In Character Education: Part 1 – the Deconstruction, I pointed to various ways in which I suspect that the whole notion of ‘character’ in schools is currently used as a rag-bag of disparate concepts and traits which lack discrete concept validity, are probably only apparent in specific domains and circumstances, and which are probably such different kinds of things from each other that to try to have a standard uniform approach to teaching individual elements is naïve.

Indeed I suggested that perhaps ‘teaching’ some character concepts might not be possible at all [though some schools do treat it as a teachable module].

In this post, I want to take the arguments a little further, but offer a guide to how I believe we might indeed educate for character in children – if not ‘teach’ character.

Firstly, a deliberate diversion…..

What is actually the best route to take in order to achieve certain goals?

During the high publicity given to the International Space Station in Britain last year, probably more than a few of us were struck for the first time by the process it takes to get a rocket/capsule to meet-up with it. The ISS only orbits 400km above the Earth’s surface. Couldn’t we just ‘see it coming’ and send a rocket on a trajectory ahead of it to intercept it at the right time and place – a bit like throwing a ball to someone who is running?

Given this intuition, the time of a least 6hrs that it takes for a meet-up (2 days prior to 2013), seems intensely slow for a rocket which can get into orbit in 8 minutes 48 seconds.

The reality of course is that it doesn’t just head straight for the space station, it sets off at a seemingly random time, from a seemingly odd location, into a seemingly arbitrary trajectory, and has to fly around the planet 4 times until it is at the right place, at the right time, at the right trajectory and just the right speed.

What is the purpose of this metaphor? Basically, how many things which we want to achieve, and how many characteristics which we want children to have as adults, might not be best acquired ‘obliquely’ – without aiming directly towards them – either because they are more complex behaviours than we give them credit for, or we underestimate the process of natural maturation and general social education.

Essentially, I believe that there is a bit of a cargo cult approach to ‘teaching’ character in some schools these days. Indeed, I think that the whole notion of ‘teaching’ character is fundamentally a cargo cult movement. The cargo cult analogy is used fairly often these days in education blogs whenever people are seen to be looking at the emergent surface features of a successful person or organisation and then attempt to mimic that particular aspect of them, in order to become successful too.

So if Richard Branson was characterised by being a risk taker, then lets teach children to be risk takers and they can be Richard Branson. Or if Roger Federer has come to be regarded as somehow better than Djokovic or Murray because of his ‘graceful play’, then let’s teach children to hit the ball gracefully, and they will become like Roger.

Indeed, recently Martin Robinson has drawn a similar comparison around Lord Nash’s pronouncement that schools should be more like businesses. McDonalds is successful; shouldn’t schools then all simply mimic the working practices of McDonalds to become successful?

Just because an attribute can be linked with successful people, this doesn’t mean that those people were ever successfully taught these things; they might simply always have been like that – or found themselves in a set of circumstances which allowed those characteristics to flourish, or indeed – might have done other things which has enabled those characteristics to emerge, particularly if those characteristics are possibly a bit of an ephemeral, transitory illusion (which character might be).

A colliding thought: How do we truly get the best out of humans?

For anyone who has ever looked inside the mechanisms of a musical box, it is a delightfully simple set-up. There is a set of tuned prongs which in turn get ‘pinged’ by small metal nodules on the outside of a cylindrical barrel. With a small implement it is possible to pluck the prongs individually to see what they sound like – but they sound muted, and it would be very hard to get a coherent tune out of them. To play the music, we don’t pluck the prongs at all, we ignore them and wind-up a spring so that the barrel turns, and if it turns a full rotation, we get a coherent melody being played. What is the equivalent for educating children? I would say that many initiatives to develop character are like this analogy.

Another analogy further into the realm of human experience: I was particularly struck by Karen Armstrong’s 2009 book The Case for God. This wasn’t a ‘tit-for-tat’ logical counterpoint to the ‘new atheism’ of Dawkings, Hitchings, Harris & Dennett. Rather, she contrasted thinking logically about the ‘truth statements’ of religion (Logos), with simply living the experience of a religious life (Mythos), and contended that the latter is how we’ve actually evolved to connect with the absolute. We experience something that we can’t deduce, which is why the logical arguments of atheists rarely completely wipe-out religious sentiment, or even pure belief.

[Whatever your interest in religion, the ‘Argumentative Theory’ of Mercier and Sperber (2011) – which periodically gets big press, such as last month in the New Yorker – I think complements Armstrong’s contention quite nicely.]

Is there something in the previous two analogies which we can take into our notion of human character here as well? Should we stop trying to atomise traits, stop trying to precisely specify, teach and argue them into existence, and instead focus on – to the best of our ability – setting the barrel of human life fully turning, so that we can experience it as we have evolved to experience it?

How does this translate?

Our notions of modern childhood have radically transformed the experience of the modern child. As much as possible we have tried to remove fear, exploitation and abuse from their lives, and replace them with a safe haven in which to discover the opportunities of life as fully as possible. This is utterly to be applauded.

However, in the process of doing this, we have also refined many parts of life beyond all recognition from the pattern of experiences that our physical and mental processes evolved in response to. Relative to their predecessors, children no longer know how to deal with a world which is intrinsically unfair, or which takes them beyond what is pleasantly comfortable, or which doesn’t leave them with a choice or a voice, or requires commitment (particularly in the long term). Consequently, we are scrambling to create character education to fill the void.  We have stripped so much fibre out of the modern educational/lifestyle diet that we’re having to invent nutritional supplements to make up for it.

Back when a childhood of education was the preserve of the wealthy, they had to create quite harsh circumstances in those schools to try to give the, otherwise too-pampered and soft, idle rich some challenging formative experience.

Poor kids on the other hand had their character tempered by everyday existence. They had to function – full-on – in an environment of hardship reminiscent of the millions of years of our ancestry.

Probably, back in those days, the uneducated poor likely derided the school experiences of their wealthier ‘masters’, as being cossetted and leaving them without real ‘grit’ or whatever vernacular would have been current. After all, they didn’t know what ‘real’ life was like.

