Friday, August 8, 2014

When Mastery Comes - The Teacher's Tale.

"The Franklin's Tale". image courtesy

The notion of mastery in marriage, politics, art, craft and much else is one of the hardy perennials in the garden of human history. This post concerns its currency in the vocabulary of education today to denote certain states of learning and teaching prowess.

 Neither "mastery" nor its variant forms featured significantly in my own career, in which academic context, I'd say only "master" was in general circulation: it meant "male teacher" and a higher degree.With regard to learning, my students "learned", "got", "grasped", "understood" and "appreciated". Pennies dropped. I neither set out consciously to develop "mastery" nor indicated that state may have been achieved. None of my colleagues were officially designated "master teacher", "expert", "highly-skilled leader" "outstanding" or "guru". They were simply "head teacher" or an "assistant teacher" with or without additional paid responsibilities. 

In retirement, I follow as best I can what's happening in schools and have observed a sea-change from shared appreciation of the implicit to a systemic impulse for explicitness. So universal is this shift that it re-contours every hill and valley of education's landscape. The forces driving this change are I think generally understood, embraced and opposed with equal passion. The impact on the classroom is for me the litmus test and in a future post I'll look specifically at the virtue of leaving certain matters implicit in lessons. Here I just want to sound a note of caution on the deployment of "mastery" in the terminology of learning and argue against the concept of "Master Teacher" as a promotional post in schools.


There is the world of difference in the general use of a word and its formal adoption to make explicit reference to a state of educational achievement. I can speak with equanimity about Carl Faberge's mastery, indicate Professor Moriarty's genius as a criminal "mastermind" or recommend John Barton's "Playing Shakespeare" series as a "masterclass" without the need to delineate every "masterly" feature. If, however, a choice is made to deploy the word in the context of learning, descriptive criteria and a case for its value are essential. 

There is, first of all, in my own subject, a well-populated set of topics just not amenable to "mastery". I've been (enjoyably) in near constant company with rhythm and metaphor for some 55 years: it would be presumptuous and meaningless to claim mastery of either. Certainly one may come to identify, describe and comment critically on the use of sprung rhythm in the poetry of Hopkins. Similarly, the distinction of metaphor from simile, their effective use in a student's own writing & their appreciation do educate. However, despite decades of responding to imagery, so elusive is this literary technique in its density, manifold layering and resonances that I'd never claim "comprehensive knowledge or skill", still less "control or superiority" - the (related) strands of mastery's definition. I have noted elsewhere that ( along with appreciation of form and of narrative voice) the imaginative act of experiencing images is one of the most common and difficult matters to nurture in A level students. 

Secondary English teachers will be aware how commonly one revisits of necessity even the awareness of alliteration. Not that it hasn't been explicitly taught in earlier years. Much the same applies to words commonly confused. 

Now, such knowledge would initially seem more open to teacher and pupil recording "mastered" after being taught, practised and tested. My own education is characterised by just this process. While not exactly in possession of a photographic memory, I revised for O and A level exams by hypnotising myself and looking at my exercise books so often in that state I could see the pages in my mind in the exam room. I got the lowest pass grade in Maths by writing out geometry theorems suggested by questions I didn't understand. 

As with all the play scripts I've learned over the years in amateur theatre, almost every detail absorbed for every exam I've ever taken was forgotten within a fortnight. My mind evidently says what is retained is that which is of current use. Keep testing me, I'll retain it. 

The underlying question here is "Just when does mastery come?" Logically, one would need to test the adult decades after leaving school to rubber stamp "Mastery." You have to keep on making Faberge Easter Eggs (and die, ironically) to earn that accolade.

So the problem I have with this word in the context of the classroom is its too slick, premature implication of accomplished in both senses of the word. This is self-defeating - the very act of claiming mastered! limits progress and I think, in over-egging achievement does the pupil no favour and demeans a word descriptive of a rare phenomenon, best kept for Old Masters.

The more explicit and measurable you make the stuff of a lesson, the shallower the experience becomes. And, in truth, I have to conclude that the impetus for mastery derives more from its signification of control - which leads right back to that systemic anxiety to appear to be in control, to want control. At root, therefore, I think the illusion of mastery serves the exercise of power, not children. For me, the only virtuous manifestation of control in the classroom is in the maintenance of humane, consistent discipline. 

Master Teacher.

Whichever party is in government after the next election, there will be temptation to dust off existing, common proposals to create posts for Master Teachers (or a less gendered, less American title) as a perceived, logical fine tuning of Performance Related Pay. The Coalition's original (shelved) proposal of 12/12/2011 may be viewed HERE .

Were I still in service, I should decline such a position were it offered and view with dismay the appearance of such beings on my staff. As with mastery there is a realm of difference between complimenting a teacher as great, outstanding, inspirational, highly-skilled, fabulous, cool or a legend! and employing and paying you formally for being thus. As far as I am concerned, an employment contract entails a job to do and someone to do it. A job which breaks down into jobs, not personal qualities. It matters not who constitutes any "independent board" to draw up final criteria - the commitment to a monumental mistake would have been made already.

I wonder: 
For how long would a Master Teacher be appointed? Such characteristics as those in the proposal would surely necessitate constant demonstration to justify continuance.

