Monday, 6 December 2010

Visiting schools in the UK

A young man fetches his eleven years old boy from school. He is dressed in a nylon anorak from under which a long frock falls low on his calves. He is bearded and wears an Arabic cap. His right hand clutches his son's left hand. The young one is wearing the attire of the western male, a suit, white shirt and tie. It is the boy's school uniform.

To me those two clutched hands bridge Samuel Huntington's “Clash of civilizations”. I made a one week visit to schools at Small Heath, one of the most depraved urban districts of the UK in terms of employment, crime rate, health conditions and housing. Not so in terms of schooling, I learnt. The three schools I visited, a primary school and two comprehensive schools for secondary education, were all located in this area, and all three of them were appraised “outstanding” by Ofsted, the UK school inspection board. Of course these schools had not been chosen at random, I travelled with a group of Dutch teachers, on a study tour organised by the international branch Inet of the Specialist School and Academies Trust. Nevertheless, how is such a remarkable result achieved?

The Head

Firstly you need a visionary, charismatic school leader. The type of person you go along with, even when you don't buy into all the minutiae of his plans. One school was upgraded by such a leader within four years from the bottom of school ranking to the top. He expanded the school's remit from the school's premises, fenced with barbed wire, by reaching out to the community around it. One of the strands in his programme meant offering courses to adults. “Only the parenting course didn't catch on.” Such a leader is good at attracting sponsorship. The school's brand new van drove us from the hotel to school every morning and I guess such a vehicle can't be bought with state funding only. Not only is he a good manager but he motivates his staff on a daily basis. During briefings to all staff early in the morning he stands in the line of heads of departments, listens to their messages and shows his approval. He joins the roars of laughter. He meets all students weekly in the main hall and addresses them.

Secondly the school instils confidence in children and makes them ambitious. The school doesn't concede defeat, nor does it accept that the best children from poor backgrounds can hope for is a career as a taxi driver. Every student must get the education that enables him to materialise his talents. The school wants the academic inclined students to attain their A* levels and go to university.

Behaviour policy

With such aspirations the school cannot allow its students to indulge in silly behaviour. Sitting at the back of classrooms I only once in those four days saw a student do something which contradicted goal oriented student attendance. She took the pin out of the headscarf of the girl sitting before her. This was not perceived by the teacher, but the harassed girl griped and was expelled from the classroom straight away. To my amazement the insulted student left without any objection, while the perpetrator smiled smugly. In an other lesson I heard the teacher say: “I put you on a C1”, referring to a certain level of misbehaviour in a scheme for students understandably represented in “The Behaviour Snake.” You had better avoid spiralling down the curves towards the beak of the serpent. Ultimately you are sent away forever. I hadn't even noticed something was going on.
I witnessed this wonderful discipline at all three schools. All students seemed meek and obedient, not to compare with the rumbustious boys and chattering girls I meet in Dutch education. The whole situation seemed wholly otherworldly to me. I can come up with two explanations only. Possibly a school population of only immigrant students is more amenable because they share a completely different parental background. In their cultures the revolution of the sixties never took place, so to say. The other rationale might be that the discipline system is enforced rigorously in a concerted effort of all staff because everyone understands that giving some leeway would set hell loose. Probably both thoughts are valid: the problems we have in The Netherlands with young boys from Moroccan background often is explained by the gap between the rather loose Dutch society and home where they are flogged by their fathers.


Just as school cannot allow students to create havoc, can it allow teachers to have it their own way. The outcome of lessons must be secured. So every lesson I observed started with stating goals to achieve by students. Students were asked to appraise their knowledge and skills with respect to this goals. Subsequently the lesson was executed, after which the students had to reflect on their success during this lesson. The teacher then would comment on their reflection by giving feedback leading to advice how to improve. This format of four steps was implemented in an amazing variety of ways, but always it would lead to evidence on paper, to be archived. I learnt that heads of departments checked their teachers and thereby produced more paper work to be delivered on demand. Clearly Ofsted has a stranglehold on every level of the hierarchic structure, felt every moment of the school day.
This ubiquitous lesson format guarantees a basic quality in any educational arrangement. The four steps are good practice. All lessons I observed were well executed by skilled teachers. The level of attainment by students was remarkable. I definitely took home a lot of ideas to improve my own practice. Albeit, the time spent on producing evidence on paper painstakingly cannot be used to produce new teaching tools and invent new directions. Some of my art lessons are adventures, for me and for my students. “Actually, I don't know what you are going to come up with,” I quite often hear myself explain to a student. I have not become a teacher to execute lessons only, though mostly this is what I do. I like to explore what teaching and learning is about by experimenting with unpredictable results. My teaching is learning, and it defies formats, not all of the time but sometimes. I guess my teaching would not be acclaimed in an English school. Ofsted would not approve of it.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

One can't help comparing when being in a completely different setting of your own job. At primary school I observed a reading lesson. The lesson prepared the kids for the Standard Assessment Test. That means teaching to the test. In Dutch schools the same lesson could have taken place in preparation of our CITO-test. In both countries the results of the tests are crucial, not only for the child but for the school as well, as the outcome will position the school in rankings.
I admired the quality of reading and the level of answering quite difficult questions, comparing these aspects with the reading abilities of my students in Dutch and my bilingual students in English. So I asked the teacher how many of these kids, twenty eight there were of them, spoke English at home. She answered promptly: “One.” This may not necessarily have been the one white kid in the room, there are a lot of people from Poland in the UK.
I teach in a Dutch immersion programme in which children are taught in English across half of the subjects. The kids in the English classroom are involved in an immersion programme in which all of their subjects are taught in a language not spoken at home. All these kids are bilingual, not just the gifted middle class kids as is the case in my school. These students speak Asian or African languages at home. All the teachers I met are involved in an immersion programme with a deep impact on the lives of their students.


My colleague of art told me that, after having evaluated the results of a lesson on portraits, some of her students repaired the transgression of a taboo by scratching the eyes from their drawings. The English enjoy the advantage of having a tradition in wearing a uniform at schools: it hushes up differences in cultural backgrounds. In this district of Birmingham the school uniform includes a headscarf with the school's logo for girls who wish to cover their head. Also the school instils proud in diversity by organising “Diversity Days” which feature cultural backgrounds.


The most remarkable difference between the schools at Small Heath and my own educational environment in The Netherlands is the grip school management has on the classroom situation. Compared with these schools a Dutch school resembles sheer anarchy. A teacher in The Netherlands is quite autonomous with respect to his classroom management, the content of his lessons and the feedback he gives to his students. Any school leader wishing to steer his school towards a shared goal has to fight obstinate staff. At the Small Heath schools clearly all staff complied with diktats issued by the school management. Although this may be rooted in a different tradition it can also be related to the context in which the schools have to function. Having to cater for children in a multicultural inner city area sets clear targets which ask for a concerted effort by all teachers.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Education Buzz Carnival #7

An "eclectic smattering of things buzzing about in the EduSphere" is to be found at Bellringers.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Backfiring: Assessment of Administrators

The management course

My head of house aspires to be a school manager. A week ago she sent me a form which I filled in with my feedback, cautiously, as personal trainers somewhere were going to use my assessment to judge on her proceedings in a management course. I bet she asked me because she knows I am versed in the lingo. Of course I was highly complimentary, which was not too difficult, because she really is doing a fine job, and I commented on something which could be worked on, as I know that you have to give something to the vultures.
This was the first time in my career as a teacher that I had been formally requested to comment on an administrator's performance, even then only for a course outside the school's remit.

