Alpha Teaching

Germaine Greer famously wrote that women had “very little idea of how much men hate them.” That may well have been true in 1970 when The Female Eunuch was published, but in the twenty-first century the phenomenon must be very much diminished. Thanks to the internet we have learned a whole new vocabulary centred around different-coloured pills, purveyed by self-proclaimed men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and practitioners of ‘Game’.

Much of it is very silly, and feminists have enjoyed themselves immensely by skewering it. Some of it is more intellectual: the oeuvre of Jordan Peterson, for instance, who manages to simultaneously appeal to some elements of the ‘men’s rights’ movement and to some elements of edutwitter. And, interestingly, there are some areas where feminists and some of their avowed enemies are in agreement. (For this intersection – see what I did there? – see Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pick-Up Artist Chaser, which is an entertaining and sympathetic and vigorously feminist take on the whole sorry business.)

And in those areas there are, I would tentatively suggest, lessons for teachers.

(Yes, I know. I always think there are lessons for teachers.)

What are these lessons?

I’m glad you asked.

No More Mr Nice Guy. Some teachers have a tendency to think that they ought to be respected and esteemed simply because they are teachers. They are adults with qualifications, and pupils ought therefore to defer to them.

Look, maybe this ought to be how it works. But it isn’t. You might think you ought to be entitled to their obedience. And maybe you can argue that you are, in some philosophical sense. But it won’t make any difference to what happens in the classroom.

Is this unfortunate? Yes, probably. But that’s the way the world is.

They Won’t Be Grateful. You really care about your pupils. You want the best for them. You care much more than other teachers, especially those you’ve come across saying ‘inappropriate’ things about them in the staffroom or on the internet. You work hard for them, sacrificing yourself in the process.

Sorry. They don’t appreciate it. Maybe they should. But they don’t. Is this unfortunate? Yes, probably. But that’s the way the world is.

Pupils will muck about in lessons and slack off if they can get away with it. If you’re expecting them not to just because you’re a good person, you need to adapt your expectations.

You can get upset about this. Or you can accept it and adapt. It’s up to you.

Hang on a minute, I hear you cry. There are schools which are showing this isn’t necessarily true, aren’t there? Especially among the new breed of free school. There, pupils are made to be obedient and deferential, and indeed to demonstrate their appreciation of their teachers, aren’t they?

Well. There are, of course, exceptions. And these schools are, as their leaders and teachers will tell you, exceptional. I’m not disparaging them: I thoroughly approve of what they’re doing. And I follow many of their teachers on Twitter, and I know that these are inspiring people, and that’s what makes the difference: without the charismatic leadership at the top, the disciplinary structures at those schools would be much less likely to work.

It’s All About Confidence. This is the most important thing of all. A teacher should stroll into the classroom the way Donald Trump strolls into his own hotel. If you don’t feel that confidence? Take the advice of every pick-up-artist coach and fake it. Pretend you do.

It gets easier with time. I was amused to see Jordan Peterson suggesting to young men that they should approach fifty young women and ask for their telephone numbers, just to inure them to the entire process including the inevitable rejections. (I dare his teacher fans to offer that advice to boys in their PSHE lessons.) Of course you’ll be nervous to begin with. You’ve just got to get over it.

Does this mean being arrogant? Well … not ideally, no, but if you take your confected confidence a bit too far and the pupils think you’re a bit full of yourself, then that’s better than not taking it far enough and them thinking you’re soft. Act like you deserve respect, rather than moping about how you don’t get it.

The Pupils Don’t Matter. The education of children is your life’s work, right? Wrong. You’re part of something far greater and far more important than them. You are part of an apostolic succession of teachers stretching back to the dawn of civilisation. Those Dark Age Irish monks who kept alive the flame of learning when it was extinguished in much of the rest of Europe didn’t do so in order to have you make something accessible to some fool who’d rather be playing Call of Duty.

Oh, you think they’ll like you better if they know that they are your priority? Congratulations, you’re like every Nice Guy who ever complained that he’d give up anything for a woman and yet found that it didn’t make her like him. Again, it doesn’t work like that. If your focus is them, you’re not interesting, and they won’t be interested in you or anything you have to say. So no, don’t make things ‘relevant’ to their lives. Their lives are tedious. Their lives are the level they can reach on FIFA 17 (or whatever the latest version is) or how many ‘likes’ they can get on Snap Chat. If they want someone to talk to about that, there are many people who’ll do it better than you.

Fortunately you’re in a better position than most would-be pick-up artists: you actually have something interesting to say.

Be Hard To Please. You think pupils should be praised a lot? You think it’s important to acknowledge good performance, and be demonstratively appreciative? In that case you’re the teacherly equivalent of the man whose preferred conversational gambit is to compliment his interlocutor’s looks. Say it too often, and it becomes meaningless noise.

I’d go further. A teacher should be difficult to please. Your approval is the prize. Don’t give it away too easily. If you appear to praise grudgingly and in moderation it will have rarity value, and that will enable you to use it sparingly and to achieve an effect.

Be Funny. Some people find this easier than others. But it can be learned: famously (or, at least, famously among political historians of the third quarter of the twentieth century) Harold Wilson was a classic Oxford-don-cum-civil-servant who had to explicitly learn to be funny. Teachers have an advantage here: we know what’s going to come up in our lessons, we can prepare jokes and asides and wisecracks, and (unlike the Prime Minister or the man on a date) we can hone them. Yes, of course your pupils should appreciate you for your commitment to them and your earnest desire that they should do well. But they won’t. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Be funny and they’ll be more likely to pay attention.

Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, but that doesn’t make it untrue. But the choice, which I understand is between a blue pill and a red pill, is yours.


School Sport

When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name

He writes, not that you won or lost, but how you played the Game.


When I advertised last week’s blog post on Twitter, I was taken to task by one of my fellow historians, the estimable ‘History Lover,’ whom you can and should follow at the @mw_history ‘handle.’ She observed that my own liking for competitive team sports had influenced my judgment, which was based on emotion and not on reason.

I think she’s completely right about this. I always loved taking school teams. In fourteen years I coached three sports (rugby, football, and cricket) at a range of levels, from the 1st XI  to the under-fourteen ‘F’ XI; I’ve taken cricketers to Sri Lanka, footballers to Holland and rugby players to Italy. I’ve spent my Saturdays refereeing and umpiring, or standing on touchlines and boundaries, and stayed after school to run training sessions. I am as far from being a neutral authority on this as it’s possible to be.

Still, I think I can rationalise what is ultimately nothing more than my own personal prejudices, so here we go.

Let’s start with the obvious arguments. Health and physical fitness are important, and doing team sports is one way of fostering this.

Should schools find opportunities for pupils to engage in collaborative group work? Well, teachers have certainly been known to try to create such opportunities in their classrooms, either because they’re personally committed to the idea or because they’ve been told by some higher authority that it is important. The trouble is that in many subjects group work is essentially artificial, and so has a deservedly bad reputation.

