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.

so fake memories then

It seems we all carry around at least one memory of an event, action, facial expression or even just an attitude or a state of mind that never actually took place. Fake memories are remarkably easy to implant too, if you set about putting them there deliberately. So it’s unsurprising that so much legal difficulty is inherent in the pursuit of historical abuse cases, or that a domestic row can ensue over what someone may have said or not said on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November 1996. We are used to dealing with and circumventing the unreliability of the human memory. But the question of why we have this, from an evolutionary perspective, does not have an easy answer. A theory I heard recently is that it enables more cohesive social structures in the present by rewriting an angst-ridden past to be more consistent with your current commitments, thus enabling the continuance of social structures that will help perpetuate the species. So that holiday, when you lost all your baggage at the airport and your partner consoled himself at the all inclusive beer tap from eleven o’clock each day, was actually a laugh, looking back. Or that guy, who looked like Rik Mayall and did a very bizarre version of Snoop Dogg’s Gin And Juice in the first bar you walked into at one in the afternoon in that strange town where you missed your parents but didn’t want them there either, actually summed up how you were feeling at the time.

There has been a lot of coverage recently of issues surrounding artificial intelligence and whether one day intelligent machines might one day pose a threat to humans. Let’s be clear. The grandchildren of everyone reading this will be long dead before that’s even a remote possibility. Software is premised on our understanding of computers, not on our understanding of the human brain: that understanding is still primitive at best. We really don’t know why it does what it does. In the meantime, software falls into two categories: performing tricks or getting work done. Educational fashion seems currently to be getting these two categories mixed up. An augmented reality app that turns a wall display into a talking head doesn’t necessarily teach anybody anything: it just looks good. And database apps (applications FFS) are becoming increasingly less popular, and difficult to find on ‘app stores’, but they still run the world, including your bank account and your mortgage. Problem is, they look shit and don’t perform graphically. No brainer.

When your phone or your desktop computer or your laptop or your tablet or your games console or your smart TV or your Sky box or your car tell you that they they’re having a ‘blob day’ and that they’ll probably be OK tomorrow, or when they go offline for several hours and get the fridge to cover for them while they make you a birthday card, then we’re in trouble. Perhaps. In the meantime I’m happy to write reality. That’s what we’re good at.

so separation then

That time again. Wetter than average summers tend to burst tired but sharply defined fire into late September sycamore foliage, and so you arrive at your displacement from your nuclear family in a strange town, seeking quick and uneasy alliances while the trees smoulder and your parents fuss over your bags and boxes. All you really want is to transition (cross dissolve) to that shot of their rear number plate receding into the distance. Then you can deal with your first feelings that now it’s just you, or more precisely with the first stage of that process, because its conclusion is in the general scheme of things yet some years away. Leaflets, tours, corporate t-shirts, tents, supervised and risk assessed bar crawls. The road home is blurred and smeary.

You see someone in the street whose hair, clothes and gait put you in mind of someone you had contact with until recently. I often see from behind a figure that resembles my mother in later life. Diminutive stature, neck length grey hair and a determination to continue. This one has in the early morning a distracted gaze that suggests I’m mistaken. She was all about focus, which is likely why the filament expired so suddenly. Reaching into the drawer to discover that you’ve used the last spare bulb, you remark through your last mouthful of pizza that you meant to get more.

Contact is now more possible than at any time in the history of the planet, and yet somehow more difficult too. A lonely shroud hides your face and body from the person next to you in the food queue that you debated benefit culture and socialism with the night before. You lean past them awkwardly and your pulse quickens ever so slightly as you head for separate tables.

Since my last post, all of two years ago, study is back on the agenda after an absence of thirty years. Back through the turnstiles of a university library. The opportunity to look again at text analysis came fittingly enough in my mum’s garden last summer, to an email address I was about to bin off as it had turned into a spam repository. All in the timing. Or something. Teaching continues, to pay bills and keep me in contact with the passing on of subject knowledge that I still say is my only motivation for being in the profession. Over the last three decades that motivation has slipped steadily down the totem pole in the thinking of the management machine. If thinking it can be called.

Conventional wisdom and the Protestant work ethic have it that compartmentalisation is the template for success. Allow your empathy and your insecurities to bleed all over the compartments and flood them if you like, but don’t expect to accomplish very much. Fuck that though. Let’s not worry and let’s just see what remains. When I was down in London a few months ago I noticed the way that tree roots were bulging the perimeter wall and pavement in Tavistock Square, pushing at the lead-filled holes that held pre-war railings now rusting in the Serpentine. All propaganda, apparently. Not suitable for either munitions or aircraft production. Time runs at different speeds, according to calibration.

The severed head and shoulders of Virginia Woolf look out on the square, rain running down her face, down the faces of the freshers streaming past the windows of a neglected bar conscious of its business plan, down the window where Mum once had her morning caffeine in the context of the sea, dripping off those sycamore leaves that flicker above an old bath tub in her garden. Virginia’s head remembers the weight of those stones in her pocket and exhorts us to stay together for as long as we can.

OK. Drop me your CV if you want.