance bands, at least during some periods; that is hardly the situation in 2011.  Captain Beefheart's uncompromising vision led him, allegedly, to shut his band up for a year to practice, hardly feeding them anything, let alone paying them, until they were note-perfect on Trout Mask Replica.   The band-leader's job, apart from choosing and arranging songs (for 27 parts!), includes all the organisational issues of publicity and marketing, negotiating and agreeing contracts with concert halls and promoters, travel and accommodation (for 27!), and then, most interestingly of all, the people-management issues within the band itself.  There must be so many potential headaches among such a large group of creative people!  Is Jerry an Arsene Wenger, an Alex Ferguson, or an ashen-faced Ron Knee?  His musical arrangements depend for their success on the skills of all the individuals playing them: suppose some of them aren't so enthusiastic about them?  This is analogous to footballers having to play within the tactical system designed by their manager: we know all too well how easily confidence of the manager in the player's capability, or of the player in the manager's system, can be broken down - similar issues must arise in big bands too.

All of this points to the fact that an enterprise like the Spatial AKA Orchestra is no trivial project, and this makes me marvel all the more at last week's gig: it was a triumph not just of musical creation and re-creation, but of leadership and organisation too.  Each depends on the other.  Thanks to everyone involved!

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Beyond comment or analysis, you might think, but apparently not: these beautiful dances are produced by very simple rules observed by each starling once it is in flocking mode, identical to fish in a shoal, about following while keeping their distance from, the bird to the left: the variations and turns are produced by the birds on the outside of the murmuration, veering after insects, perhaps, or to evade a predatory hawk.

The music is a little annoying though....

Bad Science, Leonardo, and professional learning

Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, is taking a holiday to write a book!  Not Science Fiction, surely, Ben?  I'm sure it will be worth waiting for, but how the hell will we manage in the meantime without you looking after things in the Truth Dept?

Your sign-off column this weekend is a beautifully succinct series of nuggets of wisdom - the most important one in my view being:

'everyone needs to understand how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us. The basics of evidence-based medicine, of trials, meta-analyses, cohort studies and the like should be taught in schools and waiting rooms.'

I fear this is not what Michael Gove has in mind for the central element of the English Bac....

Also this weekend I listened on the radio to a heart surgeon reminding us that while no one is perfect (so things may go wrong for even the most skilled and experienced practitioners of any craft or occupation), it is still true that when working in highly complex situations which in a real sense are unique every time, then more experienced practitioners, assuming they are working with the best available knowledge, are a better bet than relative novices, however brilliant those novices may be.  He was talking in the context of a discussion about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, and suggested that surgeons are researching and learning their craft every time they perform their work, just like Leonardo, who never stopped enquiring into nature, never stopped making descriptive notes and drawings, writing down thoughts and hypotheses, and then testing his new ideas to see what would happen; though with him it was in dozens of different disciplines. This is a perfect description of professional learning: practice on its own doesn't produce learning - it needs to be accompanied by reflection, and probably discussion with colleagues (something Leonardo may not have much opportunity for), but also crucially it needs to be made explicit in the form perhaps of writing, or of drawings, so that it can be returned to, re-evaluated, and repeatedly tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.  If it survives this examination, then it might be reliable enough to be incorporated into future practice.

There's also a mouth-watering review in today's paper of a book on this topic by Daniel Kahneman, called 'Thinking, fast and slow', enquiring into the processes by which people make decisions, how learning contributes to these processes, and how and why even experts make unaccountable mistakes.  I hope it's out in paperback soon.  Meanwhile here's the link for a terrific TED talk by Kahneman on why we should stop using the word happiness!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

We are shadows....

Sundial in Fournier St, London E1, UK.  From the wonderful blog Spitalfields Life (see right).  Its latest post is as good a way in as any to understanding what's happening at St Paul's, and has some terrific pictures.  More on this to come....

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Professional learning by deliberately cultivating the unexpected

“He that confines himself to one book at a time, may be amused, but is no student.  In order to study, I must sit in some measure in the middle of a library.”

William Godwin, The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, Vol 81, 1818

I take this to suggest that 'students' need to do more than focus on and work directly at the subject of their studies; they must enrich this direct approach with other ideas, stimuli, experiences, so as to allow and encourage surprises, unexpected insights; in short, serendipity.  This might be boringly described as 'reading around your subject', but I think Godwin means something much more than that: something more like Rimbaud's 'systematic derangement of the senses', so as to try to be jolted out of one's preconceptions. 

I am pleased with this idea, as it aligns well with something I wrote recently about the messiness of real teaching and learning (Derrick 2010):

In the dominant model of public sector professionalism today, accidents are seen as prima facie evidence of failure: if unexpected events do occur, it must be due to inadequate preparation or human error. This view of practice assumes that in principle the job and skills of a teacher, social worker, parent, etc, can be defined in detail, without ambiguity, and therefore codified precisely. Regulation and quality assurance of these roles, it follows, is a straightforward process of checking that there is no variation from the code. The training of such professionals is also seen as straightforward, based on a well-defined, unproblematic body of knowledge and an accompanying skill-set that hardly changes over time. This positivist view of practice derives from a positivist view of learning, in some versions almost identical to behaviourism, in which the individual learner is seen as a passive recipient of pre-defined knowledge and skills, which are acquired usually through processes of memorisation and repetitive practice....