Not so in sports: a well-worked set-piece (a scrum, say, or a line-out) is the very essence of effective collaboration. Each player’s role is clearly defined. Each player’s role is essential. And each player’s ability to perform that role is dependent on the other members of the team. In open play, individuals’ roles are less clearly delineated, and so flexibility and the ability to think on one’s feet are essential. They might look like muddied oafs, but rugby players arriving at a breakdown are making sophisticated calculations very quickly. Or at least the good ones are.

Are these ‘transferable skills’? Maybe not. That skills are domain-specific is a convincing one, and Nick Hornby includes a memorable example of it in his book Fever Pitch, when he contrasts Paul Gascoigne’s phenomenal sporting intelligence with his infamous lack of the most basic common sense.

For me, though, the answer to this is that we spend quite enough time on individual endeavours at school. We have to. That’s fine. I don’t object to it. I’d have hated to have been judged as a student of history on my ability to have collaborated with my peers. But sometimes we – people, that is, not schoolteachers or pupils – we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and a school curriculum should make space for developing that aspect of ourselves.

Playing team sports involves physical courage. It also involves self-sacrifice. The flannelled fool at the wicket is not just dealing with an opponent hurling a very hard projectile at him. He’s often, especially in schools cricket, balancing his own selfish interests – more time at the crease to bat, and a better average – with the interests of his team, which might require him to play rather differently.

Again, I’m happy to concede that this may not transfer. I don’t know. I’m inclined to think that someone who has learned to tackle opponents who are bigger and stronger than himself may well be more likely to stand up to a bully in another field of life. But of course I’ve no evidence one way or the other.

And playing team sports also involves learning to recognise each other’s contributions, and learning to lose with grace and dignity.

Does this always happen? No, obviously not. Most sports teams have members who are dismally lacking in the virtues I’ve just lauded. Sometimes they’re the better players, which is partly why they get away with it. And this can be particularly so in junior sport, where the players are young and inexperienced. Children need a lot of guidance before they can come to appreciate this.

But they often do come to appreciate it in the end. And – this is dreadfully progressive of me, I know, but I’m afraid I happen to believe it – they also need first-hand experience. My preaching the virtues of being a good loser will not, truth be told, persuade them. They need to see me refuse to indulge in any criticism of refereeing for weeks, terms and years on end. They need to see my colleagues do so too. Yes, they occasionally need us to explicitly say to them ‘look, sometimes referees get things wrong, but that’s life, and nobody’s trying to cheat you, and in your own interest, both long and short term, you should take the attitude that the referee is always right, and not look for the easiest excuse there is.’ But mostly they need to be shown that this is possible. (With certain sports, based on the way they are covered in the media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that criticising referees is an essential and inherent part of the game.)

And this is why I think schools are best placed to do it. We don’t always get it right. Certainly not. I’ve winced on sidelines before as senior members of staff have given v unsolicited verbal advice to referees; I’ve listened to a pastoral leader agree with his Third Form football team that biased refereeing decisions were the reason for a defeat. I’ve often thought that we – the Games departments of which I’ve always considered myself to be a part-time member – have placed too much emphasis on winning, and not enough on doing things the right way. But overall I think schools are in a far better position to encourage these values than sports clubs.

We, in schools, can and do get this wrong, and when we do we do not make the case for school sports. I have little sympathy for arguments based around ‘I was made to do team sport and I hated it.’ Yeah, well, tough. I was made to go to bed on time, and eat vegetables, and study Chemistry. But I do have a tremendous amount of sympathy for arguments based around ‘I was in my school team, but I was always an unused substitute,’ or ‘I was in a school team, and I spent the whole time being berated by my team-mates and my coach.’

So we’d have to get it right, and do it properly. Yes, of course I know we’re not going to make representing the school in team sport a compulsory part of the curriculum. But we should. This stuff is more important than knowing valencies.

What Should Be Mandatory?

Once upon a time, long long ago, back when I was at school myself, I was told that before the National Curriculum there were only two subjects which all English schools were required to teach to all pupils in compulsory education: Physical Education and Religious Studies. (Or, back in the good old days, Religious Instruction.)

A brief search on the internet neither confirms nor debunks this claim. I’d love to know whether it’s true or not. The justifications are obvious and, I think, fairly persuasive; so too are the claims made for Mathematics – a decent grasp of which is of course necessary to succeed in many other subjects.

I would keep Mathematics compulsory. Religious Studies? Yes. If children aren’t learning about religion in school it’s unlikely they’ll be learning about it anywhere else. An understanding of people’s religious beliefs is a fairly important element of understanding the world. And yes, the culture of much of the world has been suffused with religion for centuries: to try to understand it without understanding the underlying faith seems unreasonable. So RS can stay.

PE? Yes. Not just for the physical activity: it’d be nice for schools to be places where healthy bodies accompany healthy minds, but I don’t care about it so much that I want Cookery back on the curriculum. I do want pupils participating in team games though, and representing their school in sports fixtures. Definitely.

Thereafter, as far as I’m concerned, it gets a little murky.

Even with English I’m unconvinced. To suggest that English Literature doesn’t deserve to be a compulsory subject for pupils up to the age of sixteen is tantamount to welcoming the barbarian hordes’ sacking of Rome. But what is so special about literature? Or rather, what is so special about literature when compared with art, or music, both of which almost all schools are happy to see their pupils drop at thirteen years of age? Are the works of Shakespeare more important than the works of Beethoven or Michaelangelo? Why?

Is it because English is the ‘arts’ equivalent of Mathematics, essential for so many other subjects? I wonder. I’ll grudgingly concede that it ought to be. But when English teachers tell me that it’s everyone’s job to teach good English usage, and that they’re not going to spend time on grammar when there’s Lord of the Flies to be taught … well. I wonder if English is all that deserving of its spot on the top table, and I wonder if a daily History lesson for every pupil from eleven to sixteen might do that job just as well.

At school I had to take three separate sciences to GCSE. At the time I thought this was unreasonable: I’d far rather have taken Latin and Geography than Physics and Chemistry. In retrospect … well, I think I was probably right. What’s the justification for making science a compulsory subject? The answer I give pupils making similar complaints is that dropping a science really is closing a door: a thirteen-year-old who drops Chemistry and Physics isn’t going to pick it up again, and will be ineligible for a large number of university courses. Still, this isn’t unique to the sciences: I dropped Latin twenty-five years ago, and I’m therefore not eligible to take a master’s degree in History at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

What about foreign languages? I don’t know. I can see both sides. There’s obviously value in learning one, or more than one. And I’ve been in Frankfurt long enough to cringe when my fellow Anglophones stroll into a café and ask for something in English. (You’re in Germany, after all, not somewhere with an obscure or incomprehensible language like Mongolia or even Hungary, and you’re only asking for a cappuccino (ein cappuccino) and a croissant (yep, that’s right, ein croissant). Come on!) But let’s be realistic. There’s a reason why the English are so bad at learning foreign languages: it’s just not necessary. There is also no obvious contender for the language to be studied.

