A response to ‘A New Authoritarianism’

This is a response to a post by Disappointed Idealist, entitled The New Authoritarianism. If I have understood the post correctly, it is saying that everyone has different preferences with regards to education, and these should be respected; parents should be able to send their children to a school that’s not too extreme, students shouldn’t have to learn under draconian conditions; and teachers shouldn’t be dictated to, about how they teach. All of this is supported by a liberal, individualistic, relativistic philosophy, which itself holds that tolerance is an end in itself, there are no fixed moral values, and individuals should be able to live their lives however they like. If I have misunderstood, then firstly please correct me, and secondly I apologise for any criticisms I make that are based on this misunderstanding.

On the face of it, summed up as above, I don’t disagree too strongly with the first group of statements, but when you start digging, I think Disappointed Idealist and I would differ even on our interpretations of these. Overall though, it’s the liberalist philosophy that I reject, and so many of the points I’ll make in this blog are in relation to that. If the liberalist philosophy doesn’t hold water, than the claims based on it aren’t necessarily going to be valid.

So, I’ve addressed the issues with liberalism as a whole first, and then Disappointed Idealist’s specific comments and arguments in his post.

Before we go on, I think it’s important to define what I mean by the following terms in this writing. (Apologies if this is patronising, but it’s often a useful thing to do!)

  • Objective morality: there are moral facts. Some things are intrinsically good and others are intrinsically bad. There is a standard of goodness/evil that is external to humans. We discover morality, rather than create it. Morality is not simply a matter of opinion or preference. Morality itself does not change over time (though our response to it or the way we put it into practice might).
  • Subjective morality: morality does not exist in and of itself. Morality is a concept created by humans, and essentially it comes down to preference or opinion. What is ‘right’ is always relative to the individual, society, or period of history (relativism), and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what’s good and bad.

I hope you, the reader, don’t mind, but I’ve addressed the rest of this blog to Disappointed Idealist himself, rather than to you. It made it easier to write.

 

Disappointed Idealist, liberals such as you claim that they’re tolerant of behaviour they don’t like, rather than indifferent to it, but that’s very often not true. It might true of you personally (I don’t know, and would genuinely be interested to) but it’s not in general. The Christian who refuses to sign a marriage licence for a gay couple isn’t tolerated. The midwife who is anti-abortion isn’t tolerated. The hospice that refuses to perform euthanasia isn’t tolerated. Milo Yiannopoulos wasn’t tolerated. There was a petition calling for Trump not to be allowed to enter the UK. The professor who tweeted against PC views wasn’t tolerated. Demands or complaints about ‘safe spaces’ and ‘triggers’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ take the (illiberal-)liberal view to the Nth degree. (I can find sources for these too, if anyone would like.) I would like to emphasise that I am in no way aligning myself with the views of all the people listed above. I’m just using these examples to illustrate my point: liberalism so often in practice doesn’t live up to its own central claim, and that’s both philosophically weak and, in practice, very frustrating.

This hypocritical aspect of liberalism-in-practice aside, there are problems with it even if all liberals really were liberal, as it were. For one thing, they claim (or at least frequently strongly imply) that tolerance is an end in itself, but it’s not. We should surely seek truth, not tolerance, as an end. (Appropriate tolerance is a means to a harmonious society, but it’s still not as good as true love for all, which is what we should be espousing.) Tolerance for all ideas is clearly ridiculous. To explain: either you have to claim that tolerance is a good in itself, and therefore we should tolerate those who, for example, teach racist views (regardless of through which medium they choose to communicate), or we should acknowledge that some values/views are good, and some are bad, and that actually, that’s the discussion we should be having: which views and values are which. It feels as though liberals sort of claim to be tolerant of everyone, but really what they mean is simply, “I have different values to yours.” If we acknowledged that as our starting point, more fruitful discussions might be had (even if ultimately all we could achieve was only that we could at least agree to disagree; but at least then there wouldn’t be liberals claiming that they tolerate all views when in practice they don’t).

The second (many people would put it first, actually) problem with liberalism and relativism is that they claim that there are no objective moral facts, but the very heart of liberalism/relativism is making what tries to be an objective claim: “There are no moral facts (and that’s a fact!)” It creates a paradox.

I would also like to address what you really mean by authoritarianism. You seem to use it in two different ways, or perhaps you combine the two and assume they always go hand in hand; I’m not sure which? But there’s authoritarianism that basically seems (at the very least to an outsider, and probably on the inside too) to mean, “I love external discipline and draconian methods of education! I dislike immigrants, and want to be surrounded by people only like me! I’m maybe even pro-ethnostates! Tell immigrants and minorities to assimilate completely, or go home!” and then there are authoritarians who are essentially saying, “There are objective moral values, and there is an objective truth, and we should discover them, and live in accordance with them!” Unfortunately, in our current climate and media, these two types of views are almost always lumped together – completely unfairly, in my opinion. There are many people in the latter group who are most certainly not in the former. I would count myself as one of them, and would suggest that, for example, other Catholics are also in this group. (That’s not to say that no Catholics are racist etc; you unfortunately get unpleasant views held by people in every group of society. It’s just an example.) [As an aside, while writing this blog I have discovered that I guess I now have to accept a new label for myself: ‘authoritarian.’ I don’t like it at all because of the connotations, but if that’s what people are calling those who believe in objective morality, then I guess I’m in that box!]

So, if you are objecting only to the former group, then I’m with you 100%; but that doesn’t seem to be the case. You seem to imply that people have a choice between being an authoritarian (in the sense either of the first type of authoritarianism alone, or the first and second types together) and being a liberal – but there is another option, which is to be an authoritarian in the second sense alone: someone who believes in objective values and morality, and believes that those values include welcoming the stranger, looking after the oppressed, educating all students as well as we possibly can, creating a harmonious society with whomever wants to be a part of it, allowing everyone to flourish, and so on. What this type of authoritarian means by ‘educating as well as we possibly can’ might still look different in practice to what you think – I don’t know – but it would be helpful to at least acknowledge our existence as a group rather than writing us off by lumping us in with the other type of authoritarians, so that we can enter into dialogue about it. My hunch is that this type of authoritarian (the second type, I mean) would support a traditional Liberal Arts education of some variety, as they believe in objective values (perhaps including beauty), and so might assert that ‘high brow’ literature and music and art etc. should be studied in favour of popular culture because these things more accurately convey these values – but that’s a discussion to be had separately.

I would also like to note, though, one thing on which we agree very strongly, if I’ve understood you correctly: teachers shouldn’t be told precisely what style or methods they can use to teach with. It causes a great deal of frustration and stress, and unhappiness, and doesn’t result in better outcomes as far as I can make out. Where we probably part company though, is that I do think certain things that have been shown not to work should be openly discouraged, such as group or project work every lesson; VAK learning; skills-based lessons (devoid of content); FOFO lessons; and spending five minutes copying learning objective from the board every lesson. Equally, things that have been shown to work should be encouraged: at least some didactic teaching; scaffolding; etc. No hard and fast rules should be put in place (no checklists in lesson observations, please!!) but things should be encouraged/ discouraged by presenting staff with the arguments on both sides, through good training, opportunities for discussion of teaching and learning, and through providing teachers access if possible to edu-books and other resources. When this is done properly, it’s hard to argue that something like Brain Gym is a good idea, and teachers will naturally drop it – but no one has been forced to teach in a way that goes against their own style and will.

