China’s Moon Festival

Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

Have you noticed the moon the last few nights/mornings?

Chinese people all over the world have been celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. Traditionally it’s the time for “moon-viewing” with family and friends, eating moon cakes, drinking wine and thinking of loved ones far away.

A famous poem by Li Bai says:

Moonlight shining through the window
Seems like hoarfrost on the floor
Looking up to see the moon
Looking down I miss my hometown

China is a huge country, and people have always had to leave homes, families and friends for long periods as they travelled for work, to see the country, or in the past, as a result of war, famine or flood.

The moon then becomes a way of holding on to these precious ties of affection. It helps to know that the people you care about are looking up at the same moon, though they are far away. Or to know that the same moon is shining on your hometown somewhere in the distance. All way beyond your sight but very present.

The moon is a popular subject for poetry, and if you’re interested you can find many poems online – or let me know, and I’ll send you some more.

Mooncakes are a bit of an acquired taste and Western friends don’t always like them, at least the traditional types with their preserved egg yolks, but they do seem to enjoy the wine-drinking!


A Chinese Way of Ageing

Another culture shows other possibilities for ageing. It’s a romanticisation, and it was only true of a fairly small number of people – pretty much all of them male – but still, food for thought…



Long ago, in far-off China, a baby boy was born to a well-off family.

As a very young child, he played freely, and was much indulged by everyone.

But he soon understood that his primary duty was to his family, and to his father, the head of the family, in particular. Regardless of his own wishes and preferences, his filial duty was whatever his father required of him.

When the time came, he married the bride his family chose for him, and had children, who also lived in the family demesne. He worked towards the government examinations which would determine his career and his standing in life. While he loved the poetry and music he was taught, and practising the calligraphy absolutely necessary for an educated man, there was little time to pursue his own interests, and he studied hard for many years.

When at last he passed the examinations, he was called on to take up a public post.

Some saw such an opportunity as the chance to enrich themselves. But our (youngish) hero took his responsibilities seriously and worked hard to improve the life of the people in his care and to make sure his part of the complex public life of China ran smoothly. There was always more work to do, and as he moved from posting to posting, the years flowed by.

Eventually, however, it was possible for him to step back. Younger men were eager for the position he held, its responsibilities and authority. His children were grown, and while his advice was always sought on all matters of substance, others were capably running his household from day to day.

Now he had the possibility of freedom!

Now, at last, with his filial duty to his family and his service to his country and community completed, his life was his own.



So, in middle age, and far from decrepit, our hero gives himself over to the pleasures he has longed for during the busy seasons of his life so far: poetry, music, painting, calligraphy, the arts of friendship… (which in China may include a lot of drinking).

These are all arts that improve with time, with practice and attentive care…

In China, the oldest artists are considered the best – it takes a lifetime to develop subtlety, expression, physical skill. You have to have lived a long time, and cultivated and strengthened your essential self – the self whose depth and quality is expressed in every stroke of the brush, every note of music…

So our hero is now free to spend his time drinking by moonlight with his friends, singing and playing, and laughing immoderately. He is freed for rigorous work in the arts of landscape painting and calligraphy. He gazes intently at paintings and calligraphies, his own and others’, striving to absorb their essence. He prepares his ink and paper, steadies his spirit and the brush dances across the page…

During the following years, even as he ages, his life is full, deep and rich. He enjoys and cultivates his friendships, observes and advises his descendants, friends and acquaintances. He works in absorbed patience at his chosen arts, knowing that progress is always possible, even though perfection is not.

And at some point, in the midst of his life, he dies.

How not to look old

It’s a great name for a book, isn’t it?

My second-hand copy arrived a few days ago. The woman on the cover looks a little manic and out of focus, but so what? Who wouldn’t want “Fast and effortless ways to look 10 years younger, 10 pounds lighter, 10 times better”?

and it has “more than 150 new brilliant buys!” So I’m in no danger of not being able to spend money on my quest.

This book is full of fascinating stuff, though perhaps not the stuff that was intended to be fascinating. You could write a Ph.D. thesis on it and its implications. Perhaps someone already has.

