Tom Bennett – a refreshing repost for a Friday!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

I just countersued- Prince Ea: the same old arguments in a shiny new video

Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupidAlbert Einstein

You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called ‘I just sued the School System’ released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.)

To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish.

I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson’s oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It’s hard to put gas in a box. ‘What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’, as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?
The People vs The School System

Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

  • Kill creativity
  • Kill individuality
  • Are intellectually abusive
  • Turn millions of people into robots
  • Are guilty of malpractice

These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are ‘abusive’. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.


No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.
Fashionable in the 80s

The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.
The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place.

To the narrator, it’s ‘educational malpractice’ for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that’s a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y’know, facts.
Bullsh*t Bingo

If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

Summing up

The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

Why do you hate children?
You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

Case dismissed.

Behaviour Management -Top 10

Great post from Tom Sherrington looking at the work of Bill Rodgers…

Behaviour Management: A Bill Rogers Top 10

Behaviour Management Strategies from Bill Rogers

Classic Bill Rogers Video Series

Without doubt the greatest personal challenge I’ve faced as a teacher was moving from the Sixth Form college in Wigan where I started teaching, to Holland Park School in London in my mid-20s.  Having established the idea in my mind that I was a pretty good teacher, it was a massive shock to discover that in my new context, I was a novice.  It was humbling. To begin with I struggled just to get a class to listen (suffering routine humiliation at the hands of a certain Year 9 class) and I went through a terrible phase (2-3years?) of being an appalling shouter, regularly losing my temper and committing various teacher atrocities (such as throwing a student’s book down the stairwell and telling him to get out and never come back at the top of my voice…).  I got better, grew up a bit and learned how to manage my emotions and to always be the adult in the room.  But it was hard.

Later I discovered the seminal Bill Rogers’ video series and watched them back-to-back.  Oh, why hadn’t I seen these sooner!? No contest, from all the CPD I’ve ever engaged with, these videos have had by far the greatest influence on me and my philosophy of teaching.

The series titles give a flavour of the Bill Rogers approach:

  • Positive Correction: the basic premise that teachers and schools should adopt a non-confrontational approach to discipline, based on positive teacher-student relationships, respect for the dignity and rights of individuals, choices about consequences of behaviour and encouragement for student self-discipline.
  • Prevention: planning for good behaviour; teaching the routines and the rules.
  • Consequences: have a clear structure that students understand and use to inform the choices they make.
  • Repair & Rebuild: the imperative to work hard to build and repair the damage that is done when things don’t work out.

I can’t do justice to it all in one post, but here are my highlights.

Top Ten Ideas from Bill Rogers

1. The Black Dot in the White Square:

It is often necessary to get class or individual behaviour into perspective in order to maintain a positive atmosphere in the class.  In Bill Rogers’ model, the black dot represents the negative, disruptive behaviour of certain individuals or the class as a whole; the white square represents the positive behaviour of the majority or the normally good behaviour of an individual.  By focusing on the black dot, we are forgetting the white square. This illustrates the need to keep things in perspective and helps to avoid using sweeping statements that can harm positive working relationships

  •  The class is awful
  • The group never works sensibly
  • The student is unable to behave
  • Everyone is being too noisy

This thinking made me realise I was one who would pick up on the late-comers, the noise makers and the students off-task, at the expense of reinforcing the good behaviour of the majority.  Is so much healthier for all concerned to swap that around.  I find it applies to homework too… focus on the bits you get in, rather than the ones you don’t.

2. Using Positive Language

This is so simple but packs a punch.  Instead of “will you stop talking’ you say “I’d like everyone listening, please”.  Instead of “John, stop turning around and distracting Mike” you say “John, I’d like you facing this way and getting on with your work… thanks.”

After watching Bill Rogers, I found myself saying ‘thanks’ all the time.. and it makes a difference.

3. Choice direction and ‘when…then’

Classic parenting techniques that work brilliantly.

  • Jamil, you can either work quietly by yourself or you can come up and sit with me,
  • James, you can go next door to work with Mr Anderson or you can work sensibly with Andy as I’ve asked.
  • Richard, you can do exactly what I’ve asked or get a C3 detention as you were warned earlier.
  • When you have finished tidying up your area… then you can sit wherever you want….

This works so much better than crude belligerent ‘do what I say’ command language.

4. Pause Direction

Students are in the bubble of their own a lot of the time.  Just because you start talking, doesn’t mean they hear you. Make a deliberate pause between gaining a student’s attention and a direction to ensure they have had sufficient ‘take up’ time. Eg.  “Michael  pause…David…pause…could you face this way and listen, thanks”.

You gain their attention, with eye contact, before you say what you want to say.  Try it….

5. Take-up Time:

This avoids the horrific teacher domineering – “come here Boy!” nonsense.  Simply, “Michael…(pause to gain attention)… come up here a sec please.” Then deliberately look away… talk to someone else.  Michael will come. He just will.  In his own time.  It works – try it.  It also works in the corridor.  “John, come over here for sec please… then walk away to a private area, away from peers.  John will follow  – and not lose face.”  You can then have a quiet word about the behaviour without the show-down.

6.  ‘You establish what you establish’

This refers to the establishment phase with a new class.  Right from the start, anything you allow becomes established as allowed; and anything you challenge is established as unacceptable.  The classic is noise level and off-task talking.  If you do not challenge students who talk while others talk, you establish that this OK; it is no good getting bothered about it later… Similarly with noise level. If you ask for ‘silence’ and then accept a general hubbub – then your message is ‘silence means general hubbub’.  If you want silence – you have to insist on it.  Bill Rogers is great on this whole area of planning for behaviour; investing time in setting up routines – a signal for attention, how you come in and out of the classroom, the noise level.  Talk about it explicitly and reinforce it  regularly.  The start of a new term is a good time.

