Seneca’s Guide to Surviving Teaching

Develop a Thick Skin

Teaching is known for being a stressful job, but the advice given to most teachers on emotional resilience is limited to the cliche “develop a thick skin”. Though a fine sentiment, there is little advice on how to develop this elusive thick skin. Teacher training courses have a lot to cover in the basic running of lessons, so the more airy topics like resiliency get moved out the way. Repeated exposure and progressive desensitisation the the harshness of school life works for some, but can break others. The talk about the importance of “Grit” for learning has many of the same problems as talking about IQ. We have some idea of its importance, and some idea how to measure it, but we have no idea how to teach it or enhance it.

Complaining or Positivity

Teachers tend to deal with stress through either complaining or positivity. The range of topics discussed and complained about during your average lunch break covers everything from terrible pupils to terrible politicians. The Gove years were a boon period for complainers, acting as a staffroom stress ball. Complaining is nothing new, innovative or unique to teaching.
Then we have positivity, because education cribs a lot of its notes from self-help and soft psychology. Positive psychology is a diverse and quickly evolving field, but this is the Norman Vincent Peale via Tony Robbins and Oprah Winfrey positivity. Think happy thoughts and believe in yourself positivity. This is more prevalent amongst primary teachers, but is gaining ground in secondary schools.
Happy thoughts are great if you always have something to be happy about, and believing in yourself is great if you have the knowledge, skills and opportunities to prove it. However, this is not always the case. When things aren’t going well, or when your situation is beyond your competence or control, then positive thinking can be more of a hindrance.
The first thing that is important to say is that positive psychologists (i.e. actual scientists as opposed to self help gurus) see positive emotions as only one part of a much larger picture. Flow, for example, is characterised by the lack of emotions that we feel during total engagement. Then you have the problem that unquestioning positivity completely lacks in emotional intelligence. Intelligence involves using the correct tool for the job, but positive thinking gives a one size fits all emotional response to a wide range of situations. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman opens with a quote by Aristotle.

Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

There is nothing wrong with feeling sadness, anger or regret, because they are appropriate for certain situations. To demand that every situation calls for positivity is to ignore the benefit that other emotions can bring. It also puts pressure on us to feel these positive emotions all the time. It may be unpleasant to feel angry, but that unpleasantness is compounded when we believe that it is fundamentally wrong to feel that way.

Perhaps rather than a strict regime of positivity, perhaps a dose of intelligent pessimism could aid us.


Stoicism is a philosophy of suffering and endurance, which makes it well suited for teachers and pupils. The three great Stoics are Marcus Aurelius, a great leader, Epictetus, a slave, and Seneca, tutor to a brutal madman. Likewise, to teach in a local comprehensive, you must be at different times a great leader, a slave and a tutor to up to thirty madmen.
The prevailing wisdom of the time was that the Gods had a large role to play in our lives, but they could be persuaded by prayers or offerings. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that we have little control over fortune (or the goddess Fortuna) and suffering comes from when we do not acknowledge this fact. Fortune may give us wealth, power and popularity, but she can just as easily take them away from us. What may have taken months or years to accumulate can be destroyed in a single instant. Seneca uses the example of an earthquake, that can strike unexpectedly and level a whole city. Teachers are well acquainted with the feeling of a lesson that took hours to plan crumbling around you; the sinking feeling you get as the class starts to kick off as you fumble for your pen trying to shout them down.
The Stoic knows that fortune can act this way and so must learn to expect and accept this. We suffer when we want or believe fortune to act in a certain way and she doesn’t. We know that people lose money and die all the time, but we always seem so shocked when it happens to us or people we are close to.
This is the basis for Stoicism, but I feel it would be better shown through example.

Seneca in the classroom

To illustrate, let us imagine Seneca teaching in a modern school and how he would deal with a worst case scenario.

