Sunday, 24 November 2013

Angelus Novus

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History IX, 1940

Benjamin is reported to have owned this little Klee drawing and to have carried it around with him, presumably among the notes for his Arcades project, also carried with him on his ultimately futile flight from the Nazis.  I heard that it had disappeared after his suicide.  Klee actually produced a number of similar drawings.  I was disappointed that none of them are included in the numinous Klee exhibition on at the Tate Modern at the moment.

Teachers and the cult of amateurism: enthusiasm isn’t enough


Would you want your child to be taught by the person appointed to this post?  If not, why not?

The coalition government has removed the basic requirement that teachers should be qualified for many state-funded schools and for all institutional providers in the Further Education sector.  An opposition motion that teachers in state-funded schools and colleges should have to be qualified or working towards qualification, was debated three weeks ago in the Commons, and defeated by about 40.   ‘What next’, asks Mark Steel in the Independent, ’surgeons and submarine commanders?’

 Of course all teachers need training, just as plumbers or brain surgeons do, for the protection of the public if for nothing else.  Teachers are brain surgeons, for goodness sake, the only difference is that, for better or worse, they operate on everyone, not just people who are ill.  To argue against the need for training is to argue for teachers to be cowboy traders, when actually more than ever we need them to be professionals, trusted as a body to set their own entry criteria and standards for working in the field, in the same way that doctors, lawyers, physiotherapists, plumbers, and the police now do.   To argue against the mild and practical motion debated in the Commons three weeks ago is to resurrect the Victorian cult of amateurism, which has many virtues, but which doesn’t cut the mustard in occupations as critical to an advanced 21st century economy and society, as teaching. Competitor economies such as Germany, China and South Korea recognise the importance of nurturing innovation, which requires critical and collaborative thinking, creativity, team-working and research skills as well as knowledge.   The effective development of these capacities depends, for better or worse, on teachers.  
As well as subject knowledge, teachers in any setting need ‘know-how’ about the application of that knowledge, and also ‘practical wisdom’  a term used by Aristotle 2500 years ago to mean expertise in managing the vagaries of human behaviour and motivation for the benefit of the individuals and of the community.   Without ‘practical wisdom’ teachers will be less able or interested in inspiring and motivating learners, or encouraging and supporting them through difficulties: they will miss insights and unexpected ‘teaching moments’ that bring about learning breakthroughs, because they won’t be looking for them.  Their emphasis and focus will be on the content rather than the process and purposes of learning, on the subject rather than on the learner, on the shortterm, narrowly defined outcome rather than on learning for the future. 

Good teaching is not just a matter of knowing stuff, and then following a checklist of simple rules.  What works in one situation may well not work in another, because one group of learners is not the same as another group.  OFSTED regularly amends its list of quality criteria, and no doubt it will do so again, because they are trying to pin down something which cannot be pinned down.  Teachers so glibly described as ‘brilliant’ by one politician after another, cannot be certain they will do well on the day they are observed by inspectors, because teachers are like navigators – however good their subject knowledge, they can and do find themselves steering a leaky boat through a storm.    Teaching is an inherently complex business, requiring not just expert subject knowledge and technical knowledge about pedagogical practices, but knowledge of the world of work and of people, empathy, superb communication skills, and an unpredictable range of different kinds of knowhow.

As Aristotle recognised, it is also an essentially ethical business, aiming to support good outcomes for learners, communities, and society as a whole.  Its practitioners need the capacity to make judgement calls as they work, which bring into play each teacher’s individual dispositions and character, as well as their previous experience, and of course, their knowledge and skills.  This is because a key part of the teacher’s task is not just to know about, but to model appropriate roles: as an adult, as a citizen, as a more experienced practitioner.  Initial training helps start and focus the process by which teachers develop these capacities, skills and dispositions.

In further education there have always been teachers who started work unqualified, coming into FE as experts in various vocational or creative industries.  Most of them appreciate that training has helped them to present their experience and knowledge of practice and of the world of work more effectively than enthusiasm on its own could do.   Teaching is a very serious business: the days when it could be left to amateurs, however enthusiastic and well-meaning, are long gone.