At any point, if you are not happy with the behaviour in your lessons, you have to address it explicitly.  Otherwise, the message is that you accept it.

7. Teacher Styles

  • Don’t be an Indecisive teacher: hoping for compliance but not insisting; being timid in the face of a challenge; pleading not directing.
  • Don’t be the opposite: an Autocratic teacher : using a power relationships to demand compliance without any room for choice. (No-one likes or wants a bullying teacher.)
  • Be an Assertive teacher: This teacher expects compliance but refuses to rely on power or role status to gain respect.  The teacher plans for discipline, uses clear, firm direction and correction, but acts respectfully, keeping the aims of discipline clearly in mind.

In all honesty, the most common problem ‘weak teachers’ have, in my experience, is that they are not assertive enough; it is their Achilles heel.  The tough part is that this comes with experience for many.  I have learned to be assertive without being autocratic…and actually that is easier than learning to be assertive if you’re not. But you have no choice – it is a key teacher skill that needs to be worked on.

8.  Controlled severity – but where certainty matters more than the severity

Most great teachers establish very clear boundaries.  How? Well, usually, this happens through the occasional dose of ‘controlled severity’. A sharper, harder corrective tone that conveys: “No! You will not do that –EVER!” Followed quickly by a return to the normal friendly, warm tone. Ideally, the simple sharp reprimand is all that is needed – that cross tone that says: “I still love you dearly, but you know that is beyond the boundary and you know I will not tolerate it again”.  Most teachers regarded as ‘good with discipline’ only need to use the severe tone occasionally – because it works and the class remembers.

As with parenting, the art is getting the balance: not overused or generated from real anger – thus de-sensitising children OR under-used and ineffectual.  In both of these cases the boundaries are hit constantly because there is uncertainty about where the boundaries are.  With good ‘controlled severity’ the boundary is not hit so often –because the kids know exactly what will happen.  Like a low voltage electric fence!  You know where it is, without nagging or constant negotiation, and you know exactly what happens if you touch it – so you don’t go there. The key is that the consequence is certain to happen – not the level of severity.  Teachers who can never sound cross often struggle. Similarly, teachers who allow genuine anger to build up – also struggle; these are the shouters (note to younger self.) Worst of all are teachers who shout but then don’t follow up with the consequences. All these groups need to seek help and get help.

9. Partial agreement (aka being the Grown-up)

Bill Rogers has a strong line on teachers being able to model the behaviour they expect. This includes not wanting the last word. Partial Agreement is an essential strategy for avoiding or resolving conflict.  It means teachers not trying to have the last word, or asserting their power in a situation when a student disputes their judgement.

  • Student : “I wasn’t talking, I was doing my work”
  • Teacher : “OK, Maybe you were but now I want you to press on to finish the task.
  • Student:  “It wasn’t me… it’s not mine… I didn’t do anything”
  • Teacher:  “Maybe not – but we’re all clear on the rules about that aren’t we..and I’d like you to help me out next time, Thanks. ”

The focus is on the primary behaviour, giving students take up time and a choice about consequences.  Expecting compliance is key but we should not regard ‘giving in’ as a sign of weakness.  Communicating to students that you may be wrong is an important part of building relationships whilst maintaining your authority. My pet hate is a teacher who wants his pound of flesh; is uncompromising and moans about kids ‘getting away with it’. It never ever helps.  (This is where I find the concept of Emotional Intelligence helpful…some teachers simply cannot bear it when asked to give ground; it is a problem they need help to recognise.)

10: Behaviour Management is an emotional issue

The overriding message that I took from Bill Rogers is to recognise explicitly that behaviour is about emotions and associated traits: confidence, self esteem, peer relationships, group acceptance, empathy, belonging, resilience, .. and all the opposites.  Crucially, this is for the teacher and the students.  There is just no excuse for an angry outburst that has no resolution; for forcing a child into an emotional corner through power or using sarcasm to humiliate. We are the adults. BUT –we are human and we sometimes fail to manage.  Sometimes, things go wrong and as teachers we put ourselves on the line emotionally all day.  No other job is like that – where you risk being burned by a teenager just because you ask them to do some work.  So, Bill Rogers urges us to acknowledge our emotions – and, for me, this helped hugely.

If you do ‘lose it’… acknowledge it.. “I am angry because….’’;  “I am raising my voice now because I’m so frustrated…”  And then, after a cool-off, as soon as you can, model the behaviour you want to – calm, measured, warm, encouraging and showing you care. ‘Repair and Rebuild’ is a great concept.  Sometimes, the trick is to take the most difficult student aside, away from a lesson and build up a rapport so that they see you as human – and you see them as more than just a naughty brat.

As with all these things, it is a question of assimilating the philosophy, practicing the strategies and changing habits over time.  It takes time.  But I wish I’d met Bill a lot sooner than I did!

So, a big thanks to Bill for changing my fortunes as a Teacher – via DVD. (Actually it was VHS!)

Debating Michaela.


I had a great time at City Hall taking part in the Michaela debates. If the purpose of an event like this is to make people think and reflect, I can safely say it was a success from my point of view. Without reviewing the content of each debate, here are my take […]

This was a really thought provoking event so if interested please look up the hashtag -via Debating Michaela. My take-aways. — headguruteacher