Why do we let off our administrators scot-free?

What struck me was that the leader of our team was quite amazed that I had observed some flaw she was fully aware of but had been able to hush up so far while communicating with her superiors, who take her to be excelling in this particular management tool. In fact all of the teachers who attend the meetings she presides over have noted her proclivity for ad lib performances. Being a teacher she could have known that, we all know that our students spot immediately that we failed to prepare our lesson thoroughly, and those students accept such a lesson only if the improvisation is brilliant. If not it will be mayhem. My head of house has a radiant intelligence which make us teachers accept her poorly prepared meetings, we let her get away with it. In fact we like her a lot, which is fine. It would be better though to have well prepared meetings which offer us meaningful content instead of wasting our time with material that could have been delivered on paper beforehand as well.

It is time to backfire

I consider it grossly unfair that teachers are assessed by administrators, in which students' feedback and results are pivotal, while administrators are assessed by their superiors only. This highly corrupt system leads to administrators asking teachers to perform at an unattainable level. If only we produced the yardstick with which to measure our administrators, that would be a wholly different kettle of fish! It is about time we backfire using the same techniques and ideas we are being buffeted with all the time.

Foolish goals

For example: if administrators are asking us to differentiate our instructions for different learning styles, then they should realise that this logically entails allowing teachers different teaching styles. This would forbid them to issue a format for all. Instead they would have to observe our lessons, find out what we are good at, and what we could improve, and what just is out of reach given the limitations of our individual personalities. It certainly would make them more realistic. Assessment of administrators by their target audience, teachers, would close the gap between school leaders' aspirations and our daily grind.


By the way, there is no scientific evidence for such a thing as "learning style." Differences in "teaching style" can be observed in schools everywhere, but it seems to me to be something to overcome, it is not a fixture. I've chosen these terms only as they represent the otherwordly atmosphere of educational buzz quite well.
Source image 1 / image 2

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Ruler

After some weeks the first formers have settled in the new school. They have learnt that this new system predominantly is based on very short meetings with adults, lessons lasting only fifty minutes. All these teachers seem to have different ideas about what can be tolerated, and most of them are not too strict. Some give a lot of leeway. So it's time to see what you can get away with. In the art room you even are allowed to walk around.
A boy complains to me about an incident in which a mate broke his ruler. Unfortunately this happened behind my back. I ask him, what he expects me to do. He can't name the perpetrator, neither can I. That's it, isn't it? Take it as a thing in your experience. He smiles benignly. So I ask the class, nobody fesses up. Then the bell rings and the lesson is over. I forget about it.
Now this boy keeps returning to it every so often. Not every lesson, he doesn't nag. He isn't being insolent, he just smiles: “What about my ruler?” He holds me accountable, that's clear.
Most students learn quickly that the new school is a jungle in which minor infringements of rules that were severely implemented in primary school not even are observed. You'd better keep track of your belongings in such a dangerous world. If the behaviour doesn't obstruct the teacher's aims, you seem to be let of scot-free. The kids have to learn yet that bullying will backfire. Some teacher will notice, inform the class tutor, another teacher will complain, some casual talk in the staff room and things start rolling. But just a broken ruler in the art room will not do.
So this boy keeps reminding me: “What about my ruler?” Somehow his busted ruler has grown in his mind, I guess, and he surely makes it grow in my mind. This isn't any longer about a ruler, it is about the ruler. I am supposed to rule. I am the ruler.
Next lesson I will donate him a new ruler. It will break the ice to for a conversation about his role in the peer group.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Education Buzz Edition #5

Bellringers' Carnival of Education Buzz #5 offers a florid pattern in gaudy colours from which I pick a flower to soothe my worried mind: there is zero scientific evidence for the Learning Styles Fad. Treat yourself at Bellringers'!

Randomisation of responses

How do you single out students who are to answer to your intriguing questions? Professor Dylan William proposes six novelties in the class room to boost teaching, one of which is to abolish the hands-up habit. Instead we are to choose students at random to reach out to the lazy ones in the back of the classroom.
Some sort of randomisation process is required, Wiliam long ago decided, and his unorthodox solution, as demonstrated in a new BBC2 series, The Classroom Experiment (part of the channel's very welcome School Season of programmes), is to write the pupils' names down on lollipop sticks, the teacher then pulling them at random from a pot. No one can hide – everyone is potentially in the firing line.
Such an idea doesn't seem ground-breaking to me. I am sure that any seasoned teacher has his own nice tricks to circumvent the active clever kids who are so eager to spout the right answer, some highly idiosyncratic pranks to attract the attention of any one and to get every one involved in thinking.
These are my favourite ones:
  • The nursery rhyme.
    Any form of poetry will do, but I prefer silly rhymes like
    Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, / catch a tinker by the toe / if he squeals so let him go / eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Of course you are to point at a student at each syllable, actually you can feel the attention of the class mount nearing the end of the lines. The student who is put on the stage never refuses to co-operate as it is completely clear that he has been chosen at random. I have lots of rhymes stored in my memory over the years, to prevent boredom by repetition, Dutch poetry for most classes, and English nursery rhymes for my immersion classes. A spin-off is that it convincingly demonstrates that learning stuff by heart pays off. Also you can use the jape to inculcate your students with wisdom using quotes like Shakespeare's "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."
  • The Roulette
    I put my pen or pencil or whatever pointed object at hand on the ground and give it a twist. While it swivels students often raise their buttocks to see what's happening and when the object rests, I extend its direction to the student. Dodging kids are severely punished of course. The teacher has to accept all ramifications and in case he is singled out he has to produce the correct answer himself.
  • The Countdown
    Just ask some student to give a number lower than the amount of students in the class and perform a countdown. Frequently this is used by clever kids to place the onus on some friend, but as a teacher you observe the rapid eye movements, and you have the right to go left or right, at any moment, only to end at the culprit's desk. This takes high-speed calculation and if you make a mistake, you end with the perpetrator's neighbour, which is fine, as the complete class is aware what you were trying to do, and nothing is more suited to attract the students' attention than a teacher fooled by his own histrionics.
  • The Lottery Price
    If you have established the procedures listed before then you could try this one: Just single out a student whose voice hasn't been heard too much lately, ask him/her " Give me a number lower than [number of students in the group]", and react being surprised: "That's right!!!" to any number the student comes up with. This one never fails to raise laughter, and, what is more important, it makes clear that you are never subject to any procedure what so ever, not even to the ones you invented yourself. You are the alpha person in the room, aren't you?
I' am curious about your ruses. By all means, please, publish them in a comment to this blog

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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Dangerous Myths #1: “Rote learning stinks.”