What impact would this have on teachers? The collation of supporting evidence by one ambitious for such a post would be onerous and significantly modify behaviour with staff and students. Some teachers would be advantaged in appearing suitable by a lighter work load or membership of a high-profile department. 

How close to the realities of a school are the elements in such a proposal? DO such creatures exist who, term in term out, display unerringly such qualities? Not in my experience.

Is it not simply shallow to imagine only certain members of staff are beacons of advice? The Teach First group in Channel 4's series sought out each other. The staff room is a community with freedom to approach those we trust, respect, like or sense as kin. A charismatic figure may be the last thing you need in your confidence. 

The introduction of such a structure would formalise what should  be natural and distort relationships. You should pay teachers for what they do not what they are - or more precisely what they have to wrench themselves into being to conform to an ideal model that demeans anyone who tries to personify qualities rendered explicit which were best left implicit.

Go into any staff room and everyone knows who shines that little bit brighter. Occasionally you have the honour of serving alongside a great soul. They require no payment, not even recognition. We do not envy them: we are grateful. We never tell them of this, directly. 

You can keep your Master Teachers: the greatest compliment I ever was paid (and it moves me now to recall) came heavily disguised in the graceful guise of implicit love when the school secretaries dubbed me "the ordinary teacher". 

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved




Saturday, August 2, 2014

His Last Bow - Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man.

In "His Last Bow", the Sherlock Holmes reader encounters perhaps the most spartan story of the canon. The story's action lasts barely an hour. It is starkly monochrome in the use of third person narration, minimal presence of Doctor Watson and a Holmes largely in disguise in an alien setting a world away from Victorian Baker Street.

This I find totally appropriate and as fine an artistic choice as, for example, the multifaceted, bustling, Dickensian complexity of "The Blue Carbuncle".

"His Last Bow" chronicles a fiction set in what Doyle's readers knew all too well by September 1917 had, in real life, proved "the most terrible August in the history of the world". As they read it, they knew not when the struggle would end or who would win. After three years, war and only war was the single all-consuming reality.

Doyle reflects and respects this by muting the comfortable and familiar until the final intimate, lyrical exchange where fictional words spoken in 1914 are charged with the actual sober defiance of '17. 

That real future is effectively intertwined with four years of fiction within the story's August 1914 hour of action and these resonances render the defeat of Von Bork symbolically momentous.
Von Bork, captive.  Illus A Gilbert, The Strand 1917.

So, as we follow the sequence of fictional episodes, present and past, it is within the known context of real and apocalyptic events. And the author's motive is as simple as his story - reassurance, in pursuit of which every element is designed to illustrate the complacency of the enemy and the superior ingenuity of John Bull. 

That pattern is there in the construction of what occurs within an hour from 9 pm on August 2nd 1914.

 The first half hour belongs to Von Bork and Von Herling. Doyle gives them their (premature) self-congratulatory taste of victory. "The good Altamont" is understood (before his arrival) to be admired and trusted implicitly. The reader is at this stage no wiser than the Germans and (with a Sherlockian delight in the dramatic), the author delays Holmes's coup de theatre to allow the detective private amusement in Altamont's  baiting of Von Bork about his exposed agents.

To the victors however goes the second half hour, crowned with a nostalgic tableau of the way things were.
Bruce & Rathbone "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" (Universal) 1942.

From the conversations in both phases of the story's present the reader is guided to a similar understanding of the past. 

Initially, we believe, with Von Bork, that he has inveigled himself into English society since 1910 without suspicion and amassed a treasure trove of secrets that will soon be in Berlin. The work of four years is all but finished; he awaits only the latest set of naval signal codes to be delivered that night by his most resourceful spy. He has already sent his wife and large household to Flushing in Holland, leaving only himself and one servant, old Martha, who "might almost (harmlessly) personify Britannia"

Doyle proceeds comprehensively to undercut every apparent enemy achievement. If the betrayal and capture of Steiner surprises Von Bork, it pales to insignificance once all is revealed. The ironies cut as deep into the German as they will delight his enemies.

Sailing under the false colours of "a good old sport" is exposed both as a paper-thin disguise and no true reflection of the blackguard within as Doyle presents the newly revealed Holmes with all the courtesies of a real sportsman and gentleman.

Did he but know it, Von Bork was a dead duck in the water from the moment Altamont surfaced in 1912. Undetected as submarines, Holmes and his female confederate disguised as old Martha penetrate organization and household. Networks of communication and agents are fatally, secretly compromised. No wonder then at the German master spy's incandescent curse.
Von Bork humiliated. Illus A Gilbert, The Strand 1917.
 "Curse you, you double traitor!' cried the German, straining against his bonds and glaring murder from his furious eyes."

As Sherlock Holmes notes, following this "furious stream of German invective", the German's unmusical outburst is an "old sweet song" often heard in days gone by. It's a swansong: Von Bork has taken His Last Bow.


And so had "Altamont". So too, did Conan Doyle intend the collection's eponymous title to signal the last of the stories.

In this centenary year we are perhaps best placed to be thankful the only last bow in real life was that of the Kaiser. Cameth the hour, cameth the men.

This one.
 This one.

And Millions Like Us.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved

Further Reading: 

"His Last Bow" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be read on line HERE .

My short story "Good Night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes" imagines the events of the day after "His Last Bow" and may be read HERE .