Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Death of Socrates: Why Critical Thinking Matters.

 (The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787) 

In 399 BC the Greek philosopher, Socrates, was put on trial for 'moral corruption of the youth' and 'impiety'. Or, as is generally accepted, for his questioning and outspoken views of the established oder of society. Socrates espoused the importance of seeking reasoned and logical conclusions to philosophical debates. For Socrates, the main purpose of education was to develop thinking rather than deliver a rigid curriculum. He did not believe that students should be given answers but rather should be challenged through a process of questioning to seek the truth (Brickhouse and Smith, 2000). This post will consider why Socratic philosophical critical thinking is needed now more than ever in our schools. 

There is an abundance of literature on the purpose and importance of teaching critical thinking in schools (Lipman, 1991; Ennis, 1997; Paul et al., 1990; Fisher, 2008). Even so, what the term critical thinking means is still highly contested as it has different applications and meanings (Bailin et al., 1999; Moore and Parker, 2007; Cho, 2010; Breuing, 2011). One of the main issues is that there is some confusion between critical thinking from psychological and philosophical dispositions with some theorists using the two interchangeably (Bailin et al., 1999).  Indeed, Nicholas and Raider-Roth (2016) contend that this misunderstanding is a consequence of an amalgamation of conflicting interpretations and ideas regarding critical thinking. More worryingly, it  has suggested that critical thinking has been hijacked by neoliberals and is not really concerned with developing children’s criticality but instead moulding them into economic citizens with edu-businesses selling generic thinking and problem solving skills programmes to unassuming schools (McLaren (1998)Ennis (1987) maintains that critical thinking should involve such skills as assessing the validity of arguments, judging the credibility of sources and challenging unsubstantiated assumptions. Ennis' revisionist approach is closely aligned with the Socratic model of critical thinking which was based on seeking evidence and reaching thoughtful conclusions based upon that evidence. This form of critical thinking is essentially about what to do or believe through the process of logical reasoning (Ennis, 1987; Bailin et al., 1999).

Supporters of philosophical critical thinking argue that developing children’s criticality can have a positive impact on society as it makes them increasingly aware of how they can positively contribute and engage in the decision-making process (Ennis, 1987; Paul et al., 1990; Fisher, 2008)According to Fisher (2008), one of the main reasons for teaching critical thinking is that every person should be given opportunities to have their thinking and intellect developed. Children should be provided with opportunities to develop their thinking and acquire the tools needed to become successful learners. However, in order for this to happen requires schools to provide opportunities for children to be be questioned and allow them to question. Critical thinkers are not people who are negative or critical about everything, in fact, they are quite the opposite. Critical thinkers are people who refuse to accept assumptions without first critically assessing the evidence and reaching informed judgements (Paul 1990 et al.; Bailin et al., 1999). One of the main reasons for this is that developing children's criticality can act as a buffer against indoctrination (Costello, 2000).  The main features of indoctrination are the push for uncritical acceptance of ideas and the dismissal of evidence.  Teachers have a responsibility to guide, influence, and steer pupils. However, to indoctrinate, is to run counter to teaching in a democratic society or to develop politically literate and active thoughtful citizens.

Critical thinking will not only serve pupils well in education but is also useful in a vastly challenging and capricious world. The last ten years have witnessed the birth of Facebook and Twitter and the mass growth of blogging as a means of communicating ideas. It is fair to say that the new millennium has been driven by a cyber and technological revolution (Salmon and Lucas, 2011). This technological revolution is having an enormous impact on society and strengthens the argument for teaching philosophical critical thinking in the 21st century. Indeed, instant and easy access to online information, which one may not be able to trust, makes critical thinking more important than ever. Children need to be taught how to question and evaluate what they read on the Internet and not just accept it because it is published on the Mail Online or, worse still, Breitbart. During these times of post-truths, alternative facts and Donald Trump it would appear that developing children's critical thinking could be considered a matter of national urgency. 

