“I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike” sang Freddie Mercury in 1978. I’m not sure how genuine his sentiment was, but I tell you now after four weeks of being off the bike, it’s a fairly accurate approximation of how I feel. 

Let’s be clear, I’m not a skinny whippet clocking up 100 miles each weekend, and neither am I prone to throwing a mountain bike around the trails. But I do like to ride my bike: I like the ease of travel, the happy speed/efficiency ratio, the schadenfreude of passing people in big expensive cars stuck in traffic, the satisfaction of climbing a really big hill, the joy of freewheeling down the other side, the contemplative meditative state you achieve, and the sweet open freedom of movement. 

You’ll excuse me for gushing. But I’ve come to enjoy riding, and now, owing to an accident a few weeks ago, I can’t. This is only temporary, thank goodness, but even so I quickly started to come up with a long list of the things I couldn’t do while my arm was in a sling. I couldn’t support myself on that side very well, I couldn’t open jars or get those plastic seals off the top of milk cartons, I couldn’t sleep in the way I liked, I couldn’t hold a book while lying down, I couldn’t pick up my children when they fell over, or wrestle (you need a small boy in your life to understand this), or give them big-two-arm hugs. There were wider consequences: family routines had to change to allow for the extra time it takes to get to work without a bike, I couldn’t go swimming with them, I couldn’t drive on family trips, I was limited in how I could help around the house. As a result of not riding, and the longer journeys, I have come to resent work quite a lot for being nearly 90 minutes away from home, resenting meetings that over-ran by five minutes, resenting stupid relocation of one building to a site on the other side of town to the railway station (a 10-15 minute walk, after all, is an easy two minute ride) . Then there is the loss of  freedom of movement, not the pretend freedom you get from car ownership (free to pollute, free to pay car tax, free to pay for maintenance, and free to sit wasting your life, fuming and frustrated in traffic jams) but actual freedom where it takes you the same amount of time regardless of traffic, regardless of delays, and with a journey, even at rush hour that is always exhilarating and usually fun.

It’s healing now, of course, and now only some of those things remain true. And none of them are the big profound things that might have faced me with a damaged spine, or a lost limb, for which I consider myself very lucky. I’m still alive, as well, which is a big bonus. And all this time I’ve been able to clothe myself (just), wash, eat, cook, clean, read, write, work (only two days off), and in fact do almost all the other things that make me happy. Even though the hugs have been one-armed but they have still been hugs. So it’s not been bad, but the sense of “can’t” has been consistent, and still frustrating. 

So it was I found myself wondering about what you do go through if something properly serious happens: if you know you are never going to be able to do all those things, how long does it take to get past that frustration? How quickly does wistful wishing become outright despair, and how much support do you need to cope with it?

I also found myself thinking of my students: out of all learners, the migrant learning the language of their host country is almost universally defined by what they cannot do. Sure, we mean well, but the very nature of what ESOL teachers do is defined by what or learners can’t. And this sense of can’t must surely be more profound than my shoulder-related niggle: not just in class but in day to day life. Students come to class because they can’t help their children, can’t talk to officials, can’t cope at the hospital, and even if they can find a job, they can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications.  ESOL students are so often defined by what they can’t

I know ESOL teachers celebrate our students, their abilities and achievements: of course we do, and we must. To offset the deficit frustrations of not being able to use a language, we learn what our students can do, what skills they have: it’s what makes the job interesting, after all. They’re not helpless babies to be pitied and petted, but adults with knowledge and experiences, often a world away from our own comfortable existences: knowledge and experiences which we celebrate, share and engage with. 

Which brings me back to the far less important matter of my arm, and enjoying and celebrating the many things which I can do. So I’d anyone wants me, I may be reading a book, writing a blog post, drinking, eating (probably too much), and, of course, hugging my children. 

