Sunday, 12 May 2019

Let's not take education international league tables lying down

I'm guessing that it'll soon be time for international education tables  to be published. These league tables rank countries according to the scores of some school students sitting exams in the 'main'  subjects. These are taken up by politicians as evidence that the education service is doing badly, better, worse, really well etc etc. and is used for election purposes as a judgement on how well (or badly) a political party is doing.

I'm going to suggest that it's dangerous to get mixed up with this, even when the data appears to support something that we believe.  As others have pointed out, there are a lot of problems with these international tables, particularly in the matter of how the exam candidates in the different countries are selected, how significant, relevant, reliable or valid the tests themselves are, and how relevant or significant 'place' is in a league table because it can mean that there is a huge difference between 'places' or a tiny one - as with football league tables. 

However, there is yet another problem: these tests end up being statements on a country's education system and yet they omit key questions on this matter of how a country's education system fits a country. A country's education system is to a great degree a product of what those in power in a given country want it to be. Those in power want the education system to produce a set of finished students (school graduates, if you like) in a shape that suits their vision of society. We are entitled to ask several questions about this: is this vision of society worthwhile, valid, fair, just, equitable? If it is, fine - we can ask whether the education system really does match these high standards? If the society fails in key areas of fairness, justice, equitability, we can ask if the education system sustains this lack of fairness, lack of justice and inequitability or whether it challenges it? In other words, we reframe a view of education as have 'values'. Not in an abstract sense, but judged according to some external minimal values around e.g. democracy, freedom, freedom of expression, equitable material levels of existence. We could be more precise and talk about rights to do with the availability of cheap or free health care for all, an equitable taxation system, free or cheap child care and care of the aged, a fair benefits system for the disabled and so on. 

So, then we could ask a whole set of different questions about the worth or value or use of an educational system in relation to something other than itself.  

None of this is 'revolutionary' - some might say it should be. It's totally within the paradigm of a kind of UN view of what countries and the world might be like. 

I've summarised it like this:

Imagine if there were criteria other than PISA exams by which to judge internationally an education system! How about eg best able to support and extend democracy? Best able to hold government to account? Best able to develop a critical public discourse? Best able to stimulate and sustain a strong arts-in-society scene? Best able to sustain nationwide fitness? Best able to deal with climate change, urban and rural planning? Free and cheap transport, health, social services? All requires ‘education’!

At the moment we are channelled into accepting that a country’s ‘education’ is judged on exams in a few subjects and not on what society asks education to do for that society. What’s a ‘good’ education if it eg supports a tyranny?

In a purely theoretical sense, couldn’t you have Nazi Germany coming out of the present international education league tables, top?

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Anyone up for 'endorsing' Thackeray?

On Oct 22 2013 the Guardian cited Thackeray with great approval:

This Thackeray? 
(pssst just because people in public like one bit of what a person has written, it doesn't always follow that they 'endorse' all of it. )

by William Makepeace Thackeray

On deck, beneath the awning,
  I dozing lay and yawning;
  It was the gray of dawning,
    Ere yet the sun arose;
  And above the funnel’s roaring,
  And the fitful wind’s deploring,
  I heard the cabin snoring
    With universal nose.
  I could hear the passengers snorting—
  I envied their disporting—
  Vainly I was courting
    The pleasure of a doze!

  So I lay, and wondered why light
  Came not, and watched the twilight,
  And the glimmer of the skylight,
    That shot across the deck;
  And the binnacle pale and steady,
  And the dull glimpse of the dead-eye,
  And the sparks in fiery eddy
    That whirled from the chimney neck.
  In our jovial floating prison
  There was sleep from fore to mizzen,
  And never a star had risen
    The hazy sky to speck.

  Strange company we harbored,
  We’d a hundred Jews to larboard,
  Unwashed, uncombed, unbarbered—
    Jews black, and brown, and gray;
  With terror it would seize ye,
  And make your souls uneasy,
  To see those Rabbis greasy,
    Who did naught but scratch and pray:
  Their dirty children puking—
  Their dirty saucepans cooking—
  Their dirty fingers hooking
    Their swarming fleas away.

  To starboard, Turks and Greeks were—
  Whiskered and brown their cheeks were—
  Enormous wide their breeks were,
    Their pipes did puff alway;
  Each on his mat allotted
  In silence smoked and squatted,
  Whilst round their children trotted
    In pretty, pleasant play.
  He can’t but smile who traces
  The smiles on those brown faces,
  And the pretty, prattling graces
    Of those small heathens gay.