I taught in a selective independent school in the south-east. Most of the pupils came from the sort of metropolitan middle-class backgrounds which oozed ‘cultural capital.’ And yet I stood and supervised them queueing at the Burger King outlet at the Calais terminal of the Channel Tunnel and seen them, just like their fathers in Frankfurt, fail even to try that most basic staple of classroom vocabulary, asking for food & drink in a café.

I’m inclined to think that this is a bad thing. I don’t think forcing every child to learn a language to the age of sixteen will fix it. But I’m inclined to think that a basic background in a language, even if that’s all it is, is well worth having. There’s such a vast difference between being able to just about communicate in a language and not being able to, and a basic background is a far better position to start from for someone who needs to actually learn that language.

All right then, what about History? I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that History teachers – at least all the History teachers I’ve spoken to about this – are appalling hypocrites on this issue. We are inclined to think that of course History should be a compulsory subject, while being secretly relieved that it isn’t. Yes, it’d be nice to have a proper five-year curriculum (as was originally intended, by the way, and only abandoned at the last minute, at least according to David Cannadine’s The Right Sort of History) but then it’s also nice to have classes full of pupils who positively opted for the subject. I am, of course, hopelessly prejudiced on this matter, and will probably have to write a separate blog post on why history ought to be compulsory.

Does this mean Geography has to go? No. I don’t think so. I’m almost inclined to think that Geography should be compulsory too. I could try to explain why, but Mark Enser did it better than I could. Go have a read.

I have one more subject to consider. No, not Computer Science or Design Technology: sure, I like to pontificate on things I know nothing about, but as I’m not actually Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education just yet I don’t have to pretend to know anything about them. I’m open to persuasion, but I’ll confess to ignorance of those curriculum areas.

I’ll end, however, with a controversial one. Drama ought to be compulsory.



I once had a drama teacher tell me that our jobs were similar, really: we were both in the business of trying to get children to understand why people did what they did. I think he had a point. If emotional intelligence & empathy can be taught at all, surely drama is the medium. Never mind all the twenty-first-century-skills drivel: if there’s one thing we know people will continue to need to be able to do, it’s to perform in front of others. Drama teaches you to play a role, something else which the silliest futurologists don’t think is going away. You want to speak in public? Well? Of course you do. Drama will help you. And if you want proper, meaningful group work? Drama. (Yes, there are one-man plays, but they aren’t going to be put on in schools.) Everyone has to do their bit in drama, or you let everyone else down; a play is simultaneously immensely collaborative while offering no hiding place for the individual. And, of course, there’s the study of plays themselves, which are as important a part of our heritage as other works of art. You want preparation for life? Do drama.

So what am I making compulsory? Maths can stay. Religious Studies. Sport. History. A language. Geography, maybe. And drama. Yes, that’s it. You think Chemistry should be on the list? Tell me why.

Elsa Dresses & Education

I have a son. He’ll be three next month. And one of his favourite items of clothing is his Elsa dress.

I am alarmed to find that this is another front in the culture war. But does it have any relationship to education (which is, after all, what this weblog is supposed to be about)?

I think it does.

What does my son’s liking for the Elsa dress say about him?

I’d say not very much at all, I’m afraid. Because I don’t know why he likes it.

Is it because it used to belong to his sister? Possibly. We over-use the term ‘role model’ in education, but I think it’s fair to say that an older sibling is a role model for a younger sibling. He saw her wearing it, back in the days when it fitted her: maybe he thinks that’s what you do.

Is it because it used to belong to his sister, and she loved wearing it, so he learned that Wearing The Elsa Dress was something to aspire to? Possibly.

Is it because one of his sister’s friends used to put it on every time she came to our house, demonstrating that this really was an important item of clothing? Possibly.

Is it because he happens to love the colour? He doesn’t have any other clothes that colour. Possibly.

Is it because he’s genderqueer? Possibly. There are genderqueer people in the world; if he’s one of them, then in future we may accord some significance to his choice of dressing-up regalia. (And we might be right to do so, and we might not.)

Would he like to wear it if he didn’t have an elder sister? Possibly. It’s a counterfactual. I don’t know. My guess is not, because he wouldn’t have been introduced to it, but it’s only a guess: he might have enjoyed dressing up in dresses at nursery, or at other children’s houses, or he might have walked past shops and decided he really wanted his very own dress.

Would he like to wear it if this was another period in time? I don’t know. In the Victorian age it was common, at least among the posh, for young boys to wear dresses. Marianne Grabrucker’s Typisch Mädchen (which goes by the title There’s a Good Girl in its English translation) includes a tantalising reference to a photograph of the young Bismarck in a dress, and a caustic comment from the author about how that seems not to have diminished his manhood; a little disappointingly a brief google image search does not yield such an image, but it produces plenty of examples of boys in dresses from that era.

But is he more likely to wear it because neither his mother nor I nor indeed anyone else who sees him in it has disparaged his wearing it? Possibly. But quite possibly not. I have, after all, attempted to dissuade him from doing all sorts of things without success. Does it make a difference that the wizened elderly lady in the corner shop which was a convenient seven-minute walk from our house in a sleepy village used to make a big fuss of him in his Elsa dress, instead of asking why he was wearing girls’ clothes? Possibly. But quite possibly not. She used to be even more delighted when he said ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, and I’m afraid his performance of these basic social graces remains far from perfect.

Will this change as he gets older? Will he get less keen on wearing his dress? I expect so. Is that because that’s what happens to most boys? Is it because he’ll develop more of a gender identity than he has now? Is it because his gender expression will be more heavily policed? I don’t know.

Are there some boys who’d love to wear dresses but don’t because people around them would be (or have been) cruel to them were they to do so (or when they did so)? Yes. And I think that’s very sad indeed. How many of them are there? I don’t know.

Are there some boys who love to wear dresses now, but will, if you like, ‘grow out of it’? Yes. And I think that’s natural and normal and to be expected.

Do you know? Really? No, of course you don’t.

Is my son in touch with his feminine side? Maybe. He likes to wear a dress. He likes to carefully look after his favourite toy owl. He likes to point at the television screen and ask for ‘Sofia’. (Sofia the First, since you ask. He’s a fan.)

Are you building an image of who he is? Of course you are. It’s not the image his family has of him though. They’ve noticed that he likes to play with toy diggers, lorries, and cement mixers. Such a boy, they nod, and they observe approvingly – and correctly – that he throws and kicks with greater dexterity than his sister. And so he is given diggers and lorries and cement mixers and footballs at Christmas, and he enjoys playing with them.

So who is he? And it’s all very well saying ‘well, all of it’ – sure, okay. But which parts are essentially him, and which parts have been carefully socially constructed? Are the uncles and aunts who give him footballs skewing who he is? Or, by allowing him to wear dresses (which, under other circumstances, he wouldn’t do) am I? There might be good answers to these questions, but I doubt it.

And yet there is a school of thought that says that teaching should be child-centred.

What child?