Victim Blaming: Crash 2

I’ve been off work for part of this week owing to the unexpected appearance of a broken collarbone, courtesy of an equally unexpected driver pulling out of a junction presumably interpreting the words “give way” as merely optional. Naturally this has led to a wonderful set of lovely “get well soon” messages, but also one or two comments meant affectionately, but which raised a whole bunch of questions. “That bike!” said one. “Plonker” said another. (Its worth noting that both comments were followed up with lots of love and concern). What was interesting for me was that these were mild variations of the kind of victim blaming that comes up in these situations: read any article in the news on a road traffic accident involving either a pedestrian or a cyclist, and at some point will be some comment about the cyclist not wearing a helmet or hi vis or the pedestrian not using the crossing correctly, or similar comments: in short, rather than holding the perpetrator of the crime to account, at least some of the blame falls on the victim. It’s a variation of the “she was wearing a short skirt” defence of the rapist. It doesn’t matter, either, that the motorist was driving over the speed limit, or drunk, or not looking properly, there will often be a portion of blame for the accident placed on the person who was most badly affected by it. (A similar phenonomen is the amazing self driving car, as in “a Volkswagen Golf collided with a pedestrian” rather than “a motorist failed to drive responsibly and hit a pedestrian with their VW golf”: a linguistic tool which manages  to remove responsibility from the owner of a large, powerful and potentially lethal machine.) Motorists get terribly defensive about this sort of thing, which is perhaps inevitable when you combine the motorist’s usual arrogant entitlement with guilt.

What needs to be considered here is the degree to which the more vulnerable road user is responsible. Motor vehicles, lets remember, are driven by people, not, yet, by themselves. There is an element of sentience in the user, even a middle aged man in a 4×4, and they’re are not forces of nature or immovable physical objects. Therefore the person in charge of the machine should be held responsible for their actions as default, much as in the Dutch law of strict presumed liability, where anyone wishing to blame the more vulnerable road user for the accident needs to prove it. Certainly the chances of a motorist killing someone with their car (see how that sounds?) are far higher than a cyclist killing a motorist with their bike (but my word have I ever wanted to at times). Proper presumed liability would also, by the way, hold a cyclist responsible if they hit a pedestrian, so really everyone wins. Unfortunately, what we have in the UK is a presumed faith in the ability and inclinations of car drivers, and an elevation of the private motor car to a moronically untouchable state, despite the fact that the infrastructure is creaking as more and more people buy into the myth of freedom peddled by car companies and are simply too lazy to consider alternatives. (I know, you’ve got to drive. Of course you do.)

Whatever. There is a parallel here, as well, when the question of immigrants wanting to learn English gets discussed in the media. You read the online comments on such things, and rather than looking at the systems which have let those individuals down, the focus and the discussion  falls on whether or not the migrant wants to learn (and by association, therefore, wants to integrate) and often to the negative. There’s often a lot of “when I went on my gap year to Italy I made sure I learned Italian” rather than an acknowledgement of the difference between economically comfortable expats and refugees, spouses, and financially strained migrants, most of whom would run, and do run, to any free language classes if they were given half the chance. The insinuation is usually that the migrants are refusing to learn English, and refusing to engage with ESOL classes, when the reality is probably very different. 

In reality while there are certainly some people who won’t engage with ESOL classes, there are a lot of people who simply can’t. This might be because of some cultural or social restraint: family commitments, or, in the sadder cases, family restraints, where spouses are reluctant for their partners to develop independence beyond the immediate family. Far more probable, however, is the simple lack of money: where individuals don’t have the £400 a course, or whatever it is, to pay to learn English. After all, we are often talking about people often at the lower end of the financial ladder. Even the slight adjustment of funding rules to make full funding available to people earning at or below the tax allowance threshold of £11000 (as evidenced by their payslip) would open up classes to a whole range of people who would stand to benefit. 

What lies at the root of criticisms of migrants not learning English is simple prejudice, blaming not the current discriminatory, narrow minded and short termist system, but rather blaming the victims of that system for things beyond their control. It’s prejudicial because the criticisms are usually levelled from a point of majority privilege and power, with little or no knowledge of the situation, and a refusal to engage with or understand that situation. Like the pedestrian being blamed for not checking the road properly before crossing, or the cyclist being blamed for their own death for not wearing a hi vis vest, the immigrant being turned away from ESOL classes is being blamed for their own poverty. 

