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Brainwashed Teachers

01 November 2014

I have spent the last month or so interviewing teachers. The post is one that is very dear to me, since the successful candidate will effectively take responsibility for mathematics in my company – they will, well, take over from me. We have been exceptionally lucky in receiving a very large number of applications. Shortlisting has been a tough process, with around 80% of applicants not invited to interview. I want to get this right. I need to be able to hand over the reins and be confident that the mission I have been on for over a decade is in safe hands.

It is a great pleasure to speak to teachers. My interview technique tends to be one of extended discussion. It is always a one-to-one and I am happy to go off at tangents. So over recent weeks I have learned a great deal from a great many wonderful practitioners. Their range of experiences is vast – many are serving head teachers, many have national roles. Between them, they have hundreds of years of classroom experience. So for me, it has been a great experience. Hearing from such people always brings new insight, with each person having their own trade secrets. I am really grateful to have met these individuals.

But far from individual, every single person had one thing in common. So this last month has also been deeply disappointing and has again reminded me of just how awful the problems have become in England's education system.

In the interview, I do of course ask about pedagogy and what makes a great maths lesson. I also ask about how and why teachers can move their practice on. And this is where the process became one of sadness. Every single person (literally not one exception) answered these questions as though reading from a script. A script written in the last 15 years or so by those who seek to make schools anti-intellectual, those who seek to make schools a place where being happy is more important than being bright, those who seek to turn the system from one of teacher centred to child centred.

In front of me sat intelligent adults spouting the most ghastly, spin-ridden, evidence-lacking bullshit. I heard again and again how lessons should cater for learning styles, how a maths teacher's job was to facilitate rather than lead, how teachers who were chalk and talk could be fixed by making them watch an investigation lesson. It was horrific. Like being trapped in a nightmare.

Words were repeated time and time again as though deviation from the script was forbidden – perhaps Big Brother was listening. 'Progress', 'Plenary', 'Inquiry', 'Fun', 'Outstanding', 'Kinesthetic'... and on and on it went. I could have played National Strategies Bullshit Bingo and got a Full House every time.

And then there are the nothing-words. The corporate PR words, so beloved by Blair. Words without substance, designed to sound powerful, but with nothing underneath. Teachers (teachers!) told me that the 'environment' should be 'purposeful' and that every 'learner' should follow an 'individual pathway'. It was heart-breaking.

But, sweet reader, this is not a negative blog, not at all. This is a blog to celebrate what happened next.

Each individual was telling me what they thought they should tell me. They were saying the words they thought compulsory for a teaching job.

So I told them: I want to know what you think. I want to know what you believe. Not the crap you have been drilled to think.

And it was wonderful. It was joyous.

These people, who may well be in schools playing the game of talking the crap, they were amazing. Suddenly, with permission to be oneself, I heard teachers describing their true values and theories, I heard amazing stories of classroom practice, I heard education described with passion and thought. Interview after interview, I met learn'd men and women rise above the damaging bullshit that has become such an entrenched norm in the system.

All teachers have theories, all teachers are researchers. They are bright, they are committed. If only they could be brave enough in schools to stand up and say what they really believe.

I believe that the 350,000 maths teachers in England's schools know a great deal. I believe that the answers lie within that group. How tragic it is, then, that those who know fuck-all are able to suppress and brainwash these wonderful people.

It is time for this to end.

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