Physics, Pigs and Pumpkins

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has many implications, including the recognition that it is not possible to measure something without affecting what is being measured.  This is as true in the ‘real’ world as it is in Quantum Physics, and has been known ever since the first cook tried to check on the progress of a soufflé by opening the oven to look at it.

Unfortunately, politicians who find themselves in charge of education must be neither cooks nor Physicists, as there seems to be an unshakeable conviction that the best way to improve children’s learning is by testing them.  Which tests will provide the magic cure to all perceived ills varies with the jurisdiction and with the political leanings of those in charge, but all seem to have become mesmerised by the ease with which we can now use technology to generate and analyse statistical data.

The latest ‘Eureka moment’ comes from the British government, who have decided, against the advice of just about anybody actually knows anything about education, that children should now be tested when they start school to provide ‘baseline data’, which will then be used to judge how well the school does in teaching those children.

For several years I was responsible for the admission decisions to a very successful and highly regarded international school in Bangkok.  Like most international schools, we existed primarily to meet the needs of the international community, and we had a fairly open admissions policy for such students.  However, we also admitted a limited number of local students, depending upon available space, and given the prevalence in Thailand of what might be termed ‘encouragement to a favourable decision’ (but which a cynic might call bribery), it was essential that our admissions process be seen to be transparent and objective, and so we were forced to develop a time-consuming assessment for the Early Years grades (our largest entry point).   Because the candidates were pre-literate and pre-numerate, we relied on conversing with the candidates and observing them in play and social situations.  Nevertheless, although we were successful in getting an objective and defensible basis for our decisions, we were well aware that the results indicated little except the ease with which the children would adjust to school, and were skewed in favour toddlers from private child-cares and pre-schools which would spend considerable time on coaching their charges for the admissions sessions.

At least in our case this meant that the pre-schools increased their focus on areas that were age appropriate:  sociability, independent and group play, communication skills etc.  Imagine the effect on pre-schools who feel that their success will be measured by how well their 3- and 4- year olds perform in the sort of mass test that will be used in the UK, which will apparently include counting and letter recognition?

Ironically,given that the declared purpose of the UK tests will be to measure how effectively the child learns in the subsequent years,  it will actually be in the interests of schools to minimise the scores of their new entrants, in order to give themselves the lowest possible baseline with which future measurements will be compared.  This could lead to some interesting planning meetings:

Principal:  So, Miss Evans, are we ready for the first Baseline Tests for the 4 year-olds tomorrow?

Vice-Principal:  Nearly.  We’ve turned the heating on, closed the widows, removed some of the lights bulbs so that the room is a hot, stuffy, and gloomy, and we’ve removed all the cheerful pictures from the wall.  We’ve replaced the kindergarten furniture with some full-size desks and chairs, so the children should feel uncomfortable and suitably stressed.

Principal:  Good. What about the grass outside the window?  They seemed to be mowing it today, which made a lot of noise.

Vice-Principal:  Yes, I’m sorry about that, they had it half finished before I could stop them.  I’ve told them to leave the other half until tomorrow, so there will be some distraction for part of the test.

Principal:  Hmmm.  I suppose that’s better than nothing.  Perhaps I could arrange for a puppy to be playing where it can be seen through the window.  What about the teachers administering the tests?

Vice-Principal:  I’m a bit concerned about them.  I’ve coached them to take sharp intakes of breath and raise their eyebrows if it looks as though the child is going to choose the right answer, but it’s been very hard to break their habit of greeting the children with a warm smile and trying to put them at ease.

Principal:  Try telling them that we are being inspected next week;  that should put them in a foul mood.

We are warned of the limitations of measurement by the proverb ‘You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.  Unfortunately, unlike weighing a pig (which may simply be unproductive), testing children distorts the whole educational process.  Tests are certainly useful, but only to measure relatively narrow, simple variables.  These can provide insight on the development of individuals in particular areas, but once they become generalised and used to make broad judgements of teacher or school effectiveness, then the specific skills being measured will inevitably come to dominate the programme of the school.  It would be professional suicide for any teacher or school not to ‘teach to the test’ if the test results will provide the basis on which their competence will be judged.