There is little room in the positivist view of practice for the idea of teaching as an art, or as a craft, something honed and fashioned over time in the context of a ‘community of practice’, and which takes for granted that changing circumstances and new learners will produce new problems for the teacher, who therefore needs the capacity to respond to new and unexpected situations.  Recent research shows clearly that teachers need to be ready at times to abandon their detailed plans and ‘go with the teachable moment’, not just as a response to difficult situations, but as an optimal strategy when things are anyway going well. Nor can the positivist view encompass the idea of the learning process as active, combining research, creation and re-creation by groups as well as by individuals, with a range of possible outcomes and wider benefits at the level of the individual learner, the group, the community and society in general . It does emphasise the role of the learner in choosing programmes of learning to enrol on, just as a shopper chooses products from the shelves of a supermarket, but this can only be equated with active learning from a reductionist, behaviourist viewpoint....[This] echoes Donald Schön’s famous distinction between different types of professional problem:
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)
This view suggests that a crudely positivist philosophy and policy of learning, teaching, and teacher development, whatever its intentions, will be damaging both to society and to individuals. In particular, it will lead to deskilling: it nurtures in professionals a passive, bureaucratic and parochial version of their work, which over time leads to diminishing interest in, curiosity about, and capacity to deal with unexpected situations, or even to imagine crisis scenarios so as to prepare for them. Specifically it leads to diminution in preparedness and of the capacity to make judgements about the best course of action in the difficult, complex situations to be found in classrooms everywhere.
Richard Sennett (1970) argues that everyone needs to experience living and coping with the uncertain and the unfamiliar, of managing and dealing with life in complex and unpredictable situations without being in control of them, in order to reach full psychological maturity. If state-supported education seeks to eliminate the uncertain, the debatable, the unexpected, he suggests that it is condemning people to a kind of passive and frustrating adolescence, whatever their biological age.
Avoiding these problems, and harvesting the full potential of learners and teachers to enrich their practice for the economic, social and cultural benefit of society in general, will mean taking a quite different approach to learning in general, and following its implications through in terms of curriculum, the organisation, funding and accountability systems for state-supported learning, and of course to the formation and ongoing development of teachers.

Derrick J (2010) The messiness of real teaching and learning, in Derrick J, Howard U, Field J, Lavender P, Meyer S, von Rein EN, and Schuller T (eds, 2010) Remaking Adult Learning: Essays on adult education in honour of Alan Tuckett.  London: Institute of Education
Schön D (1983) The reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Maurice Temple Smith
Sennett R (1970 - 2008 edition) The uses of disorder – personal identity and city life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Monday, 17 October 2011

Does investing in computers produce better test scores?

Well, no, probably: see

Larry Cuban's piece is brilliant on the way blind prejudice often determines policy, rather than good research.  But who wants better test scores anyway?  Do better test scores mean better learning and better educated students?

Well, not necessarily.  Standardised testing is a good way to evaluate the outcomes of a process intended to produce millions of identical items to the same objectively measurable quality standards, as efficiently as possible.  It's good for mass production processes, for making knives and forks, for example, or cars, or washing machines.  But citizens?

Education processes produces voters, citizens, members of communities and families, workers, and this is one factory where we don't want identical products.  In fact, we probably don't want a factory at all: see Ken Robinson's brilliant animated lecture at  So why do policymakers persist in applying mass production methods, such as standardised testing, payment by results, league tables, and command and control inspection systems, to learning?

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Spectator on Blogging (1711)

A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single Pieces.  We do not expect to meet with any thing in a bulky Volume till after some heavy Preamble...This gave Occasion to the famous Greek Proverb....That a great Book is a great Evil.

On the contrary, those who publish their Thoughts in distinct Sheets, and as it were by Piece-meal, have none of these Advantages.  We must immediately fall into our Subject, and treat every part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid: our Matter must lie close together, and either be wholly new in itself, or in the Turn it receives from our Expressions.  At the same is expected that every Sheet should be a kind of Treatise, and make out in Thought what it wants in Bulk: that a point of Humour should be worked up in all its Parts; and a Subject touched upon in its most essential Articles, without the Repetitions, Tautologies, and Enlargements that are indulged to longer Labours. An Essay Writer must practise in the Chymical Method, and give the Virtue of a full Draught in a few Drops. Were all books reduced thus to make their Quintessence, many a bulky Author would make his Appearance in a Penny Paper....The Works of an Age would be contained on a few Shelves; not to mention Millions of Volumes that would be utterly annihilated. (Addison, No 124, full text at

Blogs in history

One of the main spurs to me to get this blog going has been The Spectator, published in London every couple of days during the period 1709-15 that enjoyed enormous circulation for its time, and was highly influential in developing ideas about behaviour and social mores in the public sphere, traces of which can still be observed today.  The authors achieved this by being highly idiosyncratic, gently mocking of fashion and fads, and of easily identifiable social types, slightly cynical and ironical but wearing their liberal values on their sleeves. The word 'lucubration' in the my Blog's strapline comes from the Spectator: it means 'laborious and intensive study' - of course used ironically in the original, as well as by me!  What Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the main authors, were doing, though they didn't know it, was blogging....I am slowly reading the complete lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaffe, the Spectator himself, in the Everyman Edition, which fills four volumes, so it will keep me going a good while!

While on this subject I will provide a quote from the said Bickerstaffe's ruminations, of relevance to educationists. After complaining about the widespread use of beating by school teachers, he goes on: 'Tis pity, but we had a Set of Men, polite in their Behaviour and Method of teaching, who should be put into a Condition of being above flattering or fearing the Parents of those they instruct.  We might then possibly see Learning become a Pleasure, and Children delighting themselves in that, which now they abhor for coming upon such hard Terms to them: What would be still a greater Happiness arising from the Care of such Instructors, would be, that we should have no more Pedants, nor any bred to Learning who had not Genius for it.'

It occurs to me that Montaigne's essays (1588), one of the few books known to have been in Shakespeare's library, are also very like a blog.

