Quoting the Classical World

with apologies to Bernard Levin

If you cannot succeed in completing a task and declare it Sisyphean, you are quoting the classical world. If you have made a Herculean effort, you are quoting the classical world. If you’ve worked like a Trojan, wasted time whipping the sea and even then failed to have a eureka moment, you are quoting the classical world. If you have had the sword of Damocles hanging over you, feared the Greeks even when bearing gifts, won a Pyrrhic victory or secured a Carthaginian peace, crossed the Rubicon and declared that the die is cast because love conquers all and fortune favours the bold, if you have opened Pandora’s box or been invaded by a Trojan horse, been rich as Croesus or endured Spartan conditions, assumed that the poor want nothing but bread and circuses, claimed wisdom in knowing nothing, been caught out by your Achilles heel or troubled by your Oedipus complex, been on an odyssey, tried to clean the Augean stables or enjoyed a Platonic friendship then, carpe diem! mea culpa! to speak ad nauseam and in vino veritas, O tempora! O mores! You are quoting the classical world.

In Defence of “Teaching to the Test”

This week I must complete my results analysis, a task made considerably easier by the excellent performance of my students last summer. Despite spectacular results, I will be asked to justify the three students that ended up below par. One student was one mark off a 7, so what went wrong there? Until this stops happening to us (and I fail to envisage a future in which it does), teachers will “teach to the test”.

Yet this is not the only reason that teachers do so, and I would argue that
“teaching to the test” is only undesirable when it happens to the exclusion of all else. When “teaching to the test” becomes the sole purpose of education, of course we have a problem; but “teaching to the test” is an essential part of a functioning education system, and we’re doing the students a disservice if we pretend otherwise.

Examinations are a game – a sport, with complex rules. Students with privilege are taught how to play the game and are drilled over time for the match. They have parents that support them in their training and cheer from behind the touchline. They have coaches with experience in honing their skills and their mindset. They have the right equipment. One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to teach them the rules and practise for the game; to send them onto the field without such preparation is setting them up for failure.

The notion that well-taught students will perform to the best of their ability without direct and explicit preparation for a particular examination is a ludicrous fantasy, and I am stunned at the number of high-ranking educationalists that seem wedded to it. Until we find a way of testing students other than written examination (which hasn’t happened to date) what would we all prefer: a teacher who understands the examination process or a teacher who doesn’t?

One of the single most useful things that a teacher can do is to mark for the relevant exam board. The training that you receive demystifies the examination process and the unhelpful mark-schemes filled with phrases such as “wide-ranging response” and “answer fully shaped for purpose”. Train as a marker and the chief examiner will enlighten you as to what the hell these statements actually mean (for example, with a ball-park figure on the number of points expected in a “wide-ranging” answer). Marking is a tedious and stressful responsibility to take on board on top of your teaching load and is certainly not worth it for the money – but the benefit to students is immense.

My subject is notoriously difficult and is offered in our school as a part of our provision for academic stretch and challenge. The notion that I could guide my students to excel in the examination without furnishing them with skills that are transferable to A level is startling to me. Who is actually doing that?! This does not mean that students will find the switch to A level unchallenging – of course they will find it difficult, and so they should; but the analytical skills that I have taught them will transfer, as will the study skills, as will the method of approaching an exam with their eyes wide open, armed with the knowledge and know-how required to succeed. If this is not the purpose of what we do, I’ve been getting it wrong for two decades.

Marching Towards the Corporate

When did the world decide that the corporate model is the ideal template? The inexorable march towards business speak and a commercial style of operation appears to be infecting every aspect of our lives, from health care to education, from politics to the arts. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re all becoming a part of somebody else’s branding exercise.

Two years ago, my husband quit his engineering job, severing ties with a company he has been with for over ten years. There were several reasons behind his relatively sudden decision, but most of them relate to the increasing prevalence of what one might call “corporate bullshit”.

“Nobody helps each other out any more,” my husband said to me. Everyone’s time has to be logged on a spreadsheet; as a result, nobody is motivated to give their time for anything other than what will get a tick in the box. Engineers are under ludicrous pressure to provide “accurate estimates”, the oxymoron apparently lost on a management team that seem to have little to no understanding of what engineers actually do.

My father had the same experience, and I watched as his effervescent passion and technical brilliance were slowly eroded by the drip, drip, drip effect of timesheets; he worked for small-minded money men, faceless suits with no comprehension of the fact that high-quality engineering requires free-thinking, imagination and flair.

In education, where my own experience lies, a depressingly corporate tone is now the norm. The simplest of pedagogical principles are dressed up in the flowery language of over-sell, making everything sound more complicated than it needs to be. We don’t teach any more – we “cascade” and we “expedite”.