Déformation professionelle

This is a fun phrase that I first heard the other day when posting on Facebook. It was a picture of a poster, and on the poster we had something like “teas, coffees, and frappucino’s”. I am, for my sins, a bit of an apostrophe fascist, and my comment was less than complimentary. A French speaking friend told me then of this phrase, deformation professionelle, which means, roughly, that one tends to view the world through the eyes of your own profession, to the exclusion of all others. Wikipedia suggested that “distortion” might be a possible translation of deformation in this sense, and I rather think that is what we are dealing with. We spend so much of our waking lives engrossed in the discourses and attitudes of our profession that we filter everything through this. 

Take, for example, a thank you note that my wife received over the summer from a grateful client whose first language isn’t English. It was a very sweet message, full of praise and very complimentary about my wife’s skills. So she showed it to me, and I looked, and the first thing that popped into my head? “Entry 3, I reckon…” Naturally, I kept this to myself, but it goes to show how ingrained we are into our work, sometimes. 

I do it all the time. I have a folder on my computer full of links to articles that might make great reading activities, because I’ll be reading something on a Sunday morning and find myself thinking “this will fit in just great with the lessons I’m doing the week after next.” Or I’ll get a new £5 note and think “ooh, this would make a good stimulus for a lesson” (and it did, thanks for asking). 

On the one hand, this is generally a good thing. I have a finely tuned radar for resources, and can spot a potential worksheet a mile away. On the other hand, it’s not. For one, the incident with the lovely letter was pretty mean of me, even if it was only internal. This judging of the language of others, native and non-native speakers is, let’s face it, really quite annoying. Annoying not just for those who are judged, but also for me: two minutes on Facebook and I’m desperate to get my red pen out. 

Another drawback is when you have another area of interest which doesn’t always sit well with the first. So I once wrote a question on the end of a worksheet for maths which said something like this: “Anna rides a bike to work, it takes her 25 minutes to get there. Her brother drives an expensive Mercedes, and it takes him an hour to drive in the trafffic. Which person is the idiot?” (So the last question wasn’t quite that, but that was the overall thrust.) Or I’ll find an article on cycling in Poland which will get added as a possible text, even though no students are interested in cycling. Even an interest in language and language learning can be dangerous: I have a whole bank of activities around the hardest langauges to learn, the history of English, how people learn, lives of students, words from other languages and so on, but which are not necessarily interesting in and of themselves. I realise that for an English teaching professional this is hard to imagine (seriously, how is etymology not interesting?) but there you go. 

It’s not a serious condition, to be fair, except perhaps when it manifests itself as arrogance towards those in our institutions who do not teach. Sure teaching and learning is the primary business of a college, but without all those other people the whole place would be empty, dirty, and would, in time, quite literally fall apart. And sometimes, you know, it would be good to switch it off, and just get on with other stuff. From a mental well being perspective, it sure can’t be good to be continually flagging good articles, assessing writing, or proof reading texts for punctuation mistakes. 

Or indeed writing extensive blog posts on the subject.

As SMART as riding a bike. 

English, remember, has no future tense. For example, what does the following sentence mean: a future intention, a fixed future arrangement, or a decision about the future made at the moment of speaking? 

“In September, I am cycling from Leeds to Manchester to raise money for charity.” 

It is, of course, a fixed future arrangement. I booked my place on the ride last week, so it has moved from an intention (“I am going to cycle…”), and has long since ceased to be a spontaneous decision at the moment of speaking (New Year’s Eve, slightly slurred: “F-ck it, this year I will definitely do that ride I’ve been meaning to do for ages.”). The key lexical verb does not change (as it does for past tenses, for example, or as it might in many other languages) and instead it’s all present tenses and modal verbs.

Lecture aside, and what remains, however, is that I am doing this crazy thing, which will cause much amusement for the folk of Yorkshire and Lancashire as I wobble down their roads. Now, aside from being an opportunity to patronise English language teachers,  this also presents a fine opportunity to go back to my second favourite bete noire in ESOL teaching: target setting. 