A more accurate analogy that the fattening of pigs might be the growing of prize marrows or pumpkins.  These are judged by weight and girth (both easily and objectively measurable), with the result that growers focus solely on these aspects.  As a result they succeed in producing huge vegetables;  unfortunately, they are essentially inedible, because taste is not tested.

The Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious


Having spent much of my youth watching Monty Python, I am good at spotting things that fall within the jurisdiction of John Cleese’s ‘Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious’. This came to mind when reading a recent Harvard Education Letter which spoke about research by the (American) National Research Council into ‘Deeper Learning’, which discovered that ‘abilities such as critical thinking and problem solving are associated with positive outcomes in the labour market, health and civic engagement’ (Harvard Education Letter, March/April 2013).  Furthermore, the research found that ‘deeper learning’ could be developed by encouraging questioning, engaging learners in challenging tasks, providing supportive guidance and feedback, motivating students, and using formative assessment.

Well, duh!  (As one of my eight grade students might have put it.)

I wouldn’t disagree with anything that the researchers have found;  what bothers me is that the same insights could have been gained by having a conversation with just about any of the teachers with whom I have worked over my career.  They know ‘deeper learning’ when they see it, and they know it happens when students are encouraged to build on their natural curiosity, unstressed by the fear of failure, and supported and guided in constructing knowledge from their personal experiences.  Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that my colleagues were a uniquely talented sample of teachers;  however, while I know that I have had the good fortune to work with some of the best in the profession, I also know that their views are broadly representative.

Unfortunately, while feeling depressed about the fact that these research findings were presented as a revelation, I then found that in the UK the ‘Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious’ has been taken over by the ‘Ministry of the Just Plain Stupid’.  Michael Gove, the UK Minister of Education, is now planning to replace GCSE exams (the ones they take at 16) with something called ‘I –levels’, which will be calibrated with an 8-point numerical scale, and eliminate course work.  Ahhh, the nostalgia!

I can almost feel sorry for Michael Gove.  He has the problem of finding a way to restore English education to the magnificence of the past, when school exams were tough enough to identify those pupils in the selective Grammar schools who had learned to conform to the expectations of their teachers, and who might therefore be granted a scholarship to a Public School to learn alongside true gentlemen, and thence to proceed to university.  (True gentlemen, of course, have the right instincts bred into them, and so could be admitted to university by less rigorous methods than examinations;  women, of course, didn’t need education at all.)  This all went wrong in the seventies, with the introduction of comprehensive schools and the increase in the number of universities, which resulted in a large part of the population realizing that they, too, could aspire to a degree.  At about the same time so-called ‘educators’ (all of whom were clearly troublemakers, probably hippies and possibly communists) introduced ideas such as course work, collaborative learning, a de-emphasis on exams, and the possibility that all students might have the potential to succeed if allowed to.

The result was a nightmare.  University places were numerous enough to create demand, but not numerous enough to meet it, and so admission became even more selective.  Out went the practice of interviewing all candidates, as examination results provided an easy, cheap, and above all defensible method.  Unfortunately, the changes of approach in the content and assessment of the school curriculum meant that a far higher proportion of students were succeeding, getting good grades and clamouring to attend university.

Faced with the problem of a curriculum that is producing more students who succeed in school, but insufficient university places to accommodate those who qualify, what solution is obvious to Gove?  Of course, reduce the number of students who succeed in school!  Hence the need to return to a model that depends entirely upon examination results, (excluding all of those with different forms of intelligence), and restore a curriculum that is likely to deter anyone with imagination or creativity.

Footnote:  When asked about the fact that a raft of education experts, including his own previous advisor, consider that his last set of proposed curriculum reforms were not well thought out, simply declared that the experts were wrong, and were all Marxists!