Other examples of historical blogs will be referenced here when I come across them: any contributions will be gratefully received

A Devils' Dictionary of Education

One of the projects I will occasionally pursue with this blog is a Devil's Dictionary of Education: an attempt at a series of corrective discussions of words and phrases used commonly in the world of education that need unpacking, either because they are misleading, or have had their meanings forcibly changed by policymakers.  Why Devil's Dictionary - well, because one of my favourite books is Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, compiled about 1890, which is addressed to 'enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour.'  In it, for example, Education is defined as 'that which discloses to the wise and disguises to the foolish their lack of understanding'. 

Having conceived this plan, but before I had done anything about it, I came across John T Spencer's blog Ditch that Word (see address to the right), which has a related, but perhaps more pessimistic purpose: he discusses words and phrases whose meanings have become so corrupted he believes we should stop using them altogether. 

A good example from the world of education in England is perhaps 'satisfactory'.  This word is used as a technical term by OFSTED, the Inspection Agency for schools and colleges, to mean 'unsatisfactory'.  Ambrose would have loved that....

John Spencer gives a long list of words and phrases he plans to discuss.  Here are some of the ones I will try to get round to in the fullness of time:
Intervention, Delivery, Learning Styles, Outcomes, Individual Learning Plans, League tables, Lesson plans, Quality standards, Consistency, Fairness, Differentiation, Well-being, Self-esteem.

New suggestions and any contributions to the dictionary will be very welcome!

Friday, 30 September 2011

Visualising the scale of the Universe

Try this out, a tool developed by Cary Huang to help vosualise the scale of the universe, using an app rather like Prezi - maybe it is Prezi.

I'm trying to think of ways this could be used this in teaching - years ago Alison Tomlin and I modelled the solar system with students standing on a scale of 1m miles to 1 inch: Mercury was a few inches from the sun, someone was a mile away (I guess Neptune) and someone else (Pluto - this was before it was downgraded) was 60 miles away!

This app is awesome in the same way....

Thanks to Dawn at:

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Models for the perfect teacher

According to a YouGov survey of 543 children who were asked to choose their perfect teacher from a list of celebrities and fictional characters, the most popular choices were (drum roll):

Female: 1st JK Rowling, chosen by 40%, 2nd Cheryl Cole, chosen by 25%.
Male: 1st Albus Dumbledore, chosen by 36%, 2nd Jamie Oliver and Yoda, chosen by 26%.

The most popular choices by parents were (muted drum roll):

Female: Carol Vorderman, chosen by 48% of parents in the sample
Male: Stephen Fry, chosen by 40%.

Children thought that a sense of humour and fun as the most important qualities in a teacher.  Interestingly, more than 80% of parents opposed cutting education spending, 71% thought that teachers should have a higher self-image, and 74% thought that teachers should have 'more freedom to teach as they please.'  Only 36% of parents think that teachers' pay and pensions should be subject to cuts.  But 49% of parents, and 19% of schoolchildren, think that corporal punishment should be an option in schools (see the TES, 16th Sept 2011).

Yoda is an interesting choice for perfect teacher to me, not least because I am a bit surprised children today have heard of him - Star Wars was released in 1977!  He does have a very impressive range of teaching techniques, including a tangible aura of wisdom, weird sentence construction, telepathy and telekinesis, all of these shared with Dumbledore, who also has saintliness and magic in his arsenal.  I suppose Cheryl Cole is in the frame because of excellent feedback technique demonstrated on X Factor or Celebrity Come Dancing (or whatever).   And Stephen Fry because he seems to know everything, can talk the hind legs off a horse, but still has a smiley, kindly manner.

Memo to self: note other fictional or celebrity characters that could be role models for teachers, for better or worse.  The only one I can think of at the moment is Dr Cox in Scrubs, wonderful but probably not an ideal role model.  If you know the programme, you'll know what I mean.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Teaching ‘Bad Science’: implications for teacher professionalism

How important is the truth status of what we are teaching? This question was raised for me years ago when I was responsible for a programme of adult education that included a course in Astrology. The issue appeared again during the past year, when as a teacher educator I observed an experienced vocational teacher in Hair and Beauty Therapy, who was teaching a session on Hot Stone Massage Therapy to 16-19 year old students at a London Sixth Form college, as part of an NVQ level 3 qualification. Among the materials she gave to the students was a hand-out from the official curriculum document validated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority containing information the students are required to learn about the maintenance of massage stones. According to this document, students have to learn how to use:
appropriate methods to re-energise the types of stones (sun, moon, the elements, natural sea salt, sage, energy, mandalas, labradorite) (ITEC 2010 p3, appendix 9)

The ideas that stones can become ‘de-energised’, and must then be ‘re-energised’ by such methods as ‘burying them in the earth in your garden overnight’, ‘leaving them out in moonlight overnight’, or ‘covering them with sea-salt’ are completely non-scientific, and yet are here presented as core curriculum knowledge within a context of vocational training overseen by a national occupational body, and funded and quality-assured by government agencies.

At the time I was very disturbed to find myself playing an indirect role in validating and in effect giving authority to this type of false knowledge. An equivalent in a geography curriculum would be to teach that the earth is flat. The teacher herself pointed out to the students apparent contradictions between some of the methods listed as being appropriate for ‘re-energising’ the stones, such as ‘leaving the stones out in the moonlight overnight’ and ‘burying them in the garden overnight’.

As my role was to support the teacher in relation to the generic teacher training curriculum, I had no direct professional responsibility to raise issues concerning the content of the subject curriculum.

But there are still very important implications here for professionalism in general within the post-compulsory sector. One of the effects of the technocratic approach to standardizing quality assurance and funding arrangements within the sector is that the content of the curriculum is implicitly assumed to be completely unproblematic: these arrangements embody a view of teacher professionalism in which raising questions about the curriculum is not seen as something that teachers would need or want to do (this applies to students too for that matter). Once a teacher’s institution has taken the decision to offer a particular subject, the view is that a professional teacher will teach it according to the standards and content laid down by the relevant occupational body, which itself is validated and recognized by the relevant government agencies. Their professionalism is not understood to stretch so far as to raise questions about the validity of the curriculum itself; and still less would this be appropriate for a generic teacher educator like myself.