Riding a bike, on an amateur level, is a fairly straightforward process. You sit on the saddle, spin the pedals and off you go. It’s an entirely artificial process, (the bicycle has only really existed for 150 years or so) and therefore something which everybody consciously learns. Nobody is born a cyclist. And of course, as everyone knows, you never forget how to do it. Riding a bike over long distances is also a straightforward process: all (!) you have to do is persuade your leg muscles to keep spinning the pedals for a long time. That’s a very big all, I have to admit, but it’s fairly uncomplicated. 

 Using a language, however, is terribly complicated. Look at the rules around how we talk about the future, for example, combining vocabulary and grammatical structures with subtle shades of meaning that native speakers sometimes abandon in order to avoid repetitiveness. Even the most apparently monosyllabic of language users uses a complex interaction of lexis, grammar, discourse knowledge, social awareness and paralinguistic features, an interaction which, as yet,  even the best minds in the field don’t agree on. Learning a language  is not much better: science has yet to comprehensively nail the processes involved, except that we do know that children are uncannily good at it, and it gets harder as you grow up. 

So, here’s a question: which one of these two processes can be most easily, meaningfully and effectively  broken down into discrete stages? 

I could probably do the ride tomorrow. It would take me ages, and I’d be a total mess afterwards, but I could do it. What I want to be able to do is complete the journey in a respectable time and be able to walk when I get home. So I need to execute some sort of lifestyle change/training plan.  As I am in a fairly post-beginner state, and cycling between 30-50 miles a week already, the training element is going to be about endurance – longer rides, gradually increasing over the weeks. This is easy to set up in terms of a target: by the end of week 1 I will ride for X hours. I can set myself meaningful goals like “ride the long commute to work at least once a week” and hopefully get a bit fitter. I also need to look at my own diet and weight loss: the cycling will take care of some of that, as will any other exercise I do. However, I suspect that my sugar/cheese/bread addiction will have to be limited, and again, a number of targets can be used to monitor this and motivate me to engage. 

So far so neat. I can identify some clear specific goals there: ride X minutes longer each week up to X hours by the end of August. Investigate potential ideas for off bike exercise. (And start !). Reduce sugar intake by X amount each week until weaned off (or something, although I might have to get back to you on that one). 

These are clear things which are understandable to anyone who wishes to engage with a programme like this. Most of this falls within the realm of general knowledge (more exercise + better diet = improved health and athletic performance). Even something slightly more technical like following an exercise plan off the web is still fairly straightforward in terms of understanding the stages: “move body like this for this long”. If I focus those goals down a bit more and mark them off I should gain a sense of achievement to boot: they are my goals, and I fully own them. All good. 

 In theory, then, this is applicable to all areas of human development and achievement. You can apply it to a business setting very effectively: increase output X to level Y, that sort of thing. Everyone involved usually understands the process and stages, enabling them to get on board and have some sense of ownership of the goals. 

So does this work for learning? A crucial aspect of the SMART target is that it focuses on observable performance only. You can’t measure thought and understanding except through observing what an individual can do as a result of that understanding. This raises a challenging question: at what point can “use present perfect to describe my experience appropriately in 4 sentences” be said to prove anything? I could, for example, demonstrate something similar in German with only the minimal amount of effort and absolutely no learning. I’d be happy to apply this to any area of learning, I think. Evidence of this sort may mean a learner has learned how to do it to an extent that they can reproduce said act on demand, but it may just as easily mean that they will not be able to repeat that goal any time soon. 

A little of this is down to the phrasing, the insistence on the sacred SMART. To tick all five boxes, we end up with language based competency measures like “be able to write five sentences about my daily routine using present simple by the end of February.” The very specificiness, measurability and relevance of this target mean that all we are measuring is not the student’s ability to use present simple for daily routine in general, nor a student’s understanding of that grammar (which is what the teacher is probably aiming at ), only their ability to produce, yes, five sentences about… (Awkwardly, this also applies to SMART learning outcomes. No teacher ever believes that a learner who reads a text and answers five questions about it has actually learned how to “read a text and extract five details”, but that’s what the outcome will be for that lesson because the product focussed quality assurance system of FE demands it. But then, no lesson observer or manager would really believe that either, which raises all sorts of tricky questions. It’s probably one of those Best Practice things.)