Treating Nature Deficit Disorder

Canadian children, apparently, now spend 6 hours a day in front of a screen but just 6 minutes a day on outdoor activity.  This has given rise to the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, to which is attributed all sorts of physical, psychological and social failings.  The culprits are generally identified as television, computer games, X-boxes and smart phones, and no-one could doubt these devices’ addictive hold over the leisure hours of the young (and the old, of course;  once the kiddies have been sent off to bed, how do most parents spend the rest of the evening?)

Campaigns such as David Suzuki’s ‘30 x 30’ (challenging everyone to spend 30 minutes a day outside for 30 days in a row) are admirable, and Suzuki may be right in believing that once we all experience the benefits of life in the open air, we will mend our ways (http://30× ).  However, it is a mistake to think that the problem lies solely with the imbalance of family life between active and passive leisure.  I would also argue that we have fallen into a similar imbalance between active and passive learning;  schools could, and should, push back against the remorseless tide of technology that has engulfed our classrooms, and get children outside, experiencing the world first-hand rather than on screen.

I don’t question that, used well and judiciously, technology can aid learning.  I do question whether it is always used well, and I know that it is not used judiciously.  The literature put out by the IT industry always focuses on ‘learning’, but the bulk of the content often revolves around convenience, entertainment, and the universal  appeal of exciting new toys.  Children certainly respond to crisply presented graphics and images, and enjoy interacting with the screen, but are we training them to be passive and only superficially engaged participants in the world presented to them on screen?

In a fascinating TED talk, Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington ( ) shows how babies can acquire the ability to pronounce different languages simply by hearing them spoken.  This is well worth watching in its entirety, but for this blog post the significant moment occurs at 7m 40s, when it is demonstrated that this only happens if the language is spoken by a real person who is physically present, not by someone (real or animated) on a screen.  As Dr. Kuhl states:  ‘It takes a human being [for babies to learn from];  the social brain controls [the babies learning]’.  There is plenty of other evidence that children learn by engaging with people on a personal level; this is why I have always maintained that the teacher is more important that the curriculum.

I recognize that schools are under great pressure to make maximum use of technology, as somehow not doing so has become regarded as handicapping children in the competition for qualifications and jobs.  (Note: A more cynical person than me might think that the unbelievable amount of money to be made through the sale of hardware and software has led IT companies to encourage that belief.  I, of course, would refrain from any such judgement.).  Let me repeat that I full support the judicious and selective use of technology.  There are many contexts in which it can and does make a significant contribution to learning;  I am concerned, however, that IT has become an end rather than a means.  Curriculum documents and accreditation standards often now require teachers to utilize technology in their classes, rather than asking whether or why they will use it.  This has created the situation whereby using a graphic calculator, PowerPoint or a Smart Board is regarded as the default expectation;  teachers are expected to justify their non-use rather than their use.  I am reminded of a colleague who was possibly the best History teacher I have encountered (and he definitely taught History, not Humanities or Social Studies!)  Despite being an unapologetic practitioner of ‘chalk & talk’, he had the ability to connect and communicate with a class that was unequalled, and other staff members would occasionally pop in to sit at the back of his classes just to enjoy the performance.  However, he did not use technology, and eventually took early retirement rather than abandon his preferred and proven style.  Students in the classes of his successor undoubtedly received a fine education, enlivened by the full spectrum of interactive technology, but they also missed out on a unique personal learning experience delivered by a true master of his craft.  Our schools should have room for both.

What, then, is the alternative?  Schools are not about to abandon technology, nor should they.  They could, however, do more to make sure that teachers are not reduced to technicians who manage the IT for students.  IT can be used to release teachers to do what only they can do – relate to kids.