Photo: Hubble
Toni Fazaeli from the Institute for Learning has made similar arguments in a recent Guardian blog-post, whose title echoes mine: Bring back FE teacher qualifications: learners deserve more than pot luck.  Her article responds to another by Ian Pryce, Principal of Bedford College, who argues the opposite.  I think he's wrong: his college's students, like those of many other colleges over many years, have benefitted from the freedom they have had to use vocational and industrial experts who have not been trained as teachers, and there is no suggestion that this should change, though it is being suggested that these people should be supported to develop their teaching skills. 
What is really needed for the post-compulsory, lifelong, or further education sector, whatever you want to call it, is a discussion about what professional development all teachers need at all stages in their careers, and what infrastructure is needed to support it properly.  Ian Pryce admits that even good teachers can improve.  He denies that there is any danger of employers exploiting learners using government funds, and suggests that quality assurance can be left to OFSTED: 'Many people fear that if qualifications are optional then colleges will simply replace qualified staff with unskilled, lower-cost people. But colleges deliver state-funded education and are accountable to the government and Ofsted.'  The trouble with this is firstly that the advert at the top of this post demonstrates that it is likely that some employers in the newly deregulated sector will all too readily take the chance to draw down government funds to pay for second rate educational opportunities for students who can't afford to go to the high quality college in their town; and secondly, that relying on OFSTED for quality assurance is no more than shutting the door after the horse has bolted.  They can close down a low quality provider, but not before hundreds or perhaps thousands of students have been sold short, not to mention the tax-payer.
Ian Pryce also suggests that the present teaching qualification is a one-size fits all model: this is absolutely not the case, or at least, it doesn't need to be.  The programme I work on serves the enormously complex and diverse post-compulsory sector in London - it couldn't do this effectively if it consisted of one size fits all.  The issue isn't how the training is organised, at what point in the teacher's career it takes place, or the content of it: all those things can and should be updated continuously to reflect the needs of the local and regional sector, local and regional employers, and its students.  His argument brings us back to Mark Steel's question: if teachers don't need training, what about plumbers, police officers (who as a matter of fact have a new Police College), and paediatric nurses?  Where does this argument end?  What next, volunteer teachers?  There are already an alarming number of internships being used to provide teachers in classrooms, in front of real students.  This seems to me an inevitable consequence of deregulation.  Professional standards aren't just about knowledge, but about behaving as a professional and a responsible person, as I argue above.
It is absolutely essential that we have a professional teaching and support staff workforce so that public funds are spent as productively as possible.  All the international evidence supports the view that high educational attainment at a national level is associated with highly-trained teachers who enjoy high status culturally and in their communities.  



Saturday, 9 November 2013

Ken Bodden, an inspirational life

A wonderful guy I got to know over the past three years, as a conga player and singer with King Toadfish, who died two weeks ago.  I keep discovering more things about his extraordinary life.  He was born in Panama, half Irish-Jamaican and half Honduran, became almost blind in early childhood, was fostered for a part of his childhood in Manchester, a piano tuner, pub musician and songwriter, crosscountry skier and para-Olympian, Manchester United supporter, communal housemate, community and political activist, inveterate maker and keeper of friends.  So many people were at his funeral yesterday (in spite of appalling rain) that about 50 couldn’t get into the crematorium.  Wonderful explicitly atheist event with South African songs, Irish ballads, Bob Marley songs, and very moving tributes.  
This is an obituary written by his anti-apartheid comrades:

This is a youtube of Kenny playing at a party in his house in Hackney:

(l to r) Bob Peachey, Pete Lamont, Kenny, Tsafi Ledermann and Percy Aggett, playing at a King Toadfish street party gig, Harberton Road London  N19 in summer 2012

'Kenny, it always looked as if we were leading you, when in fact it was you leading us' (John Maloney, tribute at the funeral)


Sunday, 15 September 2013


‘Man makes plans,’ goes the Yiddish proverb, ‘and God laughs.’

‘To draw up in advance an exact and detailed plan is to deprive our mind of the pleasures of the encounter and the novelty that comes from executing he work.  It is to make the execution insipid for us and consequently impossible in works that depend on enthusiasm and imagination.  Such a plan is itself a half-work.  It must be left imperfect if we want to please ourselves.  We must say it cannot be finished.  In fact it must not be, for a very good reason: it is impossible.  We can, however, draw up such plans for works whose execution and accomplishment are a mechanical thing, a thing that depends above all on the hand.  This is suitable and even useful for painters, for sculptors.  Their senses, with each stroke of the brush or chisel, will find this novelty that did not exist for heir minds.  Forms and colours which the imagination cannot represent to us as perfectly as the eye can, will offer the artist a horde of these encounters which are indispensable to giving genius pleasure in work. But the orator, the poet, nd the philosopher will not find he same encouragement in writing down what they have already thought.  Everything is one for them.  Because the words they use have beauty only for the mind and, having been spoken in their head in the same way they are written on the page, the mind no longer has anything to discover in what it wants to say.  A plan however is necessary, but a plan that is vague, that has not been pinned down.  We must above all have a notion of the beginning, the end, and the middle of our work.  That is to say, we must choose its pitch and range, its pauses, and its objectives.  The first word must give the colour, the beginning determines the tone; the middle rules the measure, the time, the space, the proportions.’  (Joseph Joubert, 1798, The Notebooks)
‘The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane.  In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.  The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it.  Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.  Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.  The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas.’ (Walter Benjamin, One Way Street, 1925-26: Chinese Curios)