  And so the hours kept tolling,
  And through the ocean rolling
  Went the brave “Iberia” bowling
    Before the break of day—

  When A SQUALL, upon a sudden,
  Came o’er the waters scudding;
  And the clouds began to gather,
  And the sea was lashed to lather,
  And the lowering thunder grumbled,
  And the lightning jumped and tumbled,
  And the ship, and all the ocean,
  Woke up in wild commotion.
  Then the wind set up a howling,
  And the poodle dog a yowling,
  And the cocks began a crowing,
  And the old cow raised a lowing,
  As she heard the tempest blowing;
  And fowls and geese did cackle,
  And the cordage and the tackle
  Began to shriek and crackle;
  And the spray dashed o’er the funnels,
  And down the deck in runnels;
  And the rushing water soaks all,
  From the seamen in the fo’ksal
  To the stokers whose black faces
  Peer out of their bed-places;
  And the captain he was bawling,
  And the sailors pulling, hauling,
  And the quarter-deck tarpauling
  Was shivered in the squalling;
  And the passengers awaken,
  Most pitifully shaken;
  And the steward jumps up, and hastens
  For the necessary basins.

  Then the Greeks they groaned and quivered,
  And they knelt, and moaned, and shivered,
  As the plunging waters met them,
  And splashed and overset them;
  And they call in their emergence
  Upon countless saints and virgins;
  And their marrowbones are bended,
  And they think the world is ended.

  And the Turkish women for’ard
  Were frightened and behorror’d;
  And shrieking and bewildering,
  The mothers clutched their children;
  The men sung “Allah! Illah!
  Mashallah Bismillah!”
  As the warring waters doused them
  And splashed them and soused them,
  And they called upon the Prophet,
  And thought but little of it.

  Then all the fleas in Jewry
  Jumped up and bit like fury;
  And the progeny of Jacob
  Did on the main-deck wake up
  (I wot those greasy Rabbins
  Would never pay for cabins);
  And each man moaned and jabbered in
  His filthy Jewish gaberdine,
  In woe and lamentation,
  And howling consternation.
  And the splashing water drenches
  Their dirty brats and wenches;
  And they crawl from bales and benches
  In a hundred thousand stenches.

  This was the White Squall famous,
  Which latterly o’ercame us,
  And which all will well remember
  On the 28th September;
  When a Prussian captain of Lancers
  (Those tight-laced, whiskered prancers)
  Came on the deck astonished,
  By that wild squall admonished,
  And wondering cried, “Potztausend,
  Wie ist der Strm jetzt brausend?”
  And looked at Captain Lewis,
  Who calmly stood and blew his
  Cigar in all the hustle,
  And scorned the tempest’s tussle,
  And oft we’ve thought thereafter
  How he beat the storm to laughter;
  For well he knew his vessel
  With that vain wind could wrestle;
  And when a wreck we thought her,
  And doomed ourselves to slaughter,
  How gayly he fought her,
  And through the hubbub brought her,
  And as the tempest caught her,

  And when, its force expended,
  The harmless storm was ended,
  And as the sunrise splendid
    Came blushing o’er the sea;
  I thought, as day was breaking,
  My little girls were waking,
  And smiling, and making
    A prayer at home for me.


How selective outrage works: how about this for a bit of endorsing?

"Mr Gove praised the work of inner city primary schools like Thomas Jones in west London where pupils were reading “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist” by the age of 11" (Independent May 9 2013)

"The Jew stopped for an instant at the corner of the street; and, glancing suspiciously round, crossed the road, and struck off in the direction of the Spitalfields.
The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal."

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Ideas on how we can look at language-in-use

One of the tricks that people in authority work on us occurs when they impose on us a system that seems for a moment to be 'the only way'.

This has happened with what passes off as 'grammar' in primary schools. My argument has been that 
a) the 'grammar' on offer is only one form of several kinds of grammars that can be taught, 
b) this one is particularly narrow because it mostly leaves out the context and purpose of why and how we use language; one grammarian in particular tried to widen the discussion of grammar to include context and purpose, M.A.K.Halliday. He even co-produced a wonderfully accessible text book for schools called 'Language in Use'. The story of why and how Halliday's 'grammar' and this book in particular is not used reminds us that even something as supposedly objective as 'grammar' is in fact a matter of choice, bias and ideology. The point is the view that we should help children and students look at language-in-use was overthrown and another view, with an entirely different approach to language has been put in place.
c) This 'grammar' treats language as if it has rules that are single, correct usages. This is not true of language overall and isn't even true of 'standard English' which this grammar (as taught in primary schools) is concerned with. These rules are not derived from context and purpose. They are derived by means of a method which treats language as if it is an abstract 'system'.  Here's one example: we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match.' And we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match was over.' According to the 'grammar' being taught in primary schools these two usages of 'after' are 'different'. The first one is a 'preposition' and the second one is a 'subordinate' or 'subordinating' 'conjunction'. How is this distinction  derived? According to the internal 'system' rules of this kind of 'grammar'. In the first example, the phrase 'after the match' has no verb. In the second example, the phrase 'after the match was over' has a verb. So, according to this internal 'logic' of the sentence, the word 'after' in the two examples is deemed to be 'different'. But is it? In terms of language-in-use, the word 'after' in both cases is being asked by the speaker to do exactly the same job:  tell the listener something about time sequence of things 'I' did. You or I could make up another expression to describe it, an expression that wasn't tied to the internal-system approach to language-use. It's a 'time-sequence word'. It's a 'one-after-another' word. 
d) This 'grammar' was only introduced into schools because the committee that produced the 'Bew Report" on assessment and accountability deemed that 'grammar' produces 'right and wrong' answers and would be an ideal medium for testing whether teachers were teaching what the government wanted them to teach. In other words the justification for teaching grammar - and this form of grammar - was not because it's necessary or good for children but because it was, supposedly, a good way of testing teachers. (It's a form of 'output' testing. You test the input by testing the output. The input (the teachers' teaching) restricts ways of looking language enough anyway, but then to reduce it even further to the demands of right/wrong answers results in a false picture of how and why we use language. 