If Nature Deficit Disorder is to be countered, it must start early, before the young mind is taken prisoner by the screen.  Just how effective this can be is demonstrated by the success of Waldkinder (‘forest children’) programmes in parts of Europe.  3-, 4- and 5-year olds spend the day tramping around the woods in all weathers, exploring, playing, questioning and, throughout, learning.  An example can be seen here in a video clip of the Early Years class at an international school in Zurich: .  (Warning:  Waldkinder classes are unstructured, and can lead in some surprising directions.   I once sat in on a class ‘debriefing’ at the end of the day, during which the teacher directed a student to go and fetch from her bag one of the interesting objects that had been found;  the student’s hand instead emerged clutching a Playboy centrefold which the teacher had alertly spotted littering the trail in a most un-Swiss way, and quickly scooped into her bag before the children noticed. )

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly support the efforts by David Suzuki and others to encourage the re-balancing of family time, but 6 or 7 hours of a child’s day are under the full control of schools, and if that time were also to be rebalanced, then Nature Deficit Disorder could really be addressed.  I also suspect that, as a side effect, many children might find that their other Deficit Disorder (ADD) might be helped!

The Graduation speech I never gave

Dear Graduates,

I’ve given many graduation speeches during my career, and I have always been careful not to spoil the day by upsetting or offending any of the students, parents, Board members or teachers who make up my audience (well, nearly always!)  Inevitably, this has put a constraint on the possibility of saying anything worthwhile, although I’ve done my best not to be too bland.

No longer!  I can now tell you what I have wanted to for the last forty years!

Point 1: despite what your parents and teachers might have told you, most of you have not yet accomplished anything at all. All of the benefits in your life so far have flowed in one direction, from your parents and teachers and towards you, allowing you the luxury of following your prescribed courses with varying levels of interest and enthusiasm while enjoying the freedom of youth. This is not a criticism, it is simply the nature of school and of youth; you will not know what you have really learned until you go out into the world where the consequences of your behaviour will be felt by you and by others.

Point 2: don’t be fooled by your grades, whether they are good or bad.  Rarely in life will you be faced with test questions for which you have been taught the answers and given the opportunity to study for; your success in such tests will have little bearing on your future happiness.

Point 3: much of what you learned in class is less important than what you learned out of class.  The ability to solve equations or write an essay may be useful, but not as much as the ability to make a friend laugh, comfort someone in distress, resolve a confrontation, or stick to your principles. Unfortunately, none of these things fit easily into a formal curriculum, but I hope that you have learned them by observing them in the behaviour of your family and teachers.

Point 4: although school is supposed to prepare you for life, it actually only prepares you for more school.  We have now recognised that learning should not stop at graduation, and you have been urged to pursue ‘lifelong learning’; we have yet to reach the logical conclusion that real-life experience should not be left until after graduation, and there is a dire need to bring ‘lifelong experience’ to your student years.

Point 5:  whether you realise it or not, you have an innate love of learning. Some of you are lucky enough to have had this nurtured and encouraged, but in some it has been neglected, or even squashed out of existence by the rigidity of the curriculum. Humanity is naturally curious and people enjoy learning, unless they are forced to study things that do not interest them and have no relevance to their lives.

Over the last year, thanks to the power of Facebook, I have been making contact with many students whom I taught and/or coached in the past. As I enjoy vicarious glimpses into so many diverse lives, I am been struck by the impossibility of extrapolating from the teenager to the adult. These ex-students, regardless of their degree of ‘success’ at school, have careers, friends and families which are a reflection of their own talents, choices and decisions, and which add up to something so much richer and more complex than their teachers could have foreseen. They have discovered what you will discover: that unlike school, life has no final grade, no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, and no ranking system that you have to accept. You will enjoy a mixture of happiness and despair, and some of each may be shaped by your school years. On behalf of your teachers I hope that we have not hindered your progress too much, and that you have managed to learn something while in our company.