In this view of professionalism, therefore, I am expected to see no difficulties in supporting a teacher to teach what most people would consider to be ‘false knowledge’ to young people. The only way I can see the students rationalizing this situation is that their future clients are assumed to be willing to pay for services based on and justified by this false knowledge, and, in the interests of improving their employment prospects, going along with and spreading this false knowledge is justified.

In this view of professionalism, the truth status or otherwise of the content of vocational courses is not seen to be an important issue, as long as it has commercial credibility. Personally, I find this view morally, politically and professionally unpalatable. A society in which teachers are not supposed to be concerned with teaching truths as opposed to falsehoods is one in my view which has become almost entirely relativist, one in which knowledge is defined by those who can pay. This is a society in which teacher professionalism is more or less equivalent to brand loyalty.

The moral dilemma created by these materials for teachers concerned about truth rather than the commercial nexus reflects wider changes in British society during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and specifically the significant incursion of private and commercial interests into the sphere of public education during this period.  This has had two effects which contribute to the creation of the teachers’ dilemma: firstly, it has tended to blur the differences between the private and public sphere – because of the extent to which educational services and functions have been ‘contracted out’ to private companies, including the writing of curriculum content and standards, as well as the increasing tendency for the main provider institutions of education to be ‘incorporated’ as independent organisations expected to operate as businesses within a competitive commercial environment. Secondly, this blurring effect also has implications for authority: in a commercial world, commercial interests are paramount: there are no independent and impartial sources of information which can be trusted to provide the best (ie truest, most impartial and objective) information available.
What implications does this problem raise for the concept of ‘professionalism’ in relation to teachers in this situation? For example, how does this situation fit within Whitty’s typology of professionalisms?  His is a somewhat positivist model, in that there is a strong sense that the dominant concept of professionalism is evolving over time and gradually getting ‘better’. He prefers ‘collaborative’ to ‘traditional’ professionalism, though he is rather vague about what would mean in practice:

It potentially offers teachers new professional opportunities to support ….learning by achieving a balance between defining the teacher’s proper role and staking out the territory too rigidly. Identifying the contribution of teachers’ specific expertise remains important, but this will need to be deployed and disseminated differently in collaborative contexts (Whitty 2008, 43).

He also seems to favour ‘democratic’ over ‘collaborative’ professionalism, but this too seems to involve little more than sensitivity ‘to a wide range of stakeholders, some of whom have traditionally been silent’ (Whitty 2008, 44).

Whitty’s discussion implicitly assumes that knowledge itself is unproblematic: he therefore seems to imply that epistemology is irrelevant to a discussion of professionalism.  His endorsement of what I see as ‘New Labour’ professionalisms ignores the spread of cultural, political and factual relativism which undermines moral authority and allows the increasing dominance of consumerism in society as a whole.
The problem here (and there may well be other examples) lies in the perceived need for an officially defined curriculum in each publicly-funded course; this is exacerbated by the complete institutional separation and division of labour between teachers and those bodies now responsible for ‘defining’ the curriculum, in this case QCA and the ‘industry body’, ie ITEC. In my discussion of teaching as craft, I suggest that this separation itself is a source of difficulties and problems: craft practice should be separated as little as possible from teaching, expert craft practitioners attain this status to some extent because they are teachers – teaching is part of their craft practice. The alternative leads, in capitalist society, to mass production, which may be appropriate for many basic and useful items in our lives, but is surely not an appropriate mode for education. We do not want the products of education, that is, learners, to turn out identical in every way! Dickens made this point 150 years ago, interestingly enough about teachers ‘lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs’ (Dickens 1854, in Hard Times).

The Risk Society analysis (Beck 1992) puts a premium on individuals and organisations making decisions for themselves, because the traditional sources of authority and expertise are not reliable. Absolute certainty even about important scientific questions may be impossible to attain, but professionals nevertheless must make decisions on the basis of the best-evidenced knowledge available, and not, at least in my view, on the basis of commercial opportunity. For me the key role of the professional teacher is to make judgements about what learners need to know and how they need to learn that knowledge. In order to maintain this role they need to work to establish trust with their learners, and a reputation based on moral probity and proven expertise. Any organisation they work for also needs to command the same trust and respect. This is difficult if its primary aim is to make profits for shareholders. The key feature of this professionalism, therefore, is ethics.

A further aspect of this issue is that it is possible that teachers would be more likely to aspire to and take on this more complex and demanding professionalism if they saw themselves more as generic teachers than merely as experts in subject knowledge: if this is so, then more emphasis should be laid on the generic aspects of teacher development in policy frameworks for CPD.  A new paradigm for CPD, in other words, would also contribute to the development and maintenance of what we can call an ‘ethical professionalism’.


Friday, 9 September 2011

Teaching doesn't get more productive over time, so it gets to seem more expensive

This point is not often recognised:  it takes just as long to teach a child (or indeed an adult on a vocational training course, for example) today as it did 20 or 200 years ago.  The same is true of caring for the young or the elderly, or providing a meal in a restaurant.  Technology does not in itself make these activities more productive, because in these occupations quality is a more critical issue than quantity, and people haven't become inherently better learners since the 19th century.  (This relates to the points I made in my earlier post on craft, about mass production techniques being inappropriate in education.)  But the point needs stressing because in many other areas of work and production, salaries rise in response to productivity gains.  'Teachers' salaries however, like those of other 'efficiency-resistant' professions, rise in response not to productivity gains in education (which have thus far proven extremely difficult to achieve)' - or indeed to measure accurately - 'but to higher salaries in other sectors.  This means that staff wages consume an ever larger share of the budget, even if education does not improve.  And because the reasons for this are not immediately apparent to the average voter, dissatisfaction with education budgets may also grow.'  There also seems to be an implicit assumption among politicians that introducing new technology inevitably results in increased productivity. A great deal of research says that this is not the case in any clear and straightforward way - and see, for example this post from 'Creative Catalyst': Technology Does Not Make a Classroom Succesful, the Teacher Does.