Setting targets for riding a bike over distance is not learning a language. The former is fairly straightforward and easily understood by the participants, meaning that ownership of the targets is possible, the target is meaningful, and therefore motivating. None of these apply for language learning. But then I’ve been saying this for years now and nobody seems to be listening or wishing to engage in dialogue. Certainly, despite a move towards a world of evidence based practice and practitioner research, being critical of the notion of target setting remains verboten because, presumably, it provides neat, trite performance data which can be presented to an auditor.  

Sighs. I suppose I’d better go for a ride. 


This post is not even slightly about teaching or learning, and there is no later tenuous link to it, either. So, if you are expecting that, or want that, you may wish to pop off and read something else, like this.

No, today I am posting because I had my first ever road accident on my pushbike last Wednesday. A delivery van turned left across the cycle path and , through a combination of factors, I ended up cycling into the side of said van. Happily, as you can tell, I am alive and mostly intact, apart from a suspected fractured rib, and a continuing sense of having a hangover. I had lots of concerned comments, promoted by my dramatic photo of smashed glasses, all of which were gratefully accepted, but also some interesting comments that only later started to get me thinking. I’m not unhappy about the level of concern, only reflecting on what the underlying assumptions are when people ask you about them. 

“Weren’t you frightened?”

Actually no. Not at all. Not because I’m being macho or trying to put a brave face on it, but because it happened far too quickly for anything other than simple self preservation to kick in. After the event I was too dazed and flustered to do anything other than worry about the bike. (I think it’s a sign of a cyclist, rather than someone who rides a bike, when your first thought post-crash is to worry about the bike. It’s got a couple of wobbles, but it’s generally fine, you’ll be happy to know.) The time you get fear as a cyclist on a British road is when you have a near miss: the countless almost accidents that happen virtually every day. Then, you see, you are conscious and healthy enough to reflect on what almost happened and develop a sense of fear.

“Were you wearing a helmet?”

I got this one every single time. The answer is yes, because, as usual, I was cycling at fairly high speeds down a busy city thoroughfare, with only a token bit of road paint to protect me. The follow up that I got from people who know me was the question about whether I have changed my ambivalence about the value of helmets, to which the answer is no. My personal anecdotal evidence of one crash is that they work: the helmet broke on impact with the road, as it is designed to do, rather than my head, for instance, but that’s one anecdote, and nothing else.

Advocates in favour of compulsory helmet legislation  are very fond of third conditionals “If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I would have had died”, or more emotively “If he had been wearing a helmet, he wouldn’t have died”. However, this is a sentence structure which describes an unreal past. You simple cannot know for sure one way or the other.

If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I might have taken fewer risks earlier in the ride, perhaps travelled a little more slowly had I been feeling less protected, and thus avoided the accident altogether. Perhaps the driver wouldn’t have overtaken me as soon as he did, because I might have looked more vulnerable. Perhaps the driver might have noticed me much sooner, muttering about “idiots who don’t wear helmets”, perhaps, and taken more care. In the events that occurred in reality, then yes, the helmet protected me, but it’s impossible to say for sure, even if the events had gone exactly the same way, that if I had not been wearing a helmet I would have been more seriously injured.

Yes, I wear one generally because of reasons I have mentioned before, and I suspect that they do have an individual value when travelling at speed. But I don’t think that they should be compulsory, nor will I wear one every single time I get on my bike. If I’m popping to the shops half a mile away for an emergency packet of coffee, I’m still not going to panic about getting my helmet if it’s not handy.

“Has it put you off cycling?”

Try this thought experiment. Let’s imagine you have a friend who received minor injuries as a result of walking to work. Would you ask them if they had been put off walking? Is your insinuation, perhaps, that they might now prefer to use an alternative method of transport, perhaps a swegway? Perhaps your injured pedestrian friend might prefer to drive? And then be highly likely at some point in their driving career to be involved in a car accident? At which point, would you say to them “has this put you off driving?” Cycling seems to get accorded a special common parlance as something which is dangerous and risky,  and while there are more cycling injuries reported,  the risk of death is less when compared to walking.  This leads you on to things like…

“I can’t believe you cycle, it’s so dangerous. I’d never cycle.”

