Enabling and Empowering; The Work of Teachers

Thought For Today

That’s the job of a teacher – to enable and empower.”

So said Patsy Rodenburg, voice coach, speaking on Desert Island Discs this week.

The question teachers really need to ask themselves is, to what extent does a ‘relentless focus on raising standards’ – i.e. attainment and teaching to tests and exams – really ‘enable and empower’ students? We ask this question at a time when young teachers receive little or no training in enabling children to become personally, socially, emotionally and spiritually intelligent, let alone creative and imaginative individuals who know how to direct their own learning and who love learning for its own sake.


Many thanks to John Hill for drawing attention to this article in the Guardian, which was published whilst 3Di was in Japan:

Dear Mr Gove: Letter from a curious parent

Michael Rosen has some questions for the education secretary

I wonder if I can tell you about some rumours that are doing the rounds?

First, we’ve all seen that you’re going to perform that miracle much beloved by those who like measuring human beings: changing the pass level of exams.

I come from an era when this was standard practice in the 11-plus exam. The pass level in any area wasn’t a statement about how good or bad that cohort of children were. It was simply tied to how many grammar school places that particular local authority had created. The collective memory of this sort of thing makes people wonder, you know.

I mean, there couldn’t be a tiny possibility, could there, that the reason why you’re fiddling around with exam pass levels is so that you can regulate the numbers of school students applying for university? After all, it has become quite embarrassing that thousands of young people we all thought were qualified to benefit from three years more education are now deemed not to be so, with the only visible reason for this shift in view being that you agree with the bankers that we can’t “afford” that level of university provision. Handy for you, I suppose, if you can dampen a bit of the young people’s ardour for more education by labelling more of them as failures.

Talking of labelling people as failures, I see it’s full steam ahead with June’s phonics test. The results for your pilot tests are in and they make interesting reading. The pass level was put at 34 correct readings of the 40 single words. (I’m not sure why reading single words, not in sentences nor in passages of writing counts as “reading”. Wouldn’t it have been more honest to have called it a “decode test”?) Sad to say, only 32% of the children reached the pass score. Now, one rumour I heard was that even the “outstanding schools” that did the pilot scored at this sort of a level. If so, will your new head of Ofsted have to change the word “outstanding” to “crap”? He’s rather good at that sort of thing, isn’t he?

Read more of this article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/mar/05/michael-rosen-questions-education-secretary


“Below the line” there are some interesting and astute comments on this column. We’ve selected quite a few of them for this blog, since all these ‘commenters’ have something interesting or provocative to contribute to the education debate.


Make uni prohibitively expensive,
push 200,000 children into poverty (first scrap ema),
strip failing schools of money to fund free schools run by middle class mums/pocket lining profiteers/anti abortion homophobes,
kill all subjects not taught in ancient greece cos the future is scary,
make exams harder, fall over, bore kids, call teachers ‘trots’, buy a boat.


I continue, into old age, incredulous that so few countries can create an education system through which received knowledge, curiosity, imagination, skills and preparation and innovation for the future is achieved. And that is for starters! I see there is another article about teachers being unprepared for an increase in child neglect. The neglect of the education of children in the UK, though more particularly in England will surely, eventually, reduce this tiny, natural resource poor, drop in the ocean to a ruin.


The education ‘system’ is a political football that gets kicked, mauled, popped and changed at the learners’ and educators’ expense. It’s the politicians and their damn inane meddling that need to be taken outside and shot. The approaches to equip children with essential skills should be left to the teachers.


I just got an early reading book from my sister in England, which was based on trying to get 6 year-olds to identify words as ‘prepositions’, ‘conjunctions’, etc. No wonder they can’t read properly if that’s the sort of stuff they do at school! As usual (I’ve seen this sort of rubbish before), the identifications and definitions were wildly misleading and inaccurate – verbs called ‘doing words’, etc.

My own diagnosis of the reason for the ills of the English education system is that it’s been in the hands of ignorant amateurs like Gove and Toby Young since … well, at least 1988. To quote from Gove’s favourite book (have they been released from that Continental warehouse yet?), “as ye sow, so shall ye reap”.


I fear rather longer than 1988.
There appears a complete inability of any politician, let alone so called educational philosophers/psychologists/ to determine either the purpose of education or of in what it should consist.


I use this year because of the passing of 1988 Education Act, which sanctioned the use of prejudice and ignorance as the principles to use when running the education system, rather than professionalism and scientific method.

The system before then had its faults, being, ultimately, run by consortia of universities (since they set the exams), but you could be confident that ideological tools, such as Ofsted, were not going to be used.


“The absolute last thing any child needs to learn is grammar.”

Quite … and the reason is that they know it already!

If you’re a native speaker of a language, you’re incapable of making grammatical mistakes. What you are capable of doing is … using a form of expression that someone else doesn’t like … or using the wrong type of language for the particular context. You might, for example, speak the way that one of the Hooray Henries running the country speak – and lots of people really don’t like that way of expressing yourself. Or you might use upper-class modes of expression when your car breaks down in Peckham, where using the local vernacular will get you help.

