Facts, lies, feelings and proof: why cognitive biases matter and what we can do about it.


One of the dramatic high points in Shakespeare’s play Othello is when Othello, tormented by the idea that his beloved wife is having an affair with his second in command Cassio,  turns on Iago, the man who planted the thought in his head, and demands ‘ocular proof’  that Desdemona is ‘a whore’.  For the audience, this is a moment of high suspense; from the start we have been party to ‘honest’ Iago’s villainous plan to use his position of trust with Othello against him, to destroy his happiness  and his career as a respected general of the Venetian state.   Within moments, Iago has turned Othello’s anger to his own advantage, first adopting the pose of the wronged bearer of bad news who has learned his lesson not to be ‘too honest’ with his friend in future, and then blandly pointing out the ‘tedious difficulty’ of engineering a situation where Othello might ‘grossly gape on’ while Desdemona and Cassio have sex.   From this point in Act 3, Othello is unable to resist Iago’s manipulations, and the play moves relentlessly to its tragic denouement.

Iago,  presented ironically from the opening of the play as ‘honest’, is Shakespeare’s most chilling villain, and Othello is a masterclass in the art of manipulation.  For those interested in the psychology of learning, it is also a useful workshop on cognitive biases in action.  Before Iago has the chance to use Desdemona’s dropped handkerchief as (highly circumstantial) ‘ocular proof’ of her guilt, he is able to convince Othello by the simple expedient of telling him a direct lie about hearing Cassio talk in his sleep. Perhaps more remarkably, Shakespeare suggests that Othello is already convinced of Desdemona’s guilt even by the time he demands ‘ocular proof’. Immediately before he turns on Iago, he refers to Desdemona’s ‘stol’n hours of lust’ as a fact*, and in a soliloquy after Iago’s first insinuations his attempt to reason the situation through concludes that Desdemona is ‘gone’ and he is ‘abused’


This fellow’s of exceeding honesty
And knows all quantities, with a learnèd spirit,
Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. Oh, curse of marriage
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! (Act 3, Sc 3 263 – 275)


In this speech we can see how Othello’s trust in ‘this fellow’ Iago’s honesty and wisdom frames his subsequent thoughts on the idea that Desdemona might be unfaithful, and so he goes on to dwell not on reasons that she is true, but on reasons why she might be false – that he is black, lacks sophisticated conversation and is older than her. By  Act 4, when Othello finally sees Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, the audience is fully convinced he will fall for the ruse; as Iago observes ‘trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of Holy Writ’  and we know Othello has already decided she is guilty.

 If the cognitive biases on the stage are easy for us to observe, Shakespeare also plays with the cognitive biases of his audience.  Even though we are told in Act 1 by Iago himself that he only ‘follows (Othello) to serve (his) turn upon him’ because  Othello has overlooked Iago’s loyalty in battle over many years, and even though every other character in the play is also taken in by Iago’s ‘honesty’, much criticism over the years has been devoted to Othello’s credulity and resulting jealousy as flaws that disqualify him entirely as a tragic hero.  None of Shakespeare’s other major tragedies appear to provoke such debate.  While murdering your wife can’t be seen as a heroic act, the same could be said of murdering your best friend, another man’s wife and children, or a silly old man hiding behind a curtain; in this writer’s reading at least, critics don’t seem to have the same problems accepting  the fatally flawed hero as an integral element of the tragic genre in Macbeth and Hamlet. 
The idea that emotions influence reasoning has been around a lot longer than the latest research on cognitive biases, and Shakespeare’s genius in depicting the way we tend to pursue conclusions that we are already pre-disposed to reach still resonates today as an idea we need to hold in awareness in our discourses on educational practice.  It is easy to see flaws in other people’s reasoning, and it feels good in the face of our own frustrations about the debate to denounce those who don’t know what we know as idiots or worse, but it doesn’t move the conversation on.  It’s not just people who think Pokemon Go is a useful academic innovation who need to consider a wider body of evidence; too much discourse on teaching and learning seems to ignore what (other) people actually feel, especially online, where outrage is never more than two tweets away.  So I was grateful last week to discover the chart on the left on Tom Bennett’s Twitter feed It’s an excellent primer in Cognitive Biases, and if you want to discover more about your own biases,  you can test yourself on a fun website called Clearerthinking.org which I discovered  via Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’.
As educators we need to hold to the evidence, and we need to test it and make rational choices for ourselves and our students.  Anyone who is familiar with the play Othello also knows  that Shakespeare puts his words in praise of reason and its ability to ‘cool our raging (e)motions… (and) …our unbitted lusts’ (Act 1, sc 3) into the mouth of his most monstrous villain.  What makes Iago a monster is not his psychological insight, but the lack of empathy which allows him to use that insight against people who trust him. If we truly value reliable evidence and knowledge, we urgently need to re-frame the way we communicate  in the face of a global trend of #alternativefacts to communicate not just rightness, but compassion.


Othello reference:*

What sense had I in her stol’n hours of lust?
    I saw ’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me.