These days however, the habits and traditions of the classic British Public schools (that’s ‘private’ to those reading from certain other countries!), are often derided as being both anachronistic and indeed ‘abusive’; relentless focus on sport, compulsory cadet training, long days in a boarding environment, a high premium placed on ‘competition’. What kind of world are they trying to prepare children for?!

So what is my solution to all this? Well, I’m not simply saying that we should become like traditional independent schools – though there is a big reference point there. Instead, I think we can create a model here which we can all learn from – rich, poor, liberal, trad.


It’s simple really. If we have a GOAL of wanting to develop a particular character trait in someone, we don’t focus on it. Instead we focus on a PURSUIT which could give rise to that particular trait if done in the right DYNAMIC.


What does this mean in practice?

This means that if we do want to develop intellectual skills such as the ability to ‘analyse’ (the goal), then we might be best-off engaging the children in the pursuit of some worthwhile area of knowledge development (the pursuit), in the context of some creative challenge (the dynamic).

Or if we want to develop character traits such as ‘resilience’ (the goal), then we are possibly best off engaging the children in the pursuit of some emotionally charged competitive situation where they are likely to fail at some point (sport or whatever), and wisely guide them in meeting the two imposters of triumph and disaster just the same (the dynamic).

I’m going to say more than this though. I’m going to suggest that we don’t worry too much on trying to isolate the individual character traits that we want to develop in the first place anyway. Far too many of them are too fuzzy and ephemeral as concepts and seem to lock-arms tightly with each other.

Instead, set ourselves the GENERAL GOAL OF WANTING TO DEVELOP ‘CHARACTER’ – that ‘extra thing’ which helps humans cope and thrive through the diverse challenges of life, then commit to fully encouraging children into A BROAD SPREAD OF CHALLENGING PURSUITS, and use our relationship with them as teachers to ensure that these are done in A DYNAMIC WHICH ALLOWS POSITIVE RATHER THAN NEGATIVE FRUITS TO EMERGE.


The kind of pursuits I’m recommending are things where, for a limited duration of time, they are the only ones that matter. They are the experiences where children commit themselves fully and strive to give the very best of themselves in the process. These experiences should cover a broad spread of endeavours, and – crucially – include things which the child is naturally good at and things which they aren’t; things which they enjoy, and things which they don’t.

So yes, this would involve some arduous physical endeavour, knee-quaking public artistic performances of some kind, utterly personal long-term creative obsessions, and intellectual adventures which leave you stunned, disorientated and questioning what you’ve always assumed. Along the way, you almost certainly would find your ‘element’ or ‘bliss’, but you wouldn’t short-circuit the formation of broader character traits by flying straight to it by the path of least resistance.

The overtone to this naturally brings to mind a competitive culture of some sort, and that is certainly a component of it. However, in pondering this, it’s worth bearing in mind the distinction between two different kinds of competition:

  • Closed, Bounded, Limited” competition – such as sports events, working for exams, proving yourself in an isolated challenging situation.
  • Open, Unbounded, Unlimited” competition – struggles to survive, to make your way through an uncertain life of relentless pressures.

The first of these can create a perfectly healthy, necessary schooling in essential character development, and can help people deal with the second, which can result in a debilitating, destructive effect.

And following-on from that, it is worth also noting the difference between two different types of stress:

  • Eustress – Positive stress which motivates, focuses energy, feels exciting and improves performance.
  • Distress – Negative stress which causes anxiety, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, causes mental or physical problems.

What is worth noting is that whether something is limited or unlimited, or is a source of eustress or distress, can, for an individual person, be a psychologically relative experience for them; We can’t simply create a definitive list of each kind, which applies equally to everyone. Rather, this is something which we manage through the DYNAMIC we apply to the situation of each child.

INDEED… a situation which initially causes a child some distress, because it feels beyond their ability to cope, could eventually become a source of eustress, because they have been carefully supported and shown that they CAN cope (the development of ‘self-efficacy’). Isn’t that what growing up in the hostile, unpredictable environment of our existence must be all about? Learning how to deal with, and cope with hitherto discomforting and threatening experiences?

Despite the apparent fulfilment here of the ‘Traditional Independent School Dream’, I do believe that the instincts to do something more are well founded. So….


Having appeared to rubbish recent moves to teach character in schools, and having appeared to wink towards the traditional all-round character education of the private sector, I do now want to show that much of what schools have recently tried to do is actually helpful, as it can provide the key dynamic through which the competitive, driven, committed approach to pursuits enables us to actually achieve the goals which we have in mind:

  • Labelling concepts helps give life to them and guides behaviour I do think that it is highly valuable to give children (and adults) a rich vocabulary to use in describing the behaviours around learning (though like the moral education we’ve done in assemblies for years, it in itself won’t guarantee changed behaviours – even if people cognitively ‘believe’ in what they preach). Essentially, it gives children a framework in which to view behaviours, and potentially internally measure themselves by.
  • The ability to think about thoughts adds agency and control Allied tightly with the previous point – children must develop the metacognitive reflective impulses to enable themselves to separate their thoughts from their actions (or indeed other thoughts) from time to time, and navigate through the framework that they’ve acquired. At this level I would also see certain simple mental habits becoming essential – suspending judgement, searching for parallels, trying to ‘take a step back’ & placing themselves amongst alternative perspectives. These really must just become reflexive responses to whatever it is that places itself in front of us. They can’t be thinking strategies; they need to be cognitive perspectives which we initially think about enough to make them something we stop thinking about and purely start thinking WITH.
  • Beliefs about the ‘self’ produce ‘self’-fulfilling prophesies Whether or not it is easy to change to it from other beliefs, the concept of ‘growth mindset’ does point to the reality that we can create self-fulfilling prophesies around our beliefs about ourselves. Developing a strong sense of self-efficacy – through the ACTUAL experience of having achieved something through our own efforts – is both the real route to ‘self-esteem’, and – to my mind – to a growth mindset.

To Summarise….

I believe that the human mind naturally develops many of its best attributes through a full engagement with a rich human life.

As educators we facilitate this through exposing children to a challenging and varied overall school experience, which continually pushes them to step out of their comfort zones and to commit themselves to wholeheartedly giving of their best.

Along the way, we give them the vocabulary to help them narrate and shape their experiences; we give them the reassurance to help them keep treading forward without too much distress; and we give them the coaching and wisdom to learn positive things from success and failure in equal measure.