I will close with an extract from a graduation address that I had the privilege of delivering from the podium of the General Assembly chamber of the United Nations when I was Principal of the UN International School in New York:

No graduation speech would be complete without at least one metaphor, and I found my metaphor on an extremely educational class field trip to the 6 Flags Theme Park. There is a device there called the ‘SkyHoist’, which involves three people being strapped together and hoisted 200 ft up into the air on the end of a 200 foot wire, where they then pull a release cord to be dropped and become a 200 ft pendulum swinging at horrible speeds. (Why they would want to do this remains a mystery to me, but that is not my point.) My metaphor is the image, frozen in memory, of three students: a young French-Canadian, a young man from the Gabon, and a young woman with a complicated ancestry involving England , Tanzania and the US, all hanging onto each other for dear life as they plummeted towards the ground, because each other was all they had to hang on to. Though they were terrified, they clearly loved every minute of it.

And so here is my message for the students: If you can see beyond your fears and your superficial differences, pull the release cord and hang on to each other – you will find that life is going to be a pretty exciting ride.

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Conviction is a greater enemy to truth than lies  – Nietzsche

Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education at the start of my undergraduate course, and remained in that post during my teacher training and my first year of teaching.   She and her policies made a great impression on me, to the extent that after just three years of teaching in the UK I left the country to teach overseas.  For that I suppose I should be grateful to her, as she was instrumental in launching me into international education.

One of her brainwaves was to cancel the free milk which at that time was distributed in schools, leading to protests against ‘Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher’ and earning her the soubriquet ‘Thatcher the Snatcher’.   I had not been particularly political while at university, most of my time being divided  between the river, the rugby field and the Rowing Club bar (with the occasional detour to lectures and labs.)  However, when I was assigned a period of teaching practice at a school in a Category D village in County Durham it was an eye-opener.  Category D villages were ex-mining communities where the pit had been closed, and a government decision taken to make no further investment in any public infrastructure.  Pot holes were not filled in, bulbs in street lamps were not replaced, bus services were curtailed and families for whom the village had been home for generations were left to get the message that they should move out.  The inhabitants were desperately, and hopelessly, trying to hang on to the remnants of their community, but there was no shop, no pub, no café, the school had minimal resources, and now we could not even give them free milk!

The children at the school were normal, lively youngsters, with as much potential as could be found anywhere else (after all, it takes intelligence to transcribe a Geordie accent with accuracy, and my students did this in their spelling all the time;  I leave it to the reader  to decipher the official spelling  of the phonetically accurate ‘ejog’ and  ‘yrntn’.)  Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that their potential was unlikely to be fulfilled, and that the creeping despair all around them would almost certainly snuff out their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their hope.

Category D villages were not invented by Margaret Thatcher, but they certainly fitted in with her proudly stated conviction that ‘society does not exist’, and that individuals must look out for themselves.  As Prime Minister she went on to do all she could to make that viewpoint a reality, destroying much of the social fabric of the UK and laying the foundations for the obscene excesses of the financial sector.  She would be delighted by the efforts of Michael Gove, the current UK Minister of Education, to make schools more competitive, more selective, and more focussed on enabling the few to succeed at the expense of the many.

As teachers we are always urged to criticise the work, not the student, and I remind myself to limit my loathing to what Margaret Thatcher stood for and believed in, rather than her as a person.  She was undoubtedly a ‘conviction politician’, and as Nietzsche’s quote indicates, they are the most dangerous, because they cannot be dissuaded.  Margaret Thatcher has left a legacy in education as much as anywhere, and her views are worryingly evident in the educational policies of many jurisdictions;  I, for one, regret it.

PS  ‘ejog’ = hedgehog,  ‘yrntn’ = wire-netting


The Minister for Exams

Sometimes other people say it for you, and here are two examples.  The first was published in 1996 .  It pretty much nails what is wrong with the way we assess students.

The Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam.

The test was so simple

There was no way I could fail.


Q1.  Describe the taste of the moon.


It tastes like creation, I wrote,

It has the flavour of starlight.


Q2.  What colour is Love?


Love is the colour of the water a man lost in the desert finds, I wrote.


Q3.  Why do snowflakes melt?