I find myself wondering who she defines as old or in danger of looking old. What she thinks the problems of “looking old” are. How come not looking old is the same as looking “10 years younger”? What aspects of appearance does she address and which not?

Let’s start with the last. What’s in and what’s not?

Hair, makeup, teeth and clothes

She talks about hair, makeup, teeth, and clothes. (And probably makes sense about a lot of them – I wouldn’t really know. So that’s summed me up.)

She doesn’t talk about posture, movement, liveliness/energy levels, eye contact, stance when interacting with others, ways of attending (or not) to others when interacting, voice (ok, pushing it for appearance but you know what I mean), mannerisms, gear (your mobile, computer, watch, etc – the tech you cart about with you or don’t).

I don’t suppose that the people who buy her book were expecting her to, really. And of course she’s not cheating. If you read the Amazon reviews and preview, you get a good idea of what the book covers.

Doesn’t posture count?

But let’s just try this for a moment.

Think of someone you’re acquainted with, but don’t know well.

What about the picture of them you have in your mind tells you how old they are? The way they wear eyeliner? The stiffness of their hairstyle? Probably. But also, doesn’t the way they move, and carry themselves, tell you things too?

From a long way off, the young men walking with their legs wide apart (as if they have a particularly uncomfortable rash on their inner thighs) are instantly recognisable. Long before the state of their eyeliner and wrinkles become apparent.

The figure in the distant with a slumped outline and a halting, slightly awkward walk is likely to be read as old, and you’d probably be surprised to get closer and see someone in their 20s.

My tai chi teacher, Dr Paul Lam, could be a teenage boy when seen from behind. (Albeit a teenager with unusually upright posture.) His slender frame and springy movements fit that age group. When he turns though, you can tell that he is older, maybe even the 60 or so that is his real age.

So my point is simply this: “not looking old” is continually sold to us on tv and in magazines as not having (visible) wrinkles. (I particularly like the idea that you can fill them in, rather like Polyfilla-ing a crack in the wall.) Or not having “grays” in your hair. (Sad, fat little pale nit-things, wandering forlornly in a great forest of enormous hairs.)

This book, and the others like it, add good, if consumerist, advice about adjusting your makeup and clothing so you don’t give away your age (dreadful thought) or look like mutton dressed as lamb (is this worse? I can’t tell).

They don’t even mention, let alone advise on, the other aspects of appearance that contribute to our perceived age. Yet these are often even more intimately us: how we stand and move as we face the world, how we look and sound as we interact with friends and strangers, and my nod to consumerism – what the gadgets and bits and bobs we cart about hint to everyone about us, our up to dateness, and our openness to change…

If we must at all costs not look old, shouldn’t we be trying to do it properly?

Battiness as a strategy for ageing

At the garage today, waiting for my car to be fixed, I met a woman in her 90s.

She announced herself to me almost as soon as she sat down (I was sitting with my computer in my lap, tapping away). “I’ve brought my car in for a recall thingy,” she said.

Soon she’d told me she is 90, and rather deaf, pointing to her ear. I experimented with different volumes, settling on pretty loud.

She lamented her age, though to me she looked pretty pleased and lively. “At my age, my memory’s going. I can remember school, but don’t ask me what I had for dinner yesterday.” I found myself wondering what I had eaten.

“I’m batty.”

“I’m batty,” she claimed, in roughly her sixth sentence.

As we chatted, it occurred to me that this might be a pre-emptive strategy, and quite a good one.

It pre-explains her behaviour, giving her room to manoeuvre in casual relationships with the people she meets, who may find it harder to work out what she can hear, or not wish to get into a conversation, or talk about the things she finds interesting or workable.

It gives her permission to talk loudly, misunderstand what people are saying, and take her time responding to them. Watching her with the service desk people, kindly and fairly insistent on her doing what they wanted, I could see how it gave her space. If you lose your place in a conversation, it provides an alibi, and people are likely to be more willing to wait, repeat and regroup to help you.