Whatever we do though, we should not seek to protect them at all costs from adversity, and then seek to teach them what it would have felt like had they experienced it…

CHARACTER EDUCATION: Part 1 – the Deconstruction


In this two-part blog I aim to take a scythe to a lot of the cluttered thinking around the idea of character education, and then present a simpler, more realistic heuristic for how we might just – in reality – effectively educate for ‘character’ – if that is something you think ‘schooling’ should involve. I DO personally think it is worth pursuing…

A bit of context…

Historically, character education was very much seen as meaning ‘moral’ character – virtues which benefit society, and perhaps the eternal soul of the individual.

In recent years however, there has been a rush to add to the mix a bunch of other attributes which are focused on personal ‘performance’ – things which lead to survival and success in economic and goal-directed areas.

Consequently, when the UK DfE announced its Character Awards in 2015, and then again in 2016 the term character was portrayed as covering a broad spread of traits:

Applicants should be able to prove their programme develops character traits, attributes and behaviours that underpin success in school and work, including:

  • perseverance, resilience and grit
  • confidence and optimism
  • motivation, drive and ambition
  • neighbourliness and community spirit
  • tolerance and respect
  • honesty, integrity and dignity
  • conscientiousness, curiosity and focus

The awards support young people to develop the traits that:

  • support academic attainment
  • are valued by employers
  • enable them to make a positive contribution to British society

All young people deserve opportunities to learn:

  • how to persevere and work to achieve
  • to understand the importance of respect and how to show it to others
  • how to bounce back if faced with failure
  • how to collaborate and build strong relationships with others at work and in their private lives

Beyond this, there has essentially developed a move for schools to perhaps look at one of the more well-known 21st Century skills+ formulations – IB Learner ProfileHabits of MindBLP for example, and create a mix between them with traditional ‘character traits’ into a personal fusion reflecting the values and ethos of that school.

Indeed, it now appears that pretty much any supposedly generic mental skill, attitude, habit, disposition or learning behaviour seems able to be lumped together in a single alliance called ‘character’. United, seemingly, because they represent everything worthy in education which isn’t simply raw academic learning and achievement. In other words it has become “Examinable Curricular Attainment” vs “ALL THE OTHER THINGS”

During the rest of Part 1 of this post, I’ll highlight what I find problematic about the notion of character and the attempts which seem to be gaining traction in some parts to ‘teach’ it.

How ‘pure’ are the various concepts?

Firstly, when we do pull together an attractive selection of attributes which we want our young people to have – a lot of them start to fade under careful analysis and an attempt to pin them down precisely. Many of the traits are possibly simply ‘common sense folk psychology’ concepts which we seem to recognise intuitively, but which may not be as straightforward as we think once we start drilling into them.

So perhaps RESILIENCE is actually something which draws upon, or is built up from a mixture of other attributes, and isn’t a single thing at all. In social science this would be labelled as failing to have ‘discrete construct validity’: what we experience on the surface doesn’t come from a single place psychologically. If we measure IT, we’re actually measuring a combination of other things.

Indeed, perhaps resilience is simply something we demonstrate. It is a behaviour, brought about through a mixture of circumstances, and not a thing we ‘have’ at all.

How persistent are the various concepts?

Perhaps though, sometimes we can genuinely feel an internal experience – something where we seem to have such a clarity of mind and strength of will that we feel that nothing will knock us down. Accordingly we find ourselves acting in a resilient way. Perhaps indeed, on these occasions we can definitely say “By God! I am RESILIENT!”

However, does that mean that we always feel resilient? Or is it simply the fact that there merely happen to sometimes be situations in all of our lives where our resolve – our belief in the rightness of a situation, or our realisation in the unavoidability of the situation, or the firing of our emotions – is such that we just dig our heels in no matter what?

There will be alternative times though, when – due to quite a different mix of circumstances – we just find ourselves helpless to do much more than go with the flow. How much of the construct of resilience is simply at the whim of specific domains and situations – combined with a certain degree of genetic ‘pugnaciousness’.

Or, focusing on a different traitCURIOSITY – how often are we blind to the kinds of things which our gloriously curious child – the one we love to teach, the one who seems self-motivated to keep finding-out in our academic lessons – is  simply not interested in…? They like the world of academic knowledge, so they are curious to us, irrespective of the fact that they have no interest in the various permutations which might be thrown-up by the draw for the FA Cup, or about the life experiences of the person they have just been introduced to at a social function.

There are surely different kinds of curiosity – ‘how do things work?’ – ‘why are things the way they are?’ – ‘what will happen in next week’s episode?’ – ‘what will happen if we try this?’ – ‘what are you thinking about?’ –  ‘what is out there?’ –  ‘what is there to know which nobody else yet knows?’ plus innumerable more no doubt. What if there is no such thing as an all-round ‘curious’ child – but that each one of us might simply have an inclination to asking certain kinds of questions – to paying attention to particular kinds of thought stimulants…?

How relatively teachable are the various concepts?

Let’s just assume though that there are indeed certain traits that we could define as character, which are largely consistent across domains and situations, and which have relatively unclouded discrete causal links between ‘what we are’ and ‘what we do’. How easy is it then to teach/nurture/develop these things strategically?

This comes particularly to mind when schools lump all of these things together under a single heading such as ‘Behaviours for Learning’, and then allocate a block of weeks to focusing on each one. Often this may involve a consistent approach which includes doing an assembly on the characteristic, putting up some posters, reminding children about them during lessons, and perhaps instigating a reward system for ‘children being caught in the act’.

Are the various traits which are often picked together in these packages actually comparable kinds of things, which can be developed using the same basic approach?

PERSEVERANCE for example would seem to me (in a naïve way) a pretty straightforward quality which you COULD try to develop in children. You could, for example:

  • Demonstrate to them the VALUE of persevering, and the BELIEF that it’s worth sticking at something if you really want it – that many great outcomes only come about if you persist at something through thick or thin. – Help them to make that link between desired ends and the required means.
  • Train children behaviourally in what it takes to stick at something they don’t feel inclined to stick at (in other words use carrots & sticks to get them to go through it, giving them tacit knowledge of how to ‘cope’ with an experience of being stuck carrying-on with something when required.

