Inset Day at Animal Farm

There was a subdued atmosphere as the animals shuffled into the barn. They looked carefully for their names on the seating plan, then made their way to the round tables, shooting anxious glances at the sugar paper and different coloured pens as they did so. INSET sessions had become a choreographed affair once again, with little opportunity to question what had been decided by the pigs or to suggest new ideas. The glorious CPD gatherings in the days immediately after the Revolution, with their buzz of enthusiasm, thirst for learning and overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, had become a dim and distant memory.

When they were all settled, Napoleon stepped to the front, looked around at his audience, waited for complete silence, and began to speak. ‘Comrades,’ he began, ‘the other pigs and I have been working tirelessly to bring you the benefits of educational research through this year’s INSET programme. We know from countless studies that an evidence-informed curriculum will be rewarded with vastly increased value added scores and the top rating from Ofsted. The education of students is also important, for sure, but without hard data, it means nothing. We need unequivocal metrics to demonstrate that we are surpassing all our human rivals beyond these gates.’

He waited for the significance of his words to sink in. All the listeners knew that he would not speak for long, but that what he said was of great import. He had no need to make extensive speeches; he had a team of lesser pigs around him who were only too keen to do so. They sat in a row behind Napoleon at the front, nodding wisely at intervals and scanning the faces of the other animals.

Napoleon continued, ‘Today the plan is to write our curriculum intent. We know that curriculum is all-important and that we have been freed from the generic pedagogical tyranny of the former times. So it is right for us to devote today in its entirety to this issue. We will do so in the collaborative spirit of the revolution, with every animal’s contribution counting equally. To take you through the next part of the session, I will hand over to Comrade Squealer.’

From the row of pigs, Squealer leapt to his feet and stepped forward eagerly while Napoleon sat down. ‘Comrades,’ he cried in his high-pitched voice, ‘I have spent a long time consulting the experts and devoting careful thought to what our curriculum intent statement should look like. Three things have become crystal-clear to me: firstly that it must refer to “knowledge” at least once in every sentence, regardless of whether the usage makes any sense, secondly that it must include a quotation from a renowned cognitive psychologist, no matter how badly misunderstood, and thirdly that it must not miss an opportunity for hyperbole, whether or not it bears any relation to the reality in the classroom. Precise, accurate language is a badge of slavery, comrades. We animals have freed ourselves of such constraints.’

At this point Squealer noticed that one of the ducks at a table in the middle had raised her wing. Squealer looked a little surprised at the unexpected question, but hesitated and nodded in her direction to indicate that she should speak.

‘I was wondering what we mean by knowledge,’ she began in a voice which was barely more than a whisper. ‘Are we merely talking about factual knowledge or is it permissible to include subject-specific skills in that category?’

There was an audible murmur around the room and the other animals cast surreptitious glances at each other in shock at the duck’s audacity. Squealer lifted his trotter for silence, which gradually returned to the room. ‘The comrade no doubt means well,’ he said with a smile, ‘but she has clearly forgotten what it was like before the revolution. Perhaps I should give you a reminder. Do you remember, comrades, when Mr Jones stood in this very spot and pulled the wool over your eyes with his nonsensical talk of higher order thinking skills like evaluation and synthesis? Do you remember when you were required to have at least one skill-based learning objective which had to be copied from the board at the start of the lesson? Do you remember when you had to put a reference in all your lesson plans to one of the PLTS which were to be developed in every unit of study?’

The animals nodded their heads at the thought of those terrible days. Some even shuddered as they remembered the misery Mr Jones’ diktats had caused them.

‘Is that what you want to return to?’ Squealer asked. His voice had been rising in both pitch and volume as he built to this question, and he paused dramatically to allow it to sink in, knowing that he could count on the answer.