(Othello Act 3, scene 3, lines 348 – 349)


Further reading on Social Emotional Learning:

Harvard Graduate School Making Caring Common project


Further information on moral reasoning and empathy:

Jonathan Haidt’s academic homepage NYU

The Righteous Mind homepage


Confirmation biases, violence and learning.


On April 5, 1968,  in the midst of his run for the 1968 Democratic  nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, delivered a 10 minute speech in front of a hushed audience at the Cleveland City Club in Ohio.  The speech was titled ‘The Mindless Menace of Violence’ ;  April 5 1968 was the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Kennedy’s speech indicted not only the perpetrators of the violence, but also those who “look[ed] for scapegoats [or] conspiracies” in its aftermath.    His opening reference to ‘shame and sorrow’ addressed the shock and sadness of his audience, but he went on to decry the ‘common agreement to meet disagreement with force’.  He offered his audience no easy solutions to wider frustrations about  increasing trends towards political polarisation that were wracking the country with civil dissent over America’s long-running  involvement in the Vietnam War and the emergence of a Black Power Movement threatening to supplant Dr King’s strategy of non-violent resistance .  Instead he reminded them that  “The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed” and exhorted them to “admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men…learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all” and to “admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others.”

The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy spoke powerfully, informed by both reason and compassion, to challenge his audience about their own part in what happened next.    History does not record the responses of the people at the Cleveland City Club that day, but it does record that the murder of Dr King sparked the greatest wave of social unrest across the United States since the Civil War, with riots in over 100 cities. On June 5th, 2 months to the day after he spoke in Cleveland, the brother of murdered 35th President John F Kennedy  was himself fatally shot as he left the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles shortly after finding out he’d won the Californian Primary for the 1968 Democratic nomination.

In 2016, 44th President Barack Obama is notable as the only political figure in the English speaking world whose words speak to both feeling and reason.  It is equally notable that over the last 8 years, for whatever reason, about half the voting population of the United States has been unable to hear him, and whether they supported him or not, his appeal for the peaceful transition of power last week could not pre-empt a wave of protest sweeping the United States  in the wake of the election result. The vast majority of this protest has been peaceful, but mainstream news outlets  have found it difficult to keep up as real and alleged examples of individual circumstance, distress or bad behaviour, surprise and shock are seized on, amplified and echoed around social media.

The 2016 Presidential Election provides data-informed educators with a textbook example of confirmation bias in action.  The internet noise we’ve seen since November 9th is also a good example of our tendency to resort to the availability heuristic , which reinforces the confirmation bias tendency to support pre-existing interpretations and propose simplistic ‘solutions’ with the most readily available ‘evidence’.  Classic fixed mindset behaviour.   As Jonathan Haidt points out in this paper , overcoming confirmation bias (especially our own) is an uphill struggle, but when mature democracies are lining up to jump down the post-truth rabbit hole, awareness of our own confirmation bias tendencies becomes an educational imperative.

When I first started researching ‘non-violent classrooms’ in 2015 one of my teacher friends  joked, ‘What’s all this about non-violent classrooms? We stopped beating the children years ago’  and I laughed with him, but that joke sums up the tendency of many intelligent and well-meaning educators to define the word ‘violence’ too narrowly: unless it’s physical, or shouting, it’s not violence. As teachers, a narrow definition of ‘violence’ lets us off the hook of considering how much our classroom management strategies are unconscious exercises in instilling compliance within a system that reinforces our own power as authority figures.  But we mean well, don’t we?   Maybe we do, but just as a calm, ordered classroom doesn’t necessarily mean the pupils are learning,  the fact that we don’t beat the children any more doesn’t mean we are truly open to their full educational development.  We all say we like debate in the classroom, but, for good educational reasons (getting through the syllabus) it must be focused, and ‘relevant’.

Perhaps understandably, when the education blogosphere looks at the neuroscience behind stress and learning, it tends to focus on the positive, the power of joy and enthusiasm and the connectedness of the ‘aha’ moment.  As teacher,  I too have a dream, that my classroom will be a safe space where every pupil will grow towards their potential as a learning human being.  But in the world outside the safe spaces of our classrooms,  BREXIT and the US election result are salutary lessons that emotions we have the power to regulate, even deny, within our classrooms – anger, fear and hatred – can assume a valency with the potential to change the world in frightening ways.  So, as a teacher, what can I do?  The first thing might be to acknowledge that I am not the objective arbiter of what goes on in my classroom, but a subjective participant.  That my reasoning and intellectual processes are informed by both conscious and unconscious emotion,  what Carl Jung called the Shadow Self.  And also that whether I admit them or not, my own emotional defences will work to stop me seeing as clearly as I think I do.

To the extent that we insist on the ‘safe spaces’ of our educational discourse, we guard against awareness of our own emotional violence by channeling it into bi-partisan debate, by the implicit or explicit denial of emotions around power and control in forming opinions and fashions in educational practice, and by the narrow framing of the conversation around buzz-phrases such as ‘classroom management’ or ‘research-led practice’ to dismiss what is happening outside the classroom as irrelevant to the ‘real’ educational issues. At a time when Liberal Democracy itself is experiencing violent upheavals, those of us who value universal education as a one of its foundations need to bring to awareness and resist in ourselves a collective confirmation bias that adds up to what Robert F. Kennedy, addressing the Cleveland City Club in 1968,  called “the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay.”