So, perseverance might be open to a relatively clear-cut programme for development (or possibly not of course as it could simply depend on your unconscious motivation…). I guess in an optimistic sense it could be summarised as coming down to “the cognitive management of motivation”, and “the emotional management of contrary impulses” (although am I simply talking ‘self-regulation’ then, whatever that is…?)

This is of course all made-up on the spot by me, but I can conceive of relatively straightforward things that would need to be developed if children are to improve their ability to persevere.

Now, CURIOSITY however… What can we do here?

  • We can point out to pupils that curiosity is a good thing
  • We can try to avoid ‘shutting down’ the natural curiosity instinct through overly prescriptive practices (though this shutting down may be a fairly natural process as we get older – as the immediate world around us comes into increasingly sharp rational focus. Certainly this is one reason given for why the most randomly ‘creative’ ideas of children gradually diminish – they simply become too aware of the norms of reality to continue guessing so unreflectively any longer.)
  • We can try to find and harness an area of natural curiosity that a child might have, in order to help engage them obliquely in other areas of learning
  • We can reward them for asking questions…

Now, my question is, will any of these really turn a child who seems predisposed to be less interested in certain things (let’s say ‘the world of ideas’, ‘how things happen’, ‘why things happen’… whatever) – someone who is more easily satisfied by whatever they find in front of their eyes… will any of these things actually turn them into a more naturally curious person across all domains once they are out of the classroom…?

Ultimately perseverance would appear to be an emotionally charged, strategically guided way of behaving in certain situations, whereas curiosity would appear to be an unconscious disposition towards notable aspects of things around you. They just aren’t the same, and hence we can’t use the same potted approach to developing them.

How do we know if we have actually been successful teaching it?

My first two questions above about the purity of character constructs and the likely domain-specific circumstances in which they may or may not arise creates huge questions for how practically any character trait can be accurately measured in a person and also be shown to reflect a general attribute which they have.

And of course, moves to measure efficacy of approach will likely lead to the cheapest, quickest, shallowest approaches being adopted, just to ‘jump through the hoop’.

So, ULTIMATELY …are we wasting time on a naïve vanity project with a lot of these attempts to ‘teach character’…..?

I will try to offer some kind of positive alternative approach in Part 2 of this post…!

Who is responsible for the BIG PICTURE..?

do-it-yourselfI don’t do a lot of Twitter. I use it for advertising my blogs, and occasionally make pronouncements, retweet things or comment briefly on other posts. I certainly don’t normally do “Twitter Battles” as I find them clumsy, and – well frankly – I’m not that obsessed with convincing people of my opinion.

I did have an interesting Twitter discussion this weekend though, following my last post, and – despite my open desire from the outset to take the discussion to my blog page, where I could have given a much more satisfying expansion on my thoughts – it evolved in a frustratingly Twitter way.

The person I was discussing things with [let’s call them ‘Mr X’, as I’m not seeking to demean them] seemed largely to get strung-up on my endorsement of Educational Evolutionary Psychology. Now, as might be apparent from my comments on David Didau’s blog [the blog of a person who has been actively criticised by X], I have some reservations about how we best take forward this theoretical area, but – essentially – I think it is a hugely powerful theoretical framework from which we should start to orientate other aspects of our educational philosophy, theory, and … in time… practice.

What was particularly irksome to me however was two things: Firstly, Mr X seemed oblivious to the main point of my post which was that – however powerful EEP, CLT et. al. appear to be, there is still a huge ocean of psychological processes which are going on around them – contaminating or potentially accentuating our efforts as teachers. Perhaps Mr X got this, but couldn’t stand that I was nevertheless weakening myself by giving endorsement to EEP.

Nevertheless, the big point for me which came across from this discussion was the following:

Namely, in his mind, comments regarding things such as insights into how scientific findings should be applied pedagogically, should only come directly from the researchers in the originating area. In other words, the researcher should also be the philosophical and applicational guru.

Now, on inspection, I did see that the person involved had put a lot of time, effort and intellect into disputing David Didau’s expertise in pushing such areas in recent months, and was clearly very good at being the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ regarding matters on their blog. Furthermore, the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is of course a hugely useful position, and we all need people who can do this for us if we are to improve in any particular area. I think my thoughts about my post are now sharper because of them. Therefore – full kudos to ‘Mr X’ for being so skilled in such a mode. (However, I haven’t detected anything other than this approach from their blogs up to this point….nothing constructive whatsoever… ok, niggle over).

Nevertheless, there is a massive area to be discussed here. WHO exactly has the right/responsibility to make authoritative pronouncements on how the ‘big picture’ of educational theory should really go together..?

  • The professional psychologists who study specific aspects of learning?
  • The professional teachers who directly experience the impact of trying to teach?
  • The professional philosophers who look at how education needs to fit-in to the bigger picture of the human experience?
  • The professional educationalists who try to draw upon the previous three areas, whilst losing contact with their primary area of experience, and whilst not necessarily having real expertise in any of the other areas?
  • The professional politicians who are tasked (for a brief period of time) with bringing together all the perspectives in a way which seems palatable with the electorate and the overriding philosophy of their party
  • The Electorate……………?

The bottom line is that there is NO ONE who is the pre-ordained expert in how things might completely fit together, whilst being an expert on all of the areas themselves.

So where does this leave us…?

In all of the pre-mentioned areas, the closer you get to your specialism, then the further you potentially get from being a ‘big picture integrationalist’. It is no secret that the world of academia is becoming more and more specialised and fragmented. “If you want to become a leader in your field, find a specialism so narrow that you’re the only person working within it.”

The reason that I started this blog was because I wanted to project a ‘big picture’ through stepping back from the situation and seeing how things could be integrated. I happen to believe that I have a good mix of qualifications, experiences and attributes to make this fruitful. For what it’s worth, I personally do have an expansive experience of the practice of teaching now (17 years-worth – and teaching people aged 5 to adult across different subjects), I have significant qualifications in academic psychology, I have quite an obsession with the philosophies of education, science, epistemology (and pretty-much everything else of ‘ultimate significance’), and I do also have a contrasting and provocative mixture of fairly dramatic career background experiences prior to entering teaching.