Seneca is a drama teacher. He is part way through a module on Oedipus with Year 9 and they seem to be understanding an enjoying it. However, one day a message arrives at the school. Ofsted is coming.
Now, Seneca is well prepared for this. In fact, every day he has considered on the possibility of Ofsted coming. Stoics recommend the practice of premeditation, considering what the worst case scenarios might be. Schools have the potential to be very chaotic places. “Classroom control” can be a fleeting notion at the best of times. In a school of over a thousand people, some of whom have severe personal problems, worst case scenarios are almost a daily occurrence. A Stoic never suffers the unexpected because he has trained himself to expect everything. To be angry at an Ofsted inspection would show that you didn’t believe that they would come at some point. To a Stoic, this would be like getting angry that the sun is setting at the end of the day. Furthermore, up until the message, Seneca had breathed a sigh of relief each morning, that the expected inspectors had not arrived that day. He had learned to be grateful for every day that Ofsted were not sat in his lessons. An optimist, enamoured with positive thinking, tends to be disappointed. A pessimist will tend to be pleasantly surprised.
Seneca had been well prepared for the visit but the lesson did not go well. His best laid lesson plans had gone awry. In an ill judged attempt to impress the inspectors, the pupil playing Oedipus actually gouges out his eyes. There is blood everywhere. His mother has to be called. In the ensuing chaos, Seneca is unable to get onto the plenary activity. Insufficient progress is made by the pupils and the lesson is graded as “Requires improvement”. This damning report results, eventually, in Seneca losing his job. Seneca accepted this was inevitable from the moment the student started giving his hammy soliloquy, allowing him to accept the decision with calm and grace.
It may strike you so far insufficient to merely expect bad things to happen. Inevitable suffering tends to fill us with a feeling of dread. We may dread an operation that we have had scheduled for months. We dread exam season, even though it rolls around every year. Expecting the worst, therefore, is only one of Stoicism’s central teachings. The other is that the worst is actually not that bad. Seneca taught that we should not only spend some time each day thinking of scenarios in our head, but that we should actively seek them out and live them. One of his teachings was that we should try to practice poverty.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’

There is an interesting, very similar quote by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London:

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.

If you have lived through the experience of having nothing, then there is very little that you can fear. Ofsted are the bogeymen of teachers. Say it three times in the mirror and they will appear behind you. Seneca would say that the worst (the very worst) that could happen when they visit is you losing your job. It sounds bad, but once you adjust to it you will find yourself quite unaffected as a whole. If you were to go through all the beliefs that cause you stress or anxiety in this manner, you would find yourself worried about far less in your teaching practice.
Seneca taught himself to not fear not only poverty, but also loss of family and friends, exile and even death. Historical Seneca experienced poverty, exile and loss in his lifetime. Death, he believed, could not be experienced, and so should not be feared. All we know of death is that it is very similar to the infinite void of experience before our births. We do not fear or regret the void that precedes us, why fear the one that proceeds us?
Our modern day Seneca has put himself in the worst scenarios that he could, and found himself relatively unaffected. Whether it was his unruly bottom set, the meagre teacher’s salary or the unfortunate loss of his job, he has learned to accept and even enjoy his fate. To fight against it, or wish that it had turned out differently, would be to cause himself more suffering. Stoicism is the best philosophy for dealing with issues like this. Alternatively, you could just quit your job, move into a house in the country with all your friends and become an Epicurean.

The irony of the title is that Seneca did not survive teaching. His pupil was the emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned and ordered the death of his own mother. Not surprisingly, Seneca also fell foul of Nero. He was accused of conspiring against him and was ordered to commit suicide. Teachers tend to prefer a lame card to a razor blade as their leaving gift, but Seneca gladly accepted his fate. I like to imagine that as he took the blade to his own body, he considered it to be a teachable moment.


Punished by Rewards and the Behaviour Conference

B.F. Skinner did some highly influential work about what influences human behaviour. He said that in the earliest stages of our lives our actions are quite random. However, we discover that some actions will bring us pleasure, so we repeat them, and some bring us pain, so we avoid them. He found out that by giving rewards and punishments to pigeons, he got them to behave in a range of uncharacteristic ways. He trained them to walk in circles, peck buttons in a sequence or do little pigeon dances. We train dogs in much the same way. Humans, he concluded, were no different. John Watson, another prominent behaviourist, stated that through conditioning and reinforcement, he could turn any child into a “doctor, lawyer… or a thief”. Watson, controversially, did not create any doctors or lawyers, but succeeded in making one small child very afraid of cute toys.

Behaviourism seems to agree with common sense: If you want someone to do something, reward them for it. It is deeply embedded in our culture. We praise or give money to people for doing what we want them to do. Businesses have raises and incentive schemes. We give out prestigious awards to the best artists, scientists and authors. On the other hand, we have prisons for those that do not follow the laws. The Carrot and Stick is the go to approach for getting things done.
However, if you want to see some of the most creative uses of incentives, then your average secondary school is the best place to look. Schools are run on a currency of stickers, grades and detention slips. The rewards and consequences system for all three schools l I’ve worked  in been elaborate, to say the least. My first placement school had 10 levels of punishment, each one had different consequences, interventions and paperwork. Pupils would accumulate points for small infractions, leading to harsher consequences, ensuring that no misbehaviour went unpunished. They had to put a big poster up on the wall of every classroom so that noone became confused about how it worked.
Similarly, rewards and punishments have featured prominently in most behaviour books that I have read so far. Lee and Marlene Canter’s Assertive Discipline forms the basis of most behaviour advice I have encountered. They state that a teacher should decide a set of rules to follow, reward anyone that obeys them and punish anyone that doesn’t. The three schools that I have worked at so far have used some variation on it. It is the approach supported by Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion, Bill Rogers in Classroom Behaviour, Sue Cowley in Getting the Buggers to Behave and by Tom Bennett in The Behaviour Guru.