This boy is participating in a workshop photography at my school. He knows how to upload a photograph on the internet, but does he know how to use this wonderful digital tool to communicate meaningful content?

It wasn’t that long ago that rote learning, and the regurgitative mimickery that is its most common form of expression, was the educational model under which students laboured during their primary and secondary years. They were expected to behave like inert intellectual vessels into which a series of teachers would dump ever-more complex packets of information and ideas, like computers receiving their regular software upgrades. But with the rise of the Google-powered universe and the ability to locate information about anything, any time and (almost) anywhere, the need to remember the dates of the Hundred Years War or the name of Canada’s fourth Prime Minister has become an academic skill nearly as quaint – and irrelevant – as using an abacus or perfecting one’s ability to write in script.
Such a text drives me crazy. It mocks traditional schooling by describing a caricature, and it reduces academic knowledge to mere storage of unrelated meaningless facts. I bought my first computer in 1986, how could I possibly have treated my students as computers in which to dump software before that moment? The use of the metaphor reveals that the writer lives in the here and now without any idea of even the recent past. He lacks rote learning of history. I can tell you, treating students as "inert vessels" was asking for trouble thirty years ago, as it is now.
I challenge everyone to point at any relevant human achievement that came without rote learning, repetitious training of memory and mind.

Nothing comes for free

Even learning the mother tongue comes with thousands and thousands hours of immersion in the language in a native environment and numberless try and error situations and this at a young age when the brain is highly susceptible. It takes the toddler two years to come up with a sentence. Becoming an expert in your native language, being able to express subtle emotions and complex thought takes up to ten years, just as in any other province of human achievement. Ten thousand hours of practice over a period of ten years that's the rule of thumb if you really want to be good at something.
Learning to speak seems to come naturally and with ease. It's hard work though, and we must admire those little kids that go out of their way to communicate with us, don't laugh at their stupid mistakes, they are learning!
When it comes to schooling: there is no way to escape the dilemma that school has to educate the students in subjects which to a large extent are meaningless to them. As teachers we have to put our pupils in the vanguard of the battle of our existence, they must master the knowledge base which has been created in our culture over a period of thousands of years. This can't be done without boring repetition. Creativity is based on broad and deep knowledge, stored in the long term memory.

21st Century Skills???

As for the 21st Century Skills: I haven't met Whizz Kids at my school during the last ten years. They did exist though, back in the eighties and nineties. Those students taught themselves to work with challenging computers, Commodore 64, Apple II or IBM desktops. Those machines didn't have an easy interface, one had to type in command lines. These kids, always boys, wrote computer software in Pascal or Basic, they saved the results on floppy discs, the hard disk didn't exist in the first years , nor the mouse, for that matter. They worked their tails off, doing their stint of ten thousand hours. They were knowledgeable, I learned a lot from them. The likes of those students of mine invented the hard disk, the mouse and the interactive interface, thereby facilitating the next generation.
I am sorry, but when it comes to handling computers, the Internet, and the digital camera, I am the most versed person in my classroom nowadays. Note that I am a crochety old man, 61 years old now. I used to teach first formers basic html in a couple of hours, but it can't be done any more. My younger students don't feel any need to learn how to customise a site on a basic level, such a skill isn't cool as they know they can publish on the internet without doing any effort. That's the crux: the 21st century doesn't require special skills. Anyone can do it.

An example: photography

I am so glad that all my students can make a picture easily with their mobiles and store the images on their hard disks or compile them at No need to go over the chemical processing of film rolls and paper. I don't even need to teach them how to compress a picture to an acceptable file size to send it over the internet, that's taken care of by all those wonderful environments in which you can upload your photograph.
One problem is left though. Teaching how to make good pictures is just as difficult now as it was in those old days, attractive pictures that convey artistic beauty, that have a documentary value. Actually that hasn't changed a bit, I didn't need to change my didactics at all. So far for old schooling.

Kafka's world

I can't help feeling wary about my students and myself. We are being disenfranchised by Google, Microsoft and Apple, firms that give us easy tools to express ourselves, seemingly for free, just to gauge our behaviour for merchandising. Actually no thinking is needed for using these tools. Big Brother is here and he is watching our every move. The brainy kids are being entertained now with stupid games.
We must teach our students to free themselves. If there is such a thing as a 21st century skill, we must teach them to build and use free software, devised and maintained by volunteers. Especially gaming could be used to transfer meaningful knowledge, as it is the quintessential rote learning. If not this century will head towards an ant heap in which individuality will have dissipated while building a Matrix which rules all behaviour for a common good no one has anticipated. I believe good old fashioned basic rote learning can prevent such a disaster.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Education Buzz #4

Choose your table at Bellringer's Education Buzz #4 lunch room! She certainly does us proud. A lot of interesting talk to be heard there. While seated at table 4 I overheard a conversation at table 1 and, being an art teacher, I got dewy-eyed at Curmudgeon's eloquent and rational rebuttal of any attempt to relate teacher salaries to the want for subject skills in the economy. Note that Curmudgeon teaches maths! Thou art my brother!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why educational formats are bound to falter

The school has adapted a new approach to learning. A young expert enthuses the colleagues invoking a Can Do message. The classrooms are refurbished to meet the demands of the new system
Recently ground-breaking research has shed light on the way the brain processes information while learning. I recommend reading Daniel T. Willingham on this topic. I wonder what would happen if the same attention would go to teaching.

The working memory of the teacher

My homespun philosophy tells me that teaching entails a continuous overload of the working memory. A teacher in a classroom perceives student behaviour, and has to to react to it. He offers subject matter, in which he has to be infallible and flaunt his mastery. He transfers his knowledge in an attractive way so as to keep the students' attention. Next to that he keeps track of progress of the group of students as a whole, and of all the individuals in the group if any possible and adjusts his teaching accordingly. On top of that he notices absentees, notes down grades and merits and complies with all other data processing school organisation demands.
During a lesson the teacher retrieves loads of data, names, faces, subject matter, appointments, procedures, agreements, from his long term memory, processes these in his working memory and stores such data into long term memory in an ongoing process. One eye always is on the clock.

The Zen of Teaching

Being a coach of newcomers I have observed a lot of lessons of fellow teachers. To me it is clear that the solution to the problem of the teacher's overloaded work memory is to offload it. It is impossible to rev up the brain to a preternatural speed for meeting all the demands of the job. How a teacher reduces the data stream that besets his working memory draws on his personal aptitude and experience. In a sense teaching is a study of zen: the master is an expert in not-doing. Which is not meant to say that he is doing nothing.