I wrote, they melt because they fall onto the warm tongue of God.


There were other questions.

They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden.

I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant’s dream.

Yet today, many years later,

for my living I sweep the streets

or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.

Why?  Because constantly I failed my exams.

Why?  Well, let me set a test.


Q1.  How large is a child’s imagination?


Q2.  How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams.

Brian Patten

(from ‘Armada’, 1996)

The second, on the same theme, comes from a recent speech by Matt Damon:

“I had incredible teachers. And as I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all of these things came from how I was parent…ed and taught. And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested. I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers. Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that. I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes. I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was not based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that. This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me. So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”

Matt Damon, Save Our Schools March 7/30/2011
A video of the full speech can be viewed here:

Earning our applause

I have probably spent more than two thousand hours in school auditoriums watching and listening to student performers.  They have spanned the full spectrum of talent, and if I were to judge solely on the quality of performance some would have prompted me to leap to my feet in ecstatic applause, a few would have caused me to doze off, and a very few would have made me cringe in my seat.   Regardless of talent, however, what all of the performers shared in common was the courage and determination necessary to meet the challenge of going on stage and exposing their skills to the scrutiny of an audience.  Few things are as terrifying, especially to a young person, and so every performance, without a single exception, has given me pleasure and provoked my admiration.

These feelings were rekindled this week at the Powell River Festival of the Performing Arts.  This is a community rather than a school event, but students nevertheless constitute the great majority of the participants.  The Gala at the end was a showcase of exceptional talent and as entertaining an evening as I have enjoyed anywhere, but just as impressive were the massed ranks of students of all ages who sang, danced, and recited, individually or in groups, throughout the week.  This brought home once again the vital role the performing arts play in education.

Very few of the performers will ever make a living from their art, and so educational reductionists might say that such activities are an unproductive use of school resources.  However, memorisation, self-awareness, poise, confidence, commitment, persistence and a willingness to take risks were all evident in abundance alongside the talent, and without those learned qualities the talent might never have made it on to stage.  These are also the skills that will enable these students to aspire to, and achieve, ambitious goals in any sphere of life.  Perhaps even more importantly, life should be about far more than economic productivity;  it should be about humour, anger, joy and despair, and it is through arts education that students learn to explore, understand, communicate and evoke these emotions.

I congratulate all of those in Powell River who have given their students such an arts-rich environment in which to grow and learn.  While on the topic, let me send a shout-out to my ex-colleagues in Zurich who have been investing unquantifiable time, energy and skill in guiding the school production of ‘The Sound of Music’ which shows later this week.  Whenever a young person is able to stand on stage and hear the applause, anywhere in the world, it is thanks to a teacher who deserves our congratulations and support.

I knew him when…

I don’t often get the chance to drop the name of an Oscar winner who was once a student of mine, but in the tradition of the Academy Awards, I will not open that envelope until the end.

I will say that I remember this student as an intelligent, articulate, friendly and independent-minded young man, and it is no surprise that he has been successful. However, I doubt anyone (except, possibly, his mother) who claims that they foresaw, without the benefit of hindsight, that this particular successful student, more than any of his equally successful classmates, was destined to rise to the very top of his profession.

There is no shortage of stories about successful people who were poor at school, or who failed initially in their chosen field. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are most cited examples (although in Einstein’s case the claim is dubious), but the list includes Jon Stewart (now, officially, ‘the most trusted man in America’), Michael Jordan (cut from his High School basketball team), Sir Richard Branson and Simon Cowell (both dropped out of school at 16), and Beppe Grillo (dismissed as ‘stupid’ by his father and his school, fired from his first job as a jeans salesman, and now the leader of the largest single party in the Italian parliament.)