What if they were all wrong?

For my third essay, we were asked to do a small scale research project. I was intrigued by an article that I read in TES called “When every child is a straight A student”. People are far more motivated by losses than equivalent gains, and have different reactions to equivalent changes, depending on whether it is framed as a loss or a gain. The article suggested that these cognitive biases could be used to raise attainment by having all pupils start on an A grade, and framing lower grades as a loss. Kahneman in the classroom.
My attempt to recreate this phenomenon in a lesson was an absolute failure. It was a logistical nightmare and I didn’t collect any useful data. It was too late in the term to try another idea out so I was condemned to writing 3,000 words about my terrible lesson and non-existent research methods. I ventured to the library to find something to pad it out with.

I started my research, like any seasoned procrastinator, by typing “motivation” into YouTube. Amongst the clips from sports movies and montages of body-builders, was a TED Talk by psychology writer Daniel Pink called “The Puzzle of Motivation“. I left the familiar isles of the 370s and went to the 150s and picked up Pink’s book Drive, and another that caught my eye, Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. They are very similar books, Drive being the shorter and easier read, Punished by Rewards being a 450 page, systematic critique of behaviouristic reward and punishment systems. What I had assumed to be a failed essay had turned up a very interesting discovery.

Indulge me in a thought experiment. Imagine that we set up an incentive scheme where you got paid £50 for every book you read. Now, think about the following question…,

  • Would you read long books or short books?
  • Would you choose challenging books or easy ones?
  • Would you really take your time over it or would you race through it?
  • Would you enjoy the experience or see it as a means to an end?

You are likely to read more books. If my intention was to have you go through as many books as possible, this scheme would be reasonably effective. Kohn and Pink acknowledge that rewards are very good for getting people to do simple and unpleasurable tasks, for the specific amount of time that you are willing to incentivise them. It is suitable for factory work, rewards acting like the fuel that powers the human machine. The range of tasks where incentives work is very narrow and does not include most of the tasks that we want pupils to perform in schools. The £50 may have made you read more books, but the chances are, you would have chosen the short, easy ones, and raced through them without much enjoyment or retention.

We tend to think of motivation in a homogeneous way, however, there are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is where you are doing something for its own sake. An amateur artist, who paints just for the love of painting, is highly intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation is where you do something for some external reward or punishment. The problem is that our brains don’t seem to be able to handle having both of these for the same activity. When you introduce extrinsic motivation to an activity, intrinsic motivation is reduced or eliminated. If you pay someone to read, they stop seeing the intrinsic value in reading, and start seeing it as a means to get money. The implication of this is that people enjoy the task less while they do it and are less likely to do it once the incentives are taken away. I think of my friends that were enthusiastic amateur dancers, who say that they enjoy it less now that they get paid for it. Getting paid to do what you love ensures that what you love feels like a job. Intrinsic motivation does not just cover pleasure, but also moral considerations. A good deed should be its own reward, as your gran would say. Pink cites the example of a pre-school that tried to fine parents if they did not pick their children up on time. The result was that the number of parents arriving late actually went up. The financial incentive meant that punctuality did not feel like a moral obligation, but a financial trade off.
To maintain the motivation, people must also value the rewards and fear the punishments. Detention is an effective threat for the pupils that have not had it, but after you have sat through them a few times, you start to realise that they are not that bad. Perhaps you’ve had an hour taken out your day, in which you can amuse yourself by thinking ways to get revenge on your teacher. Similarly rewards lose their value after a while. Once pupils realise that a sticker or a house point is pretty worthless, they don’t care about them and often find being awarded them patronising. Some of them actively avoid getting these token rewards.
Incentives also creates goal blindness. Incentives motivated people to do a task to the minimum required standard. Because the focus is on the reward and not the task, there is little perceived reason to spend unnecessary time or effort on it. Kohn cites incentivised reading schemes, that proved very successful in getting children to skim read books. Children involved in this scheme tended to have very poor recall of what happened in the books. Similarly, pupils incentivised to revise for a test tended to get good marks, then promptly forget everything they learned after they got their grade. When looking at creative tasks such as writing or painting, the work of pupils given incentives was judged as less creative than pupils that were just told to do it. Incentives also motivates people to cheat and act as poorly as they can get away with.