The expert teacher is a master in Wu Wei. He knows when to act and when not to act.
The expert teacher focuses his perception. He only perceives student behaviour which thwarts the lesson, or gives a clue about progress, other data are skimmed only to be thrown away immediately. He neglects havoc that will peter out without any fuss but he responds fiercely to seemingly minor nuisance which he knows can grow into something bad.
The experienced teacher is fully aware of his personal flaws and qualities. Some of his tools are based on innate qualities. If he is a good story teller he will exploit his skill in wonderfully presented lectures to a rapt audience, for example. He likes storytelling so his work will be effortless in such a lesson: sheer joy. Other didactic forms may be more difficult to realise, only to be achieved by hard work at the edge of what the working memory can do, but he has learned how to implement these formats when needed for his aim: having students think deeply to store information in their long term memory for future use. He is an old cunning fox with a plethora of tricks at hand. Some class room situations however he will circumvent, having learnt that those settings take too much of his mind and cause him to lose track of content or students' behaviour or progress, no matter how enthused fellow teachers may be about such a didactic approach, or the administration, for that matter.

The Headmaster's Fancy

There is a rash of theories on students' learning, Constructivism, Structured Co-operative Learning, Thinking Skills, Learning Styles etc. To me it seems awkward trying to find a common denominator in twenty-odd young participants while neglecting the key figure in the classroom. The onus is on the teacher to implement these theoretical suppositions in everyday graft, isn't it?
Of course it is equally difficult to find a common denominator between all those different teacher personalities as it is between students.
Politicians, ideologists and administrators trying to solve the conundrum of a perceived deterioration of education buffet teachers with theoretically based formats to implement in the classroom, even to the outrageous foolishness of prescribing the setting of furniture in the classroom.

Gung-ho versus Wu Wei

The new format your headmaster fancies, which supposedly will give new impetus to learning at your school is not going to work at all, for the simple reason that teaching has nothing to do with implementing a certain format. Effective teaching involves changing formats all the time, taking into account the subject, the current topic, the special needs of this group of students, group dynamics, the stage in the learning process, availability of materials and all the other intricate patterns underlying learning at school. It is infinitely more complex than just implementing one format for all. Which format is chosen for a particular lesson must be decided by the teacher, based on his expertise, his evaluation of his group of students, within the capacity of his monitoring. What students need in the first place is an equably balanced leader in the classroom. It is on the teacher to decide how to keep up an impeccable peace of mind while at work, not as an act of selfishness but on behalf of his students.

The royal route

I believe there is one route only to excellent education: furthering excellency in teachers. This can be done by raising the entrance level to the profession, no teacher, whether in kindergarten, primary or secondary education, should be allowed to teach without a university degree. Ample time must be allocated within the teacher's annual task to further and ongoing development of knowledge and skills. The teacher should epitomise the life long learner as an example for all. Theories on education should be developed in the classroom where they can be falsified immediately.
This is an extremely expensive route, and that is why politicians will never wade into it. Only one country has really taken steps into this direction: Finland, and that's why Finnish education stands out in international comparisons.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Classroom settings

The Coach

The Circle

In Dutch secondary education teachers and students are bundled through the building by the timetable, changing rooms frequently.
At my school three classroom settings are to be found: the “Coach”, the “Circle” and the “Islands” setting, to be seen in the pictures on the left. Some rooms are a mixture of these settings, the art rooms, in which I work mostly, combine the Islands setting with the Circle. I can change by moving the students without moving the desks. Most rooms are smaller and do not allow so easy a transformation.
The “Coach” is the quintessential lecture hall. It encourages working in pairs though. The “Circle” suggests a meeting of all and is suitable for lecturing and working in pairs. The “Islands” setting is meant for group work, in foursomes. Working in pairs is possible, lecturing is virtually impossible.
Tests require the rigid Grid, a Coach with separated desks.
Most classrooms have a Coach setting. In fact the Coach has always been the norm. Students have informed me that my lectures are boring and I have often infuriated a colleague by refurbishing a Coach into the Circle or Islands, without restoring the situation in which I found the room before leaving.
It has often struck me as highly idiosyncratic that teachers, when having a meeting in a classroom, wish to communicate with all face to face, so they immediately shove the furniture into the Circle. After the meeting they always rebuild the Coach co-operatively. Apparently they prefer lecturing but hate being lectured.
Now the administration has issued a diktat that in our new wing for younger students the Islands setting is the norm. Structured Co-operative Learning (SCL) is all the rage now.
Our administration is not too bad. A couple of years ago colleagues of a school nearby found the tables welded together in an Islands setting when returning after vacation.
This is going to be a hilarious show. I'll keep you informed.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Education Buzz #3

Visit Life's a Carnival–the Education Buzz #3 to read about the troubles and the delights of your fellow teachers across the globe. Some of these posts make me realise how fortunate I am, enjoying my job here in the sticks in a backwater of The Netherlands, amidst woods and fields. All those nice kids riding to school on their bikes. The true heroes of our profession are to be found elsewhere, in sordid urban districts.

Thursday, 26 August 2010


This one I recommend. It always works, if you believe in it yourself. It can be done only if the number of students is even. If not I suggest you give someone the runaround. Certainly the headmaster needs urgent information, whatever.
Act like the severe strict teacher the kids know you can be. Pass on sheets of paper, one per pair of students. Tell them to clutch hands. Do glare fiercely at the two boys who don't like sharing hands until they follow suit.
Explain that each couple now has one pair of hands available, a left one and a right one, right? Tell them you are going to show how to fold a paper air plane. They are to co-operate with their pair of hands to copy your procedure.
Turn a blind eye to students who swap now: left-handers have to be expedient in a right handed world.
Be sure to be able to show how to fold a paper plane model that is somewhat beyond their ken, that they haven't seen before. I f you have never folded any paper plane, then leave this post. Try something more serious.
Of course, as the teacher you are, you understand that you have to demonstrate this above your head against the blackboard or whiteboard with your back towards the class, to prevent any confusion about what's done left and right. Don't crick your neck when looking over your shoulder to synchronize the moves. End with counting down for take-off.
I believe I invented this activity myself. But I'm not too sure about that. As an artist I am an expert in nicking ideas unconsciously.
This year I started with a cover lesson. A colleague of the maths department had taken ill. There is a lot of mathematics in folding paper planes. I bet you can come up with that yourself.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Engine of Culture

Michelangelo Buonarotti,
The Creation of Adam, 1508-1512, detail.
This post was triggered by a post Art as Salvation or Education on Joanne Jacobs' blog and was partly published as a comment there.
We stand on the shoulders of the likes of Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo Buonarotti and Siddharta Gautama. The engine of human endeavour is revved up by three disciplines: Science, Art and Religion. These main strands of our expertise cannot be circumvented when devising a curriculum in secondary edation.


To start with the latter: even when you are an atheist like I am, you have to come to terms with the meaning of your life, or the futility of your death. The quest for the answer is a religious journey. Atheism, Islam, Christianity, or Zen, all those different ways to solve the riddle of our just being here for a short time only are all intricate patterns of do's and don't s, procedures, and systems of thought. They are bodies of knowledge and their findings should be communicated in the school's curriculum, not to foist a particular religion on the students but to have the question of meaning at the core of the curriculum. You may call it philosophy if you distrust the term religious studies.