The particular model the government seem to be wanting to use to analyse the English language is way out of date, and the reason it became obsolete is because it doesn’t actually describe the language accurately. I.e. it’s not a matter of fashion, but of academic rigour.


All the tables up to twelve times in year one. Big words like togetherness and joined up handwriting by year two. And not a test in sight, just a classroom full of eager kids (and I mean full and eager), a good teacher, and an ethos that had eliminated politics from the equation. Did kids fail? If they did we never knew them, never knew them at all. If it could be done when I was young then why not now? Just get education out of politics.


It seems to me that by teaching reading emphasising phonics makes it, for many children, difficult and dull. Using real books, which give children pleasure and enable them to make intelligent guesses, lays down the foundation for reading for life. I once saw a set of ‘vowel digraphs’ strung across a classroom of 6 years olds. This is when it reading becomes an exercise in literacy, not literature. Phonics may have its place, but when it becomes the focus of learning to read, things have gone very wrong.


The very idea of labelling two thirds of a bunch of seven year olds as failures is horrific. And the sad fact of it is this, you send someone the message that they are nothing on a repeated basis and eventually they will believe you. This is unforgiveable.

Has anyone read the Ken Robinson book The Element? It makes some really valid points about the way we treat education and what happens as a result. Here’s he is talking about changing education paradigms- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U


The reality is that university education, globally, is for the academic elite. Other forms of higher education are far more appropriate for the majority and there should be no stigma attached to choosing the level appropriate and most beneficial to the individual.

Rosen’s completely right about the disgraceful manipulation shenanigans this government indulges in with regard to education. Still, I’m sure they learnt most of it from the Blair/Brown years, or we are continuing to indulge in the fantasy that the steady upward curve in exam perfomance and enormous numbers of ‘graduates’ over the last decade is due to wildly over-achieving kids and improved access?

Education has been raped by successive generations of politicians whose contempt for the consequences of their acts and the intelligence of the electorate knows no bounds. Policy by PR has long been the order of the day, but in this area its results have been catastrophic. At least the medical community is making a stand; if only the teachers and academics had.


Regarding the Phonics Test: The simple truth is that no single technique or method will teach children to read; they need to learn to recognise and pronounce phonemes, but they also need to recognise phonetically irregular words as a whole. Fluent readers use a range of strategies and cues to decipher text. Reading phonetically regular nonsense words is one of those skills but must never be regarded as the be all and end all of reading. Above all, reading has to be a pleasure for children. I’m worried that the synthetic phonics kool-aid guzzlers who are currently making the rules are ignoring this.
But, of course, fashions change and in a few years there will be a new miracle cure peddled by ideologues. In education especially, these fads come and go.


On phonics: understanding something about consonant blends and vowel blends is certainly useful in identifying words one already knows aurally but has not previously encountered in print. The question is how to promote this understanding in a way that doesn’t undermine the child’s interest in reading for meaning and enjoyment. As with most things in education, this is a question of judgement. It is not something that should be prescribed. For a government to insist on a particular approach to the phonological/decoding aspects of reading is just one more sign of politicians’ distrust of professional expertise and judgement.

On grammar: much the same, really. Of course children should learn to write Standard English. No-one thinks otherwise. But a very large section of the population enters education speaking a non-standard dialect,. Our dialect, standard or non-standard, is an aspect of our identity, to be valued, not to be denigrated as “improper”. It is a question of repertoire, horses for courses. of contexts, of an enjoyment of linguistic variety and inventiveness but also of clarity and precision. Teaching grammar (by which we mean syntax and morphology, not spelling and punctuation) is, like teaching phonics, a question of judgement. There is no reason to prescribe, nor to proscribe, a particular approach. But some approaches are more likely than others to discourage and alienate some children. A child who hears and speaks Standard English at home will have a different starting point from one whose home language is very different. That’s one reason why early testing is so profoundly unwise.


Davric, I remember being taught at primary school in the early 70s that a verb is a ‘doing’ word. What’s wrong with the definition? It has always worked for me…….

One problem with this definition is that it’s often counter-factual to all but the most learned linguists. What are doing when you ‘vegetate’, for example? Or ‘daydream’? Or ‘moulder in your grave’?

In other words, most ordinary people who aren’t into esoteric linguistics see ‘doing’ as some kind of action. Now, you could argue that there is some kind of action involved in each of those three examples, but it isn’t what most people call ‘action’.

Once you really start taking these definitions to pieces, you can get into really deep water trying to explain how English works. Once example I use with Linguistics students is:

“Eating people is wrong”

Try parsing that … Which word, for example is the subject? It can’t be ‘people’ because the verb’s in the singular … so it has to be ‘Eating’, doesn’t it. The nerds among us know that ‘Eating’ is a being used as a gerund here (sometimes called an ‘-ing noun’), but most normal people can’t really see the difference between the ‘eatings’ in these utterances:

‘a man-eating tiger’
‘a tiger which is busy eating its prey’
and ‘eating into his very soul was the realisation that he’d let her down in her hour of need’

My point is really that native speakers of any language have no need at all to carry out that kind of analysis of their native language unless they’re going to teach it to someone else. Native speakers can tell you what sounds right and sounds wrong, but they’re usually totally useless at trying to explain what’s happening to a non-native speaker in a way which helps that non-native speaker not to make the same mistake again.

