so ignorance then

A state of not knowing, generally seen as unintentional but sometimes given the qualification ‘wilful’. If you don’t know something, you don’t know it. The only way to correct that is to learn some new stuff. You can choose not to learn the new stuff, or stuff can be hidden from you by forces beyond your control. Or do those forces just appear to be beyond your control?

There are some manifestations of ignorance that can’t be corrected by investigation. Nobody alive can describe the experience of death, other than providing an account of the outward appearance of someone else’s death. Accounts of so-called near death experiences relate only the physical and psychological sensations produced by the human frame approaching death. Self-awareness, a product of the as yet largely unmapped complexity of the human brain, lends a sense of absurdity to the ending of consciousness. We cannot know whether the death of the body causes consciousness to end, and so we speculate – also a product of brain complexity. Historically, when faced with the apparent absurdity of consciousness suddenly ending, faith has stepped in to rationalise ignorance. Suddenly there is life beyond the death of the body. So that’s OK, because the human life essence doesn’t reside in the body so in a way it doesn’t matter what happens to the body. When the body hurts chronically, we can take comfort from the belief that we are not just a body. Problems occur when rules are invented for the afterlife, rules that have become ever more intricate, often including the invention of a non-corporeal being who manages and judges the afterlife and reserves the right to bar people from entry. Different rule systems are seen as incompatible with each other. Intolerance and hatred ensue, based on what people routinely forget is just an invention. My non-corporeal being does not accept either you or your non-corporeal being. Let’s have a war then, shall we?

Something broadly similar happens with belief in extra-terrestrial life. The science tells us that even if they exist they can’t get here. But we tell ourselves that Einstein may have been wrong and that they may one day arrive, even though his track record so far is pretty good. We tell ourselves that aliens may plug the gaps in our frailties, vulnerabilities and weaknesses, but more often than not we make them in our own image.

The banishing of ignorance and the furtherment of complex knowledge should be facilitated by faster and more accessible communication. Shouldn’t they? This was certainly what was on the mind of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the web. It appeared knowledge was on the verge of being truly democratised, with the content of the world’s libraries potentially pouring down the phone line into your screaming dialup modem and saturating your CRT pixels. (Watch those x-rays.) The earliest manifestation of IMDB was hosted at Cardiff University, was free of advertising and was a film enthusiast’s wet dream. A constantly updated Halliwell that didn’t weigh anything and that you didn’t have to look for as you paused the closing credits on your shaky VHS. Fast forward through those fuzzy white flickering VHS lines to 2017 and we are told by some websites that blocking advertisements hurts people. Really now. I rather think that it hurts commercial interests and that if your business model depends entirely on advertising you need to build yourself a time machine. Noah will be happy to discuss options with you.

So not too far off thirty years after the invention of the web, where are we in terms of knowledge, ignorance and communication? Well, media are now social. Great. I can stay in touch with friends and family in one tab and do academic research in another. Only trouble is, gee wiz, my Aunty at the other end of the country who I’ve only seen about four times since I was three, and doesn’t really know me, thinks I’m the spawn of the devil because I hold opinions different from hers. She ‘unfriended’ me once, whatever that means. I think that was after I said that the former shadow chancellor making a tit of himself on national TV was not really entertainment. Anyway she asked me to be her friend again a few days later, possibly because she felt guilty or because she’d sobered up, or both. The moral of the story, true or not, is that we are now completely accustomed to polarisation. Life is spent agreeing or disagreeing, or pretending to agree or disagree, according to perceived social need. But the space in between is increasingly blank, dark and cold. In my view the mindset cast by social media has been directly responsible for the EU referendum. What kind of sense does it make for us to vote yes or no on an issue of such extreme national importance, ignoring all complexity and gradation? On 24th June we had won, and so all migrants needed to leave the country that day, and we weren’t going to allow any more in. Simple. Those ponces in the High and Supreme courts had better not interfere with our right to be polarised or our right to ignore the complex issues.

Agnotology is an emerging discipline that looks at the deliberate propagation of ignorance in order to achieve a specific goal. It was first developed in relation to the tobacco industry. The science linking smoking to lung cancer is half a century old at least, and nobody who is not in denial would challenge it. If you want to give yourself lung cancer, and possibly as an added bonus your nearest and dearest too, go ahead and smoke. But our industry is centuries old and is properly regulated. Why should science interfere with my income? I like my house and my sports car. And after all a person has a right to smoke. I know: we’ll introduce doubt. Don’t look at the facts. That’s too much like hard work. There are only a few studies that indicate smoking might be bad for you, and they’re probably wrong. Aren’t they? Social media will help. No-one can ever be arsed to read beyond the ‘continue reading’ prompt. Better to use pictures anyway. A heavy smoking guy in a Barbour jacket pointing at a long line of dark people should do it.