(My mother has been largely deaf in one ear since her 20s, and it can make life very difficult – people interpret non-responses, off-point responses, etc in all sorts of idiosyncratic ways. Being “batty” ‘explains’ all this in a charming and non-threatening manner.)

And, since many of us are contrarian in nature, it’s a useful incitement to finding reasons why she’s not at all batty (I’m even writing a whole post about it!), so she must get plenty of reassurance on this point.

A convoy driver during the war

Actually, of course, she didn’t seem remotely batty. She’d been a convoy driver during the war, and loved driving. We talked about where she’d lived, and how hard life is these days for young people – compared to her life during the war (!). Once we’d got over the problem caused by me talking too quietly, the conversation flowed back and forth completely without a hitch. I’d have liked to spend longer, but my car arrived and was in the way.

I had been very impressed by her approach to getting into the conversation she obviously wanted, despite her significant deafness and uncertainty about the response she was going to get.

Claiming battiness has its downside, though, as a strategy.

For one thing, I’m guessing some people will be happy to believe her, and use it as an additional reason for ignoring her and her wishes. In a society that increasingly resents and ignores the ageing, it may make her more vulnerable.

For another, it may not be quite what you want to hear internally, either. The things we say repeatedly about ourselves can become true… I hope her idea of battiness has only pleasant connotations for her!

And the message of this post? Maybe there isn’t one, apart from the ongoing fascination of watching how people live within our society, and in particular, deal with the constraints and possiblilities of age.

Growing up a bit more

More and more, we’ve come to see middle age as the start of the inevitable decline into useless old age. New research suggests we’ve got this all wrong, and our middle aged are in fact an important resource for us as a species. If they are right, middle age has evolved because it has benefited us – probably by making wisdom and experience available to human societies over longer periods of time.

Middle age as a time of decline

We in the West like to see life as a long arc – reaching up, then turning relentlessly down.

Up from birth through childhood and youth, on to better things as a young adult, reaching our apogee as we buy our biggest house, have our best job, and are probably at our busiest and least awake to the world as a whole too.

Then the long decline. Children leave home, younger ones are coming up fast at work, we begin to think of retirement.
 We’re more aware of our aches and pains. Forgetting names and where we put the car keys implies ageing, rather than too much on our minds. Learning slows. Romance should be nostalgia rather than reality.

From now on, the only way is down.

Retirement sees the official announcement of our lack of utility to that real world of employment and family life. The beginning of rusting with disuse. Some golf or pilates, some volunteering, and a sinking into old age. We hope for dignity and keeping our marbles intact. We fear loneliness, vulnerability, humiliation and loss of control. But the hard fact is that it is only a matter of time.

We’re told this is just how it is. Too bad.

Middle age as a time of maturity and new value

Yet, there’s a new view among some scientists. They claim that human development doesn’t stop with young adulthood. Maturity, they suggest, actually comes where reproduction is over – at menopause for women and around the same age for men.

At this point in humans (and interestingly, killer whales), the middle-aged become true resources for their community. Freed by biological programming from the immediate concerns of reproduction and family, they can take up a leadership and guidance role for younger adults

In fact, judging from the killer whales, this is the reason for humans having such a long post-reproduction stage of full health and vitality. A species in which the transmission of culture – knowledge, customs, technology – is so important needs to devote some big resources to ensuring it survives and is passed on.

At least that’s the principle – in our society we seem to be trying to turn it into something else. Which is strange.

Currently, in everyday life, cultural transmission is what a lot of the people in this stage of life do do. Historically they are leaders, teachers, healers. Even now, with our cult of youth, they are often social, political and business leaders. The media thunder on about the ‘demographic timebomb of an ageing population’. Meanwhile, people in this stage (and even beyond in true old age) contribute hugely to the economy of the country, in paid work of one kind or another, and as carers, volunteers and mentors. The problem is that as a society we increasingly refuse to recognise or support them.

As we can see in our friends and acquaintances – the emphasis on ageing as decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead of helping people of all ages find the ways that work for them to stay fit and healthy, playful and engaged, we actively propagandise for ill-health, depression and decline. We exploit our unpaid mature carers and volunteers, and then when they’re worn out, we say, what do you expect from people of their age? and continue to ignore them. The financial and social consequences of this entirely unnecessary idiocy are enormous.

