Disappearances and the discipline of noticing

Chris Husbands

Radio Rentals. Tandy. Foster Menswear. Spangles. Betamax. Flared trousers. Keymarkets. Watneys. Kodak. Things we once took for granted disappear and we cannot quite recall when they did. Cycling back to the IOE from the Department for Education the other day, I noticed that the cheap electronics shops which once lined Tottenham Court Road had all but vanished, replaced by up-market food outlets – Crossrail’s transformation of Tottenham Court Road station having an impact even before it arrives.

Incidentally, Foster Menswear makes the list partly because the Saturday job I had there marked a key stage in my own transition from education to work. I remember that I turned up each Saturday but my workmate, Richard, worked there all week. He was a Midlands Under-18 boxing champion, and in the acres of time at hand (we were losing customers to much hipper clothing chains) he taught me
boxing routines – it turns out that rows of suits on hangers are almost perfect punchbags. I can still manage some of those routines. Like the ability to measure someone up for a suit, they have never quite left me. It’s all a reminder that learning is always going on, though not always what is planned.

My posts for the IOE blog over the last three and a half years have responded to, and tried to make sense of, phenomenal change in education at every scale and at every level – the short-term policy changes which shape curriculum, assessment, funding and structures; the ways in which teachers and school, FE and university leaders are reshaping their practices in response to those changes – almost certainly more significant in the long term than the specific polices themselves; and then the profound underlying social, economic and technological changes which provide the stage on which education actors perform. As an unashamed plug – I hope you can get away with that in your final blog post – the IOE Press will be publishing the blog posts as a collection early in 2016.

For this post, Diane Hofkins, the outstanding IOE blog editor, suggested I look ahead at what the future might hold for schools or universities. But prediction is a mug’s game: the future is always, simultaneously, recognizable as it unfolds and utterly surprising. The eminent mathematics education researcher John Mason has argued that what education practitioners and researchers need to do above all else is to cultivate the ‘discipline of noticing’: developing your own sensitivities and awareness, so that you are attuned to fresh possibilities when they are needed and are alert to such needs through awareness of what is happening at any given time. I don’t know when I first noticed the electronic shops disappearing on Tottenham Court Road or when I saw my first Nespresso machine, or my first CD. If you aren’t careful, by the time you notice, you are out of date.

There are those whose response to the quite phenomenal changes in society, economy and technology is to argue that education needs to reach back, to settle itself on apparently eternal verities of knowledge and formally traditional relationships in schools and classrooms. They are wrong. Education is always a response to specific circumstances. The classrooms and lecture rooms of the 1950s were a response to the society of the 1950s. And that, like them, has gone forever. Then there are those whose response to rapid change is to argue that the whole enterprise of education is broken, and needs remaking, that twenty-first century learners require completely rethought relationships between teachers, learners, assessors and technology. I think they are wrong too: education plays too important a role in socialisation for it to be ripped apart. But schools, universities, teachers and learners are changing around us.  Perhaps the best we can do is to cultivate the discipline of noticing.

My blog posts have ranged through pupil premium, phonics checks, teaching schools, School Direct, assessment without levels, national curriculum reform, inspection, school leadership and the London Challenge, and across international comparisons, including teaching in Shanghai, in Finland, in Alberta.

Which of these will highlight enduring pre-occupations and which will be the Foster Menswear of education – lost, forgotten and unlamented?  I’m no more sure than anyone else, but I do know that the discipline of looking and trying to notice is fundamental. My great privilege as Director of the IOE has been to be both actor – developing responses to change to secure the long-term influence of the IOE – and observer. Being able to draw on an exceptional resource of research and knowledge has enhanced the privilege, and that will continue.

Examples are legion. The IOE’s new ESRC Centre for Global Higher Education will map universities’ responses as the whole world moves to mass higher education. Melanie Ehren’s exploration of inspection across Europe will open up new understandings of inspection and its potential. Tina Isaacs’s exceptional work comparing curriculum across 13 high performing jurisdictions approaches completion. And, with apologies to the outstanding academics I have been privileged to call colleagues but cannot cite here, there is so much more.

This is my final blog as Director of the IOE before I begin work in January as Vice Chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University. How to end?  Well, in the words of one enduring icon, whose centenary is this month, “the end is near…/Regrets – I’ve had a few/… There were times, I’m sure you knew/When I bit off more than I could chew”, and well, you know the rest of it.

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Posted in Education policy, Evidence-based policy, Further higher and lifelong education, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
2 comments on “Disappearances and the discipline of noticing
  1. mikeollerton says:

    I thoroughly noticed myself enjoying your last blog as Director of the IOE. In part this is because of your lovely ‘chatty’ style; akin to putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. A further reason is because I have had the enormous privilege of being in John Mason’s company initially as an Open University student and later through the Association of Teachers of Mathematics and more recently by being a participant in the annual Institute of Mathematical Pedagogy. I also notice myself wanting to be challenged; believing as I do I only really learn something when either someone takes me out of my comfort zone or I take myself out. Risk taking. In part you have achieved the former by introducing me to Tina Isaac’s work; I look forward to reading her research. I wish you well in your new role at Sheffield Hallam; a university I had the enormous pleasure of external examining for a dozen or so years ago.

  2. Graham Holley says:

    Good luck Chris. Enjoy Sheffield, and keep blogging. And Merry Christmas!

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