Developing critical thinking in schools should not however be reserved for children and can be beneficial for teachers too. Enhancing one’s own critical thinking allows one to approach and question educational initiatives with a healthy dose of cynicism. For example, in 1984, Kolb argued that all children have preferred learning styles; visual, audio and kinaesthetic (VAK).  Consequently schools were pressured, usually by educational businesses, into ensuring that teachers cater for all children’s preferred learning styles within their lessons. Learning styles have now been largely debunked through evidence-based research (Nuthall, 2007; Sharp et al. 2,008). Similarly, there have been a number of concerns lately regarding Dweck's (2006) Growth Mindset, again, largely due to it being repackaged and sold to schools as some sort of educational panacea. Hattie argues that ‘teachers and school leaders need to be critical evaluators of the effect that they are having on their students’ (Hattie, 2012, p. 2012). This will only happen if teachers and school leaders are able to consider evidence-based research around the latest educational fads. Enabling teachers to think more critically about policy and practice is possibly one step closer towards that goal.

One of the main arguments against teaching critical thinking is that it devalues the importance of teaching knowledge (Hirsch, 2006; Young, 2011). It is suggested that detailed subject knowledge is more important than the development of children’s criticality. As Hirsch (2006, p.12) maintains ‘the only thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all-purpose knowledge’. Shor (1992, p. 32) has however criticised Hirsch’s approach to central knowledge as being an overtly ‘Eurocentric cannon of information’. Indeed, this idea of knowledge often seems to neglect the culture and histories of marginalised and minority groups.  Fisher (2008) has also suggested that critical thinking is required to make sense of subject knowledge. Contextual knowledge is almost redundant if one does not possess the ability to apply that knowledge accordingly. Indeed, ‘teaching content and skills is of minor import if learners do not also develop the dispositions or inclination to look at the world through a critical lens’ (Burbules and Berk, 1999, p. 48). However, the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. One needs the factual knowledge and understanding in order to apply critical thinking (Willingham, 2008). This does, however, seem to get overlooked within the polemical discourse being espoused by traditionalist educators. 

Traditionalist educators believe that the best way for children to learn is through teacher-led, didactic instruction. They argue that children learn through the transmission of knowledge from the teacher, who is the expert, to the novice child. Freire (1970) refers to this as ‘knowledge banking’ education which he believed suppresses critical thought. Instead, Friere (1970) argues that education should be about posing problems rather than merely imparting decontextualised knowledge. Traditionalist educators are highly critical of such progressive methods which tend to be more child-centred, skills-orientated and dialogic in their nature.  Very often traditionalist teachers employ the old (misquoted) adage ‘knowledge is power’ (Bacon, 1597) , however, ‘knowledge is not exactly power. Knowledge is the power to know, to understand, but not necessarily the power to do or to change’ (Shor, 1992). For children to become active citizens they must have the ability to think critically about their lives and the world within which they reside.

There been much debate over whether critical thinking should be taught as a stand-alone subject or infused into the curriculum (Ennis, 1987; Swartz and McGuiness, 2014). The former refers to critical thinking programmes such as Philosophy for Children whereas the latter contests that it should be ‘taught implicitly through disciplinary content’ (Nicholas and Rider-Roth, 2016, p. 2). One of the approaches for improving the teaching of critical thinking in education is through philosophy. Fisher (2008) argues philosophy allows children to explore thinking in different and exciting ways. One of the most renowned philosophy programmes is the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) movement which uses philosophical enquiry to improve the critical thinking of pupils of all ages and abilities. The worldwide movement began in 1972 with the work of Mathew Lipman and uses novels which act as starting points for philosophical discussions. One of the central concepts of the Philosophy for Children movement has been that of the community of inquiry. ‘The community embodies co-operation, care, respect and safety; and the ‘inquiry’ reaches for understanding, meaning, truth and values supported by reasons’ (P4C, 2008). It is difficult to not see similarities between communities of inquiry and ‘circles of culture’ as advocated by Freire (1974). Both are fundamentally about creating safe environments where people feel confident to discuss ideas and formulate arguments backed by thoughtful reasoning. Developing children’s philosophical reasoning can improve their political consciousness which hopefully means they leave education as reflective and politically literate citizens (McLaren, 1998; Costello, 2000; Garratt and Piper, 2011).