This rather grim point was made 15 years ago by Paul Pierson, in 'The New Politics of the Welfare State', World Politics, 48.2 (1996): 143-179.

It's important therefore for educationists to question this assumption about increased productivity over time, perhaps by asking how such increases would be recognised, exactly where they might be expected to manifest themselves, and exactly how they could be achieved.  And to get one out of the way straight away, new technology does not straightforwardly enable teachers to teach more students effectively.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Is it true that the digital world values information rather than ideas?

Neal Gabler argues in the New York Times that thinkers and ideas are harder to find in the public sphere than in the past, not because they are not there, but because they are swamped by our hunger ofr information, no matter how trivial.  He suggests that 'we prefer knowing to thinking becaue knowing has more immediate value.  It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends...ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward'.  See

Gabler's careful not to argue that people have got less attentive or more stupid, just that there's a lot more to be distracted by.  I like some of Jaron Lanier's suggestions for using the blogosphere in such a way as to promote ideas rather than distraction:
  • Create a website that expresses something about you that won't fit into a template available to you on a social networking site
  • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection (You are not a gadget, Penguin 2011)
These ideas suggest that the problem is that when technology makes writing and publishing so easy and immediate, there is a danger that we assume it has to be done quickly, ie without reflection, without taking time:  'Never mind the content, feel the speed we got it to you!'   This links nicely to my arguments in earlier posts about the craft attitude, and the importance of time in the development of skills and expertise, and in the development and maturation of ideas too. 

The 'modern' argument against is that the web allows ideas and products to be developed collectively, by groups of people who may not even know each other, and that apart from anything else, innovations produced in this way will have fewer bugs because more people have contributed to their development.  This is the argument made by Eric Raymond more than ten years ago, in his important paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar ( comparing the production processes of the Windows and Linux operating systems.  A key element of the Linux process, according to Raymond, is the regular publication of updated versions of the code, so that innovations in the design are available to be checked: this didn't happen with Windows because, of course, the Windows production process was and is secret, so as to protect Microsoft's profits. In this way, the web's ability to facilitate collective design and production is seen as intrinsically better than traditional, individually driven processes of innovation.

But this argument doesn't address the issue of time and maturation as key elements of quality processes: whether collectively or individually-produced, successful innovations are usually the product of processes that take time.  Lanier fulminates against the so-called 'wisdom of crowds' - a concept which may embody democracy, but doesn't at all guarantee quality or even factual accuracy, though it may guarantee a kind of bland acceptability.  Is this what we want?  Lots of stuff that's 'not bad', or 'will do'?
My view is in sympathy with Gabler's, but I would argue that even if the cultural sphere is dominated by trivialities, there's no reason for ideas not to thrive. There will always be discerning voyagers on the web, looking for material that is different from the noisy stuff that's on all the front pages.  It's up to those who think ideas and arguments are important to get active and contribute, and also to signal themselves clearly, so as to be found more easily by those looking.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Is Britain or the USA in a worse moral state at the moment?;recently_viewed

This gives an interesting perspective on how American more or less progressive opinion thinks about Britain - mediated through Mary Poppins apparently: 'We drop our consonants when we are 'elping 'eo'le' - you'll have to watch it to get this probably. 

But this is a very complete introduction to the key points of the phone hacking scandal.  It only omits one dimension I'm keen on - the link with Boris Johnson - too bad!

Great quote: 'Do you know how hard it is to disgrace a British tabloid?'

Monday, 6 June 2011

Montaigne on Education

'I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise but learned.  And it has succeeded.  It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology.  We know how to decline the Latin word for virtue: we do not know how to love virtue.  Though we do not know what wisdom is in practice or from experience we do know the jargon off by heart.....our education has taught us the definitions, divisions and subdivisions of virtue as though they were the surnames and the branches of a family-tree, without any concern for establishing between us and it any practice of familiarity or personal intimacy.  For our apprenticeship it has not prescribed the books which contain the soundest and truest opinions but those which are written in the best Greek and Latin, and in the midst of words of beauty it has poured into our minds the most worthless judgements of Antiquity.' (On presumption)

These arguments are very similar to those of modern educators and researchers who say that education has become much too focussed on learning that can be measured easily, at the expense of the education for moral and aesthetic judgement and of values: what is good (allegedly), rather than how to try to be good.  Another indication of how close we are to people of past ages - their worries are our worries too.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Tesco town

My response to Neal Lawson's post at

Isn’t Tesco one of best and most successful examples of the logic of capitalism: relentlessly pursuing market dominance – presumably no one in their boardroom could argue against it without appearing to have lost their marbles. TESCO corporate strategy is pursued with the logic of mass production – efficient achievement of measurable goals, elimination of the human and particular in the process of making that strategy, which tends to produce the same effects in the world – the elimination of the human and particular.

I’m not against mass production in principle (at least I don’t think so at the moment) but I suggest we need to ask ourselves the question: which stuff is it Ok to mass produce, and which is it not? Maybe lightbulbs and pants are OK, but presumably no one would argue that our school system should be organised on mass-production principles?