I, along with many others, have said that there are many other ways of talking about how we use language. People who listen to the radio programme that I present: BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth' will each week hear how it's easy and possible to talk about and analyse how we use language in ways that don't involve the narrow 'rules' derived from what I'm calling the 'internal systems' approach. 

When it comes to looking closely at language-in-use, in literary texts for example, I've suggested here on my blog and in my booklets that I've produced for teachers that there are many other tools we can use. The ones I've suggested, I argue, are much more fruitful in telling us what is going on in stories, poems, plays and ultimately in all texts. In the academic world, these 'tools' are quite hard to understand, but I've tried to break them down into much more user-friendly ways. These are:

narratology - the study of how we construct stories e.g. through 'flashback' or 'reveal-conceal', or e.g.  through 'red herrings', or how we indicate that a character is 'thinking' or how a story or poem is 'narrated' (e.g. first person, third person or 'omniscient' or a mix) and what shape or tone this narration uses (e.g. 'unreliable' or 'self-conscious'); how a text uses 'reveal-conceal' as a method, and so on;
prosody - the musicality of language and how this has meaning and pattern; 
intertextuality - how we use other 'texts' to create the text that we are speaking or writing;
rhetoric - how we use long-standing, historic strategies when we speak and write, and how these historic strategies are linked to desired 'effects';
stylistics - a bit of a catch-all term but one which looks at some of the above plus e.g. the use or non-use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification),  or the use of different 'registers'  - e.g. 'posh' or 'familiar'; 
pragmatics  is the study of dialogue, how we make conversation, what strategies we use when we talk to each other. We can adapt and use this when looking at how writers write dialogue for novels, plays, poems and stories;
lexical field - this focuses on the way that any passage or story uses clusters of words and expressions in a given 'field' of meaning e.g. lots of different ways of talking about 'light' or about 'water'; (I've added this to my checklist because I've been impressed by how my son's teachers have given him this tool when looking at texts. I think it's a good way to focus on how passages have fields of interest which they look at in different ways, creating patterns of meaning
flow - how our emotions and feelings change as a text proceeds and when we can encourage students to look at their reactions to characters, or to emotional states (e.g. tension) (some people do this with little graphs), it reminds us that texts have a time element in them ie the meaning comes in part from how one event (and its emotions) comes after another. Shakespeare is famous for this in 'Macbeth' for example with the Gatekeeper scene - great example of 'bathos' (see below for a book on 'Rhetoric'.)
ideology  - how all of the above contribute to producing in a text a viewpoint that belongs to a wider set of beliefs, attitudes and understandings. 

Though this sounds very technical. In fact, it's possible to break each of these down into very usable ways of talking about texts. I've often given the example I came up with of using 'secret strings' where the children look for the ways in which within any text there are invisible links between words on the basis that some sound similar (prosody),  some are linked by meaning (lexical field), some are linked by a particular metaphorical way of seeing things (stylistics) and so on. 

I don't suggest that this checklist has to be used all the time or that all of the points on the checklist have to be used each time. In any of this kind of work, any rigidity in method will reduce nuance and subtlety in how we respond to a text.  

My booklets are: 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'; 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure'. 

They are available from . Just click on 'Books'. 

While we're on this, please let me recommend for anyone interested in how and why we use language:  'You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle, to Trump and Beyond...' by Sam Leith, published by  Profile Books.  

It's a fascinating example of how we can look closely at language-in-use without reducing it to a matter of naming of parts, supposed 'functions' (which are in reality just names for bits of the system derived from abstract rules not in how or why use language to make meaning). 