For those who advocate the infusion model of teaching critical thinking, the Socratic method is often used as an example of how enquiries facilitated by questioning can be developed across the curriculum. The Socratic method of teaching aims to support creative and critical thinking and is divided into two approaches; Socratic enquiry and Socratic questioning (Fisher, 1998). The former tends to involve more formal lesson of enquiry whereas the latter is about the infusion of Socratic teaching across the curriculum. Socratic questioning techniques can be used across all subjects and support the infusion model of teaching critical thinking (Warren et al., 2004; Swartz and McGuiness, 2014). Socratic questioning gives priority to the investigation of the beliefs pupils have and the rationale behind those beliefs, opposed to recalling information which has been given to them by their teacher (Davis, 2012). Unfortunately, research suggests that teachers still tend to ask more closed questions with an emphasis on facts and subject knowledge (Gall, 1970; Harris and Williams, 2007). It should also be remembered that in order for the Socratic approach to be successful the teacher must have a genuine interest in what children are thinking (Fisher, 1998). One of the main advantages of the infusion model‘is that children can ‘transform the critical skills they acquire in other subjects and ‘publish’ it in forms that are relevant to their citizenship’ (Pike, 2007, p. 482).

It could be argued that the current educational system is a direct attack on the conditions that allow for critical thinking to happen.  In England, the most recent version of the national curriculum places much greater emphasis on core subjects and knowledge than developing children’s capacity to think critically and creatively (DfE, 2013; DfE, 2014). Coincidentally, this is at odds with education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where there is an explicit commitment through national curricula to develop children’s critical thinking across all phases (Northern Ireland Curriculum, 2007; Education Scotland, 2013; Welsh Government, 2015). In a recent speech the Schools Minister (DfE, 2017) announced that he favours a knowledge-rich curriculum influenced by Hirsch. What he fails to acknowledge is since its introduction in 2009, the Common Core curriculum in the US has actually resulted in a drop in performance for high school students in reading and math (Singer, 2016). Worse still, the children whose performance has been affected the most are those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This is particularly disconcerting as children from disadvantaged backgrounds in both the States and the United Kingdom continue to underperform academically when compared to their more affluent peers  (NAEP, 2015; CentreForum, 2016). Maybe it's about time educational systems moved beyond core knowledge, high stakes assessment and standardisation and focused more on developing children's criticality and creativity. After all, that's what Socrates would have wanted. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Switching Off

I read two blog posts today which really resonated with me. They were from two educators  I admire because of their philosophy of and dedication to education. You can read @smithsmm here and @johntomsett here. I can't write as eloquently as these guys but they've inspired me to write something about the theme I connected with in both blogs; the investment of time we make as educators in our work and the impact that it has on our family and especially our children. 

I first started working in secondary education in 2005. Since then I have fulfilled the roles of teaching assistant, learning mentor, trainee teacher, history teacher, head of year and head of department  Since becoming a father five years ago I've become acutely aware of how  much I work and also the impact it can have on the people closest to me, especially my children. Although they are only 3 and 5 years old I think they can see that I spend far too much time and energy working and not enough fulfilling my dutiful role as a dad. The other day, for example, this conversation occurred between me and my eldest, Nye:

Nye: Dad, do you want to come outside and play football?

Me: Yes, mate. Just give me 5 mins to finish this chapter.

Nye: Dad, do you want to marry a book?

Now, as ridiculous as this question may seem there's a real depth of awareness in its observation. Nye sees me reading all the time. It's a huge part of my job, I guess. But he also sees this as something that I enjoy doing more than building Lego or kicking a ball in the garden. And to some degree he's right. That said, it really saddens me to know that he thinks like this and I need to do more to remedy it. 

In the short time that I've been a dad I feel as though I've already missed out on so much of their lives because of work; mainly through the demands of teaching but also because I decided to do an MA, part-time, over the past three years (the length of time my youngest, Osh, has been on this planet). There have been many occasions over the past three years where I have missed family events, days out and socialising with friends and their children. None of this would have been possible without the support of my family for which I am eternally grateful. 

I thought this obsession with work might've changed once I left teaching but I've just replaced the demands of school with those of doing a PhD. I still miss time with the kids because I have work that I 'need' to do. Thing is, if you've never experienced a child's face after telling them you can't spend the day with them because you've 'got to work' then I admire and envy you in equal measure. 

There's also been a number of occasions where Nye has said 'dad, put your phone away'. Although I'm not playing Candy Crush, he's got a point. That Tweet, blog or email can wait. Our relationship can't. I guess that's one of the unfortunate trappings of 21st Century living; it's difficult to switch off unless we really completely switch off. For someone who has dedicated most of their adult life to helping children I worry that in the process I'm neglecting the relationships with my own. I waited until the boys had gone to sleep to write this blog which  I guess is a step in the right direction. So, in the words of Guy Garvey, it's time I really started......