Complaining about longevity

We could be marvelling that we have managed to create a society in which people can live healthily until their 80s and 90s and beyond. This is a wonderful achievement, astonishing. Human beings have dreamed of immortality since the dawn of civilisation, and this is the closest we have ever got.

And what do we do with our extraordinary success? We complain that we can’t afford all these old people, and we make their lives as miserable as possible.

Doesn’t this strike you as ridiculous? Let’s do something else.

Making use of maturity

Let’s celebrate this time of maturity – after child-rearing and before true old age – say from roughly 50 to 80. Let’s recognise its special qualities of combining experience, skill and perspective.

Let’s make sure the people in this group are healthy, happy and contributing to society in multiple ways that truly use their hard-earned wisdom.

Let’s make the most of them, so that this period is the satisfying, meaningful time it should be. Something to look forward to and revel in when you arrive. The best time of our lives! (So far.)

Inspiring Role Models For Ageing Well

‘I can’t think of anyone who has done nothing remotely useful after the age of 80’
Peter Greenaway British film director

At 80 Peter plans to kill himself. He argues that the world is too full and it belongs to the young.

I read this article, and though I suspect that some of what was said was tongue in cheek, I couldn’t help having a little rage! What about people like Noam Chomsky, still writing and giving lectures on politics at 83, Betty White ex-‘Golden Girl’ enjoying a career resurgence at 90, or Oscar Niemeyer, the late worldwide acclaimed Brazilian architect still working at 100. And I could name many more….

And then I listened to the eccentric and impassioned theatre critic Blanche Marvin on Desert Island Discs. At 87, Blanche has been immersed in the theatre for seven decades as a critic, actress, and producer. She established the prestigious ‘Empty Space…Peter Brook Awards.’ As a doyenne of the West End, she’s at nearly every opening night and her reviews are read by producers on Broadway who are looking for the next hit that could cross the Atlantic. She is also known for her exotic outfits which are themed for the productions she goes to!

On Desert Island Discs she refers to ageing as being the most freeing thing in the world. She feels that she can do just what she wants to do and people can take her for what she is, or not, as the case might be. She says: ‘Ageing gives me such a sense of freedom. I can get away with things that I couldn’t have done if I was younger!’ She is still active in her support and encouragement of the younger generation in the world of theatre.

So, listen to it and be inspired – and that includes you, Peter Greenaway!

Lorna Lewis

An 87 year old singer

The first in a series of inspiring (or thought-provoking) Reinventing Ageing heroes:

I’m sorry to say that I’m not sure what the singer’s name is, as I can’t read it.

What I do know is that she is 87, is singing in praise of Chou En Lai, and has an amazing voice. You may be unfamiliar with Chinese music, and find much of it a little strange. But you don’t have to like it to be impressed by this performance!


A footnote:

A few years ago, I auditioned for a small local choir. The conductor told me that after 50 or so, the voice starts to deteriorate, and so older members of choirs need to be monitored to see if they continue to deserve a place. This worried me quite a lot as I was approaching the magic age at which your larynx gave up.

However, in China over the last couple of years, I noticed that there seem to be a lot of older people singing. Some of them are on TV, and there are lots in parks! (Lots of music and dancing going on in parks in China, as well as tai chi of course.) I speak hardly any Chinese, and couldn’t ask, but no-one seems very worried about voice spoilage, and people seemed to sing well and lustily into their 70s and older.

Is it that Chinese music is different and makes different demands? It doesn’t sound any easier! Perhaps I can’t hear the deterioration? Or perhaps here in the UK we have views about ageing that expect our powers to fade, singing among them. While our 87 year old’s voice is perhaps not perfect, I’m looking forward to singing with as much power, conviction and musicality when I’m her age!

Teacher Soup, Dogs and Learned Helplessness

I’ve met a lot of teachers, and over the last few years almost all of them have been stressed and overworked (not all, mind you, but that’s another story…).