 

This has become rather a long post, but it’s a big issue, and your post itself was rather long so there’s a lot to say. I’ve addressed the general points now, but would also like to respond to quite a few of the specific things you say in your blog:

 

  1. “Only a fool assumes from their own personal experience that everyone else would turn out identically if only they had the same circumstances.”
    1. Well, much as I disagree with hard materialists and determinists like Daniel Dennett, I don’t think they are fools. (Perhaps you meant only the school setting being the same though, rather than all personal experience. I feel a little unfair nit-picking at this, to be honest.)
  1. “People are not uniform.”
    1. No, they’re absolutely not; I agree completely. We do, however, share a common human nature, and some things are good for all of us and bad for all of us. This needs to be taken into account in education too.
  1. “I’m tolerant of behaviours I don’t like, rather than just indifferent to behaviours I don’t care about.”
    1. I addressed the issue of tolerance above, but thought it was worth highlighting this sentence.
  1. “I am, in other words, appalled by the authoritarian movements currently in vogue which seek to impose their worldview on all of us.”
    1. Everyone has a worldview, and everyone tries to impose it on everyone else. Liberals try to impose their moral views on conservatives, just as much as it happens the other way round; see the examples above. This isn’t a bad thing in my opinion, because as I said, we should be seeking truth, and by entering into dialogue and considering other views, we’re more likely to discover, discern, or figure out the truth; but it’s a problem if some people claim to not be imposing their worldview on others, while trying to do exactly that.
  1. “And education policy is not immune to this upsurge of intolerant authoritarianism.”
    1. Education policy is also not immune to the extremes of liberalism. I, for example, am angered by the thought that my child is going to start school, and be taught about gender and sexual relationships from a young (unnecessarily young) age, and in a way that doesn’t at all fit with my values. To me, the values pushed currently in schools feel extremist, just as my values would probably be considered extremist by you. (I think all pornography is inherently evil, for example.) You talk at other points of having the right, essentially, to not have to send your child to an extremist school, but the current social values are heavily left-leaning, and those of us on the right don’t have any choice. (And I don’t see you fighting our corner on the grounds that we shouldn’t have to send our children to what we consider to be extremist schools?)
  1. “As a parent, my values are not necessarily the same as your values.”
    1. Yes, that’s true. However, I would argue that to an extent, they should be. Morality is objective and values should be universally acknowledged. All parents should care for the overall welfare of their child, and not only care about exam results. (I think you’d agree with that, actually?) I think that we are right to try and identify parents who don’t have their children’s overall welfare as a human being at heart, and we should find ways to encourage them to re-think their priorities and approach. We actually should all have the same values to an extent, even though they will be expressed in vastly different ways. There are some characteristics and values that benefit all people. There isn’t a person on the planet who wouldn’t be better if they were patient rather than impatient, or appropriately generous rather than selfish. (Yes, there are times when being selfish is justifiable; that’s not the point I’m making, and I hope you can see that!)
  1. “I would rather my children were not taught mindless obedience at school… I want them to question authority, not blindly obey it.”
    1. Talk about setting up straw men! You present a false choice: either have a school that cares for the whole student but doesn’t put a huge amount of emphasis on exam results, or opt for a school that prioritises exam results but has a draconian method of achieving them! What about a school that achieves high exam results by allowing students to become their true, full selves? This involves thinking, analysing, making up their own minds; not being blindly obedient. You even then say that this choice needn’t actually be a choice, but then, what’s your point? Why present it as if it is one?
    2. If you are simply saying that you would rather your child were not taught blind obedience as an end in itself, and you’re not implying that it’s an either/or choice at all, then I would agree with you though. I would not, even as an authoritarian (if that’s the box I really need to be put in at the moment), ever want this for my child.
  1. “I am appalled by collective chanting of slogans, which I associate with horrible dictatorships.”
    1. I addressed this above, with the point about the two types of authoritarianism. You imply that all authoritarians would agree with this kind of practice, but they wouldn’t. (Incidentally, just out of interest, would you count reciting prayers as chanting slogans?)
  1. “They may not be your values, but you need to respect my right to hold them.”
    1. Yes, I do respect that right, completely. But I also think that there should be discussion about values, rather than halting the discussion by some people saying, “These are my values and I’m sticking to them. Leave me alone and let me get on with them!” and others saying, “These people hold different values to me, but I’ll just let them get on with it, regardless of the consequences!” As it happens, I think that a person should be all of the things that you listed: “considerate/curious/self-reliant” and “respectful/obedient/well-mannered.” I don’t see why you see them as two opposing camps. Yes, if it were a choice between the two, I’d agree with you as it happens that I would rather my child fell into the first camp, but that’s actually irrelevant. The key point is that there are objective values and virtues, and those six things are (arguably) all virtues. And remember, a virtue is always a Golden Mean between two vices, so you can’t argue that, “Being obedient means blindly obeying even an evil person,” because that’s not what obedience, as a virtue, really is. As a virtue, it contains the idea of ‘appropriateness,’ so, it’s appropriate to obey a teacher who asks you to tuck your chair in at the end of a lesson, but inappropriate to obey orders to commit some evil act.
  1. “Yet respecting difference doesn’t come naturally to authoritarians, with their cast-iron certainties and self-righteousness.”
    1. All people who believe morality to be objective are not self-righteous. This is just insulting and unhelpful. I wanted to give some examples to illustrate this, but they’re all rather personal, so I’ve decided to remove them. But in general terms, let me put it this way: I believe that X is morally wrong. I have friends who have done X. My friends know my views. We are still very much friends. I am perfectly able, as are many other people like me, to respect difference. I also hope that I’m not self-righteous, but I guess that’s for others to say really.
  1. “I feel nothing but contempt for the sort of school or teacher who say “my way or the highway” to their local community, whether that be over behaviour policies, uniform, or academic achievement.”
    1. You have nothing but contempt for a school that has a school uniform, and requires students to adhere to it? That seems pretty…well, extreme, to me. It’s reasonable, surely, that a school should be allowed to say to students, “Dress appropriately, within these boundaries?” It’s not different to having to wear a uniform for work, which millions of people do (either formally, or semi-formally by being required, for example, to wear a navy or black suit or something). I can understand that people might be ideologically against a uniform because it hampers physical self-expression, but there are also plus-points, such as it preventing students from being judged on which brands they wear (or can afford) and so on. To assert that you have contempt for a school that implements a policy for this reason, for example, seems….unkind? unreasonable?
  1. “If my local school – the only one in my town – announced it was emulating Summerhill, abolishing timetables, lessons, discipline of any kind, then I would be appalled, because I don’t want that extreme environment for my children.”
    1. I would be appalled too, but not because it’s extreme; because it just generally doesn’t work. We shouldn’t be imposing or encouraging things that don’t work (as explained above). It might work for a select few, who come from homes that instill the relevant values, which then make this kind of schooling work, but it wouldn’t work for the majority.
  1. “…my rights as a parent would be equally denied, while those same authoritarians would simply sneer contemptuously at the denial of my right.”
    1. I don’t think this language is conducive to debate (but then, you do say that you’re writing to entertain, so maybe fair enough). You’re just pushing people further away though. I note that I am though, at the time I’m writing this, the only person of 31 to reply to your post with anything resembling, “I disagree with you.” If you want to be part of an echo-chamber then that’s fine, but it won’t lead to change or dialogue. (I’m not trying to be sarcastic; I can’t think of a way to phrase that, that doesn’t sound like that though!)
  1. “The argument is not really between “progressives” and “traditionalists” at all. The argument is between liberals and authoritarians.”
    1. This isn’t true, because many progressive ideas were forced upon schools in a fairly draconian way. In that case, weirdly, progressive (usually associated with liberal) and authoritarian were the same; so the argument is actually about teaching methods on the one hand, but also on the other it’s about universal/relative values and methods. I personally don’t like the liberal-authoritarian or traditionalist-progressive labels particularly, but we need some kinds of terms, and they’re useful as far as they go, I suppose.
  1. “Nor is it honest to portray all non-draconian schools as a homogenous mass.”
    1. Yes, I would agree. You do seem though, in this blogpost, to lump all authoritarians together into an homogenous mass. This seems equally wrong to me. (See above on the two types of authoritarians.)
  1. “If you only wish to serve those who share your values, approaches and beliefs, then fine. Set up a private school, and invite fellow-believers to send their children there. If you’re right that this is what most want, you’ll be so overwhelmed with entrants you’ll soon expand and can offer free places to the less affluent parents who subscribe to your particular brand of extremism.”
    1. Yeah, I have actually considered doing this. It’s a pipe dream…See my post on what I think grammar schools should really be, for more detail. (I say this tongue-in-cheek to an extent.)
  1. “The split appears to me to be more between an extreme authoritarian minority position which does not serve those parents and children with different values, and a reasonable majority position which seeks in a variety of different ways to serve all parents and children.”
    1. By this point in your post I was getting a bit frustrated. I was thinking, “Look, are you talking about values in general, or are you talking about discipline? If you’re just saying, “Most people don’t want draconian discipline in schools, so we shouldn’t have it in state schools,” then that’s one thing. If you’re saying, “Authoritarians have moral values different from the majority and therefore the majority values should be reflected in schooling,” then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.” Could you clarify which it is? I think this comes back to lumping both types of authoritarians together.
  1. “It is, perhaps, unsurprising that those who prefer a more authoritarian teaching style are less tolerant not only of student non-conformity, but of the non-conformity of adult colleagues and institutions.”
    1. I continued to be slightly exasperated reading your post by this point. What do you mean by authoritarian? Strict discipline? Traditional material such as Shakespeare and Latin? Standing at the front and talking a lot? I’m strongly in favour of the latter two things, but am also in favour of non-confirmity; you seem to be setting up a false dichotomy?
  1. “My instinctive liberal reaction to authoritarian schools, for example, is to shrug and say, “well, if it works for the teachers who like that kind of thing, and those parents don’t mind their kids being treated like that, then fine.”
    1. This is at least consistent with what liberalism in general claims. I think it’s very dangerous though. Would you be happy with private schools explicitly teaching racism, if they weren’t funded by tax-payers and the parents were all happy with that? If so, at least you’re consistent, but I’d argue you’re wrong to hold that view. (I also doubt that you really hold that view.)
  1. “Everywhere, its characteristics are similar: proclaim certainty, assert “traditional” values, deride difference, dismiss opposition as “elite”, claim to represent “ordinary people.”
    1. Argh! Again! This is what drives me mad! Why are these things lumped together!
  1. “If those of us who subscribe to liberal tolerance have learned anything in 2016 it is surely this: we didn’t win the culture war, as we thought we had; liberalism is not safe; tolerance is not universally accepted; individual rights to equality are not respected by all.”
    1. No, and indeed, tolerance as an end in itself shouldn’t be achieved (as explained above), and neither should individual rights (because there are universal morals, and individuals don’t create their own morality). That doesn’t mean we ‘authoritarians’ are all bigoted, racist, self-righteous dictators though, as seems to be implied.

