Today I got the feedback on my MA dissertation, which I submitted three weeks ago, and spent a good part of the early summer writing (it was torture). My tutor kindly headed her email as “Excellent dissertation”, so I knew it was OK from the off, and I made myself read the feedback comments from both markers before I turned to the mark (because we value feedback we can learn from more than we value marks, don’t we?).

Well, the feedback was very positive, encouraging and made suggestions as to how I might develop my dissertation into published academic papers if I choose to. So I felt great about that. And then I turned to the mark. Which was 82.

82?? That’s, like, a starred first, isn’t it? Stunning (I am stunned –). And thrilled. And the truth is that the mark does matter to me. The external validation does count for something. I would be less satisfied if I had only received the written comments, even though they were so positive and constructive.

When I (or a member of the family) does well, I experience a curious tension, that I’m sure will be familiar to many reading this. I both want to tell people, and I am concerned about appearing to boast. I am proud and embarrassed. And (for myself – less so for other family members) explanations which minimise the achievement flit across my mind. Fooled them yet again, didn’t I? ‘Course I did well – I wasn’t simultaneously holding down a teaching post, unllike other MA in Education students, was I? ‘Course I did well – my tutor was one of the markers, so it was in her interests to mark my work favourably. And even – ‘course I did well, because I am married to a Prof at the uni and so the markers couldn’t really mark me down —

Time not to be so British. Let me say it to myself, loud and clear:

“Yes, you had plenty of time to give to your dissertation. And yes, you worked bloody hard, and put a huge amount of effort into it. And although you find it torture, you are a bloody good writer. And that’s because, one way or another, you have always written – sometimes easily, but sometimes with great struggle (oh, and you’ve read quite a lot of good writing, too). You did well. Very well. It’s OK to be proud!”

Although my research topic had nothing to do with it, I think also there was some passion in my dissertation which may have communicated itself to my readers, and this relates to my breast screening/diagnosis experience. The passion was about power relationships in education. Because I felt, and still feel, that the medical establishment abused its power in getting me (ill-informed) to go for screening, I tried my utmost to make sure that I was as transparent as I could be with the school I worked in, the tutors I discussed my work with, and (most of all) the vulnerable little boys who were at the centre of my project. I wanted them to understand what was going on, I wanted them to have real choices about their involvement, and I wanted their views to come across. Ethics, you see – trying to ensure that those on the weaker side of the power relationship are, at the very least, not harmed, and might even benefit.

I still think it’s a bit boastful to put this post up. But what’s the worst that can happen? Here goes.


Mindset and the Memory Box

As we get closer to moving house, I have been doing some sorting out. Today I retrieved a box of memorabilia from the garage. My life started to flash before my eyes —

There’s a note from a parishioner congratulating my Dad on my birth in Spring 1959. He approved of the “good English names” I had been given.

There’s a big chronological gap (little early childhood stuff in this box, except for a few photos which made it onto a montage done – I think – for my 40th birthday).

Then there’s the religious novel, written in turquoise ink when I was thirteen. One draft only. What confidence! And a short story which the mother of a friend of mine (an editor I think) got quite excited about.

There are the school reports. When I think of the tracking and monitoring that goes on now, they seem superficial and skeletal. No one had heard of formative assessment. I don’t think my teachers had any imposed targets to meet, and nor did I. I wonder if my learning was any the worse for that?

There are a few essays from my sixth form years. There’s my university dissertation (you know, the one about TS Eliot – see my post from September,”Raid on the Inarticulate”). And the one from my PGCE year on children’s reading (easier to write, I remember). Today I didn’t dare read any of this writing, though, because I am so sure it would compare unfavourably with what my daughters produce now, at a similar age and stage. So what’s that about then?

A lot of my husband’s work is based around Mindset Theory. The wisdom goes that you can develop more of a “growth” (as distinct from a “fixed”) mindset – that is, learn to welcome and work with mistakes, take risks, and choose challenges, not safety, in your learning. You see yourself as being able to develop. Your skills and abilities aren’t fixed.

I don’t know if anybody has thought about how your mindset affects the way you view your past. The Eliot dissertation got a 2:2 (with no feedback comments at all – unbelievable), and the PGCE one got very favourable feedback (no formal marks given at all – equally unbelievable). None of my sixth form essays ever got lower than an A-. That must mean that there’s a chance they’re at least OK. But the fact that I even need to look at the marks suggests to me that I’m still looking for external validation. And I’m still so convinced they’re c*** that I can’t open the folders. So the question is, why am I so hard on my former self? Does it matter if my writing was bad, all that time ago? If it was, can I not celebrate my progress since, rather than beat myself up?

There’s going to be at least one more post about this Memory Box. I was going to take it and store it in the new house (at the back of the big new cupboard). But there’s more — I think I need to keep it out for a bit.

Maybe by the next time I post, I will have had the courage to do some reading. Watch this blog.



Making the Grade?

On Saturday, I went to a workshop for MA students. I met there a woman, J, to whom I have always warmed when I have met her on previous workshops and conferences. She’s a Year 2 teacher with a cynical take on the current phonics-for-four-year-olds policy. Maybe I also like her because she is of a similar age to me – and most of the other MA students seem very young!