Managers spout a bewildering plethora of executive sound-bites and every school has a self-conscious “vision” for its future, shaped by the leadership team. I nearly lost it at one staff meeting in which a middle leader exhorted us to “facilitate those water-cooler moments” – by which he meant “talk to each other in the staffroom”. I think.

But the problem is not just the meaningless turns of phrase that drive us all to distraction in the workplace and provide endless fodder for the ever-brilliant team of satirists at Modern Toss – it’s far more serious than that. The corporate world is infiltrating the very heart of what we stand for. As someone who deliberately chose a career path away from the treadmill of commercialism, I am disquieted by the subtle shift in culture.

Recently, I received a conference invitation from a company called Osiris, an independent training provider for teachers. So enraged was I by its contents that I tore up the leaflet in a manner reminiscent of the mythical dismembering of Osiris himself. Around half an hour later, I decided that a much more productive response would be to fish the offending item out of the bin, piece it back together and vent my spleen in writing.

The conference, to be held in March 2016, is on “building character” in students. It seems that the government has a “new model for character development” as part of the “2016 national agenda for character education.”

Any sane person should already be feeling queasy.

To help us with this terrific new framework (the details of which I simply cannot wait to hear), the flyer explained that the conference will furnish its delegates with the following:

  1. A new model of character development for your school and individual pupils. (Give that some thought for a few seconds and tell me it isn’t nonsense).
  2. Strategies to identify and audit character. (Yes, you read that right: identify and audit character. I can’t wait to see the spreadsheet they’ve created – or maybe it’s a whole new piece of software? Either way, I’m excited).
  3. Clarity over which character traits your school should focus on. (Personally, I will be arguing for wantonness and dissipation).
  4. Ideas to build character in lessons, across the school and outside of school. (If anyone mentions paintballing or trust exercises, I will not be responsible for my actions).

The leaflet states that delegates will also hear from an Ofsted representative on how character will be inspected in 2016 (can you even imagine?) plus views shared by a representative from everybody’s favourite global brand: McDonalds. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he is invited.

So this is the situation in which we find ourselves: spreadsheets for auditing our children’s very character development, driven by bureaucrats with about as much personality as a dampened sponge.

There is only one response, and it lies in resistance.

I will not do it. I will not even discuss it. As Head of Citizenship in an excellent state school, I will not audit the characters of our students, and if the government or our management team want it done, they can go find some other mug with no morals and a shaky sense of self.

If this is the future, I may become a hermit.

This piece was first published in December 2015 in Quillette Magazine under the title: Schools proposing to audit pupils’ characters should mind their own business.

Taking the Wonder out of Science Education

A couple of years ago, the London Science Museum produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show”. It was reported enthusiastically on the BBC, with loud film-clips of zany, steampunk characters shrieking and leaping about the stage, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that – we’re endlessly told – will encourage our children to get into science.

The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (sigh) took an audience of excited young theatre-goers through a range of whacky demonstrations. The hope was that they would be inspired enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they returned to the classroom and were reminded that they didn’t know or even care what a mole was.

One voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head told me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be A Good Thing. But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling.

When I was fifteen, the film Dead Poets Society was released, in which an inspirational professor exposed a group of smart and cynical boys to the rapture of poetry. As the protagonist says of the eponymous club, “Spirits soared, women swooned and gods were created – not a bad way to spend an evening.” The film unashamedly presented poetry and the arts as the pinnacle of human endeavour, and science came out as one of several undesirable poor relations. Here’s a section from a speech made by the character John Keating, the inspiring teacher in question:

“Medicine, law, business, engineering … these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love … these are what we stay alive for! To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer? That you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. … What will your verse be?”

The painful irony for me now when I read those lines is that the questions trembling behind them are inescapably scientific. But to my young mind it was utterly convincing that science was nothing more than a tedious necessity, and this was confirmed to me again and again in the classroom. The very phrase “practical experiment” made me crave fresh air and illumination.

Happily, there are writers who understand. In Unweaving the Rainbow, a homage to science, Richard Dawkins raised concerns about the dominance of practical science in schools, and mused on how impoverished the world would be if only those who had practised and mastered the skill of playing an instrument were interested in and exposed to classical music. As a musician myself, the analogy speaks to me; the endless tedium of scales and arpeggios is enough to put anyone off, and their repetitive practice, whilst entirely necessary for success in the mastering of an instrument, is not for everyone; yet no-one would dream of suggesting that this should preclude a knowledge of, an interest in and even a passion for music itself.