The impact of science on our world is obvious. I suppose that's why politicians and administrators emphasize the importance of science and maths in education. I agree with them completely.


Piero Manzoni,
The Artist's Shit,contents freshly preserved shit, produced and tinned in 1961.

Visual artists have been asking profound question's about our cultural codes throughout the twentieth century. Their weird art works cannot be frittered away as just "shit." It is the art teacher's job to clarify the thoughts underlying such a work to make it understandable to the students.

source image
Art is epitomised by its products being rendered seemingly effortlessly. The sparkling colours of the painting, the high pitch of the trumpet, the terse prose in the novel, the beauty of the chair you sit on, the accessible design of the website, the wonderful proportions of the building, all these riveting expressions of art seem to come naturally and with ease. I guess that's why art is often underestimated in education when decisions are made about budget and curriculum.

The artists who perform these acts are experts in their disciplines. They don't want you to feel obliged because they worked so hard to attain this level. They just thrill you with their skills.
Be sure: they have worked doggedly for many years to make you feel enthralled. And they need you. They need an educated public that perceives their colour combinations, discerns the melodic line in the symphony, recognises the style of the chair, and appreciates the post modern whimsical approach of the architect. Above all they need the applause or jeers that tell them what is ugly and without merit and what is beautiful and contributes to our well-being.

That's what we do as art teachers in secondary education. We teach the audience for the artists. Every so often we have a talented artist among our students and we will show him the way to a profession as an artist. But that is not the main thing. Neither am I very interested in developing hobbyists who take up art for leisure at a later stage in their life, though such a thing is not to be sneezed at. Art classes are not about making lovely art only. We teach creative procedures, artistic principles, art history, and the making of art to create a knowledgeable audience for the artists. Thereby we rev up the engine of our culture with a divine spark and advance the quality of our lives.

Friday, 20 August 2010

About dogs, kids and standardized tests

Can we compare the kids we meet in our class room with dogs? Are we trainers or educators?
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Jason Flom has posted a highly peculiar metaphor at Ecology of Education. He has been on vacation to Scotland and has admired the remarkable skills of the Border Collie.
This leads him into thinking about a crucial dilemma in education. Shouldn't we accept that some children are inept at maths or science, or history?
It isn’t that many different breeds can’t be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It’s just that teaching all dogs to do things which one particular breed can do better than any other doesn’t make much sense.
We accept the reasonableness of that argument for dogs. We reject it for kids.
His observation of dogs shepherding in the Scottish highlands triggers Jason Flom into rejecting standardised tests.
Think a promising trumpet player shouldn’t be kept out of the school orchestra or pushed out on the street because he can’t remember the date of the Boxer Rebellion?
This is a lousy metaphor. It is based on poor ethology. It results in detrimental ethics.

I have had a happy dog for sixteen years

Dogs are bred to demonstrate predictable behaviour to meet to their master's wishes. Being descendants from wolves, domesticated by mankind, they love to follow the leader of their pack, which happens to be a human being. That's why dogs are eager to show their innate qualities and don' t need to overcome their flaws. Dogs are not aware of their flaws. Don't teach your dog to overcome his dependency, it will result in a mean companion. You can train your dog to do tricks based on his natural behaviour, retrieve a stick and so on. That's all.

There is a difference between training and education

Humans are educated to enable creative versatile behaviour with which they can react to unpredictable circumstances independently and thereby pursue their personal happiness and shore up the common good of their tribe. They may heed the chief's stance, but only if it makes sense.
That's why they need a broad knowledge and understanding even in those fields in which they are not that talented. They need to learn a lot of things. Being able to learn a lot of things is the quintessential talent of our species. Homo sapiens is a far better learner than Canis lupus familiaris.

You do not own your classroom, you owe it to the world at large.

Secondary education must guarantee that everyone can participate in society and contribute to the survival of the species. That's why everyone has to attain a basic curriculum. On top of that everyone has to develop his natural talents for making a living as an expert, as a plumber, a rocket scientist or as a trumpet player. We need all those special skills and talents.
But we definitely need the excellent trumpet player to have also an educated opinion on matters of science: he has to vote on legislation which deals with environmental issues, for example. We don't want daft voters, do we? We don't want to treat musical talents like dogs who are rewarded with a cookie or hug when showing their tricks on request of the master, do we? We don't want the plumber to be invoked as a politician's running gag “Joe the Plumber,” do we?

No education without testing

Standardised testing guarantees that students push themselves to pass muster in a broad range of subjects, not only in their favourite activity. Without standards they would be too lazy and bail out. The trumpet player might get his applause but the world will collapse

I don't get it

I do not understand my fellow teachers from The United States. I only ran into this contentious issue while blogging. I am ignorant about “No Child Left Behind” or “The Common Core Standards.” I am a humble teacher from The Netherlands, who has been dogged for years and years by the standards of our national exams. But looking at international comparison of efficacy of education, I can only conclude that The Netherlands rank perennially in the top ten, if not the top five, while the United States lag way behind. Albeit, we, Dutch teachers, we are embarrassed, because we used to be in the top three. Apparently we have a problem and we are enviously looking at Finland: number one. Their secondary school concludes also with a nationally graded matriculation examination, devised in the ninetenteenth century, just like our national exams. They keep their exams up like we do.

Dear fellow teachers from The States: heed your chief's caution: you need standardised tests. You need national exams. It makes sense!

By the way

It goes without saying that any promising trumpet player who can memorise an intricate musical pattern is capable of remembering the date of the Boxer Rebellion. If he is too lazy to work at it, then just send him on the streets to busk. He may earn his bread and butter while other people decide on his future.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Life's a Carnival–the Education Buzz #2

The second Education Buzz Carnival is up at Bellringers! The funniest post in this carnival deals with posters newly arrived college students embellish their rooms with. Apparently Van Gogh's Starry Night, Salvador Dali's surrealism, and De Toulouse Lautrec's poster designs appeal to youngsters just as much as those icons of yesteryear did to my generation fourty years ago.
Another item that struck me when viewing all those dorm room posters to avoid was the visual rhyme between Mick Jagger and Albert Einstein. Having such a poster in your dormroom at least reminds you to speak your mind.

Images: Einstein. Mick Jagger

Exchange through Art

Self portrait done by a fifteen year old Dutch boy in my class room. Matthias borrowed my beret to decorate his head with for this work.

Today I started working on “Exchange through Art,” an eTwinning project in which students from various schools across Europe will publish their works of art and communicate about it, in English. So far a wonderful Bulgarian art teacher and an amiable Turkish school administrator joined the party. It would be nice to have a fellow teacher from an English spoken country in the project. So if you would like to show off those imaginative drawings, highly decorative ceramics, crafted chair designs, riveting paintings, stunning photographs that your students are going to produce in your art room this year, and have your students write about it and look at works done by students abroad, then please contact me.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Why we matter much more than we think

I have never read a more succinct description of the teacher's job than ”Why you matter much more than you think” by Justin Tarte. Have look at it! It made my day!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Standardized tests

Hundreds of students at Ulenhof, Doetinchem, The Netherlands are focussing on their national exam. At the very moment candidates of all Dutch secondary schools do exactly the same test.