More detailed work needs to be done. Work that promotes absence and suppression of detail is to be avoided, and is ultimately the product of wilful ignorance.


so retirement then

Unceremonious. No gold watch. A private moment at 00:01 on the 27th June 2016 as I watched the lump sum plop into my account. Twenty-eight years as a teacher in the secondary and further education sectors is probably enough. I no longer rely on walking through a classroom door for the paying of bills. Instead those bills are covered by Teachers’ Pensions on the 26th of each month, as long as I stay alive. Nothing really compares to the knowledge when you wake up each morning that all you have to do in order to keep being paid is make sure your heart is beating. I won’t be ordering any yachts or helicopters, but I can live on it. Until recently I always thought of the payment to Teachers’ Pensions as a compulsory levy, a bit like tax. If it was possible to opt out of the scheme when I started teaching, I had no knowledge of that. Good.

Teaching has never been how I defined myself. It was just something I did for a while. You can’t simply believe in your own professional world because you’re in it. Other criteria need to be applied, like whether you feel culturally or emotionally supported or nurtured by your working environment. Too many teachers I’ve met have seen classroom practice as a battle of wills rather than a collaborative enterprise, sometimes boasting about making children cry in what I have always seen as an absurd act of cruelty. For me it was largely about making students laugh and helping them to debunk the system, while at the same time learning some stuff. Aggression and confrontation never seemed to do anything other than break down communication and cause resentment. If someone gave me a coherent reason for handing in that day’s work the next day, or even if the reason was incoherent and the person seemed upset, that was always fine. If they needed to call their parents on their mobile phone about something that they saw as urgent, that was fine too. I generally allowed people to eat or drink in the classroom, as long as they put the wrappers and cartons in the bin. If the room was cold, they kept their hats and coats on. This is what it is to be human. We are not resources or statistics, but people.

Until the twenty-first century, I had only ever encountered a reasonably tight consensus on what learning was. New knowledge or skills were acquired and could then be applied in future acts of analysis, decision making or reflection. The point was always that you couldn’t establish whether learning had taken place until you had seen the person try to apply the new knowledge or skill several times, over a period of at least several weeks. Now, the teaching profession in England and Wales is forced to live with a notion of micromanaged learning: learning must be seen to have taken place within any ten minute chunk on which an observer chooses to eavesdrop. When I first heard the term ‘learning walk’ in 2012 it evoked teacher-led nature trails on summer afternoons when the besieged students for a change didn’t have to do anything except walk, pretend to listen and breathe the fresh air. Sounded nice. It soon became clear that they were actually run-for-your-mortgage opportunities for managers to see learning taking place in randomly selected classrooms, in that golden ten minute window. What a sack of rotting faeces. In reality it’s a cycle of performance. Lessons are timed to the minute, for fear the students may get the chance to interact with each other or with the teacher in a way that’s purely social. Heaven forfend that social interaction should interfere with learning. And then we wonder why the average teacher’s Sunday night resolve to dispense with reaching for alcohol as a stress reliever has been abandoned by Tuesday.

Of course I understand that it’s Ofsted driven, and I’ve heard many times the mantra that if we don’t do what Ofsted say they will close the school, but the problem with Ofsted is that they have changed their minds so many times about what they’re looking for, since they breach-birthed themselves slippery and wailing like dementors into the classrooms of the previously content twenty plus years ago, that they cannot possibly be an organisation fit for purpose. Imagine Trading Standards revising their framework of inspection every two or three years. Many people in the profession have confirmed this opinion, privately of course, always with one eye on that mortgage. But still we get those giant vinyl banners cable tied to railings, proclaiming ‘Ofsted Outstanding’, as though that judgement were a permanent vindication of the school’s or college’s approach. In the real world the currency of the judgement has begun to fade before the last cable tie has been pulled tight, and that teacher who called in at the pub on her way home to reward herself for that Monday afternoon’s Outstanding observation has her approval rating set back to zero the very next wet Tuesday morning in November at 8.00am sharp. Ofsted’s stand out achievement has been a top-down homogenisation of classroom practice, removing the possibility of imagination, creativity, autonomy or intelligence in the delivery of lessons. Apparently now these are seen as negative qualities in the recruitment of new teachers: intelligent people are likely to be ‘awkward’ and adopt a critical view of the institutional ‘vision’. Yesterday I noticed again that bus stop advert enticing people into the profession with a picture of a teacher and a student, one saying ‘I’m making a difference’ and the other saying ‘I’m making progress’. Such is the binary process we are now led to believe drives forward learning. I would like to have an optimistic view of the future of the profession in England and Wales, but I’ve seen too many people psychologically mangled and shat out by it to have anything approaching that optimism.