Here’s something I find interesting – many of them apparently know things are really bad, know their health is suffering, recognise that the situation is crazy – but they don’t seem to entertain the possibility that it could be different.

This leaves them moving through the days in a kind of fog of anxiety-laced exhaustion, waiting for the next holiday. When it comes, they rest for a while, before picking up their burdens and going on.

If I ask them to look into the future, they look vague, or tell me they’re looking forward to retirement, or if younger, they don’t expect to stay in education for too long – “It wears you out, doesn’t it? After 8 or 10 years, I think I’ll have to do something else, I wouldn’t be able to keep on like this.” I don’t think the government needs to worry too much about teacher pensions after the current people of my age retire – no-one will be able to stay long enough for it to matter.

From the outside, it’s strange – there are all these people working in a dysfunctional system, that they know doesn’t work for the students or for the staff, and not only are they not trying to change it, they’re not even dreaming about changing it!

I find myself thinking about that frog in hot water that was such a popular metaphor a while ago. Remember the one in a pot of water being heated very gently and relentlessly? The water temperature changes slowly and the frog never quite gets to the point of jumping out… voila, frog soup! We’re collectively making a kind of teacher soup I think.

The other thing I’m reminded of are Seligman and Maier’s experiments with dogs in the late 60’s – I’m vague about the details (you can always google ‘learned helplessness’), but the basic idea was that dogs were put in a situation where they could be given electric shocks. Some of them could press a lever to stop the shocks. Others had an non-working lever and no control over the shocks, which would end in an apparently random way. (In fact, they were ended by another, paired, dog with access to a working lever – this meant that the experimenters had pairs of animals that had had the same shocks but different degrees of control over them).

The dogs without control over their environment generally exhibited something that looked a lot like depression in human beings.

Later all these animals were tested in a box where they experienced shocks through the floor, but could simply jump over a low wall into an area with no shock. The ‘helpless’ animals, apparently assuming that they still had no control, would just lie there and whine. (Eek, these are important experiments, but must have been hard to do). The others, who had been able to control their shocks, would simply jump and discover that it was more comfortable elsewhere…

Hmm, you can probably see why this comes to mind when thinking about teachers?

But there is hope – about a third of Seligman’s dogs did not become helpless, despite not having control, and when the opportunity came to improve their lot, they took it. In people, this quality has been identified as optimism – a way of thinking about negative events that takes it for granted that things can get better, and therefore makes it worthwhile looking around for ways to improve them. Obviously, if you know for sure that nothing will work, there’s no point looking. We call this pessimism.

From my point of view, this explanation reduces the number of possible clients by two thirds, but no matter, there are still enough  stressed-out overworked but optimistic teachers to keep me busy.

Less flippantly, since we know from recent work in Positive Psychology and other areas that people’s cognitive style can move towards greater optimism – what can we do for these teachers that will move them from learned helplessness into taking control of their work lives, and incidentally of the education system that they are finding so damaging?

There’s something worth thinking about.



How to motivate yourself and others…

A long time ago – 1st May 2011 to be exact – I wrote a piece about motivation. (You can find it here.)

I was taken to task afterwards by one person who thought I was being unfair to today’s teachers in it, and also overly gloomy. “It’s a bit bleak, isn’t it?” And it’s true that my inner Eeyore was to the fore. (Though there were some who agreed with me…)

They also asked the obvious question – if you don’t motivate with extrinsic carrots and sticks, what do you use? I did write a response at the time, but never got round to posting it. I found it again today, and thought I’d finish it off. Here you are:

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) has some useful ways of thinking about motivation. It suggests that we are motivated – that is, set in motion – either by moving towards things that we want or by moving away from things that we don’t want.

So for example, you might see yourself in your mind’s eye as a Headteacher, and that picture might keep you working even when you’re tired and would rather do something else. Similarly, imagining the negative consequences of not getting your reports in on time motivates (most of) us to do them more or less by the deadline.

These are both fine, by the way. People sometimes want everything to be ‘positive’. But it’s good to be driven to get the coaches booked in time by moving away from your vision of Year 7’s disappointment at not getting the trip they were expecting. (And I would much rather nuclear power stations were run by people moving away from their images of what might go wrong than moving towards a bonus for keeping costs down!)