 

For anyone who managed to get to the end of this ridiculously long post: firstly, thank you for reading! And secondly, thank you to Disappointed Idealist for posting his writing, because I really enjoy entering into debate about these things. Thirdly, I thought it might be helpful to sum up what I’ve said:

  1. Liberals claim to be tolerant of all ideas, but often they’re not really, so it doesn’t work in practice.
  2. Those liberals who do tolerate all views and practices are consistent philosophically, but in practice they allow evil to occur. (There are some things that just shouldn’t be tolerated.)
  3. What being liberal actually seems to mean, in practice, is that you hold different values to ‘conservatives.’ We should have debates about these values.
  4. There are objective moral values, and we should try to find them and live by them.
  5. In terms of education:
    1. It’s all difficult! But let’s talk, rather than rant at each other.
    2. Some practices should be encouraged, and others discouraged, but all teachers should be allowed the freedom to teach in whatever style they like, as long as they’re covering the required material (e.g. a GCSE syllabus).
    3. It’s not helpful to decry ‘extremist’ schools because that terms means very different things to different people.

Stop trying to teach me, and teach me!

Three things recently frustrated me somewhat, and after a little reflection I realised that they all had something in common: they all reminded me of the scene in The Matrix where Morpheus says, “Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!” Instead of fighting, however, the task at hand was teaching.

The first thing that I found frustrating (in quite a literal way – I mean I was sitting there feeling like I was being hemmed in) was one part of the September INSED. For the sake of retaining my anonymity, and because I genuinely wouldn’t want to publicly criticise my school, which I actually love, I don’t want to explain the activity; but essentially, it seemed to me as though the group organising the morning had thought, “What activity can we do that will look good, and look like it’s really engaging?” when they should have been thinking, “We would like to achieve X. How can we do this most effectively?” The task they came up with reflected their approach wholly. The stated aim of the task was ABC (when it should have been X anyway), but you explicitly weren’t allowed to just do ABC. You had to ‘play the game’ and (fail to) achieve ABC in a ridiculously roundabout way, for the sake of appearances as far as I could tell – and X was in no way even touched upon! So, that was event No.1 where I was left thinking, “Stop trying to do this thing, and just do this thing!” Highly frustrating, unproductive, and really quite a waste of time.

Event No.2 was being asked to teach lessons from someone else’s resources. As I looked through the lesson plans and resources, I had the same feeling as I’d had with the INSED: that we just weren’t getting to the point, and instead were faffing about with fruitless activities that somehow ‘looked good.’ Basically, in each case, the aim of the lesson was for students to learn XYZ, but instead of just teaching XYZ in any kind of direct way, the lesson involved activities to engage the students, to make the material relevant, and that kind of thing. This might sound like a really good idea to many people, but I find it just hinders learning, more often than not. I really can’t phrase it any other way: I just felt myself overwhelmingly thinking, “No! Stop trying to teach them, and just teach them!”

Event No.3 was very good for me I think, as it made me eat a slice of Humble Pie. I was looking back over some resources I made years ago, as I was planning a lesson on something I’d not taught in a long time, and I was looking for ideas. I realised, as I did this, that my own resources for years had consisted in just the kinds of activities that had recently been irritating me – things that kept the students busy, and on some level thinking about the relevant material, and often in a way that was ‘relatable’ for them – but that were really just dithering about and/or wasting precious time. Cut and sticks, for example, or mix n’match cards – I used to use these relatively often (every few weeks with each set, perhaps). But why? What’s the point in spending lesson time cutting things out or gluing things down, in a subject such as mine? Students are too busy thinking about what they’re doing to think about the philosophical or theological ideas written on the cards! I cringe now to think of how much teaching time I effectively wasted by not just teaching the material more directly somehow.

These three events also brought back memories from my own school career. As I mentioned in my post on grammar schools, I loved the school I attended, and was very lucky indeed to have gone there. Even so, I did spend a good chunk of time a bit bored; and now that I think about it, I think it’s possible that this kind of activity is why I was bored. Take a card sort: within about one minute of reading the boxes, I (or any other student) may have worked out what goes with what. The worthwhile thinking is done. Nevertheless, you spend the next few minutes lining cards up, and then another five to ten minutes talking through the answers as a class. I remember this kind of thing being so irritating.

I realise I’m saying nothing new. I happen just this week to have read two blogposts in a similar vein to this one – Martin Robinson’s on Pokemon Go, and Carl Hendrik’s on gimmicks – but this has been on my mind since the beginning of term and I just wanted to write about it.

Essentially, for the sake of students and staff alike, I just want to say: stop dithering about with activities and engagement, and just teach the stuff! If this means telling it to students directly, great. If it means reading a primary text with them, great. If the best, most effective way to get across some information or to practise a skill like structuring an essay is to do a particular activity then of course, do this, great (though often I imagine that this effective activity will in fact be structuring an essay together) – but please, please, please, just stop faffing about! It is painfully frustrating and a waste of precious time and life. Stop trying to teach, and teach!

………………………………………………….………………….

 

P.S. I’m not sure the motivations for posting this blog are very commendable, and for that I apologise. I feel like I’m (ugh, I hate this phrase but I’ll use it anyway) virtue-signalling (“Look at me! I don’t use pointless activities in my lessons!”) and/or I’m simply ranting, which is bad. At the same time though, it really is something that followed me at school, and throughout my PGCE and NQT training, and that I experience on the vast majority of training days even now, and it’s something I see in lessons; and I just don’t want any more students (or teachers) to be sitting there frustrated, when they could instead be thinking and learning and growing as people…so if it makes anyone else out there think about it as an issue, then I think (or at least hope) that it’s worth having written it.

P.P.S. [Edit] Having posted this earlier, I do now feel bad for criticising both the INSED activity and the lesson resources I mentioned. Each of these things was the result of someone’s time and effort, and I know I’d be really upset if someone criticised the things I created in the same way; so I apologise for this, too. I don’t mean to be nasty to anyone, or upset anyone, and I appreciate the efforts they went to, to create these things. I guess I just think I’d have done them differently.

Grammar Schools: not a completely terrible idea?

I’m aware that there are many better-qualified and more expert people than me writing and talking about grammar schools at the moment, but as I said in my introduction on this blog, I’d like to write anyway, just to be part of the conversation. I wasn’t going to, but this Tweet from @disappointedidealist got me thinking, even if it was said in jest:

“On the plus side, the grammar school thing really helps one to identify followed accounts to cut. Like being proBrexit. Or supporting Wigan.”

When I said that I assumed he was joking, he said,

“Sure. But there are some issues where the people on the other side are too far from moral values or basic intelligence.”

This was implying of course that anyone in favour of grammar schools lacks moral values and basic intelligence, a claim that I strongly reject.

Incidentally, I might one day write about why I think it’s a huge mistake to refuse to engage with people, even (or indeed, especially) those whom we think lack moral values, but today I’ll enter into the grammar schools debate instead, and stick my neck out somewhat: I don’t think they’re a completely dreadful idea.