Here's one example of me using some of the above methods to look at the opening pages of 'A Christmas Carol':

Saturday, 27 April 2019

I'm not making up this stuff to do with schools and 'data'

Comment from comments thread following my article in the Guardian on Tuesday:

"steve sanderson:

I had a visit from three DfE officials because my school was doing very well in challenging circumstances. When we were in Year 6 I explained to them that our results wouldn’t be as good this year as last because I had taken in three children who had been permanently excluded at other schools. They had missed 18 months of school so were unlikely to do as well as others in the class but were making rapid progress under an exceptional teacher.
The lead official then told me I had let the school down because our results and data would be a bit lower than the year before. It was typical of the DfE. Data before children. Those children were resolving their issues. We were working with Parents. That didn’t matter, it was only data that mattered."

Friday, 26 April 2019

The McNamara Fallacy

Someone put this up on the comments thread following my article in the Guardian this week:

"The McNamara fallacy (also known as quantitative fallacy[1]), named for Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, involves making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others. The reason given is often that these other observations cannot be proven.

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.

— Daniel Yankelovich "Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business." (1972)"

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Zionism, Zionists, Katzism

Richard Burgon MP has apologised for saying that Zionism is an 'enemy of peace'. Leaving that to one side for the moment, let's look at the argument for why Burgon needed to apologise. Here it is:


"Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement,said the vast majority of Jewish people identified as Zionists.

“Insulting a core part of their identity and then dissembling about it... [Burgon claimed he hadn't said that Zionism was an enemy to peace]... is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher in our party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system,” he said."


This ups the stakes.

Katz is saying that MPs (anyone else?) must not 'insult' Zionism because it is a 'core part' of the 'identity' of the 'vast majority of Jewish people'.

In other words it ups the stakes in what can or can't be said about Zionism,  Zionists, and the 'vast majority' of Jews. Bear in mind that for many decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was active, open debate by Jews (and others) about Zionism. Of course there was! Zionism is a political idea. Can't we argue about Zionism? Any Jews like my parents, who lived in London's East End throughout the 1920s and 30s, regularly had debates about Zionism and of course there were times when either side might have said that there were 'insults' flying. But no one could have closed down the argument on the basis that it wasn't really an argument, and that it was, as Katz has implied, an argument against the core of people's identity. Or if they did, you couldn't get away with saying, 'How dare you say that Zionism is an enemy of peace!  Zionism is a core part of my identity, you have just insulted me, Zionists, and (because the vast majority of Jews are Zionists) Jews.' Yes, yes, yes, people would have said, now let's get on with the political argument about whether Zionism is or is not an 'enemy of peace'. 

But to claim that things can't be said in this debate because it's a matter of personal identity - as Katz has done -  is a way to close down the debate altogether.

On this specific matter, what Mike Katz is saying is that a person shouldn't say that 'Zionism is an enemy of peace'. He is saying, something along the lines of: just don't say it! It cannot be said. It's an unsayable thing. 

Note that he doesn't offer an argument against the view itself. He simply says a)  that it is 'shameful behaviour' and b) that it is an 'insult'  on the grounds that c)  for the 'vast majority of Jews', Israel is a 'core part of their identity'. 

Potentially,  if we are to follow the Katz rule, this could remove whole areas of debate about Israel from discussion. Yet, when the IHRA code was introduced we heard over and over again how this wasn't a restriction on criticism of Israel. OK, so Katz isn't talking about criticism of Israel, he's talking about criticism of 'Zionism' - which he has subtly turned into 'Zionists' - who mustn't hear comments like 'Zionism is the enemy of peace'. Is that because it's racist? Or antisemitic? Does Katz really think that? 

Meanwhile let's conjure up this Mike Katz Argument-Free Zone. What are we allowed to say about Zionism in this Zone? What instructions does Katz have for us so that we don't receive his censure? What is this new doctrine? 

(By the way, there are millions of Zionists who aren't Jews. In the US alone there are millions of 'Christian Zionists' who are 'dispensationalists'. These are people who believe that it's not long now before the Messiah will come again (Second Coming). But this depends on more Jews, most Jews, or all Jews going to Israel. At this point, the Messiah will come again and all people will convert to this form of Christianity. Those who don't will be put to the sword. All those who are now believers will ascend to heaven in what is known as 'The Rapture'.

If you think I've made this up, please look up "Christian Zionism" and "Dispensationalism" on wikipedia. Actually, the entry on "Anti-zionism" is very interesting too because it tells the story of who in the 19th and 20th centuries was against Zionism and why. It will be surprising for some to read, for example, that some of the most vocal anti-Zionists were the more conservative and 'assimilated' Jews who thought that Zionism would evoke the accusation that Jews had dual loyalties, or that they weren't really attached to Britain or the USA. Interesting read...)