Put simply, there is nothing inherently dangerous about riding a bike. You put your feet on the pedals, they go round, you move forward, and that’s about it. The danger in most day to day cycling is other road users, using, as in my case, poor infrastructure. The worry comes from vulnerability, but experience and practice teaches you assertiveness and respect, which makes you safer and less vulnerable. It is your road, which, despite the somewhat rabid claims of the pro-motorist lobby, you are fully entitled to use, so you make it yours: a metre from the kerb is recommended, not the two feet of the slower and more peaceful age when I did my Cycling Proficiency; use the whole lane if it’s dangerous for someone to overtake; signal clearly; get decent lights; don’t ride on a footpath when there is a perfectly acceptable road; don’t run red lights, (which cyclists do no more frequently than cars, according to one study); and so on. 

Of course there are more casualties on the road among cyclists as compared to motorists, and more serious injuries amongst cyclists than among walkers or drivers. But as things average out, when I am compared with someone whose lifestyle is identical to mine, but who drives instead of cycles, then I am far less likely to die of stroke or heart disease, and am generally more likely to live longer. Riding a bike is still the way I will travel to work. I’ll take a few days out of the saddle while I get myself back in order, and the bike serviced, just to be sure, and I’ll probably take it a little easier for a week or so, but crashing hasn’t changed anything. It was an accident, pure and simple.

Fear and Anger

The first half of this is a post I wrote for my short-lived cycling blog a couple of years ago, but I thought I would post it here because I think it has a bearing on teaching and learning. 


I was reflecting on riding, as you do, at 15mph down a busy road, and why, at certain times of the day in particular, pretty much all road users seem to abandon Dr Jekyll and allow Mr, or Ms Hyde to take over. In Leeds, like many big cities, this is often between the hours of 7.30 and 9 in the morning, and 4.30 and 7 in the afternoon, when the roads are at their busiest. Roads at this time of day are not, generally, happy places. It occurred to me that the anger and the rage comes not from inherent badness, or from being evil tempered in particular, but stems from fear. I get angry when someone comes past too close, or overtakes me dangerously, without paying attention to the fact that the road is too narrow. Or when someone stops suddenly, or flings their car door open while chatting on their phone, or decides not to notice me at a junction and pull out (sometimes across a clearly marked cycle lane), or when a car desperately overtakes you then pulls across in front of you to turn almost immediately after. Or when a pedestrian steps out into the cycle lane without looking, or doesn’t try to control their dog, or even look at it, when you have been ringing your bell for the last three hundred yards behind them, and the dog ambles into the middle of the shared path at the very last minute, or when people just stand there like rabbits in the spotlight while you ring and ring and ring…. I could go on, and I’m sure every cyclist, wheelchair user, pedestrian, driver, Segwayer and so on could share similar frustrations. 

 Ask anyone about travelling in the UK on the public roads to complete the sentence “It really annoys me when….” and you will get a thousand variations on those themes. There is almost certainly annoyance shared between cyclists: the MAMILs getting irate at casually dressed hipsters on a fixie, that sort of thing. But it struck me that the reason we get angry is because in almost all of the situations I mentioned above, bike tribe jokes aside, someone, and not necessarily me, could get hurt or quite possibly killed. 

This is a very frightening prospect, seeing as I’m rather fond of being able to walk, and being alive into the bargain. I’m also not a big fan of hurting other people, or their dogs. This fear is where the anger comes from. Before I sound too much like I’m about to go off an a bit of a mind trip, I did do a little google search on fear and anger, and there seems a reasonable amount of truth in the idea that anger is the “fight” response to a threat, as opposed to “flight”. Or something. Anyway, my poor research aside, to my folk psychology mind, this seems fairly reasonable and certainly explains a lot.  