Here’s why. For any students who love learning and spend a proportion of their school day bored by what they feel to be slow-paced or low-challenge lessons, perhaps also sometimes disrupted by other students who aren’t keen to learn, the idea of a school that is a sort of haven from this is very appealing. I was lucky enough to go to a school where the behaviour was pretty much impeccable and the teachers generally highly inspirational (they are of course in part responsible for me becoming a teacher, and I am eternally grateful to them, and to my parents for choosing the school that they did) but even so, I spent time in lessons being bored. By the time I was in sixth form I had decided I was going to be education minister (hah!) and I had also decided that I was going to bring back grammar schools, for students like me. I hadn’t really thought at that point about better alternatives – I just knew they existed, and believed that they would benefit intelligent, keen, motivated students, so I thought they were a good idea.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and my thinking on them is not so black-and-white, but I’m still not convinced they’re a wholly terrible idea. However, the kind of grammar school I’d want to introduce now wouldn’t be like the ones of yesteryear. Rather, they would be grammar schools in the sense that they would be liberal arts schools – ‘grammar’ being one aspect of the traditional and also the updated Trivium, put forward by those such as Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy). They would set very high academic standards, and teach traditional subjects such as Latin, Greek, Philosophy, etc; they would require students to study Shakespeare and ‘difficult’ texts, read extensively, and basically, work really hard. In addition, they would require participation in activities relating to music, sports, debating, and service to others, and would require consistently high standards of good behaviour. They would be selective in the sense that those who wanted a traditional, academic, stretching curriculum would select themselves to attend (or their parents would choose this kind of school for them), but there wouldn’t be an entrance exam. To overcome the remaining possibility that the most able might be bored, I would suggest that subjects could be set by ability. I know this isn’t popular with many people, but in a school that specifically existed to challenge students and to set high academic standards, it’s highly possible that those in the bottom sets wouldn’t feel left behind, or ‘stupid.’ Instead, they would (hopefully) just feel that the material – which was the same as was being taught to other students – was being presented at the appropriate pace for them. (Or, you could have one top set and all the others mixed ability, for example.)

To those who would reply, “Ok, but what happens when the school is over-subscribed? It must select somehow at that point, surely?” I would say: if that type of school becomes over-subscribed, it just shows that it’s a popular model, and more schools should become grammar schools. In this sense, in theory, if they were so popular that everyone wanted to attend, you really could realise the ‘grammar schools for all’ idea.

So, what I’m saying is, I don’t think that selecting only the most able students by means of a test at age 11 is a good idea, but I do think that giving parents and students the opportunity to choose to attend a school as described above is a good one. If it were up to me, these schools would exist and would be open to all, regardless of ability. They’d be considered grammar schools because of their traditional ethos and curriculum, but they would be open to anyone within the catchment area (which could be very large, if that were necessary to prevent the ‘selection by mortgage’ issue). In effect, they’d be selective based on the criterion of desire: if a student and/or their parent(s) wanted to learn a lot of knowledge, behave well, and work really hard, then they could attend. If they saw subjects such as Latin and Philosophy as useless, and wanted to study either more modern subjects or gain technical qualifications, then they could attend a different type of school.

Of course, this is fairly idealistic and there are problems with the idea, but perhaps not insurmountable ones.

 

Problem 1:

Some might object to the fact that at least at first, the rate of expulsion from such a school could be pretty high, because in order to establish the academic and behavioural standards, you need to show very clearly where the boundaries are. Although I appreciate that this is a genuine issue, I would suggest that it might be a necessary evil (though obviously, it wouldn’t be the first resort). I think it’s the same problem that schools face in general at the moment anyway. I’m not going to go into this further at this point, because I could write for pages on the methods I’d use to achieve good behaviour in schools. Suffice to say, yes, the grammars might have difficulty at first in making the boundaries clear, and yes, it would put pressure on other schools because they would have to take on those who were expelled if there were any; but all schools should be putting measures in place to help students become well-mannered, civilized, kind, people anyway.

 

Problem 2:

In a similar vein, some might object that students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply can’t behave well (i.e. they have an excuse for their bad behaviour), and that therefore disadvantaged students would end up being excluded and these grammar schools would in effect serve only middle- and upper-class privileged children. I would reply: that is an insult to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is no reason why any student can’t learn to behave in a measured, reasonable, kind manner, and to suggest that someone can’t because of their background is tantamount to either calling them a lesser human being, or to giving up on them. Similarly, if anyone argued that some students just can’t access such a curriculum even if they wanted to, I would give the equivalent reply: to deprive any student of the best of what has been thought and said, especially if they want to know it, because you think they’re unable to access it, is just insulting.

 

Problem 3:

It’s possible that this system could still be seen as elitist. Some might still say that there would be a stigma attached to choosing to attend a non-grammar school. I think there are three ways of responding to this, and to be honest I’m not completely sure where I stand, but here they are:

  1. You could say that, yes, a liberal arts education is better than other forms of education, and if you don’t opt for one, then you’re choosing a worse form of education – and that in fact, all people should come to see this, and all schools should become grammar schools.
  2. Alternatively, you could say that actually, a liberal arts/grammar school education, and a vocational education, and a whatever-other-options-existed education are all equally valuable, but just play to different people’s strengths, and none is better than any other. If people generally took this view, there wouldn’t be a stigma attached to attending a non-grammar school. It would just be seen as a choice that people made, not as a way of signaling status or anything else.
  3. People in general always find ways of being divisive, and there simply isn’t a school system that would prevent stigma or prejudice. People will, sadly, always find something to be judgmental about. In other words, it’s not really the school system that creates stigma and prejudice; it’s people. If it’s not the school you attend that people criticize you for, it’s the postcode you live in, or the team you support, or the clothes you wear, or the religion you follow, or the colour of your skin. With better education in general though, people would become less prejudiced, and stigma and prejudice wouldn’t exist; that’s the ideal!

 

Problem 4:

Some people might argue that the grammar schools might attract all the best teachers, leaving the other schools struggling. I’m really not convinced that this is true though. In my (limited, admittedly) experience, different schools suit different teachers, and some would want to work in a grammar school but many wouldn’t. If it did transpire that too many of the best (however you measure that) teachers were migrating to grammar schools, then perhaps incentives to work in non-grammars could be created – fewer hours counting as a full-time timetable so that people have a better work-life balance, or better pay, or something else, I don’t know. I’m sure that some arrangement or another would work though.

 

So there we go – that’s my contribution to the debate. Let’s take the attractive features of the old grammar schools (ethos, curriculum, behaviour, expectations) but remove the key sticking point (selection via an academic test at age 11), and let’s allow students and parents to choose whether they’d like to attend them, regardless of their academic ability.

New Scientist: The Metaphysics Issue

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When I saw that New Scientist had done an issue addressing philosophical questions, I was obviously interested, both as an individual, and as a teacher of philosophy of religion. I’m a big fan of science in general, and personally I believe that the more you learn about the universe, the more you are in effect learning about God (because to understand a creation can sometimes give you insights into its creator). I also strongly believe that people should generally learn to be critical and skeptical, in order to avoid the dangers of things like the ‘anti-vaccine’ movement; also, science is just intrinsically interesting, and obviously immensely useful.

As I read each of the nine articles though, I found myself rather irritated at points. Although they of course contain some very interesting facts and I learnt a few things, overall I was left feeling pretty disappointed with the feature. Fundamentally, scientific findings can rule out certain beliefs (e.g. the theory of evolution disproving Creationism) and it can have an influence on others (e.g. cosmology informing people’s views about the anthropic principle), but science simply can’t answer some philosophical questions – yet some of these articles appear to claim that it can. It’s very similar to how science can teach us how to build nuclear bombs, and it might also be able to predict the physical effects of them, but it simply can’t give us the answer to the ethical question of when, if ever, one should be used.

To be clear, my beliefs about God and faith are all-but-irrelevant here. My issue with some of the New Scientist articles isn’t that in some cases they come to conclusions with which I disagree; it’s that they come to philosophical conclusions without justifying them philosophically at all (or with the weakest of attempts). I thought I’d just run through the articles and give my reactions, both positive and negative.

 

How do I know I exist?

I was pretty happy to see that this article didn’t claim to have a scientific answer to this philosophical question, opening with the sentence, “The short answer is you don’t.” It discussed some really interesting ideas to do with psychology and Cotard’s syndrome, and concluded that actually, even if we’re all in a simulation (which we would never be sure of), a big question would still remain: what would be running the simulation? So far, so good, in my opinion. This article acknowledged that science can give us useful insights when asking philosophical questions, but also that ultimately it can’t give us an actual answer.

 

What is consciousness?

This article, by the same author as the previous one (Anil Ananthaswamy), gives a useful overview of the “hard problem” of consciousness. It’s fairly balanced, and acknowledges both sides of the argument: that some people say consciousness objectively exists, while others argue it’s just an illusion and therefore requires no explanation. He doesn’t really come to a conclusion, and leaves the question open, which I think is really fair enough, given that the debate is very much on-going in the philosophical world. Again, so far, so good!