Crazy religious people (need educating too)


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In 1857, two years before Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species,’ the Victorian naturalist and creator of the Aquarium Philip Henry Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, arguing that in order for the earth to be ‘functional’, God must have created it with mountains and canyons, trees with growth rings, Adam and Eve with hair, fingernails, and navels (omphalos is Greek for ‘navel’), and that therefore no evidence that we can see of the presumed age of the earth and universe can be assumed to be reliable. Contemporary scientific and theological reception to the book’s publication is best summed up by clergyman novelist Charles Kingsley’s comment that he couldn’t accept a hypothesis based on the premise that God had ‘written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind.’ The book sold poorly and was seen as an intellectual as well as a financial failure.  However, it gave birth to the Omphalos hypothesis, which still informs young earth creationist theory that remains proof against all empirical argument.

While we are familiar with American creationism, here in the UK we tend to dismiss it as part and parcel of gun-toting extremism in the Land of the Free and regard the existence of institutions such as the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas with amused disdain, not something that is relevant to us.  Nearer to home Northern Ireland, where religion still exerts a stranglehold on education and individual rights, is seen as a uniquely benighted case entangled in intractable historical hatreds and nothing to do with life and education in the wider UK.  However, as the recent Twitter storm raised by Tom Sherrington‘s blog post, My Evolution Assembly. And the Young Creationists shows, religious fundamentalism is flexing its muscles in English schools too.   This is an educational issue, and not just for Science or RE teachers.  It’s not going away and teachers need to consider how they will face it in their classrooms, because in case you haven’t been watching the news lately make no mistake: the forces of religious fundamentalism are entirely inimical to education.

I have a confession to make: I was raised religious.  Not the kindly dotty aunt CofE type religious that characterises the British establishment at prayer, but the wild-eyed you must be born again religious so brilliantly satirised by Jeanette Winterson in Oranges are not the Only Fruit.   Although it is a novel, it is closely autobiographical, and when I first read it twenty years ago I recognised the unholy alliance of Biblical authoritarianism, intellectual vacuity and social inadequacy she relates from the ‘Fellowship’ of my own childhood. Winterson’s book gives some idea how being exposed to doctrinaire absolutism fosters in a child a mind set diametrically opposed to that of people who’ve been raised in secular or nominally religious households . Fundamentalism separates humanity into ‘brothers and sisters’ and ‘the World’, encouraging the child to be both disdainful and suspicious of everything outside the circle of belief; it privileges the religious authority over intellectual enquiry and simultaneously encourages individuals to indulge their emotional responses and, as long as those responses align with the accepted doctrines, validate them with as revealed truths pointing to the Will of God. Religious fundamentalism is as effective a form of brainwashing as any that has been devised; it’s on the rise and ignoring it, or backing away from it out of fear of giving offence, is not going to make it go away.

Conversely, although it is infuriating to deal with religious people (they are so self-righteous, so apparently wilful in their blindness to self evident realities and scientific facts!) mocking them as stupid or condemning their beliefs as bad only confirms what they have been told that everyone outside their belief system is hostile, and defensive anger easily justifies violence. Rather, as Tom Sherrington suggests, we need to respectfully engage with assertions of religious belief, however ridiculous we find them, as educational opportunities, and use our privilege as teachers to allow children raised in those belief systems a chance to hear alternative views.

I first came across Philip Henry Gosse in ‘Father and Son’, the writer Edmund Gosse’s account of his relationship with his father .  I commend it to you.  Reading Father and Son helped me to understand my own experience of rejecting childhood religion – my parents thankfully never banned the reading of fiction as Gosse’s did, and while he glimpsed other possibilities than passively accepting faith assertions through his reading of dictionaries and scientific publications, I glimpsed them through Literature. At school the adults I knew modelled a way of life that showed disinterested curiosity about facts and what was going on in the world around me to be a more interesting, secure and constructive foundation for living than the Book of Revelation.   I was lucky in my teachers; I was also lucky that when I rejected our ‘fellowship’ at 15, I was largely left to my own devices, my only punishment being the loss of people I had known as family.

The religious fundamentalisms of the early 21st century are more aggressive than those of the last; they frighten us all, but they are not to be dismissed as mere distant horrors.  The people on whom they exact the worst toll are the children born into them.  We need more teachers to actively engage with the debate about religion in schools, to put forward their considered expert views on enlightenment through learning rather than revelation. Grateful as I am to my teachers for modelling an alternative way to be, that may no longer be enough.

Update: Since I posted this, Tom Sherrington has written a further blog post on the ‘hoopla’ surrounding his Evolution Assemblies.  It illustrates some of my points above about both the difficulties and the necessity of keeping the conversation going.