Back in the 1980s I did many practicals, and I suppose that my teachers tried their best to pique my scientific interest. There were ping-pong balls and life-sized models; there were even bottles of acid kicking around on the laboratory bench right next to the gas taps, which some students never tired of lighting behind the teacher’s back. But I’m afraid I simply wasn’t thrilled when a powder changed colour at the bottom of a test tube, or when my lit splint made a squeaky pop, indicating the presence of hydrogen.

My teachers saw this as nothing but a failing on my part, and yet when they unanimously agreed that I was “not a scientist” I was overjoyed – triumphant, even. And why? Because none of those practical lessons had convinced me that science was anything other than the pursuit of the mundane.

Most children are natural philosophers. In addition, and contrary to popular belief, not all of them are better engaged by hands-on activities over abstract ideas. In my case, somewhat romantic and thrilled by artistic ideals as I was, the seemingly humdrum realities of the science lab were a positive turn off. My head was bursting with the biggest questions imaginable, and much of the time I was going through the all-consuming existential crisis common to young people, an experience that should be celebrated and nurtured.By the age of 9 or 10 I was already epistemologically-minded enough to have surmised that there was no more evidence for the existence of God than there was for Santa Claus (and the family had already ‘fessed up on that one), but my views were mocked at my traditional faith school; more importantly, not one single science teacher took the opportunity to point out to me that the approach I had taken in my reasoning was logical and evidence-based.

As my interest in philosophy grew, it was nurtured and guided exclusively by teachers of the arts: numerous English teachers, a couple of historians and most of all my Classics teacher, who would eventually inspire my subject of choice at university. It’s ironic that the closest I came to doubting my convictions as to the unworthiness of science came to me through literature; in being exposed to the metaphysical poets, I couldn’t escape the fact that these exciting, romantic and raunchy philosophers were fascinated by science. But the “real” scientists had long since abandoned me as a dreamer and left me to discover — too late, as it happens — that my disregard for mathematics and the sciences would eventually limit my academic career; suffice to say, my first postgraduate seminar in the philosophy of logic was one hell of a shock.

I now work in a large comprehensive, and most of the students that I teach have already decided whether or not they consider themselves to be “a scientist.” Too often, it seems to me, the deep and soulful thinkers are the ones that are turned off by science. Why does this bother me? Well, there are lots of reasons. Firstly, I fear that we may be driving some of our best potential thinkers away from science — not a happy situation for the future. Secondly, I believe that an emphasis on the practical over and above the philosophical may well be a part of what puts many girls off science. Thirdly, and to my mind by far the most pressing worry, is the increasing chasm that we seem to be creating between scientific thinking and “the big questions.” Science should now be at the centre of philosophical reasoning and debate, and yet it tends to get pushed to the side because so few teachers have the knowledge and the skills to apply it.

If you walk down the corridor from our school science labs to the Religious Education rooms, you are faced with a plethora of exciting philosophical challenges plastered across the walls. Are some people evil? When does life begin? Why are we here? Is there such a thing as the soul? What happens when we die? These questions are terrific, but a brief glance through an RE text book will show you that “What scientists think” is generally presented in a colourful bubble alongside other colourful bubbles of equal size summarising “what Christians/Jews/Muslims/delete-as-applicable think.” For any child reading this material, the implication is that scientific thinking is just one option of many; sure, you can choose to look at the world from a scientific angle, but hey, it’s okay not to, especially if it doesn’t sit comfortably with your beliefs! Glance back at those inspiring walls and you’ll find a poster of Rudolph Zallinger’s “March of Progress” pinned up next to Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”: it’s all up for debate, it seems, and everyone’s opinion is equally valid — a mindset in schools which I am finding increasingly irksome, not to mention worrying.

A previous Head of Science once confessed to me that he sometimes exploited the popular misunderstanding of the scientific term “theory” in order to avoid causing offence to religious students when talking about evolution — in other words, he allowed the students to think that it’s “only a theory”. I don’t mind admitting that I blew something of a gasket at him, and he seemed puzzled by my reaction — perhaps he had thought himself to be on safe ground by admitting his betrayal of his science to one of those ‘arty’ types. But I think that my rage was legitimate — “righteous anger” to quote Aristotle, the forefather of the scientific method.

And yet, perhaps some of my antagonism stemmed from my own sense of betrayal. I was frankly let down by my science teachers; they failed systematically to provoke a desire in my young mind to understand the world around me, and I regret those lost years bitterly. The young people that we teach deserve a whole lot better.

This piece was first published in this form in Quillette Magazine in February 2016; prior to that it had appeared under the title “On Being Impractical” for the Richard Dawkins Association for Reason and Science.