I sometimes see the fight or flight anger reaction when I meet teachers who get their lesson observation graded a 3 or a 4. Sometimes it is anger and disappointment with themselves, but more often I suspect this is because they are facing possible capability procedures and thence to the potential of losing their job. Naturally, this would suggest a threat: losing your job affects your basic ability to support yourself and your family, and so the observation is linked to threat: the teacher is the cyclist, the graded observation is the white van driver on a mobile phone driving too close. It may not kill you, but it might. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the reaction for many teachers to a 3 or a 4 is anger, and an element of relief if you don’t. Sadly, for me, this gets in the way of any valuable discussions or reflections. It’s hard to think straight when you are angry, and like the threatened cyclist, a teacher with a 3 or 4 wants to vent that anger.  

Sometimes the fight gives way to flight, of course. This is a sad moment, when the teacher in question decides that the stress and the hassle is simply not worth it for what is sometimes an hourly paid teaching contract. When this happens, discourse sometimes focuses around “teaching not being the job for them” and indeed perhaps it isn’t. Sometimes, when the same things arise again and again in not only graded but also ungraded, developmental and peer observations, and the teacher is really struggling to reflect and put those reflections into practice, then perhaps teaching is not the job they should have. But it shouldn’t be because of an individual’s abIlty to deal with threat: this isn’t a lack of resilience, but this is a reaction to fear. 

 To bring this back to cycling, if I may. One of the reasons many people cite for not cycling to work, or for not cycling generally, is because they are frightened. It’s a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy: the fewer cyclists are on the road, the more the motorist feels they have a monopoly on the space between the pavements, the more aggressively they will approach cyclists, and the more frightening it is for cyclists. Do new and inexperienced teachers feel similarly discouraged when they get their graded observation? If they do, are there people being discouraged from teaching who might otherwise be fantastic at it? How many of our current crop of “outstanding” teachers would now be in that position had they not had time to develop and improve in their profession? I have to be honest and say that I’m not entirely sure that inexperienced me of the early 2000s would have coped, although perhaps that’s not exactly an argument in my favour. 

 Is there an answer here? Of course, the immediate thought is to ditch the graded observation and leave it there. But there are issues around quality assurance, around capacity to improve and about what the students are getting. The graded observation is a blunt-edged weapon for either achieving improvement or for carefully ejecting teachers who are struggling to improve. I still hold that peer observation improves quality all round far more effectively than grading, but I don’t think it can be used to replace quality assurance observations. If you start to make it part of the quality assurance process, the imposition of a power dynamic into the feedback essentially takes away one threat and replaces it with another. But you could easily remove the grade, but keep the observation, and as I think I have argued before, this means that nobody gets the divisive and inaccurate accolade of being an “outstanding” teacher, and everybody gets something to work on. Teacher learning, like all learning is not a straight line, but one which ebbs and flows, and which needs support and encouragement: remove the one lesson grade and teacher learning comes to the forefront. 

Some forward thinking institutions already do this, and with positive results. I hope that this becomes the norm, although ofsted seem to be pretty resistant to abandoning the practice of grading individual lessons in FE. Perhaps  when that happens things will start to change, but my faith in ofsted to innovate is shallow at best. And then we may have systems in place that genuinely improve the skills of teachers, and thus, of course, the learning  of students. 

Evidence, Anecdotes and bike helmets again.

Last week, Chris Boardman, Olympic cycling champion, and general ambassador for cycling in the UK went on public British TV to talk about the benefits of cycling, reducing the barriers to it and the rest. The piece showed him and the presenter riding sedately round London, with the BBC presenter wearing the full cycling monty: helmet, hi vis, lycra, the works. Chris Boardman, who has made his career on two wheels, was wearing not only normal clothes, but no hi vis stuff and crucially, no helmet. Naturally various social media went off on one, complaints were made to the BBC for Mr Boardman setting a bad example, and with gloomy predictability the calls for helmet wearing to become a legal requirement followed. Sensing a nice bit of pent up outrage the BBC followed this up with an online poll about cycling with headphones on, where a majority said cyclists shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Well, ok. I talked about helmets before, and there is an excellent site devoted to the statistics for and against helmet wearing. And by and large, statistics would suggest that a) the public health benefits of cycling far outweigh the impact of wearing a helmet; and b) where helmet wearing has been made a legal requirement this has led to a decrease in cycling uptake. The cycling fraternity is usually quick to point out as well that in enlightened countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, helmet use is unusual and the number of cycling head injuries are lower because the infrastructure in those countries is far better for a more sustainable transport economy.