Also, if you haven’t seen the film ‘Spotlight’ yet, go and see it. It portrays compellingly how the Catholic Church, seemingly far removed in power and social reach from the extremities of isolationist sects, subscribes to the same distorted world view of the primacy of authority and tradition over evidence.

Putting it into practice…


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I’ve been working on all that for the last few weeks, how to turn it into something I can actually use in the classroom.  Come the beginning of term, it’s time.  I decided to go forward with a general idea of ‘giving them space to learn’: I would provide the scaffolding and technical information, but so far as practical they would take responsibility for their own learning in the classroom space by deciding how we go forward.  Once the blanks (lessons) are filled in, which I’m planning to do over the next two weeks, give or take an hour, I’ll print and distribute.


In my four lessons this morning we talked seating arrangements, timetabling and the differences between their learning experience on p.2 Tuesday and p.6 Friday.   We discussed having a mobile-free lesson once a cycle.  To my mild surprise, nobody raises any objections.  Is that a function of them really not minding or being compliant?

But a picture is worth a thousand words, said someone.  Here are some from my first morning’s attempts at bringing the pupils on board with social emotional focus for academic progress (sorry: that’s a mouthful.  There isn’t a handy buzz phrase available yet).

I asked them to set their own goals for the term/course.  (NB: Both offers of a goal for class work-shopping were from boys.)


Yr 11 goal workshopped on the board: ‘Do all my preps by the deadline’

Yr 13 goal: ‘Get A*s’

I gave them these worksheets to help them bring together the information, the feelings/needs and their (self-determined) goals.


Points of interest: the U6th form are most extrinsically focused (unsurprising, perhaps –  they’ve been in the system longer, they are looking beyond school…) All very illuminating and helps me to get to know them.  We started discussing the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – we’ll pick up the discussion as we go along.

Lastly I asked the U6 form, whose set I have just taken over, to use the feelings words from the list to give me some anonymous Post it feedback about how they felt at the end of the first lesson – one apparently misunderstood what I was asking them to do and two didn’t hand in their Post its.  Those are also forms of feedback.

Feelings feedback

The basis for several more illuminating conversations over the next few lessons.  I’ll keep you posted.

A random selection of thoughts from my travels (ii) – ‘Out’ Teachers Save Lives


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In search of more non-violent pedagogies*, I was due to visit Athenian School in Danville, California, on Monday 29th June.  The nearest airport is San Francisco, so the day after SCOTUS passed equal marriage across all 50 states I found myself landing in arguably the gay capital of the world, at the beginning of Pride weekend.

The city was ready: Market Street was decked with rainbow flags and my hotel was full of jubilant gay people, ready to start the biggest city wide celebration of their lives.  Walking out that evening to get my bearings and some food, it was both thrilling and daunting to see gay people of all shapes, sizes, ages and colours casually and unself-consciously wandering the city streets hand in hand, children and elderly relatives in tow: thrilling because that’s the way I hope to see it one day on the streets of British cities and daunting because I read things like this, and I hear the stories of my gay friends and pupils, and I know we still have a mountain to climb before we get there.

The next day the start of the parade got off to a roaring start courtesy of several hundred bikers on Harley Davidsons.  After that, the more usual form: fire fighters get bigger cheers than police officers, bare chests (usually male) and leather are de rigeur;  feathers, drag queens, stilt walkers and disco music are mandatory. San Francisco’s parade was a bigger shinier version of the same, and it also featured large cohorts in matching t-shirts from Google (Red) Facebook (Blue)  and Apple (White) as well as the cast of OITNB blowing kisses to the crowd from the Netflix float, which you don’t see in London.  After the celebrities and the tech giants, there were hundreds marching behind the ‘proud families’ banner: adult children with elderly same sex parents (“I love my gay moms!”) alongside young gay couples pushing babies in strollers, churches and smaller organisations: elder care groups (“60+ is sexy!”) AIDS hospices and animal shelters – even a group of gay pit-bull owners, keen to show off their ugly dogs’ softer sides by dressing them in rainbow gauze tutus for the occasion.  Marriage equality was a major theme and the street vendors’ rainbow wares included hen-night wedding veils alongside the feather boas, beads and wrist-bands.