 

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This was, looking at it in terms of philosophical merit (rather than simply what I found most interesting personally), my favourite article of the nine. It briefly explains the concepts of nothingness, a vacuum, and a multiverse, but acknowledges that ultimately, “physicists are going to have to accept they can only ever shift the goalposts on this one.” Yes: science can tell us a lot, but it can’t answer some philosophical questions.

The feature unfortunately went somewhat downhill after this point though.

 

What is the meaning of life?

With this article, the unjustified assertions begin! Your life, the article claims, is “actually a random blip of matter and energy in an uncaring and impersonal universe.” A belief in God is a “comfort blanket.” Neither of these assertions are philosophically justified by the author in any way; this is so frustrating. Readers who aren’t philosophically-minded or trained aren’t likely to spot this, and may instead just think that since New Scientist is generally a reliable source, then what they’re writing about science must be true – in other words, they may think that scientists have shown that life has no meaning, and belief in God is utterly ridiculous. Argh! While it is undoubtedly the case that philosophically, it is arguable that life has no meaning and that God doesn’t exist, this conclusion cannot be reached through scientific study alone! When people transfer authority like this, it really riles me. Scientists and skeptics would rightly and understandably get annoyed if a religious believer or adherent of a particular philosophy started making unjustified ‘scientific’ claims, and yet here New Scientist seems all too happy to do the equivalent.

This article also suggests that it’s reasonable to believe in the many worlds hypothesis, where each time you make a decision, an entirely new universe comes into existence. Given that this is an hypothesis and not a theory, and given that it sounds fairly incredible, why does the author think that belief in this is more reasonable than a belief in God? Belief in God giving your life meaning is a “comfort blanket” but belief in the many worlds hypothesis giving your life meaning is just cool? (“If true, your universe is created by the choices you make. How’s that for meaningful?”) I really expected more from this publication.

 

Where do good and evil come from?

Alas, more of the same can be found in this article. I’ll try to be brief because I’ve already written far more than I’d planned, but it’s hard when there are many holes still to pick. Essentially, this article argues as follows:

  1. Questions about good and evil seem too abstract for science to answer, at first, but we’ll give it a go.
  2. Science can answer some relevant questions, such as why animals are sometimes altruistic and why other times they’re violent.
  3. The answer science provides is that animals act out of self-interest, whether this seems altruistic or selfish from the outside.
  4. Even extreme behaviour can be explained in these terms.
  5. Therefore, “Good and evil don’t exist in any real sense.”

What?! This conclusion does not follow from the content of the article. Yes, animal (including human) behaviour can often be explained in terms of self-interest, but that doesn’t prove that “good and evil don’t exist in any real sense!” You can’t ask, “Do good and evil exist objectively?” (or to put it another way, “Is there actually such a thing as goodness and badness?”) and answer, “No, because animals act out of self-interest.” That simply doesn’t follow. It may be the case that the author believes good and evil to be entirely subjective, which is in itself a valid philosophical view (though one with which I personally disagree); but he hasn’t justified this view at all. If morality is objective, then animals still act out of self-interest; the acting out of self-interest can’t indicate whether morality is objective or subjective, and therefore in this sense, it’s useless in helping us to answer the question. As with the previous article, untrained readers might read this article and think, “Ah-ha! Science has proven that good and evil don’t exist!” – so frustrating!

 

Do we have free will?

By the time I was reading this article, I was really rather annoyed, and unfortunately it did nothing to calm me down. Firstly, quite early on it re-states a previous unsubstantiated claim, namely that the brain “generates your consciousness.” (Although on an individual level this may be undisputed, there are philosophers who would disagree with this claim on a more fundamental level, saying that fundamentally, consciousness precedes matter, such as Prof. Keith Ward. I’m not saying he’s necessarily right, only that New Scientist shouldn’t make these statements as if they were absolutely undisputed facts.) Secondly, the article appears at first to be discussing whether or not we have free will, but actually, it does not consider a single argument for the existence of free will. Here are the views it discusses (with my comments in italics):

  1. Haggard’s view: the brain causes us to act before we’ve actually decided to act. Therefore actions are determined and we do not have free will.
  2. Humphrey’s view: brain processes cause actions, but “I” am my brain processes, and therefore I am causing my actions, and therefore in that sense, we have free will; but this isn’t free will in the sense that (for example) religious believers mean it. (If you’re interested in this, look up discussions about liberty of indifference and liberty of spontaneity.)
  3. Vedral’s view (a reductionist view): eventually we’ll understand everything in terms of physics, and we’ll understand what determines our actions.
  4. Quantum physics suggests that there is uncertainty and randomness, so perhaps everything isn’t determined. It seems like this section is conceding that perhaps everything is not determined, but that’s not the same as saying that we have free will. All this is actually saying is that some events are determined, and all others are random or causeless – but even this leaves no room for actions being caused by free will.
  5. The many-worlds hypothesis, where everything that can happen, does happen: this is still really asserting that we have no free will, because if we take every possible course of action, we are bound (determined) to take the action we have taken in this universe. (Also, see my comments above on this hypothesis.)
  6. There is something outside of the universe, beyond physics, whether a god or something else, which determines everything.

As you can see, none of these views entertains the possibility that we actually have genuine free will, i.e. that there is a self who makes informed but not determined decisions about our actions. Not a very balanced argument! I feel it’s a great shame that readers are mistakenly left with the impression that science has answered this philosophical question, when in this article, it hasn’t even addressed arguments on both sides, let alone provided a justified conclusion.

 

Is time an illusion?

For the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that I found this article very interesting!

 

What is reality made of?

This article acknowledges that you need to ask what counts as reality, saying, “Do only physical objects like earth or atoms count towards reality, or things like minds and consciousness too?” This seems sort of reasonable, but at the same time, it’s really just re-stating the question. I don’t think it is very reasonable to say (as the article does), however, that whatever the answer to that question, “physics should still supply the solution.” If, for example, goodness and evil are objective, or if consciousness precedes matter, then surely physics would not be able to supply the answer, by definition (because those things are non-physical). If you can ignore this problem, the rest of the article is really very interesting in my opinion, discussing dark matter, quantum theory, and the idea that the only thing that objectively exists in the physical universe is maths. I was also relieved to see that the author does concede at the end that until we can fully understand consciousness, we may be like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, believing mere shadows to be reality itself.

 

Can we ever know if God exists?

Ah, the biggest question! This article is fair at the beginning, philosophically; it notes rightly that “gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere.” While I personally believe that it’s more reasonable than not to believe in God (and so I don’t think we’ve got nowhere), I think the author writes in a fairly balanced way here. He says, “the only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.” Again, while I disagree with that personally, I can see why (given the history of philosophy of religion, to which he refers) he has reached that conclusion.

I do take issue, however, with Scott Aikin’s view. He is quoted as saying, “The evidence points to the fact that God doesn’t exist…I’m of the view that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” There are three problems with this:

  1. The evidence does not point to the fact that God doesn’t exist. There is no empirical evidence to show that he doesn’t exist, unless you count the existence of evil and suffering – but as the existence of numerous theodicies show, evil and suffering are not conclusive evidence against God’s existence.
  2. He contradicts himself! He firstly says that there’s evidence that God doesn’t exist, and then says there’s an absence of evidence! This is incoherent.
  3. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Although it’s true that if something doesn’t exist, there will be no evidence for it, it does not follow that if something does exist, there will necessarily be (empirical) evidence for it. Take the examples of goodness, consciousness, beauty, or love – you can’t empirically prove that any of them exist, but that does not prove that they don’t. On a more basic level, you’ve got the problem of induction here anyway: if someone says, “All the swans I’ve ever seen are white; therefore, all swans are white; therefore, no black swans exist,” then they have not made a strong philosophical argument.

In addition to this, the author makes what I think is a slightly snide comment at the end of the article, suggesting that religious believers are just like conspiracy theorists, and sarcastically (I think?) insinuating that any beliefs to do with God are best kept far away from science. I could be misinterpreting his tone, and apologise if I am, but it seems unfairly derisory to me.

 

Overall….

Overall, my view is that science and philosophy are both incredibly interesting, intrinsically good, extremely useful, and beneficial to those who study them. As such, I think it’s a shame that not all of the New Scientist authors managed to write strong enough articles combining the two disciplines. I’ll be using them with my GCSE and A Level students for sure, but I’ll be asking them to pick out the unjustified assumptions and weak arguments, as well as the new and interesting scientific ideas.