The thing about these moving towards and away from processes that go on in people’s heads is that they are individual – different people use different strategies. And a single person may use lots of different strategies for different purposes. While NLP says we’ll be able to classify it as ‘towards’ or ‘away from’, it doesn’t say what particular aspect of a situation an individual will use.

Car cleaning as an example

We can see this by thinking about cleaning a car – some people will move towards a mental picture of the shiny car sitting outside the house… or themselves driving along on a bright day in their nice clean car.. or a sense of themselves driving off after going through the car wash… Or perhaps they’ll ‘hear’ their dad’s voice from the past going, “It’s important to keep the car clean,” and maybe explaining why it helps. Yet others may anticipate the physical enjoyment of the process – the water, the suds, making the dirt disappear.

What about the ‘away from’ people? Well, they might be thinking about what people in the street would say if they saw them neglecting the car. Or worrying about the effect of the winter salt on the paintwork. Or imagining not being able to see clearly out of the windscreen and perhaps having an accident… Maybe their dad also said, “It’s important to keep the car clean,” but his reason was around what would happen if you didn’t.

And alongside all these, there will be people who don’t care – maybe they don’t have cars, maybe they don’t even notice the state of their car.

(Personal disclosure: my car generally gets washed when it goes in for its service twice a year or so. I like to be able to see out, but that’s pretty much it. And the conical hat my mother brought back from Malaysia for me for a reason that I don’t understand is still in the back seat two years later.)

What’s this to do with education?

In the earlier post, I was complaining that the stick approach to motivating teachers (and pupils) used by successive governments is counter-productive most of the time. If you want teachers to work well, you need a variety of carrots and sticks, and you need them to be in the right place – the teachers’ heads! As good headteachers and managers know, to get people going, you find the ideas and motivators that work for them as individuals and groups.

And if you want creativity, joy, excitement, reflection, pleasure and the like in a school’s teaching and learning, you use the towards motivators. There are plenty of these available: most teachers respond well to ideas like children’s learning is really important, learning can be hugely enjoyable,  having new ideas for improving things and trying them out is rewarding. The pictures these ideas create in teachers’ heads pull them towards them, encouraging them to try to achieve these outcomes,  and making all that hard work meaningful and worthwhile.

On the other hand, the anxiety and fear motivators so plentifully employed in many schools are the ones that push people away from the outcomes they dread. They’re easy to use: anybody would fear being “found out” by Ofsted, letting their colleagues down by not completing yet another fill-in sheet, not meeting the current set of targets.

But they have two major problems. First, anxiety and fear evoke physical stress responses in our bodies. Energy resources are directed to the big muscles of our legs and arms, and towards our hearts and lungs – great if you’re running away from a grizzly bear – less so, if you have yet another Ofsted inspection.  Stress makes you stupid. (You don’t need to do calculus when running from a threat, and we’re not designed to think at the same time.) This is not helpful to anyone, including your Head who is hoping for an Outstanding. (So why do so many Heads deliberately and accidentally create fear and anxiety in their colleagues? Haven’t they noticed it doesn’t work?)

The second problem is that moving away from things often doesn’t give you a very good sense of direction. When you want something, and can see it in your mind’s eye, you know what you’re aiming at. When you don’t want something, there are lots of ways you can go away from it, and most of them don’t take you anywhere you’d want to go.

I think this is partly why there’s so much fudging of results going on in, eg, trying to meet the children’s targets. (We all know it happens – though a surprising number of people (including the government and the advisers who put the system in place) don’t seem to have worked out that it’s completely inevitable in the current climate.)

When you’re moving away from the distress of not ‘hitting your targets’ (oh, our beloved war metaphors!), letting the side down, revealing that you’re actually a terrible teacher, upsetting the children, disappointing the parents, etc etc etc, your options are limited. And at this point, you’re no longer moving towards your nice pictures of children learning… you’re just moving speedily away from pictures of humiliation and disaster…. so fudging the children’s levels seems the least worst option.* If you’re really practised, you can kid yourself at the same time. If not, prepare for a miserable period while you wonder why you’re the only one who doesn’t seem to cope properly… (Want to know a secret? Pretty much every teacher I meet starts nodding like crazy when we talk about this – you’re definitely not alone!)