Teacher professionalism and craft: a view from TLRP

A recent publication from TLRP, a Commentary on Professionalism and pedagogy, which I wasn't aware of when I wrote my paper on craft (see post before this), seems to me pretty compatible with it - here is a quote from the introduction:

'In a world-class educational workforce – Finland might be used as an example – teachers are the ones who initiate discussions about pedagogy, and then evaluate and critique the ideas they develop. This ‘pedagogic discourse’ aspires to be explicitly grounded in the scrutiny of ideas, theories, ethical values and empirical evidence. It goes well beyond simplified prescription, for instance of ‘what works', and supersedes reliance on centrally-imposed performance targets. In their place is greater trust in teachers’ capacity for self-improvement as an inherent element of their professional identity. However, this trust has to be earned – hence the focus in this Commentary on the nature of pedagogic expertise....

Teaching is a professional activity underpinned by qualifications, standards and accountabilities. It is characterised by complex specialist knowledge and expertise-in-action. In liberal democratic societies, it also
embodies particular kinds of values, to do with furthering individual and social development, fulfilment and emancipation.

‘Pedagogy’ is the practice of teaching framed and informed by a shared and structured body of knowledge. This knowledge comprises experience, evidence, understanding moral purpose and shared transparent values. It is by virtue of progressively acquiring such knowledge and mastering the expertise – through initial training, continuing development, reflection and classroom inquiry and regulated practice – that teachers are entitled to be treated as professionals. Teachers should be able and willing to scrutinise and evaluate their own and others’ practice in the light of relevant theories, values and evidence. They should be able to make professional judgements which go beyond pragmatic constraints and ideological concerns, and which can be explained and defended.

Furthermore, pedagogy is impoverished if it is disconnected from the capacity and responsibility to engage in curriculum development and to deploy a range of appropriate assessment methodologies....

Pedagogic expertise can be thought of as a combination of science, craft and art; this notion helps us to understand the complementary needs for collectively created knowledge, professional skills and personal capacities. It is also important to remember that all these are grounded in ethical principles and moral commitment – teaching is never simply an instrumental activity, a question just of technique.

One of the challenges for pedagogical discourse is to distinguish between what is known in a scientific sense of being explicit, cumulative and generalisable, and what are the irreducibly intuitive and creative elements of teaching.

It is generally accepted now that good teaching requires strategic decisions informed by evidence. But it also requires a large number of implicit and often instantaneous judgements and decisions. These are responses to the dynamic situation in the classroom, often shaped by the ‘community of practice’ to which the teacher belongs. They are also expressions of each teacher’s individual relationship with his or her pupils: how s/he generates a positive classroom climate or takes advantage of unexpected teaching and learning opportunities. This is the ‘craft’ and the ‘art’ of teaching.

And we all need to acknowledge this paradox of teaching – that the more expert a teacher becomes, the more his/her expertise is manifested in sensitivity to contexts and situations, in imaginative judgements in-the-moment sourced from tacit knowledge. The importance of these forms of expertise is often underestimated. Indeed, they often become so embedded, instinctive and taken-for-granted that they are barely recognised.'

This takes the discussion in my craft paper (earlier post) much further into the nitty gritty of teaching expertise, and while using the new government's language of craft, is also aiming, like me, to prevent a reductive use by politicians of the concept of craft in relation to teaching. I am particularly pleased to see them call for teacher profesionalism that goes beyond the 'what works' idea, which now seems to me to rather facile.  Given that this seems to have been published in June 2010, I'm hoping it might be sign that a rich version of the craft metaphor for teaching might be a little bit of zeitgeist!

The bluebell wood above, seen in West Sussex yesterday afternoon, sems to me  good image for 'irreducibly intuitive' elements of the expertise of teachers.  You can't really explain it - you just have to stand and admire....

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Teaching as craft

My paper exploring craft as a metaphor for teaching was published this week in Adults LearningHere it is, though please do buy Adults Learning as well: it also contains chapters on why the tax relief system should be reformed to support workplace learning for the low-paid and lowskilled, on adult education and the Bog, sorry Big Society, and intriguingly, on the 'Men's Sheds' movement in Australia.

Teaching as craft?
Jay Derrick, Institute of Education


Is it useful to think of teaching as craft? It is according to Michael Gove, the Coalition Government’s Secretary of State for Education: ‘Teaching is a craft and it is best learnt as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman’ (Gove 2010). John Hayes, Minister for Business and Skills, seems to agree: ‘The instinctive value we feel for craft must be reflected by our education system….this is, this must be the age of the craftsman’ (Hayes 2010). Hayes entitled his speech ‘Craft so long to lerne’, from the first line of the Parlement of Foules by Chaucer, itself a translation, via the latin proverb Ars longa vita brevis, of part of a Greek verse by Hippocrates, the father of medicine:

Life is short,
the craft long to learn,
opportunity fleeting,
experiment fallible,
judgment difficult.

Hippocrates was referring to his work as a doctor. How valid is it to use the word craft to describe teaching? Can Hippocrates’s somewhat world-weary sentiments be applied to teaching? And if we agree that teaching is craft, what implications does this have, for example, for the way we organise the training and development of teachers?

This question is not the same as suggesting that teaching is like this or that craft: conducting an orchestra, for instance, or gardening, though both of these are quite effective metaphors highlighting different aspects of teaching. I want to explore the idea of craft as a generic concept, to see how useful it might be to apply it to teaching. This approach avoids arguments about whether this or that human activity is or isn’t a craft, or about the difference between art and craft. Such discussions are interesting, but don’t help us much in trying to understand the nature of teaching, the kind of people teachers need to be, and how best to train and support them throughout their careers.

This is a timely question, and not just because the comparison has been made recently by members of the Coalition government. The nature of teaching as a profession has been the subject of intense debate for many years, driven by the developments in digital technology, both in terms of the technology people use in everyday life and work (such as mobile phones, facebook, the internet etc) and the technology now available to support teaching and learning (again, mobile phones, facebook, the internet etc). These developments have raised fundamental and new questions about the role of teachers in general (for example, do we need them at all?), and have simultaneously created a wave of new possibilities in terms of learning activities and classroom organisation, which teachers are expected to learn how to use proficiently. At the same time, accelerating globalisation is increasing the cultural diversity of student groups, enriching the resources available to teachers but also creating challenges in terms of expectations and assumptions. This paper is intended to be a contribution to the debate stimulated by these and other developments.