I'm not sure I agree wholly with Joubert that the work of poets, orators and philosophers is qualitatively different to that of painters or sculptors, so that the role of planning is different.  From a craft perspective, all planning is to some degree provisional, hence the truth of his aphorism: 'A plan is however necessary, but a plan that is vague, that has not been pinned down.'  Joubert's view is that 'sticking to the plan' reduces the possibility of surprise and pleasure in the work, but Benjamin says something stronger: that over-reliance on planning results in the shutting off of possibilities, the denial of perspectives.  Over-dependence on planning suits those who want to avoid surprises, who wish to control, and those who are afraid of freedom.  In some sad cases it is all of these things.
Perhaps also relevant here is Andrew Lang's remark, which was actually about statistics rather than planning: 'He uses planning as a drunk man uses lamp-posts: for support rather than illumination'. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Django Bates, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker

This is another post inspired by a concert of music, and coincidentally is about another great band-leader, following on from my post on Jerry Dammers eighteen months ago.  Last night I went to see Django Bates, who was playing at the proms - I'm obviously out of date as I still find it slightly surprising to hear that they have jazz as part of the proms, but Django actually first played there more than twenty years ago, with his band Loose Tubes.

The music last night was mostly inspired by and as a tribute to Charlie Parker, though Django also played his own composition called A Study of Touch.  Nearly all his band were Swedish - a superb rhythm section, a guitarist whose main role was to provide texture and subtle special effects, and a 13-piece brass band consisting of trumpets, trombones, clarinet, saxes and a tuba.  Django plays piano and often conducts at the same time.  The pieces were at times lyrical, at other times noisy and energetic - lots of complicated rhythm changes, and continual development and change, but often a sense of return to a simple pair of chords - perhaps echoing Charlie Parker's way of playing a basic tune, then going way off piste, before returning to the initial tune.  The music reflected more of Parker's fast, tight style, than of the slow, reflective numbers like Embraceable You.  I thought the band was astonishingly tight!

Django told a story about Stravinsky going to see Charlie Parker play in a New York club in 1951.  Parker recognised him, and quoted from the Firebird Suite in his solo, at which Stravinsky banged his drink down on the table with satisfaction.  It is only superficially strange that these two should appreciate each other's music - two of the most innovative composers in the world at the time.  As Django said, Stravinsky would have appreciated the proliferation of As, B flats, Bs, Cs, C sharps, Ds, E flats, Es, Fs, F sharps, Gs, and G sharps!

The Danish drummer also had a message for the audience: there are more people alive today than have been alive at any time in the world's history.  This means that if everyone alive today wanted to perform Hamlet, there wouldn't be enough skulls to go round.....

It was a wonderful evening, and the result of pure serendipity: I'd heard of him, but had never seen him before, didn't really know what he looked like, but I did know that he lived somewhere near me.  Two days before the gig, I passed a bunch of guys loading a car.  One of them pointed to my T shirt and said 'Montreal Jazz Festival - were you there?'  When I said I was, he said they were too, they performed there this summer.  So we got talking and I realised who he was, and then he told me about the gig at the Royal Albert Hall.  And as it's the end of the summer, and we are all feeling relaxed enough to go for a good thing when it presents itself, we went.  As Sartre says: 'We only have this life'.....I hope I bump into him again to say thankyou in person!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Walter Benjamin - the work of learning: writing and thinking as collecting

'Benjamin, always working, always trying to work more, speculated a good deal on the writer's daily existence.  One Way Street has several sections which offer recipes for work: the best conditions, timing, utensils.  Part of the impetus for the large correspondence he conducted was to chronicle, report on, confirm the existence of work.  His instincts as a collector served him well.  Learning was a form of collecting, as in the quotations and excerpts from daily reading which Benjamin accumulated in notebooks that he carried everywhere and from which he would read aloud to friends.  Thinking was also  form of collecting, at least in its preliminary stages.  He conscientiously logged stray ideas: developed mini-esays in letters to friends; rewrote plans for future projects; noted his dreams (several are recounted in One Way Street); kept numbered lists of all the books he read.' (Susan Sontag: Introduction to One Way Street and Other Writings, Walter Benjamin, London: New Left Books, 1979)

I once wrote an essay on Walter Benjamin.   I argued that his charcteristic style of writing, collecting wreathes of aphoristic, tentative and often gnomic paragraphs which delineate his themes as it were from the outside, indirectly, rather than presenting them descriptively and directly, could be compared to a gestural, bodily style of communication as opposed to the more direct and familiar use of spoken language. He believed that copying a text was the best way to understand it, as a landscape is best understood by walking through it rather than by flying over it. 'All the decisive blows are struck left-handed'. Benjamin's work first suggested to me an idea which has come to seem more and more important in my work as a teacher: that writing (or drawing, composing music - the making of any cultural artefact, or as Raymond Williams and Stephen Yeo would say, cultural production) - is a mode of thinking and therefore of learning.  But should 'copying' be seen as production in its own right, or merely a stage or tool of the production process?  Ultimately there is no difference - copying is always a process of re-creating, re-contextualising.  My smallest utterance, in whatever form, is both completely original and a 'copy' of other people's work, made new by the act of my uttering it, and the context in which I am uttering it.  All work consists both of archeology and craft, and as well as existing for itself, it also exists to be recycled