And then there were the schools.  High schools and elementary (primary) schools from San Francisco school districts and from satellite towns – Oakland, Cloverdale, Walnut Creek, came one after another in the procession.  I was delighted and, knowing the resistance to talking about ‘the gay stuff’ in British schools, amazed to see parents, teachers and pupils all walking together behind their school banners proclaiming their school’s public support for LGBT rights.   My phone was dead by the time they came down Market Street, so I didn’t get a photo of the guy carrying the placard proclaiming that ‘Out teachers save lives’ but it stayed with me: firstly because it struck me that the ongoing argument we have in the UK about whether or not LGBT teachers, or black teachers, or female teachers, ‘should have to be flag carriers’ for their group seems to have been conclusively resolved in the San Francisco.  And secondly because it reminded me of a former colleague, a traditional, classically educated chap, who used to deride a young colleague’s break time enthusiasm about something amazing that had happened in his classroom that day with a sarcastic ‘Oh yes: we’re saving lives here!’.  On a literal level my old colleague was right: nobody is going to die if they don’t get an A* in GCSE English Language, and it’s perfectly possible to adopt a professional persona for the purposes of getting a bunch of kids through an exam.   Allowing that having measurable criteria for assessing learning is a pre-requisite, I’d question whether what we think we’re teaching is actually the same thing as what the kids are learning. The Californian teacher I saw waving the placard was probably thinking literally too: it’s well known that LGBT youth are 4-6 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heteronormative peers (just Google LGBT youth suicide and take your pick).   However, as referenced in my last post,  mental health issues are becoming more than a ‘diversity’ issue and our collective obsession with narrowly defined performance data isn’t obviously making anyone’s life better.   So I’m nailing my (rainbow) colours to the mast of teachers being effective in furthering the educational development of their students to the extent that they bring their whole self to the classroom, not (only) because it might make the classroom a nicer place for the kids, but also because if we each bring our awareness of what makes us tick and what pushes our buttons intellectually and emotionally, it might also galvanise the wider culture, so that what we say we do and what we actually do and what the students perceive us doing begin to align.

Would this lead towards more engaged students (and less stressed out teachers)? I think it’s worth trying, and here’s why: while I’ve been away I’ve continued to ruminate on Carol Dweck’s* comments at EdFest on ‘false growth mindset’ and how there has to be a parallel learning journey for educators if students are going to really ‘get it’.  What I understood her saying is that it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon, and ‘talk the talk’ without actually doing the work of working out our own areas of fixed mindset, for example, the belief by some teachers that we classroom practitioners should only have to concern ourselves with academic subject/curriculum knowledge because ‘we’re not social workers’.  The fixed mindset of individual teachers is not generally challenged by the wider educational culture of specialisation and our schools’ mission statements are full of quotable gobbets about educating the whole person, but in practice, unless we ‘go the Pastoral route’  schools don’t do a lot to encourage teachers to think outside classroom management or beyond the next set of exams.  PSHE anyone?

San Francisco was almost the end of my American journey; later that week I spoke with Kal Balaven, Athenian’s Head of Equality and Inclusion, after I discovered almost by accident that a job called ‘Head of Diversity and Social Justice’ is a Senior Leadership (what they call ‘Administration’) position in many U.S. Schools.   You don’t see many ads for that post in the TES and I could only guess what it entailed but very existence of the post implies a more holistic and integrated approach than putting the ‘diversity stuff’ (when acknowledged at all) on the plate of the Pastoral Head, along with eating disorders and the other awkward things schools have to deal with that fall outside the drive for academic excellence.  Kal told me U.S schools started addressing diversity issues around race in the eighties, and everything else followed from there. Thirty years in, it can still be done well or done badly; some schools merely tick the boxes by ‘having a taco day’ but  schools who ‘have a healthy approach’ work to embed diversity and inclusion throughout their curriculum as part of an educational remit to ‘give students the skills to navigate a global community’.

I guess what appealed to me about the ‘Out teachers’ placard is that although that teacher was (I assume) referring to sexuality, it chimed with my sense that what we do has to come from the heart as well as the head, from a place of trust rather than a place of fear about not only the outcomes but also about what we individual teachers are bringing to the process.  And if I were in charge, I’d organise things so that teacher training provided not only a chance to learn the subjects and effective classroom strategies but also a time to do what the Americans call ‘some work on ourselves’ and discover our own internal barriers to learning as part of professional development.  How we might then communicate ourselves to our students, and how that might effect transformative learning with measurable outcomes, is the next question.   I’m currently reading Ron Richart’s ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’, the book Athenian School has bought in bulk and asked its entire ‘faculty’ to read over the summer vacation (imagine!). They gave me a copy too; I’m currently on the chapter about language.  One thing that’s clear is that how we use language in the classroom is crucial in getting to where we want to go, but language, like anything else we do in the classroom, is most effective when it’s coming from a place of clarity about where we are.


*Non-violent pedagogies is my term for teaching and learning strategies and philosophies based on dialogue and collaboration.

A random selection of thoughts from my travels (i) – The Walls Between Us


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When I first started on my teaching fellowship ‘sabbatical’ last month, I set out to explore ‘non violent pedagogies’ (my term for collaborative or broadly child-centred teaching). I knew I wanted to explore mediation in conflict situations out in the world beyond the somewhat rarified air of Wellington College, and visit some schools who are doing innovative things around educating the whole person by specifically addressing various social and cultural issues that the kids bring to school. I’ve spent a few weeks doing that exploration and some of those ideas were starting to come together in practical ways, but it was arriving home at Wellington just in time to hear some of the highest profile speakers at last week’s Education Festival, that really brought things into focus. Growth mindset is not just the latest educational buzz-phrase: it’s out there all around us.