Reading all those wonderful educational blogs it strikes me that so many teachers are outraged about standardized tests mandated by government.

Just some examples out of many:

J. at A Teacher's Viewpoint complains that

"The first thing that absolutely must be done is to abandon the absurd notion that anything useful is gained from the current misuse of standardized tests."

Joe Bower propounds abolishment of all grading:

"Ironically, it is the skill & drill kinds of learning that standardized test measure that are taking precedent over real learning. This is exactly why parents need to be concerned when they see rising test scores."

In The Netherlands general secondary education is dominated by the national exam with which students conclude their school career. I wouldn't have it otherwise.

The results for the exam are proof of the student's level per subject, regardless the school where he has studied. The results of all students per school give relevant information about the school's efficacy. And I have to accept that the results of my students at the national exam for my subject gauge the quality of my teaching.

It goes without saying that school has to offer more than just a highway towards an exam. The exam result is only one of many features that make a good school. But our national exam definitely makes the teacher accountable for intellectual attainment measured with a yardstick that is not homespun.

I do not trust teachers, nor schools, for that matter, to devise their own goals and have them decide which level is sufficient. I would not entrust myself with such responsibility.

I have to deliver the goods and services that society needs. School is not a playground in which we are given leeway to implement our best intentions for the benefit of other people's children. Education at school is an essential part of the real world.

The real world can be harsh. A student who fluffs his exam has to resit it next year.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Bilingual Education

More interesting examples of Dunglish are to be found at

Two weeks from now I will meet a new group of first formers. They are eleven years old. I will start my art course with a self-portrait task. This will teach them the words for the details of their face: eyes, nose, ears and so on. Second lesson: types of hair do, curly, wavy, crew cut etc. They have to learn a lot of words for items in the classroom, for the stool they sit on, the desk they work at, the mirror in which they study their features, and the pencil to draw with. All these words cannot be taken for granted. Eleven years old and I am to teach these words? Yes, these Dutch students are taught about art in a foreign language.

Bilingual education

In June my school's curriculum with respect to language education was assessed by the European Platform. We passed muster as a TTO-Junior School. TTO is a Dutch acronym, “Tweetalig Onderwijs” means Bilingual Education. We have a stream of students who have chosen for the challenge of being taught in English in most of their subjects, or, more likely, their parents have chosen this wonderful opportunity.

The TTO-program has run now in The Netherlands for fifteen years. Hunderd and fifty-odd schools are offering bilingual education now and the number is steadily growing.

Foreign languages

It goes without saying that all Dutch students are compelled to learn foreign languages. At the age of fifteen years students in secondary education will have had lessons in French, German and English. Every student has to include at least one foreign language in the exam program, mostly English, most students will conclude their secondary education at the age of sixteen or seventeen with a basic or an advanced knowledge of two foreign languages.

On top of that the TTO-program aims at a proficiency level by immersing the students in a foreign language. Not only do they get language lessons by qualified language teachers, they are being taught in English by teachers of other subjects as well, e.g. mathematics, science, history, geography, P.E, Art. Most schools offer a curriculum in English, two schools only have chosen to do so in German. The rationale behind this choice is that English is the lingua franca of science, politics and international business affairs.

The English spoken classroom.

As a consequence I have to teach Art in an English spoken classroom. I am even supposed to correct poor English, spelling, pronunciation, grammar, the lot! As most of my fellow teachers involved in this program, I am not a native speaker of English. Of course I have passed the Cambridge Proficiency Exam, without such a certificate I would not be allowed to teach in English, however, this hardly guarantees impeccable English by the teacher. I bet you have already stumbled on some erroneous constructions while reading this post, if not being disgusted by stilted language. Teaching art in a foreign language means to convey most delicate content while feeling clumsy lacking the subtle modes available in the mother tongue. So the whole endeavour seems rather pathetic. It is.

Three strata: three languages

Nevertheless we are forced to teach in English, for better or worse. We prepare our students for partaking in the global community. I suggest that command of at least three languages is needed to be successful in life. Those languages are connected with three social strata in which we are to function:

  1. The mother tongue is needed for the family, the street and/or the region. I was raised in Low Saxon, a rural language rooted in a feudal agricultural local setting. I had to learn Dutch at school, my parents never managed to speak it properly. Though Low Saxon is endangered, it still is a must while communicating with elderly people in the region.
  2. The national language, which you need to understand the tax form. Dutch is a wonderful language, with a rich heritage of writing, however only twenty-two million people across the word speak the lingo.
  3. The international lingua franca gives access to the global community. In mediaeval times Latin enabled international correspondence, in the eighteenth century French was all the rage in Europe, now it is English that is ubiquitous, Mandarin may be the next international language.
    I guess the Dutch fluffed their chances when they traded Manhattan for Surinam in the treaty of Breda (1667). What if the United States had chosen Dutch for their national language? Dutchmen have been trading goods and services all around the globe for hundreds of years. We wish to uphold this national pride.

The Anglo-Saxon world can afford to be self-contained. For a lot of people living in England or the U.S. the three strata are served by one language only, with minor inflections. The speakers of other languages cannot be complacent, they have to wheel and deal using a foreign language.

Language is the crux

The language problem is particularly acute for immigrant students. Their native language is not fed any more by the environment outside the family, they are struggling to cope with school education in the national language which for them is their second language, on top of that they have to learn third languages within that system.

Dutch students face a peculiar problem. English and Dutch are related languages. So they tend to translate word-by-word from Dutch into English, which results in Dunglish. We can't have that, can we? This is not only about language, it is about culture as well. You have to think in English, you have to be English. So they meet a teacher who is quite formal and polite and unwilling to accept any churlish Dutch way of communication.

Grappling with teaching in a foreign language has learnt me that the language problem is the crux of education. Whatever subject you teach, it is predominantly communicated in words that may be completely incomprehensible, if the language is taken for granted. This awareness has made me a more versatile teacher, even when teaching in Dutch. Next to that, teaching in English has made me a very humble teacher. Being corrected by students is not what you wish for after a long career. I have to work my head off to compete with them.

By the way, I would be very grateful if you pointed at my Dunglish in this post. List the blatant errors in a comment, I will correct them a.s.a.p.

This post was triggered by Profiles in Greatness Ep. 4, a wonderful story by Mr. McNamar about his teacher of Spanish, Senora Mosely.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Education Buzz Carnival #1

Hurray, hurray, Bellringers did it! Months after the wonderful Carnivals of Education carriage got stuck somewhere in the swamps of the blogosphere she has whipped the coach out of the mire. Have a look at The Education Buzz Carnival. You may discover a most humble crocodile dancing on one of the passenger seats! Hurray! Giddy up!!!