Similarly, people such as David Didau – who started-off (as far as I’m aware) from the quite narrow position of being “the Secondary English Teacher”, might well nevertheless, through years of reading, writing and presenting, have become far more of an all-round expert than many of the specialists working in the areas upon which he commentates.

Furthermore, whilst I myself might find fault with some of the things which David writes (as he graciously permits and encourages on his blog), I have to say that his eclectic “outreach” plays an incredibly invaluable role in both bringing to the public attention hitherto unknown research, but – more importantly – pushing-out to us speculative propositions which could well be pie-in-the-sky, but which nevertheless really help to push the dialogue forward. In essence, he is the epitome of the ‘risk-taking’ learner. Over the long term he’s also shown himself to have quite a ‘growth mindset’ (though whether he still has one remains to be seen 😀 )

So… definitely do keep tracing back pronouncements to their original sources, and perhaps only trust things from the horses mouth. However, when thinking about how things fit together, keep an open mind regarding where the real ‘all-round’ experts might just come from, and for goodness sake don’t wait for the original researchers to give you permission to start seeing how their research could be utilised. That’s not specifically what they are paid to do.

Has The Psychology of Learning saved us?

All of us teaching today can recall a fair bit of Psychology in our teacher training. Most of this (‘obviously’) was to do with Developmental Psychology – general phases, patterns and trends in the ways that children in general seem to mature in their ways of processing and conceptualising information. By and large, I think we can agree that this focus has been useless to teachers. We get the (obvious) idea that we need to pitch things at an appropriate level for pupils, but beyond this, we are left with the uncertainty of being able to take what has been shown to be the ‘general trend’, and apply it with confidence to the ‘specific individual’.

As a consequence, the robust clarifications of Cognitive Psychology research have been a massive boost for the science of learning, giving us some genuinely concrete and generalizable insights which we can apply to every child.

Key areas of insight have involved the apparent limitations of what we can actively hold and process in working memory (Cognitive Load Theory), plus the most efficient ways of building-up patterns of long-term recall for otherwise unlikely to be remembered  information in the brain (“Desirable Difficulties”).

Additionally, the insights gained from the same field into the fundamental role which assimilated long-term knowledge plays in shaping our active thought processes give us a hugely valuable insight into what cannot be ignored in the development of skilled thought and behaviour. Just in case this is new to you  we essentially think using our existing knowledge, and intellectual skills are formed out of the interplay of this knowledge with new information (plus some metacognitive programs – once they’ve actually become habitual).

Together, these discoveries point to invariable features of the information processing structure of the brain and provide a badly needed scientific anchor for learning theory.

From a different direction, the Evolutionary Educational Psychology work of David Geary gives us a hugely persuasive framework from which to categorize forms of learning into two kinds, and explain why some things seem effortless to learn (and attractive), and other things effortful (and ‘boring’). (This chapter is behind a paywall – but well worth purchasing

Essentially, our brains have evolved over millions of years to fit the basic social, naturalistic learning environment of primitive peoples, whereby various skills – such as speaking – and various ways of ‘Folk’ thinking about the world (all both essential and sufficient to survival on this planet as it has normally been) – can be acquired simply through a rudimentary upbringing in a traditional human culture. These forms of ‘Primary’ knowledge shouldn’t actually need to be taught [if we are bringing-up children in a traditional human culture………which perhaps sometimes we’re not].

The cultural artefacts of the past 2500 years however – the literary, philosophical & scientific advances in our understanding – have been incrementally gained, bit by bit, over much time, through a lot of hard work by the best positioned thinkers of their period, and they are difficult for the developing human mind to simply discover by itself, or even naturally apprehend. Consequently these ‘Secondary’ forms of human knowledge require effortful thought by the learner, and the focused transmission by a skilled teacher. Or in other words ‘Schooling’.

Taken together, these two areas – still badly missing from the taught or privately acquired pedagogical understanding of most teachers – might appear to provide a rigorous framework upon which a clear-sighted new teaching orthodoxy could be formed. For example:

A New Orthodoxy:

  1. Skills of social interaction and communication, as well as fundamental forms of everyday scientific understanding can be effortlessly acquired irrespective of the availability of formal schooling.
  2. ‘Higher-Order’ forms of skilled thinking fundamentally emerge from – and feed off – the accumulation of knowledge structures integrated by the individual thinker.
  3. Consequently, the focus of formal schooling needs to be on acquiring the cognitively challenging recent skill developments in human communication (reading and writing) and the various areas of knowledge, understanding and practice which have built-up around our culture.
  4. The best ways to fill-up our brains with these things is through efficient forms of explicit instruction, carefully shaped to focus the minute-to-minute cognitive resources of the learner, and which ensures long-term retention through a mixture of cunning exposure and retrieval techniques.


Except……. I don’t think it can be the end.

Despite the clarity of this hugely powerful fleshing-out of the Information Processing Metaphor, the  cognitive architecture of the human mind is still only one facet of everything which guides the behaviour of these wondrous beings we appear to be. And the cleverer we get, it would seem that we are no less equipped to escape from this. Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” shows many examples to this effect, and – even having read it – listened to it twice – understood it – appreciated and loved it – I still think that in the vast majority of situations, I personally think the same way about most everyday situations involving subtle statistical judgements that I would normally do.

Indeed, it could well be that the apparent rationality of our cognitive minds is simply a device evolved to enable greater social cohesion, and I will dedicate another post to looking at further implications for education of these thoughts.

The point is – whether we like it or not – despite the capacities of our machine-like cognitive architecture – we are biological animals, in a social and environmental context, with the capacity to reflect, choose and direct.


So what are the implications of all this?