We all know that what happens in the classroom doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that context may not be all but that it is certainly a factor, and that pupils don’t perform at their best when distracted by problems outside the classroom.  And yet, even as we teachers bewail government directives that compel us and our pupils to jump through ever narrowing educational hoops defined in terms of ‘accountability‘, ‘standards’ and (of course) ‘results‘, and even as  those outside the largely self referential world of education are beginning to notice and report that the kids aren’t all right, I can’t help feeling that we teachers often failCarol Dweck to see the social and emotional wood trom which the learning trees grow, or not, right under our noses. And maybe a period ‘out’ is what’s needed to see more, and say what we see.

So, I spent the first week and a bit on a mediation course run by the redoubtable Maria Arpa of the Centre for Peaceful Solutions. She works to a Restorative justice model, helping divorcing couples, fighting neighbours, gang members and guys in prison to resolve their differences without resorting to violence.  What did I learn? Well, it can work, with far harder nuts to crack than the average teenager, however surly and monosyllabic.  I can even see how it could work in schools, not as some bolt on alternative to ‘real’ punishment, but as an effective communication tool for classroom teachers to mediate between what they want and need the kids to do, what the kids want and need to do – sometimes but not always the same things – and what the school hierarchy, parents, and everyone outside the classroom wants and needs them to do.   I wonder how that idea would go down with the teaching Twitterati, and I’m left wondering why there’s so much machismo in teaching, all that ‘Don’t smile before half term’ and ‘My classroom, my rules’ stuff.  I wonder why we teachers so often adopt that pose; maybe because the only alternative we see is to be the ‘nice’ teacher, you know, the one who wants to be everyone’s friend, who lets the kids get away with stuff, who doesn’t bother with the rules we all rely on to keep the kids safe, ourselves sane, the whole show on the road.  I think once again how teaching is plagued by false dichotomies.

From false dichotomies to a real life divide: the second and third weeks I was in Northern Ireland. I am supposed to be off doing something explicitly ‘educational’ (as if anything isn’t, but you know what I mean) and I have connections there, so I visited an integrated school.  “Integrated Schooling isn’t a  sector; it’s a movement.” says Heather Watson, head teacher of Phoenix Integrated Primary school, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.  She tells me about the issues facing Integrated schools, that is schools where children from the two faith backgrounds can be educated together, as long as the school administration can demonstrate a sectarian breakdown of 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant and 20% ‘Other’. You mean you didn’t know there is a part of the UK in 2015 where the education system is almost entirely divided along sectarian lines that date back to the 19th century? And you may well ask how shoehorning everybody else, from Atheists to devout Muslims,  into that that ‘20% “Other'”, fits into recognising and reflecting multi-cultural Britain, Ireland and/or Europe. Welcome to Northern Ireland education policy.

Central government education funding plans may equate to real-term cuts throughout the UK, but NI Integrated schools also face the hostility from the local ‘mainstream’ maintained sector, who have recently been successful in persuading the Stormont Executive to support not integrated, but ‘shared’ education – which means separate schools sharing playing fields and science labs, all of which you can do without actually having to talk to anyone. I work in the Independent sector. I know sharing facilities is an easy way to do something that looks community spirited, and it’s certainly an improvement on closing ourselves behind wrought iron gates and posting ‘keep off the grass’ signs, but Integrated Education in Northern Ireland goes further than this sort of superficial sharing: its specific intention is to ‘take the fear out of difference’ by letting the children get to know each other by name instead of by religious denomination.

In Northern Ireland 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, talking to each other is still avoided, and still a matter of life or death.  Heather Watson’s school has just celebrated the first 10 years of integrated education in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone. They have a new nursery block, fully subscribed with new pupils, but because of the cuts they don’t have the money yet to furnish it.  That ‘yet’  is Heather’s: when I visited she was getting ready to welcome the September intake of infants, and their parents, for an induction day.  She lives in hope; she knows that Phoenix IPS is a lot more than the furniture.  But furniture would still help.

If Phoenix IPS is bounded by the limitations of the Executive’s furniture budget, parts of Northern Ireland face much greater educational challenges.  When I visited East Belfast Mission’s Skainos Centre, Director Gary Mason gave me a tour of the local streets, decked out in a gaudy array of Union flags of all shapes and sizes, with the occasional Saltire and Star of David flying alongside on lampposts, overhead lines and drainpipes.  ‘They’re getting ready for the 12th; it’s not usually this much.’ he says. We drive along the ‘peace walls’ separating the enclave within the enclave: one ‘Catholic’ street, end terraces boarded up, a lone Republican tricolour flying from the upstairs window of the central house in the row. A newer wall, bricks brighter orange against the older terracotta of those it abuts, cuts straight across what used to be a through road. He tells me the residents here live with a daily low level barrage of golf balls, bottles, bricks into their back gardens over the wall. It goes both ways, all year, and intensifies now, in the ‘marching season’ . He shows me the gable end where, a few years ago, the local community painted over a house-sized picture of armed and balaclava’d paramilitaries with a mural of Aslan, the wardrobe and the snowy woods of Narnia. C.S. Lewis was born not two miles from here, he says. We need to celebrate something else about our culture than this – waving his hand towards the flags.  I make admiring noises and he demurs. I missed a chance, he says; a lot of the people here have literacy issues; I should have given out copies of the book. Anything to get the kids reading. He drives round the corner and we stop at this mural.    