Source image:

Monday, 2 August 2010

Guided instruction versus Independent Learning 2

A four-leaved clover only will be found when knowing what to look for

Mr Teacher commented on my last post about “Guided Instruction versus Independent Learning":

Without going in to specific details, surely the best option is an appropriate balance between the two?

Spot on! But what is being balanced?
The content of the lesson cannot be left to the students' inventiveness, as followers of constructivist learning theories all too often will have it.

A politician's ideology

In the Netherlands teachers have been harassed by a fierce lobby for constructivist learning theories during the last decades. This has lead to a thorough refurbishment of our secondary education, aiming at independent learning, the “Studiehuis,” in which supposedly the teacher's role shifts towards coaching students instead of directing students. This is epitomised by “De Nieuwste School,” a school whose curriculum is integrally constituted by students' questions.


I have been an ardent follower of these ideas, and I am backpedalling.

Firstly, I have become disappointed too often with the results of learning arrangements in which students have to study more independently.
Most students cannot come up with relevant questions or topics that lead into effective research, or interesting art work, for that matter. Questions are the result of perception. You have to see that something weird is happening before asking yourself what is going on. Wonder about the relation between phenomena is impossible without actually experiencing these. Alas, perception is the result of learning and training.

Another fundamental problem is that questions can't be answered properly without a method of inquiry. Methods are related to disciplines, scientific systems, artistic disciplines, or professional procedures. The subjects traditionally taught at school offer training in these methods. Students' questions often tend to spring the boundaries of these subjects, which may be very interesting. However, these questions do not lead to a coherent learning process in which students really have to think deeply. Especially when expertise pertaining to the question is not available at school the research is bound to be shallow. I am fed up with copy cat answers from the internet, as I am with cliché art work.

Constructivist theories are being outmoded by neuroscience

Secondly, recent research has contradicted shallow constructivist ideas about learning independently. This was mentioned in my post.

Lastly, it has been made clear that the brain is developing at least until the age of twenty. Young students cannot cope with adult learning strategies, planning as adults do. Learning at secondary level cannot mirror the university system. Young students cannot plan their studies. they must be guided.

Between a rock and a hard place

So, what is being balanced? I am not going to ask my students what they want to learn. I know what they need being taught. The content of the lesson is my province, and I aim at the exam programs that run in my country. They need their diploma. That certificate guarantees a certain level of attainment. I may not agree with it completely but I have to comply with it and so must my students.

This content must be balanced with my didactics. Aiming for an exam program not necessarily means teaching to the test. By the way, the program is not that simple, as mentioned, it even asks for proofs of independent learning. At all cost I must prevent these students being bored by education. I need their rapt attention, which means that I have to fulfil their needs, I must give them ample opportunity to express themselves, to wonder, to ask any question. I need all my expedience to guide them cleverly by showing them where to go. Otherwise they get lost in meaninglessness.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Guided instruction versus independent learning

The image on the left was made by a thirteen year old student after being introduced to surrealist method, epitomised by Max Ernst's painting on the right

Do we have to tell the students what to do, or should invite them to discover what can be done? Recent scientific publications shed new light on this dilemma.

I teach visual art. Generally art is considered to be completely different from science. I am not too sure about that when it comes to teaching.

Art is a discipline, as science is. The methods of art and science may be completely different but both disciplines embody a relation with reality which has developed over centuries within a cultural context . The aims of research may be vastly different, almost opposite, as art strives for a profoundly subjective representation and communicating of meaning on a personal level, where as science seeks objective description and universal truth. Nevertheless, in both subjects there are methods that can be taught, content-related vocabulary that must be learnt, and results that can be compared and evaluated. The dilemma of teaching is the same. Are you in your lesson of maths going to explain Pythagoras' theorem, or are you providing your students with just enough information to have them reinvent the theorem by themselves? Am I as an art teacher to direct the students' perception of their visual environment by giving them precisely defined tasks, or should I give them leeway in an open setting to find their own interesting modes of seeing? In all subjects taught in secondary education each teacher faces the same problem: prescribing these youngsters precisely what to do makes boring lessons, independent learning strategies may enthuse students but they are time consuming and less effective. Especially in the field of art it is poignant that students seldom come up with creative work when given too many options or too vague directions.

Previously I found confirmation of my intuitive experience-based ideas on this dilemma in Daniel T. Willingham's wonderful book “Why don't students like school.” Now I have found an other source: Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, Richard E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.”, EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 41(2), 75–86, for download here

The misconceptions underlying independent learning strategies are falsified by results of scientific research as described in these publications. Summarized:

  1. Problem solving draws heavily upon knowledge of facts and experience of methods previously stored in long term memory
  2. Methods of problem solving on an expert level cannot be transferred to the level of novices.

As a teacher I must introduce old ideas and proven procedures leading to predictable results and wrap these in exciting adventures to have students store the lesson in their long term memory, thereby enabling them to use this knowledge on an expert level in the future.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

About national identity and literacy

During vacation one catches up with interesting topics that have been neglected for some time. So I delved into the family history a brother of mine sent me. Some results of his research pertain to my job as a teacher.

Firstly, whenever some issue arises in my classroom about immigrant students or national identity, I will be proud to tell the students that “basically, I am not Dutch, I am German.” Ten generations ago, in the Dutch “Golden Age”, my ancestors, Jacobus Graaff and Engen Zeismuss, married in Stolberg, Germany, and produced a numerous offspring from which I descend. The family entered into The Netherlands not before the nineteenth century.

Secondly, my family definitely doesn't belong to the peerage. No upper class marriages what so ever. I knew this already, of course, but it is quite poignant that mostly those skilled workers, brewers, copper workers, hatters and brushmakers could not sign their names on the deeds of the municipal administration. They are just mentioned with their names in various spellings, Graff, Graaff, de Graaff, de Graaf, by the town's secretary, who put down down in beautiful handwriting “Comparanten hier hebben getekend, verklarende nooit te hebben leren lezen of schrijven, na gedane voorlezing”, the parties signed here, after having heard the content of the deed, declaring never having learned to read nor write, which was followed by a simple cross in ink.

Now that's something we can be proud of, as the teachers we are. We did it, in the nineteenth and twentieth century. All our students can read and write. They can put their signature on a document.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Academy schools?

Dutch students at Ulenhofcollege , a Dutch comprehensive state funded school for secondary education, flaunt their caps as a sign of attainment in bi-lingual education. Their formal clothing and the caps are a tongue in cheek imitation of Anglo-Saxon educational folklore.

To me, looking from across the Channel, the British educational system seems unduly awkward. A recent initiative, academy schools, which was piloted under Tony Blair, and is now strongly advocated by the new education secretary, Michael Goves, seems to make an already unwieldy system even more complicated.