Craft as an attitude

The fact that ‘craft’ is used in relation to many and very different human activities, suggests that rather than being a distinct category which includes some and excludes others, the idea of craft is more helpfully understood as an attitude: as something referring to the manner in which we approach an activity or discipline, or to the way we value it – the way in which we see it as ‘worthwhile’. The idea of craft, from this perspective, puts the spotlight on the human agent, the craftworker themselves, their motivation and dispositions, rather than on the particular activity involved, and still less on the objects or outcomes produced by that activity. The key to craft, and to teaching, I suggest, is not so much what the craftworker or teacher specifically does (though this is of course very important), but the kind of person they are. The first task of craftworkers, from this perspective, is to produce themselves.

So what does ‘the craft attitude’ involve? I think it has six key aspects: attitude to quality, to practice, to learning and teaching, to the workshop (the craft environment in its broadest sense), to time, and finally to mass production. Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. Quality: the craft attitude implies an absolute commitment to the pursuit of quality, with the practical recognition that this may not always be achieved to the same degree. Edmund de Waal bluntly describes this as ‘a contempt for shoddiness’ (de Waal 2011). Secondly, it seeks to work as efficiently as possible, in terms of time, the cost of materials, and the sustainability of the workshop, as long as quality is not compromised; and finally, it assumes that the ultimate arbiter of quality, efficiency, and mastery in general is the community of practice, ie other practitioners.

2. Practice: this is firstly about a particular orientation towards the discipline of practice, by which I mean respect for the hard, repetitive work required to move towards mastery, commitment to improving practice and knowledge over extended time periods, respect for other practitioners, for the materials and for the tools of the trade; secondly, readiness to collaborate in making, learning, and teaching the craft to less experienced work colleagues; thirdly, seeing accidents, mistakes and less than perfect work as opportunities for reflection and learning; and fourthly, acceptance of a more or less informal hierarchy in the workshop, based on length and breadth of experience, but also on the continuous collective evaluation of the quality of work.

3. Teaching and learning: the craft attitude embodies deliberate and continuous learning through work, with the recognition that this can be both formal and informal; that teaching and developing less experienced colleagues is recognised as an essential part of craft and of improving one’s own practice; teaching and learning is structured around the continuous search for new and better techniques, practices, and tools; and finally that the work is central to the craftworker’s identity: that the character of every worker is embodied in their work.

4. The craft workshop is an environment organised around the needs of practice, as determined by the practitioners, the materials and the tools involved. A key aspect of the workshop is its culture: the extent to which it fosters and supports authentic communication between practitioners, and a mutuality which enables constructive evaluation of each other’s work. This is the team scenario in which there is creative tension between individuals’ strength and weaknesses and the collective expertise of the team as a whole. This has been described as an ‘expansive’ as opposed to a ‘restrictive’ learning culture (Evans et al 2002, Fuller and Unwin 2008). The dynamic of the workshop also reminds us that although craftworkers typically have a main field of expertise, they need to know about related areas as well: beautiful and useful products are often worked in different materials, and need the combined application of very different skills and knowledge. Craftworkers are specialised, their skills have limits, but they are continually learning more about related fields, they work closely with different specialists, and are curious about their work. Workshops facilitate this interdisciplinary practice as far as they can, and continuously evolve so as to do so.

5. Time: it is an inherent quality of craft that knowledge, skill and expertise are hard-won, through long hours, days, weeks, months and years of practice. The craft attitude is suspicious of easy achievement, precocious skill, any work which seems to have been achieved by cutting corners in terms of time. It recognises that while tools make work easier and quicker, the tools themselves have been developed through extended processes of experimentation by hundreds of practitioners, perhaps over centuries. In general, it is an axiom of craft that time is a sine qua non for the sustained achievement of high quality work, and that it is time, filled with sustained practice and learning, that confers expertise – there are no short cuts to mastery.

6. Mass production: the aim of craft is not to produce wholly standardised artefacts, but to reveal the potential of material worked by knowledgeable practice; mass standardised production eliminates the human and the particular from the production process (these are seen as embodying ‘error’): its products are in a very real sense ‘lifeless’, whereas craft aims to maximise the human and the particular in the production process, and embody these in artefacts. Dickens implies all of this in his condemnation of teacher training systems in the mid-nineteenth century:

So, Mr. M'Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs.’ (Dickens 1854)

This quotation is of course from a novel in which the factory system, and the moral philosophy which generated it, is quite clearly delineated as anti-human. The same ideas are explored by Kipling, from a slightly different perspective in which the craft attitude is shown as being distorted and undermined by the institutionalisation of demarcation between different craft specialisms, first in the mediaeval guilds, and later in some aspects of early twentieth-century trade unionism (Kipling 1910). It is an irony that one of the main areas in which the concept of craft survives in the 21st century is in thinking about industrial work which is demarcated into separate crafts for the protection of employment. This point is not just a historical one, but highly topical: there are indications that digitisation of craft expertise in the ‘brainwork industries’ (including teaching) may be leading to social and political consequences similar to those produced by the division of labour and the subordination of humans to machines within the factory system (Brown et al 2011). What Dickens and Kipling remind us so powerfully, however, is that these are moral issues, not merely matters of efficiency or ‘what works’.

