A Bad Academic. That’s me!

My name was on that list of academics who denounced Michael Gove’s curriculum plans this week. I was embarrassed that the headlines said ‘top academics’ because although many of my colleagues were, I am decidedly bottom drawer in that respect, but I did feel a little frisson of excitement when I read today that I (and they) are actually now ‘bad academics’, not least of all because we are ruled by our ideology and not our knowledge. I know…the irony!

Michael Wilshaw weighed in, telling us to get out of our ivory towers and into the real world. When did you last teach a class of Year 9s sir? My last was at 2pm today. As those of you who read this blog know, I’m in the classroom every day. My feeling is that an academic involved in education has to be, well, involved in education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean as a classroom teacher. The world would be worse off without the likes of Dylan Wiliam for example, or many of the names who were on that list. Keri Facer for a start, who has led fantastic research based projects into the use of digital technologies in the classroom. Every one of those academics values knowledge. What a ridiculous suggestion that this is an argument about binary oppositions between knowledge and skills. There was no suggestion in the letter that there was no place for knowledge in the world. But knowledge alone, particularly a single minded, prescriptive view of knowledge isolated from context is extremely damaging.

Isaac Newton, describing his very great discoveries said that he was simply a child on a beach, collecting pebbles while the whole vast ocean lay behind him, as yet untapped for its possibilities. He was suggesting that the knowledge we have is as nothing to that which lies yet to be discovered in the future. And the key to that discovery lies in curiosity. Nothing we have ever known or discovered has happened without someone asking a question. What would happen if? Why? What are the consequences of this action? Nothing in Gove’s proposals are future oriented. In looking backwards only, we turn our backs on the ocean.

No-one in their right mind would say, or has said, that learning to read, write and count aren’t vital skills. Maths, computer skills, science are of course crucial to the future survival of the human race. And, as I wrote in my last blog, the Arts are essential components of our humanity. We learn from history so that we won’t repeat mistakes in the future and so that we can celebrate our achievements in the past. And so it goes for every ‘subject’ – there is core, essential knowledge and other knowledge which it is quite nice to know when you get the chance. But there’s too much of it to cram into a curriculum and no-one should try. Because when you do, there is a tendency to skim, to superficially skip over events and information that might have been better done in depth and with contextualised understanding. Gove’s proposals leave little room for depth. And even less for creativity.

In the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, there is a quote – ‘As long as I can create, I know I am alive.’ Our letter suggested Gove’s Gradgrindian approach to education is deadening creativity. At the very time that other countries in the OECD are turning to innovation and enterprise as ways of developing their curriculum models, we are turning away. Let’s not be surprised when we fall further behind. The PISA tests are often quoted as evidence of the need to return to a rigorous form of rote learning, but the whole point of the PISA test is to see what pupils can do when their knowledge is demanded in novel and unexpected situations. In short, their ability to apply knowledge creatively. Britain does quite well on the knowledge aspects of the tests, but poorly on interpretation and application. We HAVE to teach children how to learn if we are to catch up. Apparently that view makes us badass academics. I have to say I quite like it. Because if we don’t speak up, who the hell will?

Lessons from the Holocaust


I’ve just spent five days in Terezin – the site of the Nazi transit camp for Jewish prisoners during the second world war. This is an annual event, organised by the International Schools’ Theatre Association, and it’s the third time I’ve been. I’m there with five artists/teachers and 70 children aged between 15 and 18 and we have a task, to explore the heritage of the children’s opera ‘Brundibar’ that the Jewish prisoners performed in that camp 55 times before most of them were gassed in the chambers at Auschwitz. There are four lines in one of the songs in the opera:-

‘Little children, how I hate ’em
How I wish the bedbugs ate ’em
How their parents over-rate ’em
If they’re rude, exterminate ’em.’

Most of the children singing in that opera were exterminated so the song brings with it the horror of foreshadowing, but also serves as an example of how, even in the most terrible circumstances, humans utilise the power of satire and art as forms of resistance.

Later, we meet Pavel Stransky, a spritely 90 year old survivor not only of Terezin, but also of Auschwitz and the final death marches. Mr. Pavel begins his story with the words ‘this is not just a story of the Holocaust, but it’s also a love story.’ The day after a rushed wedding to his beloved Vera, having heard that he was named as being part of the next ‘tranport’, they were sent to Auschwitz. Vera had insisted on the marriage because only married couples could request to be sent on the transports with their partners. She would rather have gone with him than be left behind. Stripped of clothing, rings, possessions, even hair, they swapped, in the moments before they were separated, the only things they were allowed to own – their spoons. Pavel Stransky carried his spoon through the rest of the war as a symbol of hope that his wife would survive and that they would be reunited. Against infinitesimal odds they did survive and were reunited. But not before they had witnessed horror upon horror.

Mr. Stransky was a teacher. He was placed in charge of blocks of children – firstly a block of boys, aged between 10 and 14, and once all they had been gassed, a block of younger children aged between 3 and 6. Almost all perished. He recounts stories of how the Nazis would allow the children to put on small plays and shows. How Mengele would even bounce them on his knee, telling them to call him ‘Uncle’ before sending them off to the gas chamber. In the face of that – a certain death – what is the role of a teacher?