Monday, 9 January 2017

Half Nelson: Why I tapped out.

Half Nelson is one of my favourite films about teaching. Starring Ryan Gosling as troubled but idealisitc history teacher, Dan Dunne, who tries to balance his desire to transform poor children's lives in a Brooklyn school with his growing drug dependency. Now, I'm not suggesting that I left teaching because of a penchant for crack cocaine but there is certainly something to be said about my reasons for leaving and the wrestling move with which the film shares its name.

In April 2016 I made the very difficult decision to leave teaching. It was difficult both emotionally and financially but in hindsight the right thing to do. Anyhow, before trying to explain why I left a profession I once loved it's probably worth saying why I went into teaching in the first place..... 

Growing up on a tough estate in North Wales during the 1980/90s I experienced first-hand the emancipatory and transformative power of education. I also witnessed the devastating impact of Thatcherism on working families and communities. Going to university opened up opportunities which I believe every child should be afforded. If they wish, of course, as I also don't believe that success should be soley measured on academic achievements. Education provided me with a ticket out of an existence which was, I suppose, just that. I was fortunate to have some wonderful teachers who believed in me and helped me to achieve. I'm not for a minute suggesting I was always the easiest of pupils. Just ask my Science teacher, Mr Fellows. I spent more time outside his classroom door than I did inside the lab learning about the periodic table. I don't blame him per se but his didactic teaching style didn't really click with my eagerness to question everything. I am privileged to have the life I have and it is because of a decent state education and a supportive family. For that, I have a huge debt of gratitude which I'm still trying to repay. Regardless of my decision to leave, I still believe that teaching has the power to transform lives. So, if this holds true, why on earth did I Ieave?

Firstly, I need to say that my decision to leave had nothing whatsoever to do with pupil behaviour. I know some observers would have you believe that schools are out of control with horrible children preventing all from learning. This isn't my experience and I've worked in some tough schools with high levels of deprivation. Naturally I found some pupils difficult at times but no more so than my own two children. This seems to chime with a recent highly-scientific Twitter poll where only 5% of voters suggested this was the main reason they have/ would leave the profession. The overall results can be seen below: 

Actually having to tell the pupils that I was leaving initially filled me with an enormous sense of guilt. Was I letting them down? Then I realised I was probably letting them down by staying as I was no longer able to give it my all. The idealism, optimism and drive had been knocked out of me. For me, the decision to leave was reached during the summer term of 2015 when I was diagnosed with work-related depression. I had known for a while that things weren't quite right but stupidly thought that if I worked harder I would somehow get better. I didn't. Instead I burnt out. If you have ever suffered from mental illness you'll know how all-consuming it can be. And for me it was. So much so that I made the decision to leave. I'm certainly not alone with work-related stress/ mental illness; a survey conducted by the NASUWT in 2016 found that not only was teacher wellbeing a growing concern but also the profession was witnessing the following trends:

So, it's all very well Theresa May coming out and offering free mental health training for secondary school teachers but more needs to be done to support teachers who might be suffering from work-related stress/ depression/ anxiety and dependency. 

So, back to the purpose of this post. I left teaching (like the 69% of teachers who voted in the poll) because of the workload which was directly impacting upon my wellbeing and mental health. However, I  think there's an important distinction to be made here. I don't mind working hard. In fact, I think I've got a very good work ethic and I thank my parents for that. Unfortunately, I believe much of what teachers are being asked to do is superfluous and can actually have an negative impact on children's learning whether that be through the loss of time or their teacher's inability to physically and/ or mentally fulfil their role. It would be impossible for me to write about each and every one of the excessive teacher tasks unless I decided to write a book. So, let's just take the example of the RAG status reports. Borrowed directly from a business model of project management these reports are supposed to show how children are progressing towards an (often unrealistic) grade and what is being done by the teacher to help them achieve said grade. 