Ideas and practices in tension with the craft attitude

Another way of delineating the craft attitude is to look at aspects of life and work which sit uneasily, or are in tension, or even in outright contradiction with it. Among these are firstly, the idea that the outcomes of craft can be evaluated, compared and enumerated objectively. From the perspective of craft, quality is apprehended through the practice of judgement, usually by ‘masters’ of the craft. This judgement may be aided by numerical indicators, but is never determined solely by them, because craftwork does not intend to produce artefacts which are ‘the same but better’ than others, it aims to produce objects that embody the humanity of their maker, and which reflect the highly specific qualities of the materials being used. It is a central tenet of the craft attitude that although craft objects can be compared in a general way, they are not essentially comparable. Richard Sennett puts this another way:

What do we mean by good-quality work? One answer is how something should be done, the other is getting it to work. This is a difference between correctness and functionality. Ideally, there should be no conflict; in the real world, there is. Often we subscribe to a standard of correctness that is rarely if ever reached. (Sennett 2008)

There is therefore an inevitable tension between an idealised, static, ‘objective’ view of quality, and the actuality of a particular piece of work, which may, even if it appears not to be perfect, do the job perfectly well. If practice is systematically subordinated to the idealised perspective, then practice will quickly become restricted, and practitioners will be deskilled.

Secondly, the particular take on time and mastery that is essential to the craft attitude implies that apprenticeship is a long drawn out process and that its completion is only achieved, and arguably not even then, by attaining the status of ‘master’ as judged by peers. The modern idea that apprenticeship finishes when you start work, or even more when you gain your license to practice, is completely at odds with this. So is the modern practice by which apprenticeships within a particular craft are all the same length and contain the same content. Apprenticeship, from the craft perspective, cannot be embodied solely in a formal course of instruction with a fixed length: that is a mass production, rather than a craft model. We will explore the implications of this for teachers a little later. Sennett highlights the learning process itself, and in particular problematizes the tendency of our formal education system to divide and separate the intellectual curriculum from the practical:

Skill is trained practice; modern technology is abused when it deprives its users precisely of that repetitive, concrete, hands-on training. When the head and hand are separated, the result is mental impairment. (Sennett 2008)

Once again, we see that ‘craft’ is not a concept that should be restricted to thinking about ‘vocational’, ‘practical’ skills and occupations: this is a deformation of its true meaning. The craft attitude requires the intellectual and ‘practical’ to be integrated, as each is impaired without the other:

There is nothing as practical as a good theory’ (Lewin 1951)

Thirdly, the idea that you can make craftworkers produce better work, or work more efficiently, by setting them quantitative performance targets, is clearly at odds with the craft attitude. Sennett connects this with the promotion of competition over collaboration as the dominant feature of practice (Sennett 2008). Again, this tendency arises from the mass production model of work, and the desire of external authorities to control production and practice.

Implications of a ‘craft’ perspective on teaching

If the craft attitude outlined above is applied to teaching, a number of implications emerge, under each of the six aspects of craft I have discussed: I present a few here for discussion.

Under quality, we would see a confident move towards professional self-regulation by a teacher-controlled body. Self-regulation within the community of practice is an essential aspect of the craft attitude. This doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t be accountable: the issue is that they should be accountable to students first and foremost, and to their own community of practice. Bureaucratic attempts to measure the quality of teachers through a standardised framework and through counting qualifications would be abandoned as expensive, misleading, and damaging to practice and learners alike. Teacher training and development would foster ‘contempt for shoddiness’ (de Waal 2011). Teachers would be empowered to distinguish between unimaginative work that satisfies technical standards, and sustained high-quality work. Teaching would be celebrated as a moral and sustaining activity rather than an industrial and technocratic one.

Under practice, we would see a much greater emphasis on professional development through work, with policy attention shifting towards an enabling framework for supporting CPD rather than the present major focus on initial teacher education. There would be a much greater emphasis in the curriculum of teacher education, along with skills and knowledge, on developing learners’ capacity to judge the quality of work, through collective qualitative evaluation of collaborative projects.

Under teaching and learning, all experienced teachers would be involved in ITE for pre-service trainees and in mentoring new entrants to teaching. This teacher-education work would be completely integrated into their role and practice as teachers. Teachers would be seen as new entrants for at least 5 years after their initial training.

Under the workshop: organisations employing teachers would be ‘expansive’ rather than ‘restrictive’ in relation to the learning of their staff (Evans et al 2002, Fuller and Unwin 2008). In relation to time, it would be recognised that there are ‘no short cuts to mastery’, that experience confers expertise that cannot be achieved any other way. And finally, any vestiges of mass production practices and procedures in teacher education would be eliminated: learners would not be expected to be standardised outputs, and would not be measured as such. Variations of practice would be welcomed and encouraged if they served quality, as would be the integration of intellectual and practical skill and knowledge. Efficiency and effectiveness would be measured by qualitative judgements rather than in solely quantitative terms.

All of these implications of adopting what I have called the craft attitude to teaching seem to me to be highly desirable: a great many of them are supported by research as well. The argument against mass production approaches to educational systems is made for example by Ken Robinson (Robinson 2010) on the grounds of its anachronism in the 21st century. Very many teachers, moreover, already have this attitude, and struggle to maintain it, and the quality of their work, in a technocratic system which tends in many ways to deskill them.

Conclusion: learners and teachers

If teaching is craft, learners are the material teachers fashion: they are the artefacts of teaching. However, learning is also work, it is work done by learners, with guidance from teachers. This suggests that we should see the work of teaching as helping learners produce and develop themselves, as individual mathematicians, plumbers, philosophers, nurses, etc, rather than standardised factory-output versions of practitioners of those disciplines, ‘like so many pianoforte legs’, as Dickens has it. At the same time, reflective teachers are continually producing and developing themselves as teachers. So the craft attitude to teaching sees it as a contribution to the collective work of being and continually becoming human; and at the same time as holding off, resisting, and repairing the social, cultural and political damage done by the dominant ethics of mass-production.

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