CEO’s Blog: Front and centre: “The Sage on the Stage”

Welcome to the 2019/20 academic year to you all.  At John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust we particularly welcome Church Gresley Infant and Nursery School to our family, our tenth primary phase partner.  As with a new school to the Trust, I also welcome all colleagues, children and families that have become part of the JTMAT community this year.  I am excited about what you will bring to us, and what you will share alongside us. 

The content of this Blog was prompted when hearing feedback from colleagues – both within JTMAT and beyond – on tests and examinations that our children and young people sat in the summer of 2019.  A consistent theme was how new test requirements, new syllabi and specifications, all demanded from the teacher a considerable level of specialist subject knowledge – arguably more so than the tests and examinations sat, say, ten years ago.  Comments such as “this used to be covered in the second year of a degree, and now it’s in the A Level” have been forthcoming with such regularity as to make them more than mere personal opinion or anecdote.  From compulsory and lengthy essay questions through to synoptic papers based on more subject material than previously, the imperative for the teacher to be highly knowledgeable is clear.

Perhaps by way of reinforcement, we know that the new Ofsted inspection framework will promote a “deep dive” into curriculum content at subject level, whereby a triangulation will take place between lessons observed, work produced, and the planning from the teachers that has underpinned it.  For those colleagues who have undertaken the planning, delivery, and assessment the justifications for their choices will inevitably be framed in their understanding of the subject area being considered. 

To many readers, all of the above may appear very obvious: Teachers know “stuff”, and can do things, that children cannot – and it is therefore their role to impart to the children the knowledge and skills they possess.  However, in my opinion there was a “corruption” of this message for a number of years that created a misconception that somehow this wasn’t so important. 

You may well be familiar with the now-clichéd expression that the teacher of the future will be the “guide from the side” and not the “sage on the stage.”  This sentiment, often appropriated by technologists, suggests that in the Information Age the role of the teacher is little more than a curator: to navigate the child through the myriad of YouTube sites, Internet pages and web packages in order that they learn what they need to know.

In an attempt to find the origin of this cliché, I (ironically) looked online for the earliest reference I could find to it.  Stumbling upon an article by an American educationalist from California State University from 1993, Alison King implores teachers to move beyond mere ‘lecturing’ to embrace ‘active learning’, which she defines as high level questioning, problem-setting, peer work and hypothesis generation.  Her article was far from a prediction that specialist knowledge would be any less important.  Those of us who’ve taught know that in order to ask meaningful questions that move learning forward, one has to have command of the subject being studied.  Technology has its place as a tool for learning of course, but it was not envisaged as a substitute for the expertise and knowledge of the teacher by King.  In a previous blog (May 2018), I wrote about my cynicism for ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology in schools, in which expensive hardware is shoe-horned into lessons irrespective of whether the learning lends itself to it or not.

This week saw an announcement regarding the starting salary for teachers being raised.  Recently we have seen the advent of the Chartered College of Teaching (of which I am a Fellow).  Both of these, together with many other instances, are ways in which we can show the value that the teacher brings to learning.  We underestimate the impact of great teachers, whose knowledge is as considerable as their joy of working with children, at our peril.  At John Taylor MAT, it’s my privilege to work alongside so many.

To conclude, teachers don’t all need to be a Confucius – and nor can we be.  But teachers can and should be proud of their academic credentials and the credibility it affords them when teaching.  There is still room in schools for a “sage on the stage”!

Thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: March 2019 Words fail?

I found myself in a situation last week in which, far from the first time, I used the expression “words fail” in describing my response to a shocking piece of news. It is a common enough phrase, and is valuable when, in the moment, our limited vocabularies cannot convey the sentiments we feel at that precise time.  It is also a shorthand way of demonstrating the significance of such a moment in that the richness of our language makes the communication of almost any series of emotions relatively straightforward for most of us – and the greater our command of the English language, the easier it should be to represent ourselves through it. 

As educators, we know that language acquisition in young children is both highly efficient, and of crucial importance for their development.  The ‘language gap’ between children from disadvantaged contexts and their peers can be above 19 million words of spoken and written experience by the time they start school – and such a gap once opened is extremely hard to close.

So, the week after World Book Day, I feel compelled to put pen to paper (or more precisely tap finger to keyboard) to express my thanks to all of those children, parents, staff and governors in our schools who promote and embrace the joy that comes from the written word.  Cynics will, and have this week, made comment on costumes superseding reading – and just how “literary” is Star Wars or Wonder Woman?  However, for those of us who see reading as an experience as opposed to an activity, developing a culture amongst children that embraces all that writing can give is more important than the finer details of what constitutes quality.  James Patterson wrote: “There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.”  I believe that, and I see that in our schools.  Finding a ‘hook’ to get children to read may necessitate compromises on quality which, we hope, they’ll find for themselves as they begin their reading journey.