The boy is from the Protestant side, the ‘wee girl’ the daughter of a local Catholic family. A local wrote the poem and they put it up on the wall.  That’s great, I say.  The paramilitary ones are going up again, he says.  For a few years we were painting them over; now they’re coming back.

Back at the Skainos centre, Gary introduces me to Linda Ervine, whose work with the centre’s Irish language project,  Turas, has just won an award.  People here were annoyed when Turas started, she says – like everything else here, the Irish Language is politicised, seen as belonging to the Catholic Republican cause.  They need to learn their own history says Gary Mason – they need to learn about the 18th century Presbyterians who went out on horseback ministering to their – Irish speaking – Presbyterian congregations.  Linda Ervine agrees.  She’s just come back from the Scottish highlands, where Gallic is spoken by proud Scots of every sectarian affiliation.  I think that false dichotomies, unchallenged, lead to real divides. But even here there is hope, and breaches in memory and knowledge can be mended: Turas Irish Language classes are now attended by people from all backgrounds, their hunger to learn bringing them together.

I fly back to attend a service at St Paul’s to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington College is the national monument to the Iron Duke, so some of us staff and pupils, are invited.  It’s all grand, and humbling, with young boy soldiers and old men soldiers reading out eye witness accounts from their actual or regimental ancestors.  The current Duke of Wellington reads from the Bible about the peace of God, which passes understanding. We sing the National Anthem.

Waterloo Day is also the first day of Wellington’s Festival of Education, so I can only get to the second day.  Ken Robinson is entertaining; he says a lot of  the stuff that I have already read in one of his books, and gets some laughs.  But Carol Dweck is the one I have come to see.  As expected, she talks about Mindset, then she expands on her theme to talk about ‘false growth mindset’.  I sit up and take notice.  When she says we teachers need to examine our own areas of fixed mindset before they can truly ‘walk the walk’, I am mentally shouting ‘Yes!’ and doing air punches. Yes, it starts with us;  yes, we need to look at our own attitudes before we can really help our those of our students; yes, the walls between us are  extensions of the walls within us.  What we bring to the classroom isn’t just our knowledge and qualifications; it’s the sum total of ourselves.  Any teacher knows that: the question is, how do we reflect it in our practice?

The Semmelweis Reflex: Why does Education Ignore Important Research?

Another great post by @C_Hendrick



In 1846 the general hospital in Vienna was experiencing a peculiar problem. There were two maternity wards at the hospital but at the first clinic, infant mortality rate was around 16% while at the second clinic the rate was much lower, often below 4%. Mysteriously there were no apparent differences between the two clinics to account for this.

Part of the mystery was that there was no mystery. Almost all of the deaths were due to puerperal (childbed) fever, a common cause of death in the 18th century. This fact was well known outside the hospital and many expectant mothers begged to be taken to the second clinic instead of the first. The stigma around the first clinic was so great that many mothers preferred to give birth in the street than be taken there.

Working at the hospital at the time was Ignaz Semmelweis, a young doctor who…

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“What’s my Motivation?”

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a tough old year. The kids have needed more  quotidian reassurance than ever and colleagues have collapsed before our eyes.  The ceaseless tectonic shifts in Education Policy, which up until now have been felt only as vague rumblings far from the bastion of our mature, close-knit and well resourced Department, have made themselves felt with a vengeance since January; for everyone still standing, the last term and a half has been a maelstrom of extra lessons, exam preparation and coursework marking.

It’s all easing off now, of course.  Once the public exams start in a school like mine, a big chunk of the lessons stops and no matter if the revision workshops go on to the eve of the exam itself (so that we can tell the managers, the parents and the inspectors that we left no stone unturned in our efforts to get the kids those grades) eventually the day rolls round and for once in the school year time is on our side: well prepared or not, the kids are on their own in a big hall with rows of desks and finally there’s no more we can do for them, so we can stop. And breathe.  The pressure is off, until next year.  There are still a few weeks to go, but now we have time to think again we might even have some fun with our younger classes, who, if we’re honest, haven’t been getting our best this last half term.  They don’t complain, but some time in the Summer Term some U6th former will inevitably assert that ‘We’re your most important class now’. They remember when they weren’t.

My last post, way back in April (wonder why that was…) considered ‘What is education for?’ Having time to think and reflect on the realities of our practice inevitably leads anyone involved to the question ‘What keeps us doing it?’  This year at least, I’ve been kept going by the anticipation of a mini sabbatical for the second half of the summer term, to study the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, and learning.  I’ll declare an interest now: in my experience (nearly twenty years teaching)  an over-reliance on extrinsic motivators leads to some poor outcomes for both learners and teachers. The trend has both accelerated and intensified over the last five years and it seems to me that the way we do it, even narrowly quantitative ‘good outcomes’ are increasingly dependent on the heroism of individual teachers and the compliance of their pupils. Does that seem familiar?