I certainly don’t believe that failure at school is a predictor of success, but I have never seen a convincing demonstration of any correlation between school marks and future achievement (however defined).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop us teachers from being far too ready to make judgements and predictions. Too often school reports go beyond simply describing the learning that has taken place (or not), and wander into making supposedly insightful comments about the innate ability, or even the personality of the student.  Partly this happens because parents demand to know where their child ranks in the competitive struggle, and schools therefore spend an inordinate amount of time in making comparative measurements, with other students, other schools, and now other countries. (I used to tell parents who demanded to know where their child ranked as a student, that I would give them this information once they told me where they ranked as parents. This did not always end well!)  At best these pronouncements and predictions are of little significance, but at worst they can create a self-sustaining label that will get in the way, particularly in the case of school systems and programmes that are selective.

People leave school with most of their lives still ahead of them, and while we try hard to equip our students for life, the reality is that they carry on learning, carry on growing, and carry on developing long after they have left us. The best we can do is to give them the values and attitudes that will make that process as natural and productive as possible, and point them in a good direction. If we miss out on particular skills or knowledge, our students will correct that for themselves if and when they need them. However, if we kill their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their independence, or their capacity for critical thought, then these attributes may never be rekindled. Perhaps teachers need their own version of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm’.

And so, to the envelope…

Huge congratulations to David Klawans, the Executive Producer of Argo, who was a student at the International School of Brussels when I taught there in the 70’s and 80’s. Much as I would like to, I can claim no influence on David, but as his mother was a good friend and colleague of mine I remember him well. It is certainly no surprise that he took the hard, independent road to well-deserved success. He did take the wise precaution of having a gifted English teacher as a mother and an equally gifted jazz musician as a step-father, which I suspect provided a perfect foundation for life as a film producer.

A letter from a frustrated four-year-old to a future employer

Dear Future Boss,

I’m writing to you because I’m confused and need some advice. I don’t know what industry you work in, or what my job with you will be. Of course, it’s quite possible that my job doesn’t exist yet (when you were four who wanted to grow up to be a web designer?)

I get to watch a lot of television, because both Mum and Dad work, and there aren’t enough places in pre-school. I really like the cartoons, but I must admit that after watching them for hours I do feel as though another bit of my brain has gone numb. Anyway, recently the TV was left on the news channel, and I heard someone talking about what employers (like you) will be looking for in future employees (like me). She said that the important qualities will be things like curiosity, imagination, adaptability, a ‘can-do’ approach to solving problems, persistence in the face of difficulty, the ability to communicate and collaborate with others, and a willingness to take risks and to learn.

I got very excited when I heard this, because I’m really good at all of these things (and I mean really, really, REALLY good at them.) I learned to talk just by listening to other people, and I learned to walk by constantly falling down, I love playing and exploring with other kids, and I am always poking around looking for new experiences and new things to try out. (I used to be even better, before the cartoons). An educator on the TV said that it’s because my brain has evolved as a machine designed just for communication, collaboration, curiosity and learning. (But he also said that I have to keep using these skills or I will lose them. Cartoons don’t help, apparently.)

But Mum only lets me go to playgrounds that have been officially approved as completely safe and risk-free, because she says I’m too adventurous, and I can’t have a tree house, let alone help my Dad build one, because I might hurt myself, and I’m not allowed to explore because I might get lost. So how I am supposed to practise my curiosity and risk-taking?

I’ve really been looking forward to going to school, but my sister says that school is boring, because you’re not allowed to talk, but have to just listen to what the teacher tells you, not learn whatever it is you want to find out, and you have to memorise lots of stuff for tests (which my sister says is pointless because all of the stuff is on her smart phone anyway, but she’s not allowed to use that in school), and you’re not allowed to work together much or help each other, because that’s called cheating. So how will I practise my imagination, communication and collaboration?

And my brother tells me that a lot of the fun stuff that he used to enjoy after school – clubs, sports, music and camping trips– don’t happen anymore because of liability issues and teacher contract disputes. But he also says it doesn’t really matter, because he wouldn’t have time for them now anyway, because Mum makes him take extra lessons after school to make sure he gets good enough grades to get into university. So how will I practice my adaptability, persistence and imagination?