My own reading journey has most recently taken me to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”.  A chapter within this book was the prompt for this blog.  When discussing the development of civilisations, Harari refers to the earliest written records belonging to the Sumarians of Mesopotamia.  This civilisation was remarkable.  They are responsible, through their use of “base six” numbers, for the 360 degrees in a circle, and the 24 hour day.  They also used “base ten” for economic transactions and describing quantity. Their written records are solely, in effect, receipts for the buying, selling, and renting of goods, and title deeds for ownership.  Their language is described by Harari as “partial” (meaning that one could not write everything that one could say).  They had no written poetry or fiction for example, or written legal statutes and histories.  Other “partial” languages include those of the Inca and Mayans in the Americas.  Conversely, Latin, Greek and more latterly English are “full” languages in which all spoken words can be written. So, apart from when “words fail”, there is the opportunity to convey feelings, emotions and meaning through written as well as spoken word.  With this freedom, poetry, fiction, and a wealth of genres therein, were and are able to flourish.

However, Harari conveys in his book a warning for the future.  He argues that the truly universal language now is number.  Like musical notation, and Sumarian, number and mathematics is a “partial” language.  It is also the language of the computer, and the language of money.  Indeed, this Blog has been converted into a series of numbers in order for it to be recorded, and shared.  The ubiquity of the “arabic” numeral (although these actually originated in India) has made number a truly global language:

In modern times, not even all numbers are equal.  The world is dominated by the “zeros and ones” of the Information Age.

Perhaps reading, and enjoying the experience it gives, is part of our defence against a return to a “partial” language – of txt spk, Insta, numbers, and emojis?  If we lose the richness of our language, our young people are much more likely to find that “words fail” them far more frequently than their parents do. ☹

Thanks for reading – and not just this Blog! K?

Mike

CEO’s Blog: February 2019

“We Believe in the Power of Defining Moments…”

Several months ago, I read a compelling blog from a counterpart of mine on the Headteacher’s Board, in which he described the influence of his parents on his life and career.  As a parent myself, with my eldest son (in Year 13) making some pivotal decisions about his next steps in life and learning, I understand more now than I did when I was his age the importance of guidance – and taking heed of good advice.

To illustrate, I will recount an instance which I believe shaped my future considerably.  An incident which I did not witness, nor even know about until a few years ago. 

My parents grew up in Liverpool during and immediately after the Second World War.  In the post-war years in which my father had his own future to consider – a future which for him and his peers offered plentiful employment, but much of it unskilled and low paid in the reconstruction of the city and the recovery of industry and trade after the war – careers advice and guidance was effectively non-existent.  In this context, my father told me about a day when his father (my grandfather) received a letter from the headmaster of his school (St Margaret’s Boys School, Anfield) requesting he attend a meeting. 

“We believe that your son has the potential to achieve well next year if he stays on with us” was the message delivered by the headmaster to my grandfather.  My father was fourteen at the time, and eligible to leave school in the summer, as many of his peers intended to do, and take up employment – but without sitting examinations or achieving any qualifications.  The headmaster advised that staying on to “fifth form” and the achievement of the School Certificate would enhance my father’s prospects and opportunities considerably.  After discussion at home – presumably about the cost of staying on (by not earning a wage) compared to the opportunities staying on presented – my father stayed on into fifth form, and duly left school with his School Certificate and found employment with a firm that could offer career development and promotion.  This, in turn, changed both his life and those of the children he would have many years later. 

When I joined John Taylor, I was instantly captivated by the school’s mission statement: “We believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world.”  For me, as a history graduate and teacher, the notion of causality has always been fascinating:  the choices we make, and those that we reject, those made by others around us, and by others before us.  These are the “sliding doors” defining moments that can be so influential, perhaps arguably most so during our ‘formative years’.  You will undoubtedly have your own, some of which you may not be aware of! 

As a teacher and leader in school, I reflect on the fact that the headmaster of St Margaret’s Boys School did not have to write that letter, and my grandfather didn’t have to respond.  My father could have rejected the idea of staying on too – especially when his classmates were leaving, and earning.  But they didn’t. 

However, this is not a blog about the fatalism of the choices of others and being somehow ‘swept along’.  There is a wonderful phrase that I heard used in a sporting context that is fitting here:  Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.  Similarly, that “things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.”  We must not forget personal responsibility in defining ourselves and our young people, my own son included, have to accept that challenge.  But we, as parents and educators, can make those opportunities easier or harder for young people to take through the choices we have made, and how we prepare them for theirs.

Thank you for reading.

Mike