Kohn’s attack on incentive schemes is thorough. He argues not only against financial rewards and tokens (stickers, house points, certificates), but to grades and praise as well. His focus is primarily on education and how it is used in the classroom, but he and Pink both see how it effects management and parenting as well.

Why I felt I needed to write this now

We had a behaviour conference at school on Tuesday. Around a hundred teachers and support staff were gathered into the hall to discuss the new behaviour policy. The conference was split largely into two halves. First, we were asked to list, as a table, all the behaviours that we disapproved of. We were to write them down on post it notes and stick them to a large piece of sugar paper. An excellent example of group work, as all teachers were united in the single goal of sounding off. After 15 minutes, the sugar paper was heaving with colourful complaints: Spitting, answering back, “bundling”, getting phones out during lessons. There was a feeling of catharsis in the room. We wandered around and saw what other tables had written and ticked what we agreed with.
The second half was choosing which of these behaviours we would like most to put the word “no” in front of, and those would be codified as the rules.

I did not like this approach for three reasons. Firstly, it felt simplistic. If the solution was “stricter rules means better behaviour”, it struck me as odd that noone had tried it up until this point. Behaviour is an emergent phenomenon. It is the result of a great number of complex and interconnected factors. The Headmaster and SLT might appear to be in charge, but they are no more so than individual birds in a flock of starlings. This means that you cannot just change one thing and get the result you expect. I suspect making the rules stricter and the punishments harsher could result in the poorer relationships between staff and pupils, and higher levels of stress for both parties as well.
Secondly, the approach was very behaviouristic. This has all the problems that I focused on earlier in this post. There was no mention of changes to the structure of the school. There was little talk of changing attitudes or ethos (except when it manifested itself in directly observable behaviours). There was little mention of providing extra support or behaviour intervention. If you change the attitudes of pupils, changes in behaviour will come naturally. Furthermore, they will continue to act well when there is no fear of punishment. Some of the complaints that were mentioned seemed to already demonstrate this problem. For example, that respect seemed contingent on a staff members ability to dish out punishments. Pupils behaved very well around SLTs, because of the power that they wield, but very little to support staff, for the sole reason that they can’t give out punishments. The problem here is that pupils were showing respect for fear of punishment, not because it is something that you give unconditionally to all people.
Finally, there is a large trend towards evidence based teaching at the moment, and this school is no anomaly. However, there is strong evidence against behaviouristic discipline systems, which has been outlined briefly in this post. This is a good example of something that is not right, just because everyone seems to be doing it. Harsh punishments have worked to raise attainment in, say, South Korea, but not without consequences. On the other hand, Finland held up as having the best education system in the world and builds its discipline around trust, respect and community. A slightly more controversial example is the famous Summerhill, where pupils could choose whether they wanted to attend lessons and the rules were created by democratic meetings. A.S. Neill doesn’t deny that there were plenty examples of poor behaviour there, but credits the school with having a great capacity to change the pupils over time. He credits the alumni as being consistently kind, happy and confident, to an extent that is rare in other schools.

I have only done half the work here, so far, by tearing down the current discipline system without offering a replacement model. Both Kohn and Pink offer models for change and there are examples schools and countries that show there is another way. This would make this post far longer though.

The Next Trojan Horse – Radical Humanists Infiltrating UK Schools



It was Year 8 assembly at my second placement school. They had brought in two guest speakers to give an inspiration lecture, dripping with current educational wisdom. The talk was about how to achieve your full potential, and they skated through the growth mindset, the 10,000 hour rule and multiple intelligences. So far so bland, and I was attentively staring out the window. However, they concluded with such a curve ball, I was convinced that I had misheard. They went from the harsh mistress, Self Improvement, to her kinder sister, Self Acceptance, and suddenly Jesus came into the picture. We can never be perfect, they said, but that’s OK, because Jesus still loves us for who we are.
It struck me as against the ethos of the school. Firstly, it had no religious affiliation. There was, at best, a small section of actively Christian students and several actively non-Christian. Secondly, the school had a large focus on “pushing the global angle”, embedding diversity, inclusion and learning about other cultures into many aspects of the school. It was the focus of several CPD sessions and we were expected to bring an “international perspective” into our lessons. They were proud winners of the Stephen Lawrence Education Standard, which is awarded to schools that do not actively segregate or discriminate against minority students. The walls displayed pictures of all the countries that they had organised trips to. Even the rewards system was based around countries; students would win the “Asia Award”, for example, when they had accumulated a certain number of stamps. Because demographics of the school was largely White British Middle Class, I nicknamed the school the White Guilt Academy.
I was a bit baffled by the shoehorning of Jesus into what had been an otherwise forgettable assembly, so I asked my host teacher about it. He replied “its a legal requirement“.