Happiness Lessons

It has been suggested that there should be compulsory happiness lessons in all schools. I’ve seen a few negative reactions to this on Twitter, such as those from @tstarkey, and @SimonMagus (who called the idea “dangerous rubbish”), and so far I’ve not seen any positive ones. I can immediately see many reasons to reject the idea, but at the same time, I’m not convinced it’s wholly a bad suggestion.

To start with, here are the reasons why it could indeed be a “rubbish” plan. Firstly, and I think most importantly, my hunch would be that happiness lessons wouldn’t actually work. By this I mean that I strongly doubt whether they would (in their suggested form) result in happier students. This is because it seems to be the case that when we have an aim of inculcating attitudes or skills that should span all areas of life (such as critical thinking skills, attitudes towards sex, bodies, and relationships, or high standards of literacy) then teaching about these things in segregated blocks of time simply doesn’t result in that desired end being achieved to a very high degree. It seems, from what I’ve read, that lessons in critical thinking do not actually achieve the desired end of students becoming real critical thinkers – or even if they do work to an extent, then a greater improvement could’ve been achieved through normal subject-based lessons, which incorporate subject-appropriate skills. (I apologise that I can’t reference anything here; to be honest, I’m writing based on the impressions I’ve gathered from general reading of blogs, the TES, articles posted on Twitter, personal experience, and so on.) Similarly, despite the fact that students receive more sex and relationships education now than in previous decades, it doesn’t seem like the (presumably) desired end of fewer teenage pregnancies, healthier attitudes towards relationships, and more respect for people and their bodies has in fact been achieved. The NSPCC recently noted that over 40% of teenage girls have felt pressurized into engaging in sexual activities, for example. (Perhaps I’m being unfair on sex ed. lessons, and I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise, but that’s a debate for another day.) Finally, as far as I can tell, if only English teachers require students to write properly, then students understandably start to compartmentalise; I’ve certainly (and frustratingly) heard students say things like, “But punctuation doesn’t matter. We’re not in an English lesson!” If, therefore, students were ‘taught’ how to be happy and to talk about their emotions in a one-hour session once a week, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t actually become happier; or if they did become slightly happier, it wouldn’t be the most efficient way of achieving this aim.

The second, and related, reason why I think they could be a very bad idea is that if they’re not effective, then they’re a huge and immoral waste of extremely valuable teaching-time. I don’t think this needs any further explanation, other than to note that it’s a double whammy: not only could an hour a week be wasted on such lessons, but it’s an hour that another subject has lost, because the time has to come from somewhere.

The third argument against happiness lessons, as I see it, is that they’re potentially (not definitely!) going to teach students things that make them actively less happy. Some suggestions that are supposed to make people happier are (from what I’ve seen) quite self-centred and sometimes even vain or narcissistic. (“Unhappy with your body? Buy this new product and you’ll be happier!”) I know this isn’t a terribly strong argument (hence it coming third), but it’s a possibility. Given that humans have had many different ideas about how to achieve happiness over the last few thousand years and that we haven’t all come to a solid conclusion about it yet, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be wary of the Government saying, “This is how to be happy! We have The Answer, and now you must teach it!” They’ve already told us specifically what values we have to teach, and that we must label them ‘British,’ so this scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me at the moment.

Do I think, therefore, that if all schools had to set aside one hour a week for all students to be taught how to be happy that it would be a good and effective use of time? No, probably not.

The thing is…[confession time]…I already teach ‘happiness lessons.’ As in (I imagine) most if not all classes, there’s unhappiness, insecurity, low self-esteem, broken relationships, and apathy about life in my form, and I do in fact use some of my time with my them each week to teach them, basically, how to be happy. This is a relatively recent undertaking, and I’m not sure yet whether it will bear any fruit, but there is a need for it, and I can’t just ignore it and do nothing. Like I say, it’s not just my form that needs it, either; it does seem that a whole range of schools could do with somehow instilling greater levels of happiness in their students. Whether it’s private ‘exam factory’ style schools that leave students with unbearable feelings of pressure and isolation, schools where there’s a lack of community cohesion, schools where there’s bullying, schools where many students have unstable family lives and difficult backgrounds, or schools where students are under the impression that the sole point of education is to get a job and earn money; surely all of them, in their own ways, could do with taking action to improve the students’ happiness? And, given that I do believe that the purpose of education is to enable the true flourishing of each individual, I do believe that it’s part of the purpose of school to nurture true happiness.

In the few minutes I have each week, therefore, for what has inadvertently become ‘happiness lessons,’ I’m working through a course that I put together myself, but which is based very heavily on Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the ethical theory of natural moral law, and various Christian writers including C.S. Lewis. I do stress to my students that this is only one way of looking at things, and that there’s certainly no proof for these ideas (as most of them can’t be proven, or disproven for that matter, in a scientific sense), and I make it clear that they can take or leave whatever they like from it. The course itself basically follows this line of thinking:

  • Who you are:
    • All humans share a common human nature. There’s something that makes them human, and something that makes them the same as each other in some significant but ultimately indefinable way. This human nature is fundamentally good – not perfect, because everyone makes mistakes, but more good than bad.
    • Each human, at the same time, is utterly unique.
    • Each person has a ‘nature’ to fulfill. Some things are the same as for everyone else, because they share in human nature, and some things are unique to them, because they’re unique.
    • Each person has a longing to be truly and fully known, and truly and fully loved (by at least one other person). This is part of being human, sharing in human nature.
    • We all recognise that the feeling of ‘not really being yourself’ is indefinable, but unpleasant.
    • You can only be known and loved (and therefore fulfill that longing) if you’re real with people. If you’re not yourself, then there’s always a mask or façade, and you’ll never feel known, and therefore you’ll never feel happy. You’ll always have that feeling of ‘not really being yourself.’
    • You can only be yourself, and be known and loved as yourself, if you’re in relationships with people, e.g. friendships, family relationships, relationships in community, romantic relationships.
    • So, being yourself means being fully you, and fulfilling your unique but also shared human nature, in relationships with others.
    • All unkind things that people do are a result of them not being fully, truly themselves. They’re trying to meet the need for love in some way that doesn’t actually work; for example, they might show off about their material possessions, put others down to make themselves seem better in some way, or leave people out of social activities so that they feel more secure in their own circle of friends.
    • In other words, if everyone were truly, fully themselves all the time, there would be no unhappiness other than that caused by nature (e.g. diseases, accidents). This isn’t possible, because no one’s perfect – but in theory, it’s the case.
  • How to be yourself:
    • Firstly, note that to be truly yourself is scary, because you know deep down that if you’re rejected, you’re really rejected. It’s not just your ‘mask’ that’s rejected. It means making yourself vulnerable, and allowing for the possibility that you could be really hurt.
    • To be truly yourself, you need certain characteristics, because they’ll help you fulfill your own nature. These characteristics are called virtues.
    • Virtues such as patience, courage, integrity, curiosity, diligence, and justice will help anyone to be themselves.
    • Empathy is an important virtue that should be actively cultivated too, because it will help you to remember that just as it’s good but scary for you to be yourself, it’s also true of everyone else in the world too.
    • Humility is also important, because it involves recognising that you’re valuable, unique, and fundamentally good, while also imperfect, and that you’re worth neither more nor less than any other human being.
  • Overall:
    • Everyone has a true self, and therefore also a way in which they will fulfil their nature. If you’re fully yourself, you will be fulfilled. This means you’ll be happy.
    • The way to achieve happiness is to cultivate virtues, and to become in practice the kind of person that you truly are ‘inside.’

There are undeniably lots of philosophical difficulties with the course I’ve outlined, but that’s true of anything (I was going to say ‘anything to do with happiness’ and then thought ‘anything non-scientific,’ and then settled on just ‘anything!’), and I do outline the difficulties to the class as we go; they’ve really enjoyed the discussions. For example, we’ve discussed whether there is a way of defining a human being; whether there is really a ‘self;’ whether human nature (if it exists) is mostly good, bad, or neutral; and as we work through the course, we’ll discuss whether or not pleasure and happiness are the same thing; how you could decide what virtues were necessary or good; and so on.

The point is, I believe that these sessions – which could well be termed ‘happiness lessons’ – are really worthwhile. It’s got the students thinking about who they are, and who they want to be, and I do personally believe that the ideas above would indeed lead to happiness in all people, if everyone put them into practice. You could, therefore, be forgiven for assuming that I think the DfE’s idea of lessons in happiness is a good thing.