  • If we want to avoid wasting a lot of time trying to teach the unnecessary, and also a lot of breath arguing about it, we should embrace the evolutionary distinction between Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge. This would also avoid us wasting time thinking that children will be able to discover for themselves the millennia of hard-won cultural knowledge and insight.
  • If we want to develop flexible, critical thinking skills, with rich creative insights, then we’d best not dismiss and deride the foundational filler of contextual and concept-forming knowledge.
  • If we want to ensure that children can pass traditional examinations, gaining the highest grades that they can, then we’d better ensure that we direct our efforts into carefully constructed interactive explicit instruction.
  • At the same time however, if we want to do the above things as cleanly as possible, then we must ensure that we cleanse the learning environment of the unwanted biological, social, environmental and existential contaminants which could interrupt the flow of information transfer. We would however need to be mindful that we would be diverting away natural human dynamics and either channelling them somewhere else, or suppressing them for another time.
  • Or… just possibly, we could embrace the best insights of the above points, accept the inescapable reality of the table I placed above them, and throw ourselves into the – always imperfect – regularly conflicted and frustrating – process of trying to engage the full range of human experience and dynamics in educating – as well as schooling – the humans in front of us. It just might be that we can achieve educational outcomes hitherto unachieved.

The Pulse of Learning: ATTEND, HOOK, NARRATE…


Something which I hope people realise in reading this blog is that I love creating new conceptual frameworks and digestible metaphors for seeing the teaching and learning process.

A particular passion for me in my day job involves me trying to provide for my colleagues evidence-informed sets of principles which – as long as they follow them in their classroom – can then free them up to teach however they want – giving them a motivating level of professional autonomy and the most powerful fit of technique to practitioner.

One thing which astonishes me is that there seems to be nothing out there to focus teachers on the absolute pulse of the learning process; The thing which in every lesson enables us to take learners from a place where they didn’t know something to a place where they now do.

I feel the need for something memorable that could fit on a sticker on the front of a teacher’s planner (and not one that is purely an inspirational or aspirational slogan… ‘Move them forward!’ ‘Get them to College!’ ‘Set them free!’)

Consequently, below I present a graphic which attempts to boil as much respectable brain-science as possible into the simplest core-learning takeaway for teachers to keep at the forefront of their minds as they go about their various pedagogical adventures.

This doesn’t fit every kind of human learning – for example simple stimulus-response arcs, or the many instances of peripheral ‘acquisition learning’ which is effectively how character develops. However, it provides a heuristic which should thoroughly match what we principally aim for in structured classroom situations – whether using explicit instruction or inquiry based learning.

As ever, suggestions on how I could improve this would be very welcome.

The Pulse of Learning

All Hail ‘Adaptation’ rather than ‘Differentiation’!

Last year I wrote a (very) lengthy post aimed at “Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation”.

I suggested that the regime of insisting on differentiation in lessons had effectively turned it into an end in itself – fuelled by a mistaken belief that in an ideal world we would deliver fully personalised lessons to each child in our classes.

I’m going to boil down and supplement my thoughts even more in this (much) shorter post, and add in a key proposal:

We should replace the label ‘Differentiation’ with the label ‘Adaptation’


– ‘Differentiation’ feeds the search for differences.

Whereasadaptationfocuses on accommodating needs.

– ‘Differentiation’ results in institutionalised diktats to arbitrarily discriminate between learners based on the presumed importance of token differences.

Whereasadaptationis responsive to different needs as and when they become salient

– ‘Differentiation’ results in teachers contriving to overly complicate and fragment their teaching, whilst bestowing self-fulfilling prophesies on their children.

Whereasadaptation allows them to retain the cohesive drive at the heart of their lessons; better benefiting all children through maintaining the social integrity of the group, and allowing an easy mechanism for anyone to gain support or extension as required.

Of course, adaptation includes all the things which differentiation, at its best, is intended to do.

But it also includes quite a lot less..….

Summary of key flaws in the differentiation ideology:

“A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference”

When young children are planning ‘fair test’ experiments in science, they will often describe controlling for something which doesn’t require it, simply because they are ardently looking for differences – “e.g. keep the tie colour of the person doing the experiment the same”

When we personalise education beyond what is in the moment or only just beyond it, we are in truth little more than toddlers playing God with sandcastles on the beach

Feel that you really ought to weave a clever web of individualised learning paths? We don’t know enough about:

  • The past of our pupils
  • The future of our pupils
  • The complex internal state of our pupils
  • The complex dynamics of how learning really works

When we split up a teacher’s focus beyond what is really necessary, we dilute their impact

Kids love to hunt in packs and follow a strong scent. Keep the pack together and keep the teaching direct, unambiguous and forthright.

How ‘ADAPTATION’ should work:

We DO need to think strategically and plan for the needs of our children. However, we have more ability to anticipate in general how people might struggle than we have to predict specifically how an individual pupil will struggle.

If you HAVE identified a specific performance weakness, or a performance ‘excess’ in a specific child, which is directly relevant to the next task at hand, then ask yourself:

  • “Where do the best interests of this child seem to lie?” And plan appropriately.



  • The most fruitful form of strategic adaptation (i.e. ‘planned in advance’) facilitates tactical adaptation (‘decided in the moment’) as and when it becomes necessary
    • Plan for ready-to-use support and extension mechanisms
  • It also caters for many potential differences between learners by providing for ALL children a multi-pronged approach to presenting and accessing material to be learned.
    • Ensure multiple ways of receiving learning – multi-modal access for ALL pupils
    • Encourage multiple ways of exploring the learning – multiple activities and routes through the subject matter
    • Allow multiple ways of demonstrating the learning – encourage the expression of a learner’s unique narrative.
  • Crucially, strategic adaptation should also make it as easy as possible for any child to step backwards or forwards regarding the difficulty of their work
    • Unless you think it is desirable that they wrestle with something more to develop their character and work habits,
    • Or unless you think it is desirable for them to consolidate an area and strive for higher standards of perfection before moving on.

DON’T assume that endless personalisation would be the ideal if only we could resource it – everything we choose differently for an individual child denies them what others are having. How often would you be omniscient enough to know what would genuinely favour them best in the long run?

DON’T assume that you should always carve 3 different groups out of the children you have, irrespective of the subject matter or the similarities between the children. It’s a contrivance for inspectors who by now should be starting to know better.