According to the law, each school is required to perform one act of collective worship a day, of a “broadly Christian” character. I remember in primary school, each day was started off with prayers and hymns, with additional prayers just before school dinner. I lost faith early in my school career. As a precocious group of children, we doubted the existence of Santa Claus as early as Year 2, citing the logical impossibility of delivering all those presents in one night and the insufficiency of disappearing milk and cookies as empirical evidence. It wasn’t long until we turned our sights on our second favourite Christmas character. I wish I could say that this was as well argued, but the truth is that I really just didn’t like singing hymns. My secondary school was better; as well as chapel, there was an assembly for Jewish students and a third option for assorted other faiths. Non-believers had to sit through chapel, to bolster the numbers. Being made to sit through years of Christian assemblies only served to radicalise my non-beliefs. There was a feeling of being an underdog or a rebel, and I would often change the words in the hymns or prayers to usher in a downfall of Christianity.
People nowadays are realising that there is a fundamental contradiction between holding on to our Christian past and allowing and celebrating religious and cultural diversity. The collective worship law has, in general, been ignored or forgotten about by most schools. Providing different assemblies for all the beliefs a given school can represent is unfeasible in most circumstances. It is going the way of those old Victorian laws that only exist because no one has bothered to remove them yet.   You can’t assume that Christian is the default, or even the majority, any more. Even the Church of England has acknowledged that this is an out-dated law, suggesting that a more secular “spiritual reflection” should be undertaken.
The issue, however, is only partly that religious assemblies don’t always cater for, say, Muslims or Hindus.  In 2012, only 6% of the population identified as non-Christian theists. Though this still translates into a large number of people, the most significant group numerically is the “no religion” category, making up nearly half the population, and dwarfing the Church of England, the next largest group. New Scientist magazine described us as a group of “God not-botherers“. For a large cohort of people, religion plays little part in their lives. Far from being a group of active atheists, we are now moving towards religious disinterest.
As an atheist, I find this secularism preferable to morning prayers, Bible readings and people using the Fear of God as a threat. However, I feel that a complete rejection of religion leaves a void that mere secularism can’t fill. The purpose of Church wasn’t just to make people believe in God. It served as a source of education, community cohesion and moral purpose. School aims to provide many of these things, though often an afterthought when good grades have been secured. Many school assemblies tend to be dry affairs nowadays, and people tend to be afraid of teaching morality. What can they do to fill the big shoes left by God?

It was a hot Sunday in July. I was sat in a packed hall in central London as a strange bearded man shouted about how to be a good person. Among the congregation were students, families, old folks and sharp looking professionals. There had been songs and readings, afterwards there would be tea and biscuits. I was enraptured. When I told my parents where I had been, they were worried that I had joined a cult and told me to be careful about giving any money to them.
This was my experience of the Sunday Assembly, which meets every other week in Central London and has similar operations in cities around the world. Their modus operandi is that they provide the same good that a Church service, without a religious belief attached to it. The hall is Conway Hall, the base of the oldest surviving freethought organisation and centre for secular humanist thinking. The songs are pop songs, the readings are poetry readings and the sermons have covered topics like nature and creativity. Last Sunday was a sermon about mindfulness, which culminated in guided meditation session. A beautiful silence descended on the congregation, intently focusing on their breathing and holding hands with their neighbours. Its a persuasive argument against those that claim that religion is somehow necessary for morality. The congregation tends towards the hippyish type and the atmosphere is friendly, verging on happy clappy.
Importantly, I think atheism can tend to be openly hostile towards religion or believers, the Sunday Assembly feels more like a respectful disagreement. They don’t feel the need to disprove or denounce other religions (that would be preaching to the un-converted) and they have no shame about plundering their best bits. If I were in a position to lead a school assembly, I would be as comfortable delivering one of the sermons to a group of Christians, Muslims or atheists.
I have started going to the Sunday Assembly (non-)religiously. I would try and urge you to try it, but I don’t want to get evangelical about it.

Is your school an Orwellian Dystopia?


I saw a sign in the hall today that said “Left is right”. I can only assume “Freedom is slavery” hangs in the office of the discipline coordinator.

The Ministry of Progress ensures that bad test scores get banished down the memory holes. The Ministry of Behaviour has interventions taking place in Room 101. The Ministry of Maths is doing a module on 2 + 2 = 5.

Privacy has no place in schools. There is not a single room in the school where you can’t been seen by someone else. You must never be alone with someone. This is done for your protection.