I’m not sure if there’s a moral to this, or whether it’s just a rant. Perhaps the moral is this: if you’re managing people, whoever they are – including the children – be aware of what motivators you’re invoking. If you can create the kinds of pictures in people’s heads that pull them towards them, you’re going to make everyone’s life easier and more enjoyable. If you evoke the anxiety and fear pictures, don’t be surprised if you get strange and unwanted results.

And if you’re thinking about motivating yourself – try some positive towards pictures of what you want to happen. We all use this approach some of the time, but I’ve found plenty of teachers who at work almost exclusively motivate themselves by thinking of the worst that can happen and then driving themselves on the adrenalin spike this creates. Whew, it’s a tiring way of running your life, and with those stress chemicals running round your body, you don’t notice the opportunities to do things differently, more quickly and effectively, and with more enjoyment!



* You could go back and point out that the levels the children came up with were hopelessly optimistic, which meant that you couldn’t teach the material you expected to teach, which meant that you wasted time finding out what would actually be useful to teach, which meant that the target system has actually disadvantaged the children this year, as it did last year and will next year… but you’d be pretty crazy to do this, wouldn’t you?


When teachers cheat…

There’s a new post on Freakonomics Radio about cheating teachers (in the US):

It’s only 5 minutes long, and like all their podcasts, well-worth listening to. As economists, Steve Levitt and the Freakonomics team have interesting perspectives which make you look at the world differently.

But it struck me while listening: Levitt and co seem to take it for granted that the issue is how to stop teachers cheating in high-stakes tests. So much so that a while ago,  Levitt says he tried to make a business out of stopping it. (He developed an algorithm that apparently would identify cheating from final test data.)

The business didn’t succeed – which he puts down to the vested interests from the classroom teacher through to the state education level. No-one involved in the process benefits from discovering that some of their better results aren’t real, so no-one is prepared to pay for Levitt to find out that they aren’t!

I’m sure that there’s a lot of truth in this. At the same time, I think a lot of people involved in this high-stakes testing – both in the US and here in the UK – are uncomfortably aware that this approach to raising standards is ineffective, expensive and painful for children and teachers alike.

To me, the interesting underlying economic question is about whether having high-stakes tests is the most effective way of raising standards – and the podcast doesn’t even ask this. Of course, it’s a much harder question.


(Afterword: the blurb about the podcast is interesting too – it points to various forms of cheating, from hinting that a class should take special care with a question to outright falsification. And it suggests that it’s the ‘bad’ teachers especially who cheat. Now this is careless thinking – it assumes, like the tests themselves, that a teacher’s results are poor because of their teaching… over large numbers of teachers, schools and pupils maybe this is true – though I don’t think it’s as simple as that – think of teaching in Tower Hamlets and Reigate, and wonder what your results would be in each case – but in any individual year, there may be all kinds of reasons why results are as they are. You don’t have to be a bad teacher to have ‘bad’ results.

You don’t have to be a bad teacher to worry about your results, either. What if you’re a ‘good’ teacher, but this year’s class is achieving much worse than usual? You may resist the pressure to hint… but it will be there. And over time, the pressure we, as a society, are exerting on our teachers, headteachers and school managers, is pushing them further down the slope…

When we introduced this particular form of accountability in the UK, I don’t think anyone predicted that it would create such a pressing invitation to large numbers of middle-class people to become increasingly dishonest. But that’s what it’s done. And I’m not sure that there was such a big difference in the dishonesty of giving a hint to a class sitting a standard assessment and the dishonesty of providing extra tuition to the ones likely to cross the magic 5 A-C’s barrier at the expense of those who wouldn’t. The net effect has been to take teachers and heads away from doing their best for their pupils to doing their best for ‘the school’ and in some cases, for themselves.

An algorithm for finding cheaters, even if used, wouldn’t help us at all with that.)