How, for example, would you get a Swede not to write things like:

I am looking forward to see you again.

You could talk about prepositions + gerunds and ‘to-infinitives’, but I can almost guarantee that the eyes of the Swede would be glazing within seconds … and your explanation wouldn’t stick even for the time it took you to make it.

Ultimately language is a performance art, not an analytical science. The job of a native English speaker in Britain is to perfect her performance. As soon as she tries to present an analysis, she almost always ends up in the kind of intellectual bog the writers of the National Curriculum ended up in.


What most young English people I meet nowadays really need is training in how to think … and in how to express their thoughts in the right words. Parsing the English language and labelling bits of it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (with no contextual information at all) doesn’t seem to have helped in the 20 years or so that this has been imposed on the English education system.


My wife is a teacher. So I speak from just behind the front line.

The problem with education is “educationalists”. These are people who sit (presumably in Whitehall) and are continually trying to justify their existence. Effectively they are trying to micro-manage evreything that happens in the classroom. The problem is they are making a monumental balls-up of the job.

The amount of paperwork that is generated by “the system” wipes out several acres of forest every day and most of it is either unnecessary, indeciferable, or both. Largely it tells the teacher nothing that he or she doesn’t know already.

What the education system needs is a big clear out of that whole tier of bureaucrats, the ditching of most of the microplanning and a drive to enable teachers to actually TEACH the children rather than looking over their shoullder and filling in bits of paper to keep “them” happy.

And leave it alone for several years. Just leave the bloody thing alone!

             Response to JoeOrdinary

Spot-on. The fact that this has become so embedded is, in no small part, due to the willingness of countless (mis)managers to do the bidding of successive governments. Local authority advisors, too many head-teachers and Ofsted inspectors – all of them far too ready to implement whatever happens to be the latest perceived wisdom eminating from the bowels of those ‘educationalists’. You don’t get promotion by saying ‘no’ , do you? Good luck to you and your long-suffering wife.


Oh – how did an ex-Sun reporter, Atlantic Bridge neo-con idealogue and ex-Murdoch employee – get to have so much corrosive influence over our childrens’ education? I am appalled. It’s like some scary plot from a novel – thinking of which if Gove was a female character he’d be a dead ringer for J K Rowling’s priggish but vile, Dolores Umbridge.

As to the ‘literacy hour’, my experience is that schools still follow it rigidly, though currently in my daughters class it seems to have turned into phonics hour, presumably in preparation for the phonics testing!

I find that because of the governments obsession with targets, both teachers and pupils miss out. Teachers are limited to plugging on at the targets, their creativity being slowly sapped away. Pupils who are in the middle ability are reasonably okay, if not slightly bored because of the drained teachers, the bottom ability are constantly having to be dragged kicking and screaming up to the government targets, while the highest achievers are left forgotten because they have already met the targets.

And the icing on the cake… I read an article where Gove was asking what happened to all those children that were above average at KS1 testing, but who seemed to have disappeared at KS2 testing. My response: they died of boredom, forced to dumb themselves down to fit into the governments target formula, picked on by their peers for being too clever; for having too few teachers who would appropriately challenge them, for having bored teachers who have too little freedom; for having all their funding taken away so that schools concentrate on making sure every pupil is able to meet the bare minimum targets… need I say more.

If we want pupils to begin to achieve, then we need to inspire them to learn, not sit on their heads and tell them they have failed at 6.

Why are Universities being hounded to reduce their literacy training down to a near complete focus on phonics? As a result of TDA threats, we’ve had to remove our creative sessions, poetry sessions, reading for pleasure sessions, drama sessions and oracy sessions to accommodate this emphasis on phonics.

I am a senior lecturer at a Russell Group University. I interview graduates from Russell Group Univerisites for post graduate courses. I find that their first class honour degrees seem to have been awarded simply for turning up. They have few critical thinking skills, but a great deal of confidence in the belief that the fact that their university was in the Russell Group is sufficient to guarantee them a place. They find it difficult to respond to challenging questions (with the exception of Oxbridge students).

In contrast, I’ve been working with children aged between 11 and 14 in an inner city school. They have lively questioning minds, a lack of arrogance, no sense of entitlement, healthy curiosity, the capacity to think beyond the obvious, to rely on the evidence before them and not on repeated facts learned for exams. So somewhere between adolescence and adult life, all this seems to be squeezed out of them. Not because exams are too easy, but because they are too dull, too far removed from inquiry and criticality and crucially, too focused on jumping through predictable hoops.

I don’t think that senior lecturers bleating on from their ivory towers about standards is really what these young people need. in fact we undermine the whole system by playing into the hands of the rote learning lobby groups. Get out of your university, into a school and inspire some young people if you want to make a difference.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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