There are other schools though.
There is the Brave New School. Children there are divided into sets, Alpha, Beta and Gamma. The pupils are happy here; their lessons are so filled with activities that they barely have time to absorb the information.
Then there is Fahrenheit Academy. The library there gets smaller every year.
There is the Franz Kafka School. The paperwork and bureaucracy is terrible. I hear of a boy, Josef K, who got expelled and never discovered why.

The Joy of Facts

The Weirdo in the Royal Armouries

It was my last week in Leeds and I had managed to avoid the Royal Armouries in Leeds for the five years that I had been there. The national collection of arms and armour, boasting 75,000 objects from around the world. Big guns, shiny swords and all those other things which 10 year old boys love. It is officially the Sixth Best Thing in Leeds and I knew I would regret it if I missed the opportunity.

The museum, however, bored me. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be an aesthetic experience or a historical one. I enjoyed some of the oddities, such as Henry VIII’s weird helmet and the gigantic elephant armour. However, I spent most of the time looking racks of swords, and all that I could think was “Yep, that’s a sword”. To me, there isn’t much difference between one pointy bit of metal and the next.

I was stood at the modern warfare cabinet, looking at the guns that I vaguely recognised from the news or the videogames I used to play. I was wondering who could possibly enjoy this when I heard a man let out an excited squeal. He rushed over and I could see he had a massive smile on his face. I judged him harshly by his chin curtain beard and cadet hat, but I had to ask him what provoked him. With little prompting, he gave me a talk about all the guns in the cabinet. He told me their history, when each was invented and which war it was used in. He traced their developments, pointing out the various design decisions for each one. He talked about merits of different barrel lengths. He literally talked about the nuts and bolts of the subject.

If I’ve given the impression that I was bored by this strange man, then I must clarify. I was engrossed. I willingly listened to him talk about clip sizes and trigger placements. He explained that he was studying for a masters in history, writing his dissertation on the subject of small arms development during and after WW1. He had come over from Canada to study in London and was visiting Leeds for the day, specifically to visit the Royal Armouries. He knew his stuff. Now he had taken the guns apart for me, explained the mechanisms and placed them in the context of world history. The guns I had been blankly staring at had taken on a new importance. The decisions made over the design of those guns had either cost or saved lives, and influenced wars.

I’ll admit now, I wasn’t inspired to start reading extensively on military history and weapon design. However, it got me thinking about the relationship between learning and appreciation.

Are Facts “Useless”?

Facts have a hard time in education. The word “Facts” often gets contrasted with “Understanding” and paired with “Useless”.  Facts get relegated to trivia, at best useful in a pub quiz or dinner party. What use is knowing the name of a long dead king or the capital of a far away country? Memorizing facts has no place in the 21st century now that we possess those portable brain extensions known as smart phones.Learning facts can be boring, teaching them laborious. A teacher teaching facts is seen as so old school that education writers compare it to Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster from Dickens’ Hard Times.

We can agree that it’s very useful for a doctor to know about medicine or a taxi driver to know his road signs, but knowledge of history or art isn’t going to save any lives or earn any money. This tends to be referred to as being a ulilitarian view of knowledge, where “utilitarian” means economically useful: Will it help you get a job? Will your skills be of benefit to the country or community? It is utilitarian in the sense we use to describe an office block: Efficient, no consideration given to aesthetic qualities or unnecessary extras. In architecture, “utilitarian” is a synonym for “eyesore”.
I find this to be a very narrow view of education and knowledge, but I’ve found it surprisingly prevalent. You can see it whenever people are discouraged from studying English Literature or Art for the sake of their future employment prospects. You can see it in the curriculum, because the only reason I can think of teaching pupils about the Haber Process is that the government are hoping that some of them will go on to manufacture ammonia. You can see it in the large scale return of vocational courses.
If we follow this conception of useful knowledge to its extreme the curriculum would consist of Maths and English, whatever specific knowledge and skills you need for your future job and the basics of housekeeping.
Science is a great example of this, where students are instructed at length about the experimental procedure. They are taught the intricacies of measurement and spend a long time practicing plotting graphs. What they are doing is far removed from what any actual scientist does; science would have advanced much faster if theories could be “proved” in a double period on a Thursday afternoon. Teaching pupils to “act like a scientist” is teaching science as a vocation, not as an intrinsically valuable realm of knowledge.

However, this interpretation of “usefulness” is far removed from the original meaning of Utilitarianism, as used by Jeremy Bentham or John Stewart Mill. In philosophy, ethics was traditionally based on absolutist ideas. That actions were right or wrong based on a set of laws, such as the Ten Commandments in Christianity. Utilitarianism was a reaction against this, suggesting a way to judge whether individual actions were wrong. It states that we should aim to maximise the total happiness and reduce pain. People should act to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people and any laws should reflect and enable this. Though not a perfectly sound moral doctrine, it holds up in most circumstances. I reckon few would agree that we should increase pain and reduce happiness. In which case, when we are thinking about the “Usefulness” of facts, we should be asking the question, does learning facts bring you pleasure?