Ultimately though, I don’t, partly because as I said at the beginning, if you want a particular attitude or approach to be applied widely, students need to encounter these ideas from all different angles, and not in one little separated block of time. I happen to have a little block of time each week where I can cover whatever I like with my form, and so I use it for this. It’s not the ideal situation, though. That would be for all students to be taught philosophy and ethics (whether ultimately examined or not) from Y7 onwards, and these lessons would incorporate the ideas outlined above; indeed, if I were a Head, I would aim for my whole school to run in line with these ideas! The entire school would revolve around flourishing, being yourself, being happy through virtue, relationships, self-discipline, community, and real service. (I know that some schools are already like this, which is wonderful!) But lessons in how to be happy in and of themselves? No. They would not be on the timetable.

Fundamentally, the reason is actually this: as is now clear, as far as I’m concerned, the way to become happy is to become virtuous, good, and yourself. Being knowledgeable, curious, empathetic, generous, and so on, will make you happy. Therefore, the best way to facilitate happiness in students is to spend time allowing them to develop these virtues. What kind of activities might do this, I wonder? Well, perhaps rigorous academic lessons, for one thing, or sessions in drama, music, charity, or sport!

Two final thoughts: firstly, which of the following things help improve young people’s confidence and body image more? Regular seminars on body confidence, and watching Dove adverts, and Gok Wan, and discussions about which parts of your body you should love the most? Or alternatively, gaining confidence overall, through being a fulfilled, strong, principled person of integrity, who has skills, hobbies, knowledge, and good relationships with others? Don’t get me wrong; I think Dove and Gok have done very good things! But I don’t think they’re the best solution to the problem of low self-esteem, body dysmorphic disorder, and so on.

Secondly, C.S. Lewis used the analogy of seeking good health in relation to the building of society; I think his words could equally be applied to the search for happiness:

 “Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more – food, games, work, fun, open air.”

(Mere Christianity, Chap.10)

A simple tool to help students gain knowledge

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Now that I’ve laid out my general views on truth and on the purpose of education, I feel like I can write almost at random about any aspect of education. What to pick!

One of the least controversial but perhaps most useful ideas on my list-of-blogs-to-come is an idea about a teaching aid that I’ve developed and used this year, which I’ve called ‘hooks sheets.’ (I’ve put an example of them at the end of this post.) They’re a tool to help students access, consolidate, and retain knowledge as efficiently as possible. (If they already exist under another name, I do apologise; rest assured, I’ll feel suitably embarrassed when it turns out everyone else has used them for years.)

Before anyone criticises this idea on the grounds that it doesn’t teach students to think for themselves, I would like to say: yes, this tool is specifically knowledge-focused. Yes, it revolves primarily around facts, not skills. As I hope was made clear in my previous post though, I don’t see the acquisition of knowledge as the purpose of education, but I do think it’s an essential (and sometimes neglected) part of education. A person can’t have informed, reasonable opinions on anything if they don’t know about the thing about which they’re being asked to form an opinion. (Besides, I actually also use hooks pages to help with skills, as I include knowledge about the skills in them, e.g. steps they can follow when evaluating a philosophical belief.)

Bearing all that in mind, here’s the context: I have just 30 minutes per week with each KS3 group. In addition, these year groups are only allowed to be given homework once every few weeks in non-core subjects. When these limitations were first introduced, they presented me with a huge challenge. How on earth could I impart a lot of knowledge, make sure that students had a real understanding of what they were learning, show them how to analyse and evaluate the ideas fully, and enable them to then express their understanding and opinions in writing, with only about seventeen hours of teaching time over the whole course of the year? As Martin Robinson (@SurrealAnarchy) and many others have pointed out though, boundaries and limits encourage, and indeed are necessary for, creativity; I think this applied here. The limits did make me think more creatively than I had done in the past, when I’d had more contact time with each class.

At the same time as first facing these constraints, I was reading Hattie’s and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. One thing that seemed to hit me again and again while reading this was the idea that we only learn a new fact when it links to previous knowledge. This in itself was very useful to consciously note, but it also made me think about all the times when students hadn’t understood something because there’d been a gap in their knowledge that I hadn’t known about, and so they had nothing onto which they could ‘hook’ the new bit of knowledge I was trying to convey to them.

Because of the time limitations, I wanted a way to ensure that students did indeed have all of the base knowledge I was assuming they had, and that they were linking every new idea to previous knowledge at every possible point. I wanted the most efficient way possible for them to learn new facts. Eventually, I came up with the ideas of ‘hooks sheets.’

Hooks sheets are basically just checklists of individual facts that students should know, used in a particular way. I know other teachers and textbooks use similar things at the ends of topics, so that students can tick off what they know and check they’ve achieved their objectives, but hooks sheets are a bit different. A hooks sheet is a list of ‘atomised’ facts (i.e. each bit of knowledge is broken down into its most basic possible forms, as far as is reasonable), which the student reads, and if they understand the fact, they simply tick it. If they don’t, they seek help from previous hooks sheets, their notes, a friend, or (finally, if necessary) the teacher. For example, the sentence, “Christians believe that Jesus was the Christ,” can be broken down into about fifteen different facts, all of which contribute to a proper understanding of that statement. These facts include things like, “Jesus was Jewish,” and “The word Christ comes from the Greek Christos,” and “The New Testament was written in Greek,” etc.

The list of ‘atomised’ facts on each hooks sheet covers two things: firstly, things that students should’ve learnt by the end of the lesson they’ve just had, and secondly, facts that are necessary in order for the next lesson’s content to make sense. The first facts (relating to the lesson just learnt) break down everything that was covered in the lesson into individual facts, and allow the student to recap what was covered in a methodical, logical way. Each fact ‘hooks onto’ the previous one, and so if they didn’t see how something was related to something else while they were in the lesson, this helps them to see the link now. In theory, if the previous hooks sheets and the lesson itself did their job, the student should be able to happily tick all of these facts. If they can’t, the hooks sheet allows them to identify specifically what they didn’t understand; usually, when this particular fact is identified and explained, the others fall into place more easily. This is (I think) a pretty efficient way of allowing the student to check very precisely what they do and don’t understand, and gives them a way to fill in the gaps and form their knowledge into schema more effectively themselves.

The second set of facts (those relating to the coming lesson) is, I think, even more important. These facts are things that new facts are going to rely upon, or ‘hook onto.’ Crucially, they’re also the facts that teachers might simply assume the students know, and that therefore they wouldn’t spend lesson time explaining; they might not even acknowledge them as facts to be learnt, rather, just weave them into explanations of new, bigger ideas. (Hattie points out that experts literally forget how hard it is for novices to learn, and so teachers do sometimes skim over things when they shouldn’t.) If students don’t have these very basic facts though, the lesson content just won’t mean anything to them. For example, if I were teaching a lesson about the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence, right from the outset of the lesson, students would need to know that Jesus is the central figure in the Christian religion, and that he lived roughly 2000 years ago. They would also need to know the meaning of the word ‘evidence,’ and the word ‘historical.’ The hooks sheet, therefore, provides students with a list of facts that they must understand, in order for them to be able to access and follow the lesson from its outset. This part of the list usually consists of things that students feel are utterly obvious, but not always – and it’s the times when they come across something new that makes them so worthwhile. Finding that gap before the lesson and filling it in is much more efficient than trying to identify it afterwards, and make up for the time and learning lost in the confusing lesson.

The way they work in practice is very simple. After each lesson, as their homework (I know I’m not allowed to set homework, but since these only take five minutes to do, no one’s complained so far!) students simply read the list of facts, and tick the ones that make sense. Usually, all of them do, and it’s been a quick and simple exercise that helps to consolidate their knowledge. When something doesn’t make sense though, it gives them the chance to check up on it, and thus either add to their learning from the previous lesson, or prepare for the next one. As an added bonus, they’re pretty helpful when it comes to revision (both for the individual and for use with a whole class), and they also lend themselves very nicely to helping to create detailed mind-maps. Also, they can help students catch up if they miss a lesson, which is handy.

I did start using them with KS3 as a way of trying to use every minute of lesson time as efficiently as humanly possible, but they were so helpful that I’ve started using them with my GCSE groups as well. This year was meant to be the trial year, and depending on how they go, I may well use them with 6th form in the future, too. (I’m positive about them at the moment, but there’s time for them yet to backfire or prove ineffectual after all!) Hopefully others will like this idea and maybe give it a try too; I’d be interested to know if anyone else thinks they’re helpful.