No, seriously, what child? I know my son. And yet, at the same time, I don’t really know him, do I? I can’t answer any of the above questions with any confidence. If I ask his teachers to try to tailor his learning to who he is, or to adapt their approach to his attributes, I’m asking them to do something which I fear might be impossible. Better to just decide what to put before all our children, and do it as best we can, without pretending that we somehow know what will appeal to them.

Because we don’t know who they are. Not really. They’re children. They’re growing. They’ll change. Some of who they appear to be is essential. Some of it isn’t. We don’t know which is which. So we may as well follow the advice of that celebrated teacher Helga Hufflepuff. In the words of the Sorting Hat:

“I’ll teach the lot. And treat them just the same.”


*Yes, I know, I’m using masculine pronouns for him. I’m an intolerable reactionary running-dog who’ll be shot when the Revolution comes. See if I care.

The Trouble With Textbooks: Below the Sixth Form

I thought I had more to say about the use of textbooks in my previous post. It turns out that most of what I dislike about the use of textbooks in the Sixth Form applies to younger pupils too.

I have, I’m afraid, always used textbooks for GCSE teaching. I don’t have a particularly good reason for doing so: I think most of my criticisms of A Level textbooks apply to GCSE too. I’ve just never got around to providing a comprehensive set of alternative materials.

Except … it’s not that ‘I just never got around to it.’ I use one of the market-leading textbooks with the name of the examination board prominently displayed on it because it’s the easiest thing to do. In the independent sector the idea that textbooks are somehow dodgy is not as widespread as it appears to be elsewhere: pupils, and fee-paying parents, expect there to be a textbook for each subject, and “we use the book which is specifically designed for this particular GCSE” is the path of least resistance. It’s the one I’ve been issued with by my various Heads of Department, so I use it. I’m not proud of this. I’ve picked my battles. This wasn’t one of them. Perhaps it should have been.

For younger pupils, there’s a different problem.

There is always a temptation to see pupils who aren’t going to be publicly examined at the end of the year as the least important. This is perhaps particularly true for subjects like History, in which the curriculum isn’t ‘spiral’ and which is optional at GCSE. It is therefore especially tempting to plan a lesson with such a class by opening the textbook at the next page.

And so, like it or not, the textbook determines the curriculum. It doesn’t have to, I know, but in these circumstances, too often, it does. I don’t know a Second World War textbook which gives due treatment to the politics of 1940 and the Norway Debate, which must be one of the greatest Parliamentary set-pieces even in the long and distinguished history of the House of Commons. There is a terrific ten-minute section in Distant War, the second episode of The World At War, in which the likes of Rab Butler, Bob Boothby and Jock Colville tell the story. And it’s completely wasted on twenty-first century pupils. They don’t understand it, not even the clever, erudite ones, not really. Because they haven’t been taught the political context. So I can show them this, one of David Low’s greatest cartoons, and they’ve no idea what it’s about.

Okay. But then I can just fill in the gaps, can’t I? Teach what the textbook doesn’t contain? Isn’t that my job?

Yeah. Sure. Of course. And I do. And there comes a point when I’m producing so much that the textbook is superfluous.

I could, of course, go on. It is perhaps unreasonable to criticise a textbook for missing material. I might think that a textbook encompassing the prescribed Key Stage Three National Curriculum topics (‘the Industrial Revolution c.1750-1900,’ ‘the Second World War,’ & ‘the Holocaust’) ought to include a passing reference to D-Day, but I understand that of course not every single event between the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (why don’t we ever teach this in schools, by the way?) and the Nuremberg Trials can be covered. Sure. I get that.

And there can be, will be, and must be disagreement among history teachers about what should appear in the curriculum. It’s bad enough that the examination boards get to determine this for pupils above the age of thirteen or fourteen. Textbook publishers shouldn’t get to do it for younger children.

It’s easy, for instance, to complain about fatuous chapter headings like “were the Victorians racist?,” a question which appears in the aforementioned textbook, and which is developed with reference to the slave trade and Mary Seacole. And I do complain about it.

(For me, I think ‘Were the Victorians racist?’ is quite an interesting question. Who were ‘the Victorians’? Are we including black & brown Victorians among their number, for instance? It’d be quite easy to find some naked racism to kick off with, but then things get complicated, don’t they? Let’s talk about Disraeli, and Bhownaggree, and Naoroji. Then let’s ask how important their electoral successes were. (Did any imperialists vote for Bhownaggree? You would have thought so. He won 50% of the vote in Bethnal Green. (What was a Tory doing winning Bethnal Green twice?!) Did they simultaneously believe white men to be superior to, and therefore fit to rule over, brown men in India, and that a brown man was fit to rule over white men in Westminster?) The whole Mary Seacole story doesn’t really work any more, because ‘she was written out of history’ is clearly not true: she’s a staple of the school curriculum. Isn’t it interesting how her star fell and then rose again? Needless to say none of this is covered in textbooks either.)

This is just a case for better textbooks?

No. It isn’t. Don’t we trust ourselves? History teachers should be making these decisions. You might disagree with my priorities. You might think that Disraeli deserves less attention than Brunel or that the British Empire deserves less attention than the spinning jenny. Let’s have the argument. Let’s not, though, contract it out to a publisher.

The Trouble With Textbooks: A Levels

This is a very good, very interesting piece about textbooks, and I agree with most of it. Nonetheless when it comes to textbooks I’m not a fan. Definitely not for History. For Politics some form of textbook is probably inevitable. As for EFL … that’s another matter, but in the long run I expect to use textbooks less and less.

So what do I disagree with? I don’t think PowerPoint, or interactive whiteboards, are better than textbooks, and I don’t approve of the ‘skills agenda’ which alleges that subject-centred textbooks are bad. I don’t dislike textbooks because I think there should be more differentiation. Costs? No. After teachers, books are the most important thing in a school, more important even than a field which can be used for rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer. And I think it’s fair enough to say that teachers have enough to do without being required to make their own resources.

Even so I’m not on Team Textbook.

I would, for instance, say that textbooks are boring. At least A Level History textbooks are. Not because they’re too academic. Because they’re not academic enough.

Now there are, of course, plenty of dismally tedious history books. But for most periods of history there are also well-written but scholarly books written by serious academics for the general reader. Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade. Dan Jones’ The Hollow Crown. When I taught British India I wanted to use Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger and Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer but was overruled by the sort of head of department who insisted on Access to History textbooks instead. But in a different school under a different boss I used Paul Johnson’s biography of Napoleon alongside Vincent Cronin’s to teach that subject.

Now these books were much better-written and much more enjoyable to read than a textbook. They don’t have flowcharts or boxes or diagrams purporting to explain historical causation. They depend on careful written explanation instead.

(Is there a case for flowcharts? Not for me. But when I’m Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Education, Chief Executive of Ofsted and Head Master of Eton College I won’t try to stop you using them. This, though, is surely what the whiteboard is for? Or, if you must, the wretched interactive whiteboard?)