  • Select what strikes you as the most compelling way into a subject area. You want all children engaged in a challenging pursuit which facilitates desirable learning – and in which you can enthusiastically and wisely lead the way.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Could all children access this…?
    • Will all children be challenged by this…?”
      • then go from there

The Ladder of Adaptation

Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education”

When Andrew Old wrote this post in December, I scan read it on my phone and thought “maybe he’s onto something after all”. He was irritated that yet again the British government was needing to inquire into “The purpose… of education in England” – as this question seems both to go round forever, whilst for him the answer should be simple and screamingly obvious:

The purpose of education is to make children cleverer.

That’s it.

Now, I like a huge amount of what Andrew stands for, but I really think this is an area which undermines him, and by association, other areas which I think he is right on.

Quite a bit of his post and the comments that followed involved defining what he meant by ‘clever’. He means intellectually capable, and I have no great difficulty with spotting this shorthand, though others did, and I can see why. He seemed to think that as a general concept in society this label could only really mean ‘intellectual ability’, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that people also have the general concept of wisdom – surely another intellectual capability? – and they might well choose to commonly distinguish that from cleverness. (Was it just my grandma who used to tilt at “the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”?). I believe that being intellectually capable should imply wisdom as well, but maybe we lack a simple adjective in English to say all this in one word, so I’m not going to quibble with ‘cleverness’ just for that.

However… beyond this I think Andrew’s argument does crumble as an attempt to end all discussion of the matter, and in this post I’m going to try to be utterly clear as to why his most recent arguments just don’t stack-up to being a sustainable vision for what the purpose of education is or should be.

In my first ever blog post last year I pointed out that the aims of education are ultimately tied to the aims of the species – multitudinous and at root, a matter of personal sentimental preference, with no group having a pre-eminent right to decide. We educate for the reasons that we as a race want to educate. I still stand by all that, however here I’m presenting a new set of perspectives:

1) You just CAN’T draw an analogy between medicine and education

The purpose of education should be no more contentious than the purpose of medicine. The purpose of the former is to make people smarter, the purpose of the latter is to make them well.

So, would I be correct then to call medical doctors ‘doctors of the body’ and teachers ‘doctors of the mind’? I’m sure that Andrew would want to draw some kind of distinction here between the ‘mind’ and the ‘intellect’. I suspect that the use of the word ‘doctors’ would also ring alarm bells.

Doctors, hospitals and the general medical structures around the world are only analogous to the LEARNING SUPPORT sections of education. You just can’t avoid the ‘deficit model’ when talking about hospitals as being about ‘wellness’. We don’t send children to hospitals for years on end to get them up to a sufficient level of ‘wellness’ – we assume they are born ‘well’ and only need health care if that goes wrong.

Physical wellness is the default state maintained naturally by human organisms drawing on the resources they require growing up within their indigenous environment. Could we not indeed say the same about human intelligence? Why do we need schools for this?

Of course there are educators who do tend to see children in this light, and say that they are born perfectly clever enough and don’t need anything from an education system other than to get out of their way as they learn the way they will naturally do, and perhaps ‘fix deficits’ if they go wrong. I didn’t believe though that Andrew was a fan of Rousseau.

Ultimately, schools in ‘cleverness’ are more akin to fitness gyms and health clubs – providing a luxurious excess in what ‘healthiness’ can mean. Humans will happily adapt to the world they find themselves in and develop their intellect to survive. Perhaps schooling children in ‘cleverness’ is just a fetish of the evolving human intellect. Or is there a purpose to it…?

If we are indeed going to give over whole school days to making children ‘cleverer’ for the sake of making them cleverer, couldn’t it indeed be argued that ‘healthiness’ is as valuable in its own right as ‘cleverness’? Indeed, how about the following as a new model for childhood: Mornings they go to government sponsored ‘schools’ to be made ‘cleverer’. In the afternoon they go to government sponsored ‘fitness centres’ to be made ‘fitter & healthier’. If they show serious deficits in cleverness they go to learning support, if they show serious deficits in health and fitness they go to doctors and hospitals.

What makes ‘cleverness’ so valued over ‘fitness’…?

And this gets me on to my next point:

2)  Cleverness as its own end is just a value preference, like any other, ready to be imposed on others (– or correct me on this and point out its utility)

Now, I personally haven’t got a problem with the fact that we can’t escape from imposing our value judgements on other people; it is simply inevitable and just one part of the paradox of human existence. I do personally believe it’s good to try to minimise these things as best we can – but we can’t escape the fact, and so we should embrace the inevitable, if disconcerting, fuzziness in moral certainty, and the cognitive dissonance regarding our contrary actions. We need to just make the best job we can of the flawed realities of human existence. It irritates me when I see a position which thinks we can short-circuit this, and I’m sorry Andrew, but the ‘To make people cleverer’ position is one of them.

You see, we have sunk into arguments here between instrumentalism vs idealism, and paternalism vs libertarianism.

Very simply, instrumentalist approaches regard education as being valuable because it is USEFUL – either for productivity, citizenship or personal happiness, whereas an idealist approach might say that education is a metaphysically valuable end in itself. The ‘simply to make people cleverer’ position is either an idealist approach because it is saying that it is an intrinsic good to be ‘clever’, or else it is an ‘unquestioning cog in the instrumentalist machine’ approach, whereby it is not our position to question why we might want children to be clever. That’s just the job we have. And by ‘our position’ – I’m not just meaning humble teachers, teaching what the priority setters tell us to teach. Andrew would have it that the government keep their blinkers on as well – that none of us should question why we make people cleverer. It is just a gift without presumption.

I’m really not sure which one of these positions is most comfortable with Andrew’s socialism, though surely his Labour membership must make him more sympathetic to paternalism over libertarianism? Social responsibility vs allowing an ideology of freedom to really run its course?

Paternalism says that you’re better off if we guide and constrain your choices, and libertarianism says you’re better off if we don’t. (See American gun-control debates as a great example of this distinction).

The goal of simply making people cleverer without any presumption for what might be the point of it SURELY must be a libertarian approach, but without caveats, libertarianism is just as philosophically compromised as paternalism. Why?

Paternalist approaches are ultimately flawed by subjective judgements – our recommendations to people always arise from OUR personal values rather than timeless realities. For example, most reasonable people eventually start to question the legitimacy of their own pronouncements to their older teenagers and would find themselves saying (in the spirit of libertarianism)…

“Who am I to tell you…

  • … not to see that girl (it’s your life)?
  • … not to get a tattoo (it’s your life)?
  • … that you would be better off saving your money? (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off staying at school (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a charity mission (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a crusading group of rebel fighters (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not drowning your sorrows in drink and drugs (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not ending it all now… (it’s your life)?”