This is why I’m confused. It sounds as though the educators know what I’m good at, and how to make the most of my capabilities, and it sounds as though those capabilities are exactly what you employers say you need. And yet my parents and the politicians who decide what happens in school seem not to be listening, but act as though they think that curiosity and imagination and collaboration and risk-taking and independent thought are all bad things. So here’s my real question: are you employers, educators, politicians and parents ever going to get together and do something to feed the insatiable appetite I still have for learning all about this exciting and fascinating world in which we live, or should I just sit back and enjoy the cartoons?

The world is a complicated place

In a recent column in the Observer newspaper, humorist David Mitchell took aim at the Heads of English Public Schools who, apparently, are fed up with not being recognised for the good work their schools do (    (For those not familiar with the oddities of British labelling, in the UK the term ‘Public School’ is reserved for private institutions catering to those who can afford them; the remainder attend ‘state’ schools).   Like Mitchell, I attended an independent school (only a mile or two from his, as it happens), where I benefitted from an excellent education;  I concur with his suggestion that ‘if there was no independent sector, our state school system would serve us better’, and with his characterisation of the privileged tax status accorded to UK independent schools as ‘the establishment taking care of its own’.

Mitchell’s purpose is to entertain, but his sarcasm makes a serious point:  independent schools are, by and large, far more comfortable places to teach than state schools, and those who work in them must live with the fact that the moral high ground is reserved, rightly, for those who struggle daily to educate the most needy in society in the most difficult circumstances.

Mitchell mentions Anthony Seldon, the Head of Wellington College, who has complained of jealousy and hostility towards Public Schools.   Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, Seldon also stated that ‘British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by [Public Schools]’.  He was quite right, but I question the assumption that British public life, as shaped by the Public Schools, is an asset to the nation.  After all, as he points out:  ‘…many senior politicians, newspaper editors and proprietors attended them’;  the list should also include bankers and financiers, and comprehensively covers those segments of society which are widely held to have failed!

Mitchell rant singled out for particular attention the ex-Heads of Roedean and Cheltenham  Ladies College, who are ‘flouncing off to the moral sinkholes of the world’  (such as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia) to take charge of international schools, and it is here that he goes wrong.  His lack of awareness of the international education scene leads him to assume that all international schools are similar in nature, the sort of ‘cushy school for the rich’ to which he would expect the Heads of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean to migrate.

Such schools certainly exist, and in ever-growing numbers.  The ‘for-profit’ sector in international education is a booming business, particularly in the field of franchising the names of famous Public Schools to cater to wealthy elites (either expat. or local) in the Middle East and Asia.   However, many international schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and in many cases costs are borne by the institutions or companies whose employees insist on the availability of an English-medium school before they will take a post abroad.  This results in such schools having more in common with a good suburban state school, rather than an elite private school.   They take very seriously the idea of diversity, whether of nationality, language, ability or economic status, and they benefit from one huge advantage:  they need not be constrained by political oversight or national curriculum.

The best international schools (and all of my international teacher friends reading this teach in the best international schools!) really do provide a setting in which education and children can thrive.  Of course, expat. parents can be as demanding as any in the world, but the international educators I know find huge satisfaction in simply being treated as professionals and being able concentrate on helping students learn.  The diversity of students, staff and parents also gives them a distinct edge when dealing with global issues;  tolerance and international understanding become a part of daily life rather than an theoretical ideal.

There is no doubt that Switzerland has more than a few moral issues to deal with, particularly in the financial sector, but it also plays host to more than a few international organisations whose moral credentials are impeccable.  International schools in Switzerland cover just as wide a spectrum, from elitist to idealist, and Mitchell’s generalisation is inaccurate and unfair (though, admittedly, complicating his argument with nuance and shades of grey would probably spoil the humour.)  Nevertheless, there really are schools that actively strive to make the world a better place, and those who teach in them consider themselves fortunate indeed.