Schoolchildren can’t handle proper books? Cobblers. If you want them to read textbooks you’re talking about approximately as many words in total anyway. Is it monstrous elitism of me to suggest that a student of A Level History ought to be able to read Mark Kishlansky’s A Monarchy Transformed? Well … possibly, I suppose, but pupils doing GCSE English will read works of similar length and sophistication. If a teenager can handle Ishiguro or Austen or Dickens then she can cope with Kishlansky. And anyway, A Level History requires students to use proper works of history to do their coursework.

But these works don’t address the specification!

No, they don’t, and that’s okay.

Sure, there may be the odd section of a published specification which isn’t sufficiently covered in a book which isn’t written for the purpose of preparing pupils to sit public examinations. Okay. Teachers will cope. They can prepare a couple of pages on the importance of the silver penny if our friends at the QCA say it’s an essential part of the Norman Conquest but Marc Morris doesn’t devote enough attention to it. The same is true of meeting the particular demands of one examination board’s mark scheme. A textbook might look like it can do this, but really the only way to do it is for pupils to get lots of practice in writing essays (or document questions) and, unfortunately, for teachers to show them how to do so in such a way that their answers appease the examiners. A textbook can only give instructions, and if pupils found those instructions easy to follow then teachers wouldn’t have to teach exam technique, would we?

Why else are A Level textbooks bad?

Well, I’m traditional enough to think that there isn’t a definitive version of the past. Textbooks give the impression that there is. Yes, sure, I can tell my pupils that this isn’t true. But if – as increasingly they tend to – a textbook has a little stamp on it indicating that it contains All You Need To Know to sit a certain exam set by a certain board, they will inevitably treat it as such.

It’s my job to stop that from happening? Yeah. Okay. I agree. And in that case my method is to not use a textbook.

Now A Level Politics is a rather different and in a way more difficult subject to approach. There aren’t equivalents of those history books which broadly cover the syllabus area. There are, though, plenty of dismal websites with oversimplified and misleading accounts of these instead. And because everyone studying A Level Politics studies the same material in the Lower Sixth there are lots of bad ‘model answers’ to the standard questions. (There are, after all, not that many aspects of the constitution which lend themselves to essay questions. You can’t do it without considering the question of whether it should be codified, and so there are some truly dreadful answers to that old chestnut floating around in cyberspace. I know, because I’ve had all of them handed in to me, masquerading as the work of some feckless wastrel who thinks I can’t tell that he isn’t the author.)

But the existing textbooks are, I’m afraid, nearly as bad. They are over-simplified and, as such, they are misleading. Just try reading an A Level Politics textbook’s attempt at explaining Common Law, which is routinely and inaccurately described as ‘judge-made’ law which emerges from judicial decisions. Now this isn’t just wrong. It’s damagingly wrong. The common law – the basis of the English legal system – is rather more complicated than that. It is not, I don’t think, beyond the grasp of a sixth-former. But it has to be properly explained.

If it’s not properly explained, then either pupils pick up misconceptions, or they just learn to regurgitate exactly what the box in the textbook says.

Now most of the time that’ll be good enough to get them through their public examination. And I get that there’s sometimes a place for learning things off by heart. I learned je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués well before I understood its exact meaning, and I could recite the reigns of the English monarchs well before I knew that Stephen wasn’t exactly king from 1135 to 1154 in the same way that his predecessor had been king from 1100 to 1135. And I’m glad I did. But there’s a crucial difference here, which is that what I learned was correct. I might not have had a full understanding of it. But it wasn’t wrong.

So instead I’ve written my own materials. I started with PowerPoints, but they have their own problems, which I will explore in another post. Now I have every corner of the syllabus covered. Each section has its own associated multiple-choice test, so my pupils have to read it: they can’t shrug and look up Idlers’ Notes online and hope that’ll do.

Usefully, I can be a lot nimbler than an education publisher. Once my stuff is done, I can easily keep it up to date: every time something changes, I can make the relevant amendments, and in September next year’s version is totally up-to-date. (This has been particularly useful in Politics in the last few years.)

Now look. Isn’t this just a problem with the textbooks themselves, rather than the principle of the textbook? What I’m saying here is that textbooks are fine as long as I write them, am I not?

Well, yeah, maybe. And I suppose that there is an element of conceit here. I do think I can do better than the professionals. And if someone wants to offer me a large contract to write the definitive A Level Politics textbook I’ve got a slightly-dated (I stopped updating it last year, when my successor told me that he’d prefer to use a board-endorsed book) exemplar for you to take a look at.

But seriously. I don’t claim to be cleverer or better-informed than the publishers. I certainly don’t claim to know more about the publishing market. Obviously not. There’s no shortage of people who do understand the Common Law and would be quite capable of writing a couple of pages about it. But let’s not kid ourselves. The market isn’t perfect, but textbooks have existed for a long time, there is a fair amount of competition, information isn’t all that asymmetrical – so the textbooks which exist probably do represent what most teachers actually want.

But it’s not what I want.

Explicit Grammar: an EFL Perspective.

There is a strand of opinion within the fraternity of EFL that rejects all explicit grammar teaching.

This isn’t a straw man. I work for three language schools, and one of them has a policy of never explicitly teaching grammar points. “It’s not a secret,” my boss there told me, “and if your students ask what the name of a tense is, then you can tell them.” But the textbooks, schemes of work, lesson plans and resources do not envisage teachers ever saying “this is the present perfect continuous.”

The rationale for this – that we learn to speak our native languages without any explicit grammatical instruction – makes some logical sense, though I am unconvinced: being fully immersed in a language from birth is rather different to the circumstances in which most people learn further languages. Many parents do explicitly teach their children English grammar: not to use double negatives, for instance, and the correct forms of the past tense of the verb ‘to be’.

But when parents say ‘no, not you was, “you were” … they don’t say ‘this is the correct second-person form of the simple past’ do they?

Well. No. They don’t. But I think too much can be extrapolated from this.

Children are going to hear “was you?” or “I didn’t do nothing” a lot. But these are straightforward errors, and if they aren’t easily corrected (because the incorrect forms are so prevalent) then at least there’s no conceptual misunderstanding. Someone who says “was you there?” when he means “warst Du da?” knows how the language works. He just got the form of the second person simple past wrong. So it doesn’t need a more detailed explanation. Which is a good thing, because there isn’t one.

(Now this next paragraph may be completely wrong. I invite correction by a grammarian. Seriously. I’m conscious that this isn’t really my discipline. But here goes.)

Is this the same for double negatives? It feels like it is. I remember my mother patiently explaining why we don’t say ‘I didn’t do nothing.’ But this is – is it? I think so, but I’m not a linguist – a quirk of the English language. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a double negative. It’s not wrong in every language. French negatives are, in a sense, ‘double’ – the French put both ne and pas in a sentence to make it negative. They say, for example, ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe.‘ We don’t translate this as ‘this isn’t not a pipe.’ Colloquially, indeed, sometimes the French will drop one of the two parts of ne pas. Do French parents tell their children not to say “c’est pas vrai“? Do their teachers patiently explain that this is a ‘single negative,’ which is grammatically incorrect? I don’t know.

Anyway, back on topic.