When phrased like that, I don’t think that it’s possible to argue with the “utility” of learning facts. Knowledge is the foundation of appreciation. When we read a book, we draw on a vast amount of knowledge to form an opinion. We compare it to books of the same author or genre, we evaluate it against our ethical or political views, we think about relatable instances in our own lives. In This is Your Brain on MusicDaniel Levitin describes how our enjoyment of music is dependent on familiarity. We feel excited when we recognise a melody or chord progression. As we learn more about music, we gain an appreciation from a more complex and diverse range of songs. In “Useless Knowledge”, Bertrand Russell describes the illuminating qualities of knowledge. He describes how knowing the history, biology and etymology of apricots enhances his experience of eating them.
While Bentham believed that all pleasures were of the same type, though perhaps varying in intensity. How you attained pleasure is not as important as the amount that you attain. His said that “Pushpin is as good as poetry”. John Stewart Mill however believed that some pleasures were more refined and profound than others. This was his theory of Higher and Lower Pleasures. While the lower pleasures are OK, we tire of them more quickly, forget of them more easily and they have less capacity to change us as individuals. These higher and lower pleasures have been accused of being an elitist philosophy, favoring the hobbies of the upper classes and Education for Appreciation supports Locke’s view. Historically, higher pleasures have been  the preserve of the leisure classes, those who have had enough time to engage in appreciative learning. However, the structure of society has changed and I believe that we have the capacity to provide it for all pupils.

Shortly after my trip to the Royal Armouries I moved down to London. Knowing that I had two long months ahead of me, I made it a goal to learn about art. I took up drawing again, having barely doodled since GCSE, and read The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. Having confined myself to studying its history and its methods, I found going to art galleries a completely transformed experience. When I had previously seen “a pretty picture”, I now could now see some of the complexity that lay behind it: The composition, the innovations, the peculiarities of the artist’s signature style, the ideas cribbed from other artists. Being able to really enjoy art galleries in London opens up a whole world of free entertainment.
We often think of happiness or utility as having more, but perhaps we should think about it as appreciating more. A syllabus centred around the value of knowledge for appreciation would be vastly different. Each subject would be steeped in its own history and philosophy. Science would focus on its most important ideas and would quit this charade of teaching pupils how to act like scientists. Maths could move away from the arithmetic that accountants need and talk about some of the ideas that are normally left until university.

To be clear, I’m not saying that concerns about employability should be completely disregarded. Considerations of how you will pay your rent in the future should trump deepening your appreciation of art or music. Despite what I’ve said, I think that what is conventionally useful should be the priority. However, I’ve also pointed out that what is conventionally useful is actually a very narrow field of knowledge, which could be taught in a fraction of the time that pupils spend at school. If I imagine my ideal education system, I see one in which you spend a relatively small amount of time on the conventionally useful and are free to while away the rest of your time learning how to appreciate.

First Day of School

The day started off by my parents telling me that my white t-shirt and jeans probably wasn’t going to cut it as smart casual. I cycled out the house defiantly, before getting spectacularly lost on my bike. I turned a ten minute ride to a half an hour search around the back roads of Islington. When I went past the Arsenal stadium, I knew that I had overshot some mark. Getting lost really means familiarising yourself with the area and finding all the shortcuts. It was a rush to get there on time in the end. I think I made a more sweaty and breathless first impression than intended.

The rest of the day was paperwork, meetings and trying hard to come across as a normal, interesting person. It was difficult because all the staff I met were very nice and way cooler than me. There was a lot of paperwork and a lot of information for me to forget. I did my best to sit in the meetings and look like it was all terribly important to me.

I saw my classroom for the first time. Thankfully it still had the displays from last years teacher. It means that I won’t have to exercise my arts and crafts skills right away. The draws had a strange array of things: some plastic hopping frogs, some fake medals and copy of The Ride Along, starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.

The kids start coming in tomorrow. I meet my form on Wednesday. I teach my first lesson on Friday. I have enough meetings to keep me going in the mean time.


The Vacuum Packed Rat: My First Interview

I was fortunate enough to get the second school that I interviewed at. After the first one, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to go through the experience again.