Y11 Hooks

An Overview

I think I would like to blog primarily about education, teaching, and learning. As I explained in my first post, though, I think that in order to do this, I need to first make clear what my views on the purpose of education is, and to do that, I feel that I need to lay out the philosophical framework upon which all of my other beliefs are built. If I don’t do this first, each time someone queries or criticises a view I have about a particular educational idea, or teaching technique, I know I’ll find myself trying to justify it by explaining everything it’s built upon – so I thought it made sense to make the foundations clear first, so that I can just refer back to them, rather than explain them anew each time. (Having said that, if you want to skip to them, my views on the purpose of education are at the end.)

I’ve often thought about, but never succeeded in, putting down in black and white my views on truth overall. It’s something I’ve toyed with in RS lessons, when I’ve encouraged my students to have a go at it themselves (more on that in the future!) but I’ve never written anything more lasting than a mind-map on a whiteboard, so here we go.

Being as concise as possible, currently (because I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of these views might change in the future), I would sum up my views like this:

  • Metaphysics: There is objective truth; I’m definitely not an anti-realist. I currently think I’m a property dualist/I believe in hylomorphism (from what I understand of it, though I’m not sure I’ve understood it correctly yet), but I’m not sure, and I’m not ruling out idealism. I’m convinced that materialism and scientism are inadequate theories to explain the nature of reality. I believe in God and assent to the Nicene Creed. God is Truth, Beauty, Love, and Goodness. These are all equivalent to one another. The material universe (or the immaterial universe, if it turns out that idealism is correct) is fundamentally good. 
  • Epistemology: Reason, senses, scripture, intuition, and conscience are all imperfect sources of, or tools to find, truth, i.e. authorities. Used properly and together though, they allow us to reach objective truth as far as is humanly possible. Different authorities are needed for different types of truth (e.g. conscience including reason is useful for discerning moral truth, whereas the scientific method is useful for discovering physical truth). There is some certain knowledge. 
  • Anthroplogy: A human person is a composite body and soul; body and soul are not two different ‘substances’ that have been somehow stuck together and interact. A human person exists from the moment of conception. All people are of infinite and equal moral value. There is an indefinable common human nature. Human nature is good, but all people are imperfect. 
  • Aesthetics: Objective beauty exists. I haven’t studied this enough to have a thoroughly informed and justified opinion, but I am convinced that objective beauty exists, and that some art, music, literature, objects, architecture, is better than other art etc. Which examples of art etc. are better than others should certainly be debated.
  • Ethics: Morality is objective (but this doesn’t mean that what’s correct in one situation is correct in another – wearing a bikini on a beach in Spain may be objectively morally acceptable, but wearing one to school is not.) Generally I think natural moral law is a good ethical framework, when used in conjunction with virtue ethics. The initial cause of this belief is my upbringing, but Plato’s reasons for believing in an objective goodness, G.E. Moore’s ‘open question,’ and Newman’s and Lewis’ writing on conscience and morality have made me sustain this view. The purpose of each human life is to fulfill its good, God-given nature. In other words, the purpose of each person’s life is to be fully and truly themselves; to flourish and be fulfilled. Experiencing truth, goodness, beauty, and love is part of this fulfillment; learning is also therefore part of this fulfillment. Evil is an absence of goodness, and is experienced when something or someone is failing (for whatever reason) to fulfill its purpose/nature. In other words, evil doesn’t exist in itself, only as as a privation of goodness.
  • Politics and economics: I’m really not well-informed enough to make strong claims here. As a general rule, I think politicians should have solid training in philosophy, ethics, the scientific method, and their own area of service. In general I’m supportive of democracy, but it has a lot of issues (not least that the majority of a population doesn’t necessarily know what’s good). Neither communism nor capitalism seems ideal; I’m interested in the theory of distributivism, but don’t know enough about it to comment (yet). Political and economical systems should (somehow) put people and the environment before money. I have little issue with politicians being drawn from a small pool of schools, iff those schools are the only ones producing suitable politicians; I have major issues with a school system that’s not functioning well enough to produce suitable politicians from all walks of life.

My views on education fit in with and/or flow from all of the above. Some principles that I believe in, for example are (to borrow a few clichés), that knowledge has intrinsic value; students should be exposed to the best of what’s been thought and said; students should be encouraged to stand on the shoulders of giants; all students can learn, and can learn to love learning; all students should study philosophy and ethics; beauty is found in many forms, and therefore dance, theatre, music, visual art, and so on, are necessary; real human fulfillment means physical flourishing as well as intellectual, emotional, and moral flourishing, and so physical exercise in some form is necessary; students should form their own opinions (general apathy is an evil), but opinions should be informed, and conclusions drawn from as thorough a study of existing human knowledge as possible; different types of truth are discovered through different authorities, and so students should be taught how to use and train their reason, senses, and conscience; and where possible and appropriate, scientific evidence should inform teaching practice. Education absolutely should not be undertaken for purely utilitarian reasons, unless by ‘utilitarian reasons’ one means the genuine flourishing of both the individual and society.

Education in some form is a necessary part of the path to human fulfilment, and it is a search for truth. Fundamental to my beliefs is the fact that truth, goodness, beauty, and love, are all in some way equivalent, and exist objectively. The whole of humanity has been involved in a conversation about what truth is, in one way or another, for the most (or perhaps all) of its existence. Students today in school need to realise that they’re joining in this conversation, this search.

I know, of course, that many (most!) people disagree with my views, and not one of the statements I’ve made in the bullet points above hasn’t already been debated and wrestled with for years, and so I know that I could get immediately side-tracked by discussing the views listed above instead of my ideas relating to education. Still, I’d like this blog to be primarily education-focused (even if with a philosophical, religious, and/or ethical slant). We’ll just see where it goes, though. Like I said, I think the whole search for truth is like one huge conversation of humanity, and this, I suppose, is my contribution to it.

An introduction

I am generally quite an opinionated person. By this, I mean that generally I like to evaluate views and arguments, and have what I considered to be a justified opinion on them; I think apathy is a vice. I’m also (I hope) quite reasonable overall, and change my mind on things relatively frequently, when faced with new arguments, evidence, and so on. Having said this, anyone who knows me at all will testify to the fact that I have knee-jerk reactions to things, and also, I’m very sensitive and get upset and hurt quite easily. If I were going to write a blog, therefore, I could see it going something like this: I’d voice an opinion, and explain my reasons for it. Someone would leave a comment (if anyone even read the post) and if it was in any way critical, I’d get unreasonably upset. (I’m the kind of teacher who could do a student survey and have 99% of students say that they loved my lessons and felt that they learnt a lot, and I’d be unable to deal with the fact that 1% didn’t say this.) Anyway, after a while (days, weeks, or maybe months later), I’d be able to see the comment in a more dispassionate light, and I’d either decide that the commenter was right and I’d change my opinion, or I’d decide that their point wasn’t very strong and I’d just move on.

The thing is, this process has two downsides: firstly, I end up getting frequently upset (potentially), and secondly, if I change my mind about something, my original view is still ‘out there’ somewhere, which isn’t ideal.

Knowing all of this, I’ve decided I’m going to write anyway. I’m not really sure why, but I suppose mainly it’s because I do have opinions on things, and I want to join in the big conversation that is the blogosphere.

My job now is to try and decide on what topic I want to write first. I realised, as soon as I started thinking about this, that it was going to be nearly impossible to pick because whatever I wrote about, I could hear the counter-arguments that would immediately follow the post – and so I found myself wanting to start with defences of those points, and then it all got a bit complicated and expansive. As an illustration: I wrote a comment on Harry Webb’s blog about why I do like using flipped learning. Given that it was only a comment and not a dissertation, I couldn’t very well lay out my whole philosophy of education, and so someone who wrote back and (politely and reasonably) argued against me, seemed to assume that I (or at least, teachers who use flipped classrooms in general) was supportive of the idea that 21st century education is all about skills rather than knowledge, and ‘engagement’ and ‘independent learning’ rather than direct instruction, and so on. This is really not the case at all, and I found myself wanting to write back a tome on my whole philosophy of education, which itself actually reflects my philosophy in general, i.e. my views on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything; and this was all just to make one point about flipped learning (which was that I felt it had worked very well in my particular circumstances). As I see it, all truth is interconnected and it’s sometimes very difficult to talk about one aspect of it without bringing in a large number of other ideas.

I suppose, really, that this experience has given me the answer. I should attempt to outline what I believe to be the truth in general, since my views on religion, philosophy, education in general, and religious/philosophical education (the topics on which I’m most likely to write) flow from this framework. Doing this throws up its own problems because my philosophical and religious views are obviously open to criticism and maybe any conversation will never get past that point; but as I said, this is just an experiment, just an attempt to join in the conversation. Que sera, sera.