There are two reasons why, when teaching English to Germans, I like to teach grammar explicitly, including the formal terms which are, I understand, currently a bone of contention in teaching English to schoolchildren for whom it is their native language.

The first is that my students like it. They want to know.

This may or may not apply to schoolchildren. My guess is that it will apply less. It is perhaps a more adult, and – if I may be indulged a crude national stereotype – a more German mindset to want not just to know how to say something correctly, but also the reason why. If I’m using the prescribed ‘no-grammar’ method in class, the most common question I get asked is ‘what’s the rule?’

When I explain the rule (which, you’ll remember, is grudgingly allowed) my students want to be told the formal term. So I tell them. I tell them the rule, and I tell them what it’s called. Sometimes I’ll give them an exaggerated wink and say, in what I imagine to be the conspiratorial manner of a politician revealing a particularly juicy piece of gossip to a lobby correspondent, “this is what we call a ‘gerund.'”

If I’m being scrupulously honest I’ll concede that there’s an element of vanity here. I have a sneaking suspicion that not all of my colleagues have a comprehensive grasp of what a gerund is. And so they shy away from using such terms. (At my most cynical I might even wonder if a language school which can’t find guarantee that all its employees know what a gerund is would be wise to make a virtue of not requiring them to pass on that information to their students.) When I say ‘don’t worry too much about remembering the definition’ before labelling something with its correct term, I know that my students will scribble it down anyway; I also know that they will think better of me for having told them. And yes, I like it when my students seem to approvingly nod and think ‘yeah, this Englishman knows his stuff.’

But I still think it’s worth explicitly teaching the terms, even if the real reason why I do it is a bad one. It’s just more efficient.

Last week, for instance, I taught the passive. According to the prescribed method I should have just used the form incessantly with my student until he grasped it intuitively. But fortunately I see this student in his own office, so I can pollute the flipchart with as much explicit grammar teaching as I like.

And it’s just so much more efficient for him to remember that this is the passive. He’s going to have to remember how to do it anyway; isn’t it better to call it by its name? Especially if, as sometimes happens, the name is a clue as to how and when to use it. Just remembering that there is a ‘continuous’ present tense as well as a ‘simple’ present tense might help to remind people learning English that ‘ich rauche‘ could be translated as I smoke or I am smoking, and that they mean rather different things.

Does this matter? I wonder if this sort of terminology is an intermediate-level thing. For beginners it’s less of a priority than learning vocabulary and simple tense forms which are fairly intuitive and for which exposure to incessant use will work. (My five-year-old daughter picked up the regular form of the past tense easily, but is only now reliable on irregular forms, and still occasionally talks about having ‘buyed’ or ‘eated’ something.) For very literate adults whose grasp of a language is very strong the rules probably aren’t necessary either: they don’t need aids or guides either to understanding meaning or to precise communication.

Is this why there is an alliance of published authors, education academics, and primary school teachers against explicit teaching of grammatical terms?

To be clear I’m not suggesting that teaching English to adult speakers of other languages is the same as teaching grammar to native speakers in schools. I’m just suggesting that, at some point between the EYFS and the PhD, it might be helpful to introduce the formal grammatical terms.

I’ll end, as it looks like we have another crushing Ashes defeat to look forward to, with a reference to cricket. I spent fourteen glorious summers coaching the game to schoolboys, at all levels from 2nd XI to under-twelves and under-fourteen ‘F’ teams. (Yes, F teams. All-boys boarding school. Great stuff, the F team. Lovely lads. And surprisingly reasonable cricketers.) In nearly every team I had someone who didn’t know what the fielding positions were. Now it’s not strictly speaking necessary for a cricketer to know where midwicket is. (If you don’t know, but you’re guessing, you’re probably wrong.) And for a beginner it probably doesn’t matter. A half-decent captain, even in a school ‘B’ team, will notice a big gap where a fielder probably ought to be. If he asks his team-mate to field at midwicket, and is greeted with a blank stare of incomprehension, he can point and say ‘over there’. If he’s a good player he’ll be sufficiently involved in the game that after a while he’ll just pick it up. But for intermediate, moderate players knowing the names of the fielding positions is useful.

In Defence of Depth

I’ve sat in several curriculum review meetings in which the topic of the Arab-Israeli crisis was suggested as a possible topic for (I)GCSE.

When I say it ‘was suggested,’ I mean of course that I suggested it; and it will astonish no one to learn that none of my colleagues or bosses agreed with me.

I have, therefore, never taught the Israel-Palestine controversy, and I think that’s unfortunate.

My colleagues and my bosses had several reasons for not wanting to teach the topic. Few had taught it before, so it would involve learning all about it first. This is something which History teachers like to feel sorry for ourselves about, in that ‘no-one-understands-how-hard-we-have-it’ sort of way which makes everyone feel particularly sympathetic towards teachers.

(Are we right to feel sorry for ourselves about it? I can see both sides. On the one hand, learning about a new period of history, which you’ve never studied before, in order to teach it to sixth-form pupils, is pretty demanding. You really can’t just stay one textbook chapter ahead of the kids, not if you’re doing it properly. You need to know much more than they will, and they’ll have to know quite a lot. The payoff is that most of the time it’s so interesting that it’s worth it. Most of the time. I’ll make an exception for the unification of Italy.)

Anyway. There’s that. The history of the State of Israel is also thought to be particularly complicated. This is, I suppose, broadly speaking true. While any topic can be taught to any depth, some topics are easier to learn than others. These can either be particularly gruesome topics (Hitler, say, or Stalin) or particularly tedious ones: it’s not much fun learning about the composition & functions of the Council of the League of Nations, nor about the Aaland Islands Dispute, but they’re pretty simple to teach.

And Middle Eastern history is, of course, controversial, and I understand why a Head of History might prefer not to be handling complaints about why a teacher is an inveterate and irredeemable partisan of the Palestinians.

Even so, I think it’s unfortunate that so few schools teach the topic in depth.

Why? Just because I’m interested in it?

Well, if I’m honest, yes, that’s part of the reason why I wanted to teach it, and it was fair enough therefore for my colleagues and bosses to say ‘well we’re not interested in it, and there are more of us, so tough luck.’

But there’s another reason too. A good reason this time.

Because it’s complicated.

I’m not under any illusions that half a term spent studying the history of the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century will produce pupils with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every issue surrounding that vast topic. But I would hope that at least a significant proportion of pupils to whom that topic was taught would at least get some understanding that the whole thing is really very complicated.

And no, this doesn’t apply to every historical topic. It could, but it doesn’t. Because the ‘takeaway’ for pupils studying what used to be the staples of Key Stage Four History: Hitler, or Stalin, or the World Wars, or the Cold War, or all of them, isn’t that it was complicated. Versailles was Bad. Kennedy was Good. And although of course we history teachers do our best to draw attention to the shades of grey, Nazism & Communism don’t really lend themselves to nuance. Not for our pupils.

Does it have to be Israel though?