For Pavel Stransky, the answer was plain. The role of the teacher, he told us, is to provide children with hope and happiness. To create the spaces in their minds where they can transcend the reality of their day to day lives and remember or imagine better places, better times, better futures. He scraped pieces of wood from the walls of the huts and burned the ends so they could make charcoal drawings. He taught them songs and poems, told them stories of heroism and romance, set up competitions, played games and passed on the knowledge he had of all the triumphs and achievements of the best of human accomplishment. He did all this, because he felt, as he put it, a ‘moral responsibility to give them the best possible life they could have, for as long as they could have it.’

Later, asked by our group of children listening to him, many of whom were German, ‘do you hate the Germans?’ he said ‘No. No, listen. You are not responsible for the errors of your grandparents. But you are responsible for the future. Always be human.’

We had gone there, in part to create theatre. And I’ve always had a slight unease about creating theatre about the holocaust. Because I wasn’t there, partly, and I fear handling it clumsily or superficially. But Mr. Stransky once again, had words of wisdom. ‘Art’, he said ‘is resistance of the mind.’ And he reminded us of the incredible amount of art work, of poems, playscripts, magazines, stories and musical compositions, which were found hidden in the walls, under the floorboards and in the eaves of the buildings in Terezin on liberation. Most of the writers and composers were dead. Many of the artists were children – again, most of them dead. There, in that place, art became not just a form of transcendence, but a form of defiance and resilience. Art has the power to move, to improve. And so, the children with us, turned to art. They wrote songs with titles like ‘Love will sustain me’ and drew pictures. They chose significant moments from their tours and explorations of the sites and museums in Terezin and recreated them through dance and drama. There was no ‘audience’ – just an outpouring of learning and understanding through art. Their work was extra-ordinary. Outstanding, one might say.

What is education for? We often trot out that we’re preparing children for a future. We have no idea what that future may bring. What experiences do we immerse them in, in order that they will be equipped to make better decisions than the generation before them? What power do we give them to shape their futures? What skills do we equip them with in order that, should they find themselves in a seemingly hopeless and despairing state, they can overcome, resist, find hope and persist? What access do we give them to the best examples of what we, as a species can be? What would our curriculum look like if we simply focused on giving them the best life that they could have right now instead of a deferred gratification system of examinations? I don’t know the answer, but I know that right at the heart of it I would put a new slogan: always be human.

Romeo and Juliet through Mantle of the Expert…


Due to the popular demand (of one person), I’m writing up my ideas (so far) for using Mantle of the Expert to teach Romeo and Juliet. It’s going swimmingly with my Year 9s so here’s a little bit of information about what we’re up to.

Firstly, if you don’t know what Mantle of the Expert is, get yourself to the website www.mantleoftheexpert.com run by the brilliant Luke Abbott and Tim Taylor. You’ll find articles, details of training, planning documents and resources and all sorts of inspiring stuff to get you going. I first encountered Mantle through the late and wonderful Dorothy Heathcote, who understood children and learning like no other human being I’ve ever met. She knew that the gate to knowledge was called ‘play’ and that play consisted of hard work, determination, grit, imagination, and a need to know that was rooted in ‘the urgency of now’ : that exploration and explanation were two sides of the same coin.’ What is the significance?’ she would say, ‘What are the implications?’ ‘What do we need to know in order to do?’ ‘What do we need to do, in order to know?’

In short, putting on a Mantle, is to put on a context in which learning takes place in an ‘imagined reality’. As a teacher, the starting question might be ‘Who in the world needs to know this stuff I’m having to teach?’ And then, having answered that one, you build an organisation or enterprise, in which this knowledge is expertly known and can therefore be imparted to others – a client. As experts, the children have to equip themselves with the language, information and solution focused thinking that this organisation would need in order to meet the demands of their client. If I’m not making this clear, do visit the website, where people far more articulate than I explain it well! As far as Shakespeare goes…

We’re studying Romeo and Juliet. They don’t quite know it yet – some suspect that’s where we are going, but others don’t. We ‘Mantlers’ don’t really go for the objectives on the board approach – the learning is negotiated and acquired together as tension and urgency build. So the children have been set up in role as a crime investigation unit. They are made up of a variety of experts, but are not, at present, part of the Verona police force. They specialise in crimes which are media sensitive. They have begun by signing confidentiality contracts and submitting their CVs for security checks. They have to submit their bags, phones and coats to security on arrival and are given only paper and pens in the room, which they have to file and hand in at the end of the lesson. They are told that there is a media embargo on the case. And once they have established their identity as a group and their skill set, they get to meet the client.

They have been called in by the Royal Family of Verona to investigate the death of one of their family. His body was found in the tomb of the Capulet family with those of two other teenagers. The family, alerted by a page, were first on the scene and called in their own forensic experts and investigators. They are concerned that the city’s police force is riddled with corruption – most officers are in the pockets of one of two rival families in the city – the Montagues or the Capulets and they want to ensure a fair and unbiased investigation. The representative from the family submits a dossier of information.