I’m currently spending a lot of my time reading (yay!) and getting familiar with some of the research based on Deci and Ryan’s self determination theory, and I’d be interested to hear from other teachers about their own experiences, firstly by completing a short survey on attitudes. Technical alert: you need to be registered with Google (e.g. have a Gmail account) to take the survey – that way your details are anonymised unless/until you include them in the survey itself, (the last question, not ‘required’) for me to contact you with follow up questions. Please follow the blog for updates on my discoveries over the next few months, and let me know your views (I’m new to this, so am keen to read constructive comments and advice). Thank you!

What is education for? – The Data Trap


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Two recent education news stories, the proposal to introduce ‘base-line testing’ for 4 year olds*, and the argument about whether 40% of PGCE students drop out within a year*, or whether it’s ‘only’ 20%, confirm my growing suspicion that we’re caught in a data trap*,  and that much of what passes for educational debate is centred around the benefits, or otherwise, of measuring stuff just because it can be measured. The pre-occupation with data provides an ideal bait and switch: instead of debating educational philosophy or the ideas and ideals that brought us into teaching in the first place, teachers find ourselves arguing over whose numbers are correct, as if defending or disproving the numbers defends or disproves the validity of claims about the meaning, purpose and effects of the way we do schooling.  The idea that properly empirical qualitative research can shed some light on seemingly intractable problems is an attractive one for those of us who consider ourselves academics, but in the hurly-burly of popular prejudice, political manipulation and personal preference which attends every aspect of our schools,  the latest bit of data all too often just generates more heat.

I have my views like anyone else, and they’re increasingly informed by the realisation that, on any given stage of education from pre-school to post-grad that you care to type into Google, there is already enough data to drown in.  Schools of Education, not to mention departments of Psychology, Sociology and Economics, have been crunching the numbers for decades, drawing conclusions and arguing  over the ramifications of the studies they’ve set up to explore, disprove or develop whatever great pedagogical innovation or totalitarian government imposition we’re excited about this year.

I’m not implying that subjecting educational claims to at least theoretically verifiable research is necessarily a futile or unhelpful exercise; it’s worthwhile if only to keep us teachers, susceptible to trends, fads and the influence of plausible charlatans as we are, honest and critically evaluative, if not sceptical.  Nor would I wish to suggest that anyone doesn’t want ‘what’s best for the children’, even as we accept and impose the latest round of management/government directives in the drive for raised standards through increased accountability.  Most teachers aren’t sadists, just as most politicians aren’t soulless technocrats who actively pursue a policy of churning out compliant factory fodder to compete in the global economy.  But when the debate seems to be driven by the the complaints of business leaders that our children are not (even) good at the skills (mainly, but not exclusively, STEM) they need to compete in the global economy, and by methodology-focused reactions and in-fighting among the pedagogues, it does seem that a question is being begged.  It’s almost as if we accept the at least debatable, if not dubious, premise that what’s best for the children is a process of ‘education’ that renders them ‘fit for purpose’ for lives as working adults in ‘the global economy’, a dehumanised concept carrying ideas of inexorable and essentially competitive striving that appears to bear little relation to everyday teaching experience, but nonetheless looms threateningly over us all – God forbid I might be the teacher whose lack of adherence to a rubric, whether through incompetence or misplaced idealism,  condemns my pupils to future lives of being uncompetitive in the global economy! Even if we don’t accept that premise, and many of us don’t, we tend to get so caught up in the ‘hows’ of teaching and learning that we lose sight of the ‘whys’.

What is it all for? (I could just as easily ask who is it all for, because while much that is written purports to be about the children and young people who are the objects of all this ‘educational’ endeavour, there is little evidence that the children and young people themselves are the intended audience: they’re hardly ever consulted and their views hardly ever appear to be required.)

Asking ‘What is education for?’ takes the spotlight off practice for a moment and re-focuses it on educational ideals.  It allows us to engage with each other not as methodological adversaries, but as allies in a common cause, having some view about what that common cause might be.  It’s not about retreating into an ‘ivory tower’ either (a dead metaphor resting on a false dichotomy, applied to the academic field by those who fancy a world view defined by economic Darwinism to be the ‘real world’): the question ‘What is education for?’ concerns itself precisely with real life; it moves us away from an atomised and mechanistic view of education comprised of component parts like ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ to which other bits like ‘citizenship’, ‘SRE’ and even ‘character’ must be bolted on, in response to a perceived social problem re-framed as a failure of schooling.

Asking ‘What is education for?’ allows us to ask questions about reasoning and critical thinking that inform our practice.  It invites explorations of our ability to communicate ideas to our pupils, and of what ideas we may be communicating without intending to.  In an election year, it raises awareness of ourselves as citizens with agency in society, rather than mere classroom practitioners with no wider or more general educational concerns than getting through the next batch of coursework marking.  Asking the question ‘What is education for?’ compels us to shift the debate away from instrumentalism and towards questions of human flourishing which should be, and (backed up by the relevant research) I hazard, are the reasons most of us became teachers in the first place.

*what my colleague Carl Hendrick calls the McNamara fallacy.