No, it doesn’t. I think understanding that the Middle East is complicated, and that it would be good to try to give pupils an inoculation against arguments which suggest that it’s really very simple. I’d like to think that a decent grounding in the history of that particular corner of Asia would make young people less likely to indulge the glib summaries of those who airily assert that ‘it’s all because of religion.’ (Or colonisation. Or the Grand Mufti. Or the International Judaeo-Bolshevik-Zionist Conspiracy.)

For some time the lack of focus on chronology in the History curriculum has been lamented. Our pupils have no sense of it, so the argument goes, and we should spend more time on it. And I agree. I can remember my parents giving me a big blue hardback book about the history of the Football League. It was a centennial celebration, so it must have been 1988, which means I was nine, and I remember being surprised that in 1888 human beings could be so advanced as to establish a football league: hadn’t we all been apes back then? So you won’t find me saying that knowledge of the chronological sweep of history isn’t important. It is.

But I also think that studying some topics in depth is really very important too.

Including – especially? – those which are politically sensitive? I’m inclined to think so. The British Empire. The Reformation. The Crusades. Yes. Because they were very complex affairs, and we do tend to simplify them. In doing so we get the history wrong, and that’s my main concern, but I don’t think it ought to be controversial to suggest that any political consequences of  more people appreciating that these events weren’t as straightforward as they’re sometimes painted would be beneficial.

I’m not generally a believer in the ‘transferable skills’ argument for history. But I do think that someone who has studied the subject ought probably to emerge from having done so as a sceptic. “Hmm,” I’d expect her to say, “but was it – is it – really that simple?” And that, it occurs to me, isn’t a dreadful attitude for a citizen to have.


It has become fashionable to assert that the word ‘neoliberal’ is a meaningless term of abuse.

I do see why. I don’t know of anyone who identifies as a ‘neoliberal,’ and it is often used pejoratively; the most common invocations of neoliberalism used to be by left-wingers denouncing Blairism; now it seems to be favoured by communitarians denouncing elitism.

As a word, therefore, it might be going the way of ‘Zionist’ – something which did originally mean something, but which has been so perverted by wilful misinterpretation that it’s now probably best avoided. Maybe.

The same could, indeed, be said of the word ‘liberal,’ especially in North America. But I’m a history teacher. I don’t particularly care about terminological perfection. I’m happy to describe Gladstonian policy as essentially liberal. I’m also happy to describe Asquithian policy as essentially liberal. And, yes, I’m happy to describe the policies of Nick Clegg – and, indeed, of Tony Blair and David Cameron as essentially liberal.

What holds them together is their emphasis on freedom. But these are, or were, very different types of liberalism. Of course they were. They arose in very different times to meet very different political and economic challenges; and, just as Gladstone’s understanding of ‘freedom’ was rather different to Asquith’s, so Cameron’s is different again. So too, therefore, were the policies they espoused. Professors of Politics can argue about theoretical definitions, and they ought to do so: such questions are important. But personally I don’t object to describing these strands of liberalism as ‘classical liberalism,’ ‘modern liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’. Whatever the complexities – and of course it’d be very difficult to identify an individual in the real world whose beliefs constituted a ‘pure’ form of any of these strands – it is my view that these descriptors do a reasonable job of distinguishing between them.

A similar phenomenon appears to be developing within the ranks of self-identified traditional teachers. The term ‘neotrad’ has gained some traction; it has also irritated teachers who consider themselves to be traditionalist, but who reject the label of ‘neotrad,’ whether because it is thought to be intrinsically insulting or because it is an inaccurate description of their views.

But there are differences between twenty-first century traditionalists and the ‘traditional teaching’ which prevailed in schools a century ago. They are significant differences. Of course they are. The twenty-first century traditionalist is in a very different environment to his predecessors, and – not surprisingly – he believes some very different things.

The twenty-first century traditionalist, for instance, often wants an ‘evidence-based’ approach. He is very attached to ‘the research.’ And he justifies the traditional approach, in part, with an appeal to this. “What matters,” I can hear him saying, “is what works.”

The twenty-first century traditionalist is therefore often positively-inclined towards central control of how teachers teach, and this often extends, if not to a full-blooded embrace of scripted lessons, at least to view them broadly positively as a potential opportunity – something to be tested, perhaps, to see what the research says.

The twenty-first century traditionalist often sees results in public examinations as a very useful measurement.

And I don’t know who first said that ‘the best pastoral care is a good set of GCSE results,’ but it has been doing the rounds on Twitter for quite some time. It’s popular because it resonates, and it resonates because it takes on one of the more damaging elements of twentieth-century education: the idea that some children can’t be expected to achieve academically, and that a school which inculcates self-esteem in such children, and sends them on their way with Mickey Mouse qualifications has done its job.

(That is itself a monstrously unfair and crude stereotype of progressive educational philosophy, I know; that’s not what this piece is about.)

But this is also an element of twenty-first century traditionalism. It is justified by pupil outcomes. The twenty-first century traditionalist often considers results in public examinations as a useful measure, however cautious he may be about interpreting them, however aware he is of the ways data can be manipulated into telling fibs.

Why is this an element of twenty-first century traditionalism? At least in part as a reaction against progressives who overemphasised the idea that ‘school is about more than exam results.’ I don’t think there are many traditionalists who’d disagree with this, but they see it as a dangerous idea in the wrong hands: an idea which can be used to justify all sorts of bad things. Because if exams results don’t matter, then how else can educational outcomes be measured?

This is, of course, connected to the emphasis placed on evidence and research. But this emphasis is itself at least in part a reaction against the irresponsible peddling of disreputable ideas. And it has been a success: debates over Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Brain Gym or Neuro-Linguistic Programming have been consigned to the dustbin of educational history. That’s because evidence from research showed that their propagation in schools was doing no good. The same process is underway for Growth Mindset.

Twenty-first century traditionalism, therefore, is a product of its time.

But it is very different to old-school traditionalism.

(This is, I suppose, the opposite situation to that of the idea of liberalism. Different strands of liberals at different times advocated different policies based on different understandings of how best to advance freedom. By contrast educational traditionalists converge on methods while holding very different views as to why those methods should be preferred.)

Because the twenty-first century traditional teacher is more or less completely at odds with the philosophy of traditional teachers of the past. Thomas Arnold famously set out his priorities for Rugby School as ‘first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; thirdly, intellectual ability.’

Yes, I know, Arnold was sui generis. But it would never have occurred to his contemporaries, or indeed his successors, to have judged teaching philosophies according to whether or not they produced better results in public examinations.

In the past traditional teachers defended their practice not on the basis of evidence derived from academic research, but on the same basis that the English constitution can be defended: this is how we’ve always done it, and it works; and even if evidence gleaned from educational research might suggest that alternative approaches might be better, there’s going to have to be a great deal of evidence before we abandon an approach which has worked for a long time.

Actually I think many neotrads secretly agree with at least part of this. Do traditional teachers in the twenty-first century really want to deliver scripted lessons? I’d like to think that even if the authors of those lessons had been personally and scrupulously vetted by Dominic Cummings that they’d be sceptical. Because of course as individuals very few of us fit neatly into categories.