So, all said, I’m out, but I’m out with an optimistic view of my own future and some good memories of pushing forward the frontiers of surreal and humour and sharing the undermining of the status quo in many classrooms over many years, with hundreds of teenagers. Young people will always for me have the clearest view of what it is to be alive. I remain a teenager mentally. Responsibility is overrated. Somehow I was never given my own classroom, always remaining peripatetic. Perhaps an appropriate metaphor: someone who was not considered mature enough to manage his own domain. Set up your stall, talk some shit, move on to the next venue and see who else might be prepared to listen.

so education then

Several times throughout my time in teaching I have found myself repeating my original motivation for entering the profession. It hasn’t changed. Often the restatement has been on job applications, but in general I trot it out every time someone asks me why I became a teacher. A simplistic, slightly cynical answer might be that at the time I couldn’t think of anything else to do. At a practical level there remains a kernel of truth in that. I still don’t want to do a job that is not linked to the two degrees I did back in the eighties. Seems such a waste of learning otherwise. For me it’s still only about passing on subject knowledge and skills in a supportive environment. This has several implications.

Subject knowledge has to be the most highly prized of a teacher’s capabilities. And we should apply this in equal measure to reception teachers and Emeritus professors. It worked from Aristotle’s time until Ofsted trampled across the educational landscape in the mid nineties, since when the notion of capability in the teaching profession in England and Wales has been securely broken. Capability has become routinely judged according to the ability to perform a series of classroom tricks. The inventory of tricks changes at least every couple of years, and the package containing the inventory is given a new name with the same regularity. But someone who does not have your subject expertise can still sit in the corner of your classroom with a clipboard, determining your future based on how effectively the balls bounce from the nose of one seal to another. ‘Even better if’ that girl in the corner hadn’t been staring out of the window momentarily as the beach ball bounced off the back of her head, and ‘more stretch and challenge’ if all the students had known where they were on their individual ‘flight plan’. It looked like a few of them were more focused on the duty free shop. If Dylan Wiliam were dead he’d be spinning in his grave at 4000 rpm.

Someone recently commented to me that having an observer in a lesson changes the whole existential reality of the occasion. Observations were not the norm until twenty years ago, and I can hear people objecting that there is no other way of ensuring quality control and accountability. So maybe before then the profession was not properly monitored and teachers got away with being crap. Or maybe they were trusted based on qualifications and their experience. Maybe the emphasis was more on career development than keeping your career on the rails by performing externally imposed tricks. Maybe you were not only as good as your last observation. Maybe introverted students could stay silent if that’s what they wanted to do, without affecting their flight plan. Perhaps they could even land at a remote airport for couple of terms and not do very much except recharge their batteries. Not measurable, I know. Peaceful though. It’s the norm now to talk of a department and a school or college as having a ‘vision’ which must be evident when the men from the ministry descend (they’re still mostly men). Maybe what vision we have left is better spent learning more about the subject we trained in, though. Back to that existential reality. I’ve been in the profession for twenty-seven years and I can confidently say that no adult has ever seen what my lessons are really like. The second another adult enters the room I stiffen up and become largely too self-conscious to pull off the intentionally crap jokes and intentionally surreal take on stuff. I’m guessing it will always be that way now. The few adults who have glimpsed the irreverent departure from reality that I pedal in the classroom, haven’t liked it very much, wincing as they place crosses on their observation proformas, and sometimes commenting that a complex sense of humour excludes some of the students. But then so does making them hang their thoughts from washing lines or bear their soul to a post-it which you subsequently put in the bin. Will I let up on the crap jokes or take things more seriously? Very unlikely. To adapt a quote from David Banner, you wouldn’t like me when I’m serious. Run for your mortgages. The men from the ministry are coming.