So, in my experience, every fortnight I had to rate each GCSE pupil as to whether or not  they were secure (green), close (amber) or urgently needed support (red) in getting a C or above in their exams. This started in Year 10 and continued until one month before the pupils sat their GCSEs. One problem is that this wasn't done against their target grades. Interestingly, if you've got a pupil who is predicted a G (and there were some in this position) it's going to be very difficult to get them beyond that almighty threshold. And the RAG wasn't quite enough. Within each category there were sub-catagories; A, B and C. You get where this is going. So, said pupil might start off as Red-C but the expectation would be that they'd then move up to Red-B in a fortnight and so on and so forth. Now, this can't just happen so every pupil who isn't on green-A has to have strategies put in place to ensure they make the necessary progress. As in business, these targets had to be SMART. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the RAG was then publicly displayed in form classrooms (which were used by pupils across the whole school) so that the children could have their progress, or indeed lack of, shared with all their peers. And this whole process takes valuable time. Time away from what really matters; teaching and learning. Ultimately, it was self-defeating or as Blackadder would say, bollocks. And this is very much connected to weak leadership. 

Yesterday there was an interesting discussion on Twitter regarding SLT who demand to see teacher's lesson plans at he start of the week/ term. This shows a distinct lack of trust and is little more than poor micro-management. Or, what Stephen Ball refers to as  'teacher perfomativity' which is a direct result of marketisation of education. If you invite market forces into a public service then don't be surprised when they start to emulate private businesses. Hence the obsession with judgments, measures and constant performance cycles.  This is, of course, inextricably linked to workload as most of this perfomativity is box-ticking to please SLT or inspectors rather than to actually help children learn.  For all intents and purposes it felt as though the system had me in a Half Nelson (finally got there). Locked in this  performativity stranglehold, I had to tap out.   

Leaving was tough. I went into teaching probably too idealistically thinking I could inspire every child I taught. I wouldn't be as self-assured to suggest I was an outstanding teacher but I'd like to think I was a consistently good teacher who cared for the pupils and believed that what I was doing was worthwhile and in some way making a positive difference to society. Since leaving my wellbeing has improved enormously. I might be earning a lot less money but I am doing something that I am passionate about again (research into children's political literacy) and have much more time to spend with my own children. I've had to make quite a few sacrifices but you can't put a price on your health and wellbeing. 

I still believe education has the power to be transformative and emancipatory but not in its current state.  I don't know if I'll ever return to the chalkface but what I do know is that I will always work in education and continue to wrestle (sorry) for a more socially just and equitable public system which benefits the many and not the few. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

#Minimalism: where less equals more.

I watched the brilliant Minimalism documentary the other day. It really struck a chord with me. It made me realise something that had been bothering me for years but I couldn't quite put my finger on. I, like many of my family and friends, have been sold a neoliberal dream that owning more stuff makes us happy. A bigger house, a faster car, fashionable clothes, electronic gadgets, stuff, stuff and more bloody stuff. And here's the rub; none of this actually makes us happier. Well, not really. Momentarily maybe but not real lasting and meaningful happiness. You get that from lived experience and relationships and not digits in the bank and the stuff on your shelves. Unless they're books, of course. Yeah, sure, we all need security but how have we been hoodwinked into this consumerist self-defeating cycle? I blame Thatcher but then again I blame her for most of society's ills.

I worry about the message this consumerism conveys to my two children. I absolutely love them beyond any words can suggest but what does it say if they see me as an economic citizen just toiling away to own more stuff? And it filters down so that they begin to believe that stuff = happiness. And yet it’s not the owning of things that makes children happy, to be honest I don’t think they could care less. Have you ever seen the joy on a young child's face as they jump up and down in a muddy puddle or listen to a story? And not even from a book. The ones that are made up on the spot….that’s real happiness right there. It's not the faux consumerist bullshit children are subjected to Every Single Day in the mass media. Anyhow, time to climb down off this pedestal…..

This year I've decided to declutter my life. I'm going to sell/ donate most of what I own including my car, electronic gadgets (FitBit, iPad et al.), clothes (not all of them) and anything else I think just gets in the way of living a more fulfilled life. I believe that decluttering can give you a renewed sense of purpose and focus. My commitment is to only purchase things that bring real value to my family's lives. Don't worry, my boys won't want for anything but I want them to grow up with a real sense of appreciation for monetary value. 

I'm not into telling people what to think or do. But I am interested in making the world a better place. And if that makes me a soft lefty liberal snowflake then so be it. I've been called worse. I wasn't born to own stuff.  Christ, I grew up with very little but, you know what, I was happy with my lot.  I'm not big on New Year's resolutions as they inevitably get broken but, you know what, 2017 is really the year when I say 'fuck stuff' once and for all......