Most of us (I imagine) reach some limit, somewhere along that list, where we say ‘sorry I can’t just stand back and be neutral here – I’m a human being’.

The strange irony inherent in the Libertarian position – that “we think it’s better for you if we don’t tell you what’s better for you” – is commonly moderated by two constraints: Firstly – we’re happy for you to be as free as you like just so long as you don’t impinge on other people’s freedoms. Secondly – although in practice libertarianism may seem like a flawed position, if you try, even slightly, to take a stance regarding what is right for others, then you open the door to the chaos of competing subjective judgements… So you’re better off trying to remain as separate as possible.

In education then, can we ever really say that we personally have no agenda regarding what is in the best interests of the children we teach? The very act of choosing what to teach makes this inevitable, and as I’ve said earlier, libertarianism ultimately inflicts the outcomes of our choices on children as much as paternalism, simply by virtue of us declining to play a role.

3)  The ‘Intellectual domain’ is a leaky sieve concept – ‘cleverness’, as a clearly agreed-on shared idea, is an illusion

Now I accept that saying education is to make people smarter does not end all discussion. We still have to debate what a healthy intellect looks like. There is still room for debate over the role of knowledge, of the best types of thought, or the usefulness of exams. But these discussions elaborate the purpose of education, they don’t define it.

The whole ‘to make children cleverer’ position assumes we have a clearly defined outline of what this means. We don’t. Andrew tries to draw the distinction between the limited cleverness that IQ tests measure, and the common sense idea of cleverness which people understand. But common sense ideas just don’t know where to stop. If cleverness can’t be demonstrated beyond the mind of the beholder, does it have value? Does ‘clever behaviour’ of any kind not imply an intellectual aspect at some point?

  • If a child learns how to avoid upsetting another child, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to pursue goals which make use of and benefit the whole team, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to deal with success and failure and treat those two imposters just the same, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to ride a bike, or swerve a kick, or to act a role, or to enjoy the present moment, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to trick others, to fake an illness, to deal with boredom, to know when to speak-up and when not to, to recite details about the 6 wives of Henry XIII… are they not now cleverer?

Do not all aspects of these things involve knowledge of an intellectual kind? Where does learning to do something which bypasses the intellect , and therefore doesn’t make people cleverer, start?

Howard Gardner’s attempts to distinguish multiple forms of intelligence have been sniffily dismissed by traditionalists as having no real basis in neurology, but what basis DO we have for distinguishing the intellectual realm as discrete from any other realm?

Ultimately, if we eschew all instrumentalist notions of the aim of education, do we not therefore open the door to ANYTHING being an equally valid ingredient to a curriculum? – Everything making a person cleverer in some way and being worthwhile ‘as an end in itself’?

4) The Solution: Differentiation of Aims

I think we should just embrace an openly paternalistic and instrumentalist model of educational ends and work out the details of what those ends should best be for our nations, our communities and our classrooms. Here’s the thing, we don’t struggle too much to say that parents should make certain decisions for children. We have an acceptance that the extra knowledge and experience that they have gives them a relative wisdom regarding what might be best for the child. We know it’s not perfect, but it seems to work better than letting all children make all decisions for themselves.

A common phrase used in trying to orientate ourselves towards a libertarian ideal of education is the value of passing-on to new generations “the best that has been thought and done”. The inherent notion here is that society as a whole has a level of wisdom which individuals don’t, and that it would be a mistake to expect individuals to have to re-discover this all for themselves, or at the very least that we would in some way miss out if these things were lost. The value being in this being what exactly? What’s not instrumental or paternalistic in this?

I think we can’t escape from making decisions as society and as teachers regarding what the aims of education would best be for DIFFERENT people (even if subtly). Let’s play the game here of appealing to that reasonable ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’:

Should, in all honesty, our schooling aims for all of the following boys simply be the same?

  • The son of the billionaire who knows he’ll never have to work
  • The son of a successful criminal who knows he never wants to work
  • The son of the intensely driven professionals, who believes that life will end if he doesn’t get to Oxbridge
  • The son of the labourer without any ambition to ever move away.
  • The son of the traveller without any expectation of ever staying
  • The physically disabled boy with an astonishing intellect
  • The physically athletic boy with limited reasoning skills

Not only might we teach these boys in a different way, might we not also view what might be the best education for them to be different? Try to avoid instinctively taking a side regarding whether you should go with and make the best of their situation, or whether you should perhaps help them to transcend their situation and have a different life. Are you flawed because you have a preferred perspective on what they might need, or are you just fulfilling your destiny as a human animal in human society?

My own solution to all this is the following:

  • Accept that we can’t avoid inflicting our values and judgements on new generations regarding what we think they should value.
  • Accept that, actually, being part of the same species and having to go through the same developmental stages on the same planet, what we have discovered to be useful for ourselves is also likely to have SOME usefulness to others in how they make the best of their own lives, and that, therefore, our best attempts at instrumental goals will benefit the success of the species as a whole.
  • Accept that we can’t – in any way which isn’t purely arbitrary – draw a clear distinction between ‘schooling to make children cleverer’ and wider education.
  • Engage with others in trying to define what might be the broadest instrumental ends of education which we ourselves have benefitted from (or would have liked to have benefited from) in our own lives, and which are relevant to our schools and communities.
  • Try to boil these ends down to the simplest, most encompassing definition of educational aims.

So here’s one I made earlier:

The aim of education is to prepare children for…

  • The World of Necessity (what they will likely have to deal with at some point)
  • The World of Opportunity (what they might wish to engage with if they get a chance)
  • The World of Experience (finding value in what comes their way… pleasure, meaning, whatever – for this is the magic dust which makes the whole damn ‘life’ thing worthwhile in the first place.)

Couldn’t every community adopt this and flesh it out as works best for them?

…And if we DO wish to maintain an idealist notion that an educated mind is an end in itself, is this not just another aspect of The World of Experience…?