In groups of 4, the students open their files. Inside are differentiated pathology reports or witness statements. They have 30 minutes to read and note key findings of their own, share with shoulder partners (pair) and then as a four (square) and draw up an action plan. One is a report for Juliet Capulet, age 13. Cause of death: single stab wound to the heart. She is found in the tomb with her arm flung over the body of a third, as yet unidentified, male. Toxology reports suggest she had high levels of a natural plant sedative in her blood stream. The sedative is rare and not available over the counter. She would have had to see a registered apothecary to have it and there is no record of her seeing one. A dagger was found in her hand – it has the royal crest engraved on its blade. Blood samples show that both hers and the prince’s blood was on the blade. All three victim’s finger prints were on the handle.

The second victim is a royal prince, Paris. Large deposits of blood were found on the ground outside the tomb. Drag marks suggest the body was taken into the tomb. It is not clear whether he died inside or outside the tomb, but he died from a fatal stab wound to the stomach. His body was formally laid out, arms crossed, next to Juliet – as if someone took care to arrange him.

The third victim, a young male, is yet to be identified. Cause of death – a fast acting poison which distorts and disfigures the face. This has made identification within such secrecy difficult. The body was found on its side, facing Juliet. Her arm was placed over the body. His fingerprints were found on the dagger.

A witness statement reports seeing a scuffle outside the tomb between two young men. The witness reports seeing two other boys, – one hiding behind bushes, another fleeing the scene wearing the royal uniform. The witness also thinks she saw, some time later, a man and the boy who was in the bushes, hurrying away from the scene. She is convinced that the man was wearing a monk’s habit.

I’ve cut the details short on this, but you get the idea – they are starting off by weighing up the evidence. We’re starting at the end which is allowed, I think, since Shakespeare pretty much gives the plot away in the prologue. By working our way through the text episodically and not chronologically, we are beginning to open up the possibility of engaging in the why and not just the what.

In our next lesson, we ‘switch on’ the news to find that the media have hold of the story – we play the opening of Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant adaptation of the play, and, having cursed the leak, we explore what the prologue adds to our knowledge of the case. At this point, a letter arrives from the pathologist confirming the identity of the third victim as Romeo Montague.

Here are some of the questions they ask:-

1. The media only know there are two victims. Which ones are they referring to as star crossed lovers – Juliet and Paris or Juliet and Romeo?
2. The media think the deaths are suicides – does our evidence support this claim?
3. The media speak of an ancient grudge between two families – is this a grudge between the Capulet and the Montague family or the Capulet and the Royal family?
4. Why do they talk like that?

In answer to Question 4, one of the devices for setting up the unit as outsiders to Verona, is that the language can be explored as if it is simply another ‘dialect’ for now. We can return to it later, but for now we can say that it’s going to be pretty hard to get used to understanding the way that people speak ‘around here’ but that it gets easier if you try to break it down…

Their questions now are beginning to drive the work forward. They draw up a list of witnesses they think they need to speak to. I have to be ready as teacher to leap into a variety of roles at a moment’s notice so I need to know the play well. As confidence grows, I can start to set some of them up in role with briefing notes. There are a couple of children now starting to say they have some prior knowledge of the play and so I can give them extracts to help them prepare for police interviews. In addition, we can feed in ‘discovered’ evidence. Juliet’s speech ‘Gallop apace…’ in Act 3, Scene 2 becomes a page from her diary, torn out and found in a secret compartment in her dressing table. Similarly, other sections of the text are found in letters and diaries, seeding in evidence.

This is as far as we’ve got so far. I’m not suggesting that we don’t read the play – we will – but by the time we do, they’ll be hungry for it because they were IN it – they will view themselves as part of the narrative – a secret, shadowy force that is never seen or written of – but a part nonetheless. And seeing an investment – a relevance – in the text is half of the battle when studying Shakespeare. That’s the idea anyway.

I’m not suggesting that this is a perfect mantle – I know Dorothy would probably say it’s more of a ‘rolling role’ as getting the flow of mantle is difficult in a secondary setting, but if you want to see it in full glory, embraced across the curriculum, then visit Woodrow Primary School in the Midlands, or Bealings in Sufflolk – their entire curriculum is built around children solving MoE problems from reception class through to KS2. I think it’s well worth taking through to secondary settings though. Why is it, I wonder, that as young people get closer to the reality of leaving school and entering the adult world, we alienate the curriculum from those possibilities and assume they will just happen upon, or discover a professional life? Mantle of the Expert allows children to try on different jobs for size. It raises aspiration, confidence and language. My Year 9s, welcoming Friar Lawrence into the classroom, without any prior warning, suddenly said:-

‘Mr. Lawrence, thank you for agreeing to come in and see us. We should warn you, before we start, that you are under suspicion at this time of involvement in a murder case. You may not wish to speak, but if you do, anything you say, may be taken down as evidence against you’.

It might not be quite word perfect, but it demonstrated a formal use of language that would not normally be present in the classroom. If for no other reason than this, I’ll continue to weave MoE into my work whenever I can.