The school was one of these “turn around” schools in a great location in East London. Like most modern schools, it was vaguely reminiscent of an airport. A glass and steel structure that pulls off the paradox of being both welcoming and imposing.
The school was Ofsted Outstanding and they wanted everyone to know it. They had quotes from the report all over their website and even painted on the walls of their school. This is like the young sweethearts that get tattoos bearing the names of their beloved. It is attaching an unwarranted permanence to the opinions of a notoriously fickle judge.
The head of science took me up to the science workroom. There were two other interviewees, also finishing their PGCEs, a nervous looking man that did physics and a more sociable girl that studied biology. There was a third man interviewing that talked about his time running departments and working at various schools. He terrified and confused us because we were unaware that he was interviewing for a different position.

We were given topics for Year 8 Biology, covering different topics in evolution. The physicist was doing Adaptation, the biologist was doing Heredity and I was doing Variation and Speciation,
They asked us if we needed anything from the Prep room. I didn’t. I had come prepared with a folder thick with pieces of paper. I had spent the whole of the previous day preparing and had far more on me than a teacher could ever need. The biologist requested some mini-white boards, as is customary.
The physicist had requested some samples to describe variation. A dour technician came in with a large black box. He opened it and showed a menagerie of insects and small samples, encased in plastic. His face fell. He explained that he was hoping to show how teeth or claws were adapted to the animals’ habitats or diets. Not being an adept entomologist, this would be difficult to achieve with dragon flies and wasps. He explained that this wasn’t really what he meant when he requested samples.
“Do you have anything bigger?”
The technician said he had one thing he could use, and went back to the prep room.
The technician came back a couple of minutes later with a large plastic bag. He showed the sample to the physicist. Inside was a dead rat. It’s fur was turning yellow and it had a thin lining of formaldehyde. The physicist had the face of a dream being crushed.
“I can’t use that”
He had to. He was due to start teaching the lesson in 10 minutes and its pretty difficult to obtain a skeleton or a preserved sample in that amount of time. Some of us were laughing quietly. The rat was ceremoniously passed around. It was cold from being taken just out the fridge and squishy to the touch. Two pupils were there doing coursework. They gave it a quick examination as well. Their opinion was “eww”.

We were all taken off to our classrooms to prepare for our lessons. The room was a strange L-shape, with one classroom at each end. This meant that they shared their noise.

My lesson was a disaster. Both poorly conceived and overplanned. My idea for teaching species was to print out pictures of animals and have the pupils suggest ways that these could be arranged. I was hoping that the pupils would organically come out with some sensible suggestions for how to arrange them and we could work towards the idea of classification. Instead, I spent at least 10 minutes with pupils trying to put them in order of “cuteness”. I had not thought about the amount of ushering around that this would require. Eventually I had the all too common revelation “this would be far easier if I just told them”. I sat them down and explained what species were and they got on with one of three levels of worksheet.

After our show lesson, myself and the biologist were given some quick lesson feedback. Rat boy had not managed to make it through to the second round of the interview.
They said to both of us that our lessons hadn’t been great, but they had seen something they liked in them. They said they wanted the standard three part lesson, clearly showing progress.

“We are going to ask you to teach another lesson this afternoon. We have chosen something in your specialist subject. You have two hours to prepare”.

I was fortunate. They asked me to prepare a lesson on waves, which not only had I taught before, but had taught very recently and had been one of my best lessons so far. I had even made a video for it. The Biologist wasn’t so lucky. She had to revise for and prepare a lesson on the adaptations of lungs and the cilia. She worked hard and panicked frequently over the next couple of hours, while I had the time to go and get some lunch, review my notes and generally get in a good state of mind.

My second lesson was successful. The class responded well and managed to get most of the work complete. I was quite relaxed even though there were up to four teachers and SLT observing me. I managed to get through to the interview round.

I was pretty drained when I was interviewed by three members of SLT. One of them resembled Michael Fassbender and spent the whole interview staring at me judgementally. They quizzed me on why I had changed degree subjects, why I only got a 2:2 after being a straight A student in school and why I had found my first placement so difficult. I felt like I gave pretty honest answers.
They gave me a bottle of water to clutch to and sooth my constantly parching throat. However, when I first opened it up I found that no water came out. The top of the water had frozen, forming an ice cap, something that I can’t say I’ve seen before. I stopped what I was saying and held the water bottle over my head. I wasn’t sure if this was a test. It felt almost Kafkaesque, being provided with a small bottle of water that I couldn’t drink.

It had been a long day. I had to rush off because I was going to miss my coach. I got to the station about 10 minutes late.

The wait for the call back was agonising. I was told that it’s common to get a call back on the same day. I had to wait a couple of days, during which I was constantly asked if I knew yet, and every phone buzz got the imagination firing. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, when I was enjoying an after school beer, relaxing in the sun in a pub in Otley, that I got the call.

I didn’t get the job. Apparently I came across as “nervous” during the interview. “No shit” I thought.