I remembered that I last saw J on 23rd May (I have a very good memory for dates). This gave me a sad jolt. When I last talked to her, I was still in that Time Before (as Rose Tremain’s character Merivel would say), having just had that routine mammogram, but with no idea that a week later I would get the call-back appointment to the breast care clinic which would set the trajectory for my summer.

But I must remind myself that the Time Before wasn’t actually one of sunlit happiness. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the job trauma of earlier this year hasn’t been as bad as the breast cancer, in its own way. I feel much more responsible for my mistakes in taking and then not managing the job than I do for getting breast cancer (though I should not have eaten so much butter). And currently, my loss of professional confidence is, I think, much more marked than any loss of social/physical confidence resulting from breast cancer.

I am very glad I went to the workshop, which was about research ethics and methodology. This may not push your buttons, but I so enjoyed it and, after a long gap (I last worked on my MA nearly a year ago), I remembered why I find research so engaging. As I wrote at the end of last winter’s assignment:

Finally, and quite unexpectedly but with some sense of recognition, I have encountered the view of research as an endeavour which is spiritual – in a broad sense (Macpherson, 2008; Pring, 2001). To use the Quaker phrase, this “speaks to my condition”, and I aspire to meet the challenge to rigorous standards of care and honesty in the search for meaning.

I emerged at lunchtime really wanting to pick up the threads. And although it will be hard work, I do actually have a nugget of confidence that I could do it well. But I have a dilemma: I don’t have a working context at the moment. Whilst in one sense that liberates me from some of the ethical difficulties faced by those of researching among their own colleagues/ in their own schools, it means I have to find a way of exploring a research question as a volunteer or a guest in a school/setting. And as I am feeling very de-skilled, and wondering if I was ever in fact a good practitioner I have yet to screw up the courage to approach schools and ask if I can work with them. Why on earth would they want to cram me and my needs into their crowded days? Is it even ethical to consider it? How could I make it worth their while? Which takes us to possible research topics. I currently have a number of interests, such as children’s views of their learning; the effect and efficacy of rewards and motivation; and actually doing participatory research with children. But might it be better to approach schools and offer to research into something that is high priority for them? I think I could actually get interested in nearly anything to do with learning and teaching. It could be the playground policy. Or children’s reading for pleasure. Or how children feel about phonics lessons. Though I do draw the line at boys’ games.

I got another idea whilst sitting among those young, confident, early-career teachers this morning. I was aware that, in this small sample at least, the young seemed to have bought into the current agenda of targets/league tables/performance-related pay. That’s what they talk about. Maybe it’s all they know. Maybe they have to focus on it to survive. It was left to an Old Fogey (OF) like me (who hasn’t survived, note) to ask what “performance” might mean, and another OF – the MA programme leader – to query the limits to OFSTED’s use of the word “evidence”. So I started thinking about the perspectives of those who started teaching before the advent of the National Curriculum, let alone the Literacy and Numeracy Hours; in the days when – say it quietly – in primary schools, you made up the curriculum, and taught it in ways that seemed to work for your pupils, with minimal interference (but also, I have to say, often with little guidance). What motivated us then? What drove us when we weren’t driven by targets?

I’m not sure yet if there’s enough here for a project, or if it’s a topic that will push the boundaries of educational research in a useful way. I’d better do some reading and work up a good research question. Maybe a better topic will come to mind. But if you are an (ex)teacher in the 45+ age bracket who might be willing to participate in some sort of research about your teaching journey, let me know!! I can assure you, if you do get involved and agree to fill in a survey or be interviewed, there will be no grades, marks or assessments. That’s a promise.


Things That Get Under Your Skin

When I was recovering from surgery, one of my sisters sent me a beach-toyshop-type plastic orange crab with wavy legs. It took me a moment to clock the reference, and I wasn’t quite sure about the joke, though the package was accompanied by an encouraging little note saying, “Hope you feel you’ve sent this one scuttling” – or words to that effect.

The above is by way of preamble to the homage I want to pay a lovely gobbet of journalistic writing in this weekend’s Guardian. As follows:

On a visit to Massachusetts, Michael Gove seeks answers. How can failing schools be turned around? How should teachers be paid and trained? And what is that creature swimming in the rock pool?

“Is it a spider?” asks the six-year-old boy at Orchard Gardens elementary school in Boston, unfazed by Britain’s secretary of state for education crouching by his desk in the middle of reading tuition.

No, his teacher replies, the creature in the illustration isn’t a spider. “A lobster?” wonders a little girl. The teacher suggests they look at the text and pronounce the word. “Cr-a-b,” the pupils respond in best synthetic phonics style, carefully breaking the word down into sounds, and everyone smiles. Gove soon scuttles away.

How I laughed. The image of Gove scampering off energetically, lightly, insidiously sideways, everywhere he’s not wanted, but without going into anything at any depth. So apt.

But if I wasn’t blessedly shot of our over-burdened education system just now, my laughter might have been more hysterical (read about the lesson that impressed Gove the most – the link to the full article is below – it will make you shiver). Which hapless teacher/educator will be the next to feel his sharp nip? Where and what is he going to get his pincers into next? It could be you.

Another dangerous, unpredictable organism encroaching on our lives and those of our children – with the potential to cause lifelong and widespread damage. Stop him.