All Dutch schools are state funded

Independent schools are virtually non-existent in Dutch education. All Dutch schools are state funded, school education is free until the age of sixteen. A school like Durham School couldn't possibly exist in the Netherlands, as no parent feels that the quality of education at such an institution justifies paying through the nose a fee of £11,022 for a day pupil, or £21,414 for a full boarder. Farming out the raising of children to a boarding school doesn't fit in the Dutch mindset, for that matter. Dutch parents send their children to a school of their own choice in the near distance. Dutch students ride to school on their bikes which means that every school within a distance of twenty kilometres can be reached. The school may charge possibly a couple of hundred Euros annually for extracurricular activities. Even this fee is not mandatory, no school can go to court when a parent refuses to pay.

A constitutional right

This does not imply that all Dutch schools are state or community schools. Starting a school of your own is possible, however one must comply with national law which is quite strict about housing, the basic curriculum, and teacher qualifications. When you pass muster you will be state funded.

This educational freedom (“Vrijheid van onderwijs”) has been invoked by religious communities to start Protestant-Christian or Roman-Catholic schools in the past, recently a lot of Islamic schools were initiated. Also parents' associations have built schools with an ideological stance towards education, based on the ideas of, for example, Maria Montessori, Helen Parkhurst or Rudolf Steiner. So parents do have choices. Homeschooling is not an option though.

Standards in education

The quality of education at the various schools is checked by national inspectors annually. Schools that fail to meet the standard will lose their funding or even will be forced to close. This was incurred by an Islamic school half a year ago.

The results for national exams gauge the quality of all schools in implementing the basic curriculum. These results and the inspection reports are published in national newspapers and are available on the internet. Next to that schools are vying for students by choosing for a clear educational profile, thereby distinguishing themselves from other schools in their catchment area. So parents do have choices.

Though the complaint about deteriorating education is a perennial phenomenon in the Netherlands, just as it is in the United Kingdom, this hasn't been vindicated yet by international comparison. Pisa results of Dutch education have outstripped the UK's results so far. On the other hand the Dutch can't preen themselves on having an illustrious institution like Eton to provide for eloquent prime ministers. Also the UK is doing far better in the number of Nobel prize laureates per million inhabitants which possibly may be the result of outstanding education at university level in the UK.

Social segregation

As seen through Dutch eyes, English education is utterly class defined. The idea of academy schools is meant to solve the problem of poor attainments of pupils in inner cities and backward rural areas. Most peculiarly, schools have to raise £2m to become an academy - from private organisations such as business, faith or voluntary groups. Quite predictably the academy school will deepen class distinctions in education as middle class parents will seize the opportunities while lower classes will fail to do so:

But a leading academic at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, found that even in Sweden — one of the world's most egalitarian countries — free schools increased segregation. The schools are predominantly based in rich, urban areas and middle-class parents take their children out of community schools to attend them, Dr Susanne Wiborg found.

When it comes to raising the level of education for all, including the lower classes, it would be better to aim for egalitarian free education for all. The Dutch example shows this can be done. The figure on the left makes clear that it doesn't even take more spending in primary and secondary education. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are both spending below the average of the European Union in percentage of their Gross Domestic Product. Both are doing better on the Pisa tests than Denmark, which allocates most to education.

Albeit, the Dutch can learn from the British how to achieve excellency with gifted students. We definitely need eloquent prime ministers, but only if the politicians' verbosity does not whitewash the state's failure in providing the means to escape the vicious circle of culturally deprived background, unhealthy food habits, poor education and unemployment too many kids are in.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Pack

"While it is true that animals are not humans, it is equally true that humans are animals"
Frans de Waal

Just out of the den

In young adolescents the veneer of civilisation is extremely thin. They are urged by bodily changes towards dangerous adventures. Actually they are not aware of risks at all. Their inner clock is running wild, they act on the spur of the moment. Their natural habitat has recently been changed from the family at home in which their place was well defined into the peer group in which they constantly have to fight for their place in the pecking order.

I believe order in the class room should be dealt with on a down to earth level. It is not about rules, decency, tests and marks, mobile phones, expletives or whatever you can come up with to describe what happens in the classroom on the level of human behaviour. Order in the class room is about the pack.

My Habitat

I work in most fortunate conditions. My school is embedded in a rural environment in which strong family bonds still exist. Parents are ashamed when the school invites them for a showdown. The school is very well organised, there is a clear behaviour policy. Teachers are adequately supported by the management in case of trouble. Young teachers are systematically coached by experienced colleagues.

Even in this best of all worlds it happens once in a while that a class runs amok. Suddenly a group of neat young kids finds themselves in a situation in which they cruelly destroy the teacher's ego in a concerted effort. It happened in a tutor group of mine a couple of years ago, they crushed a cover teacher for Latin. It took only one lesson, the colleague was in tears. Individually all those amiable gifted children expressed afterwards that they were embarrassed and utterly ashamed of themselves. It just started, and then they could not stop it any more. They had turned into a pack of wolves.

Theoretical ruminations

Now what branch of science describes this type of behaviour best? I take it to be ethology. Especially the studies by Frans de Waal shed light on the order in the class room. De Waal's work describes the order in groups of chimpanzees as an intricate pattern of political bonds maintained meticulously by the alpha-male and his allies within the group.

What had happened in my tutor class was that the newly appointed cover teacher failed to show plain alpha-person signs in his first lesson, which confused the class so much as to follow their own pecking order. The queen bee of the girls took the lead. She manipulated the complete group into destructive behaviour, just for the fun of it, and to establish her reign. One of the creative rumbustious boys was ushered into the role of hatchet man and he found out what really would be extremely offensive against this weak adult. So the seat of the teacher was covered with maggots collected during an experiment in biology class the hour before. It clearly was a deliberately contrived act by the whole group. Only one student objected, but she was forced to comply with the others.

The event reminds me of De Waal's description of a bunch of young male chimpanzees that foray into the territory of an other group to find themselves some one to kill. A film on Youtube depicts such a gruesome event

Are you the alpha-person?

So order in the class room is about only one issue: are you as a teacher the alpha-person in the class room, or are you not? This is not a simplification, it makes it more complicated.

For example: young teachers often have a mindset which does not allow them to take command of the group. They prefer co-operative amiable behaviour. They are just nice guys or girls. They have never been a leader anywhere. But a teacher must aspire leadership to become the alpha-person in the class room.

Next to that it is not enough just to act bullishly. Bullish teachers challenge bullish students, you don't want to fight every minute in all lessons, do you. Just your appearance in the class room should suffice to calm down the young rebels. De Waal's observations show that the alpha-person is a master in political bonding. He has a deep knowledge of all the relations in the group, and knows perfectly when to bully a young rascal, when to show affection, and he knows how to dole out favours to win loyalty.

The Perfect Class Room

So my metaphor for the perfect class room is a group of monkeys on the rock. Everyone is relaxed and enjoys the day, grooming and flea-picking, communicating and playing. The old monkey on top of the rock sometimes is teased by the youngsters. They pull his leg for fun, not too seriously, as they know that when he comes down, hell breaks loose. He seems to be dozing. But he knows what's going on down there, all the time. He sees to that. He must, if he loses control, they will tear him apart.


Frans de Waal's quote: Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, How Morality Evolved;Princeton University Press, 2006, Appendix A pg 65.