The pro-helmet lobby is a bit rubbish with its statistics and prone to a nice bit of cherry picking – especially when one considers that far more head injuries in the UK occur when people are driving or walking and yet nobody is suggesting that pedestrians or motorists wear a helmet or not listen to music. (Statistically, especially in the case of pedestrians, helmets might not be a bad idea…). The most pervasive and engaging pro helmet lobby, of course, is the personal anecdotes: genuine sad stories along the lines of “if my son had been wearing a helmet….” My possibly slightly callous answer to that is to say “yes, but if your son had been riding in an environment where the culture and road infrastructure was less aggressively pro-motorist he might not have had an accident at all.” Unfortunately you can’t fit that sort of thing into a neat headline or Facebook meme.

All well and good. I still wear a helmet, if I remember. I encourage my children to wear one. Sometimes I forget and cycle a few miles without one, but when I do I get it in the neck. For some people to is tantamount to just walking out in the street and lying down under the nearest bus.

This is all about evidence and the use of evidence. When it suits a particular social or political viewpoint, evidence is triumphantly pulled out and waved under the noses of everyone who cares to listen. When it doesn’t, however, it gets quietly ignored in favour of emotional anecdotes.

We can see a parallel here with teaching. When a piece of evidence exists in favour of a particular viewpoint it gets quickly trumpeted across various media. This happened with the Sutton Trust report “what makes great teaching” last week. Here we have a fairly big study which is generally pretty careful in its claims and suggestions. It is pretty measured stuff, but the only bit that made it into the media was the big claim that evidence suggests that discovery learning is less effective than direct instruction. It’s worth noting that this claim is made carefully in the report. First up, the direct instruction it describes is telling people stuff, yes, but also questioning them, finding out what they remember, and generally involving them in being talked at. What it isn’t is the two hour lecture that comes to mind, and which suits a nostalgic conservative view of education in the Good Old Days. And actually, discovery learning done well can be effective, but which needs lots of support and scaffolding from the teacher. Done badly, all educational interventions are rubbish.

Much the same happened with the FELTAG report. This made all sorts of good suggestions, but the only one which appears to have made any inroads into education is the suggestion that 10% of all courses become online. It’s been almost amusing to watch the handwringing that has happened by various commentators in social media about this. “But FELTAG is about more than the 10% thing! It’s about teacher development and sharing and all sorts of good things!” And they are absolutely right, but I’m not sure in which naïve universe the hand wringers are living when they think that a sector under increasing financial pressure is not going to focus on this as an opportunity to cut costs. The only time anyone ever hears of FELTAG is when it gets cited for the reason behind the 10% of courses going online. Pretty much all the good ideas about supporting and training teachers have been forgotten, because they are expensive ideas. Because the FELTAG report has an evidence base, or at least claimed to, then it gets used as a stick with which to beat staff into getting on board. I’m lucky: we have regular training days at work where we have the whole day to explore these things, and some serious time has been given over to preparing and supporting staff. I’m also pretty technologically confident, so my learning curve hasn’t been that steep. But that’s not true for every teacher in the land, not by a long shot.

The other challenge with the 10% rule is that on reading the report there appears to be no evidence to suggest that it works. The whole of FE is basically taking part in a massive experiment. It’s not been sold that way, of course, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence nationally or internationally that this is going to work. For me, when viewed that way, this becomes actually more exciting, because UK FE can be the big study cited in the rest of the world about how this worked really well on a massive scale. I hope.

One way or the other, it does fit a particular need at a particular time, it fits trends and fashions and what people are interested in. Ditto the cherry picking of the Sutton Trust Report, and much of the discussion around helmet use for cyclists. Evidence is there, yes, but it’s usually filtered through the censors of fashion and policy, and so needs to be viewed as sceptically as the rest.