Even so, when it comes to educational traditionalism there is a significant distinction which can be drawn between two schools of thought. The difference is real. Use a different term if you like. I don’t mind. For now, as it seems to be the only one which is recognisable, I’m happy with ‘neo’.

On Liking & Listening

I had two tutors on my TEFL course.

Both were purveyors of the sort of progressive consensus which I’ve grumbled about ad nauseam already. But there were significant differences between them.

One of those differences involved their attitude to a student of theirs who’d been a teacher for fourteen years and who was unwilling to uncritically accept assertions like ‘it’s always better for something to come from the students than for it to come from the teacher.’ Tutor One saw my questions or observations as intellectual challenges to be jousted with. Tutor Two saw them as evidence that I wasn’t fit to be in a classroom.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I didn’t rate Tutor Two very much. I understand that VAK has successfully permeated all areas of education. I once sat in a meeting of my school’s teaching, learning and assessment group and saw a colleague with a PhD describing an activity he’d prepared for his classes with the words ‘it’s kinaesthetic, so it’s good.’ I also understand that people have jobs to do, and if your job requires you to believe something, it’s probably best you believe it. Still, even Cambridge Assessment (which accredits the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults qualification) is now disseminating materials to centres delivering the course saying that the preferred term is now ‘Learning Preferences’ rather than ‘Learning Styles,’ the latter having been so comprehensively debunked. I don’t think it’s wholly unreasonable to expect someone delivering lessons on the topic to be familiar with this development.

Once you’ve decided someone’s a bit dubious it’s usually easy to find evidence to support your judgment, and you’re inclined to be less generous in your assessment of them, and then you’re looking out for things to criticise. When, for instance, in the session on teaching young learners, Tutor Two told us that didactic teaching was not just Bad, but would be unsuccessful and turn our students off the language forever, I couldn’t help but demur. This is the sort of thing which schoolteachers have been arguing about for quite some time, and not just on Twitter, and asserting such a view as unchallengeable fact is inaccurate.

By halfway through the course, the point at which my teaching practice lessons stopped being observed by Tutor One and started being observed by Tutor Two, I was well aware that Tutor Two did not like me one little bit. Tutor Two had clearly concluded that I was being contrarian, and that I needed to learn some humility.

So when it came to observing my lessons, Tutor Two was heavily critical.

Were Tutor Two’s criticisms reasonable?

Well. Of course some of them were. None of what Tutor Two observed about my lessons was entirely indefensible. Every criticism could be supported with some evidence, and Tutor Two’s professional judgment was clearly that the deficiencies in my teaching were indicative of significant weaknesses. So having been told by Tutor One (in a tutorial halfway through the course) that I was on for a ‘good’ pass (a bit like a ‘merit’ or a ‘distinction,’ something which says yeah, this was one of our better students) at the end of the course I’d received a bare pass.

Now. I knew this was coming. And I was in the happy position of not caring. Those high grades are only awarded to the top twenty percent or so of candidates, and while I’m a monstrous egotist, I’m not quite so conceited as to think that I was the best of the eight trainees doing the course. By the final quarter of the course I knew I’d get the pass – thanks, no doubt, to bruising experiences in the past, the language school had been very clear that anyone who was at risk of failing would be told that this was the case, and that remedial assistance would in those circumstances be offered; I’d also, while having my lessons heavily criticised, had them all ticked off as being of a satisfactory standard. It was, of course, a little blow to my ego to find that I’d been downgraded from ‘pretty good’ to ‘just about good enough,’ but I’ll cope.

Here’s the thing though.

Once I worked out that Tutor Two didn’t like me … I just stopped listening.

I did enough to ensure that all my lessons and assignments would be acceptable. But I knew that nothing I did would persuade Tutor Two to acknowledge my unquestionable brilliance, and so while I went through the motions of acknowledging my faults and pretending to address them, I didn’t take any of them seriously. I’d said the wrong things in lessons; I was clearly an agent of the Dark Side; I was insufferably sure of myself; I had, therefore, to be put in my place. So I didn’t learn anything from Tutor Two. I knew that what I was being told was not to help me improve my practice but to provide evidence of why I didn’t deserve anything other than a scraped passing grade.

Now whenever I read this sort of account I am suspicious. I would be surprised if you weren’t. I will, therefore, add what might well be construed as a bit of boasting, but which I will choose to call contextual information. Maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t.

I think I’m actually quite good at teaching English as a foreign language.

Why do I think so?

Because at the end of my course I sent off my CV to four language schools. I got three interviews. (The fourth language school, perhaps entirely coincidentally, is one that Tutor Two has connections with.) After each interview I was given some freelance work. I’ve been doing this for about a month. I’ve had good feedback, from bosses and students. Big deal, I know. Every teacher can say this. Sure. But I’ve also been offered a permanent, full-time contract by one of the language schools for which I’ve thus far been freelancing. (A contract including a non-compete clause. “You’re good,” said the boss. “We want you working for us, not the competition.”) In EFL this sort of thing is fairly rare, and I’m pretty pleased with myself.

No, of course I’m not getting carried away. I’ve got a lot to learn about EFL: I’ve only been doing it, including the training course, for two months. I’m well aware that I am in a particularly fortunate position. I’m an Englishman, and for all the political correctness about no version of our language being better than another, there is still (at least in Frankfurt) a preference for a bona fide native speaker of the Queen’s English. I look like a credible, experienced teacher. (Most of us don’t wear suits to work. I do. I think it’s made a difference. Seriously.) So yes, I’ve got every unfair advantage going. But as far as independent verification that I’m not too bad at it goes, I’m happy with that.

Maybe there are generic teaching skills after all.


I’ve been Tutor Two, you know. I’ve taught A Level History to very bright pupils, and they’ve written me some very good essays. And each time I’ve found fault with them. I’ve told them that their argument might be well-constructed, but that it hasn’t given due weight to some factor or other; I’ve drawn their attention to facts which they haven’t deployed, and asked them how they think including those facts might change their interpretation; I’ve told them that they need to be more pugnacious or more circumspect in what they say.

But I’d like to think that I’ve done it in such a way that shows that I was paying them the compliment of taking their history seriously: their essay (or source analysis) technique is sound, they’ve ticked the boxes which the examination board requires them to address, so let’s talk about what really matters. I hope that’s how it came across, anyway; maybe, in retrospect, I didn’t make it clear enough. But I think that on the whole such pupils were willing to take my advice because we had a good relationship already. (It is, of course, usually easy for teachers to have good relationships with those sorts of pupils. I’m not taking much credit for that.) I didn’t have a good relationship with Tutor Two. I’m sure I wasn’t the perfect student, but I really wasn’t any trouble: I was motivated, everything was handed in on time, I was always punctual and prepared, and I wasn’t any trouble – I just answered questions in ways Tutor Two didn’t like.

But I didn’t like Tutor Two, and Tutor Two didn’t like me, so I didn’t pay attention, and I didn’t learn. And – and this might be where you’re appalled – I don’t blame myself.