• Sep 92013

Thinking Allowed: On Schooling

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Where do you stand on the Mr Bean v. exuberant reader debate?

We’ve never been ones to laugh out loud at a book we’ve read or react openly in any way. But something unusual happened every time we sat down to read another chapter of Mick Waters’ Thinking Allowed: On Schooling. The chapter wouldn’t be over before we’d ended up saying, “this is good stuff!”


Have you ever been in the situation where what you’ve read is so good, so insightful, that you’ve had to put the book down? That’s what happened constantly with Thinking Allowed. And you have to realise we’re usually with Mr B when it comes to reading-exclaimers. But, boy is this good stuff.

Now you have to understand one thing. Any book that has chapter titles such as “…on national politicians and education policy” and “…on professional integrity and game theory” is never going to capture our imagination, let alone get us to respond aloud. But, strangely, this book has and this book did. It’s witty, thought-provoking and not-in-the-least-bit dry.

In Thinking Allowed, Mick Waters set out to:

…comment on the state of schooling, offer a perspective on our journey to the present day and then proffer a few thoughts on how we might move forward.”

And, in that brief sentence lie the three things that make this book such good stuff — his fair-minded commentary, clear perspective and reasoned suggestions for the way ahead.

One of the cornerstones of Independent Thinking Press is Ian Gilbert’s idea that the books should provide for the author “their voice in print”. You can see it with the difference between the lyrical and the more analytical — from the fonts used to the writing style, reading both ‘The Discipline Coach’ and ‘Full On Learning’, you feel you understand Jim Roberson and Zoe Elder respectively. We’ve never met them, we’d imagine a conversation with Jim is rather like a pep-talk and one with Zoe would fire all sorts of thoughts and ideas to better our teaching. Their voices in print.

And so it is with Thinking Allowed. We’ve never met Mick Waters and don’t know a huge amount about him as a person, but through his words we can tell this is a fair man. Thinking Allowed is written with a balance that is rare — especially in books that attempt to comment on “the System”. Almost always, the author’s political views shine through, but in this case things are different. Mick Waters writes in a balanced way about things it would be easy to be cynical about.

Like it or not, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a cog in “the Machine” with a small role in the “Education System”. During our nine years in the classroom, we spent most of that time ignoring that fact as best we could. The job was all about what happened when the classroom door shut, nothing else. Governments could direct from afar, but how we taught their Literacy Hours or Numeracy Strategy was up to us. In many ways, we’d still encourage teachers to take a similar approach. Nothing beats the dynamic interaction between teacher and student. We knew, tiny cog or not, we could affect and inspire lives daily. The classroom’s where it’s at. Don’t forget it.

What put us off taking more of an interest in the education system was the cynicism we saw around us. In his book Oops!, Hywel Roberts talks about radiators and drains (those whose positive attitudes radiate from them and those who drain everyone around). It’s probably fair to say that many of the drains out there are drained, hence their negativity and cynicism about a system where those at the top are changed every handful of years, usually with a completely new philosophy of how we should be doing our job and often with very little encouragement of the cogs in the machine. No wonder we just kept our head down and enjoyed the teaching.

Thinking Allowed provides a commentary on where we are now in terms of education and it feels tremendously uncynical. The good points (yes, there are some!) in our system are cited as well as the bad ones. And so, you leave the book feeling like you’ve had an apolitical (and therefore unbiased) representation of where we’re at. It’s a breath of fresh air if all you’re used to are cynical “drains” complaining about how things are and politicians er… complaining about how things are. When Mick Waters complains how things are, he does so gently!

Thinking Allowed was written during a hiatus when the author recuperated after surgery on his spinal cord. Reading it gives one the feeling that this time out allowed Mick Waters to delve into his wealth of experience — as primary school teacher, headteacher, Chief Education Officer at Manchester LEA, Director of Curriculum at the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) — and pull out the things that matter.

What are the things that bother you in terms of education? What parts of the machine do you want to change?

Mick Waters introduces a brilliant analogy about a race track…

…imagine the 1,500 children born on any one day in England being placed on life’s starting line. The children from the privileged upper classes would be on the inside lane. On the extreme outside … would be the children who are born into poverty and are surrounded by society’s ills…”

Most people obviously being somewhere between the two extremes. He goes on to describe how for most families, the desire is to edge towards the left of wherever they are on the race track and many of the issues that are faced by outside lane schools, parents and children. It’s fascinating and a powerful analogy that he refers to again and again.

Can every school be a good school? What are the positives of the inspection process? Is the teacher outstanding, good or satisfactory or is it the teaching? As Waters says,

…it is noticeable these days how even teachers describe one another in inspection terms. ‘Mr H is an outstanding teacher’. ‘Mrs K is good with outstanding features.’ ‘Ms D’, whisper it, ‘is only satisfactory’… True, an outstanding teacher leads good lessons for the most part. But the outstanding teacher is more than that.”

It’s a thought-provoking paragraph (and a video-provoking one too — we made Now That’s What I Call Outstanding on the back of it).

How have we got into the situation where “assessment” often just means “testing”? Are synthetic phonics really the silver bullet to teaching children how to read?

Why is it that in education the higher up we climb the professional ladder, the more strategic we become and the further away from the students we get? And why do children with complex needs often have someone less-qualified helping them when surely they need to access the best of the best? In an interesting analogy, Waters points out that this is completely the opposite to the world of medicine, where the more complex our needs the more expertise we access and a specialised consultant is the “best in the business”, demonstrating this daily.

How can we show disillusioned youngsters what the point of trying is? Aspiration is more than upbeat slogans, so how else can we motivate young people? In a wonderful chapter on unleashing aspiration, Mick Waters encourages us to use “the constant example and articulation of the real world”, reveals himself as the propagator of the brilliant ‘101 Things To Do Before You’re 11′ idea long before the National Trust ran with it and provides a great way to encourage students to give their teacher a hard time (not what they’d expect).

And don’t get us started on the chapter on teaching, pupils and classrooms — Waters’ section on the ridiculousness of much teacher-talk is great.

Despite those who say he’s all style and no substance, we’ve always thought Sir Ken Robinson is an important voice in the education debate. But one thing we’ve always thought after listening to him speak or reading his work is “so what now, Ken? Yes, we can see that our school system still bears many of the hallmarks of the Victorian model and we completely agree with you about the need to value creativity, but what can we do about it?” In Thinking Allowed, Mick Waters ends each chapter with a list of bullet points with titles such as “What can we do?” and “What might be done?” And so, he suggests answers as well as posing the questions. You might not agree with all of them, but at least he proposes some solutions.

Thinking Allowed answers the question ‘What’s it all about?’ Although we’d still maintain the cut-and-thrust of the classroom’s where it’s at, this is a book that finally got us to take an interest in the innards of the education machine and even to respond out loud. High praise indeed. You will leave each chapter inspired.

Last word must go to @paulyb37 (a headteacher based in Nottingham) who, after we mentioned the book on Twitter, tweeted the following:

Weirdly I’ve been reading it over the summer and I got the links. Lots to think about, left me wanting to change the world!

Change the world? Like we say, it’s good stuff.

– Find Thinking Allowed: On Schooling on Amazon.
– Mick Waters’ page on the Independent Thinking Press website.
– Have you seen our All-On-A-Page Blog Index? There are loads more articles like this!

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So, what do you think?

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