The animals shook their heads and some even mumbled responses in the negative. One thing they could all agree on was that they certainly did not want to return to the days of Mr Jones. They were so preoccupied that nobody noticed the duck attempting to point out that she hadn’t been asking about generic skills at all, but whether it was reasonable for her to regard the artistic techniques at the heart of her practice as procedural knowledge.

Squealer moved swiftly to consolidate his triumph. ‘I thought not, comrades,’ he continued. ‘So let us get back to the business of our curriculum intent without further ado. We pigs have discussed at great length what should be included, and have produced a curriculum intent statement for the entire farm, but it is not for us to impose our views on you. We animals make decisions collectively, so we would like you to spend the next hour brainstorming what should be included in your department’s curriculum intent and recording your ideas on the sugar paper. It is entirely up to you what to include, but of course we know that your contributions will uphold the spirit of animalism to the full.’

As he finished his final sentence, Squealer used one trotter to press a button on the remote control which he held, with some difficulty, in the other. With a beep and a hum, the projector came to life above the animals’ heads. The mood was somewhat lost by the long delay as the bulb brightened and the display gradually came into focus on the bare wooden boards of the wall, but eventually everyone could see what was there. It was a set of seven bullet points. The animals took in the text at their different paces, with some spelling it out painstakingly and the more confident ones reading it aloud for the benefit of those who were still illiterate.

‘Looks more like a set of seven commandments than an intent statement to me,’ muttered Benjamin the donkey to nobody in particular, allowing his usual cynicism to get the better of him and running the risk of being overheard. He could ill-afford to be put through another set of capability proceedings, from which there would be little chance of recovery.

‘Hush!’ his friend Boxer replied. ‘It’s not for us to question what our leaders have clearly put so much thought into.’ Boxer’s faith in the pigs, especially Napoleon, knew no bounds. The giant horse found it very hard to take in what was being expressed at these sessions and he still struggled to fill in the box on his lesson plans where he was required to explain how he was going to reduce extraneous cognitive load, but he worked harder than anyone to improve. He had adopted a new mantra which he repeated to himself as he trudged to work every day: ‘I must be more evidence-informed.’

The animals got to work without enthusiasm. Somebody either volunteered or was press-ganged into acting as the scribe for each table, and the outcome looked passably like collective discussion about what should be included. By the time the hour had passed, each department had a set of bullet points which were very similar to the ones which Squealer had projected on the wall. In the case of Boxer’s department, he had insisted that they simply copy them word for word. ‘Napoleon is always right,’ he kept repeating. ‘It’s foolish for us to think we can do better.’

Squealer scampered around the room excitedly, collecting in the pieces of sugar paper from each table. ‘I will get them all typed up for you by tomorrow,’ he promised.

As soon as there was a mention of things being typed up, Mollie the white mare shot a hoof into the air. ‘Please can we have our curriculum intent thingy in Comic Sans?’ she blurted out, without waiting to be called on.

Squealer started to reply, but he was cut short by Napoleon, who had risen once more to his feet. ‘That is of no consequence, comrade!’ he snapped. ‘We worried about trivial things before the Revolution, but now we know that all fonts are equal and there is no need for further discussion on the matter.’

Once again Benjamin failed to keep his thoughts to himself. ‘Comic Sans is definitely less equal than others,’ he said under his breath.

Napoleon must have overheard, because he twisted his large head around until he was looking directly at Benjamin and fixed the donkey with a glare which made all the animals’ blood run cold. He remained standing and did not take his eyes off Benjamin, even when Squealer began to speak again.

‘Now that you have decided on your curriculum intent,’ he said, ‘you may go into your departments and continue work. We would like you to use the time for collaborative curriculum planning. How you do this, of course, is up to you, but everything must be recorded on the official proforma and it must meet certain requirements. Firstly, we know that retrieval practice boosts memory, therefore every lesson must include a quiz or test at least once every 20 minutes. This has the additional benefit of making progress within the lesson visible to observers. Secondly, we are adding a section to the document for each scheme of work, in which there must be a reference to a specific piece of research. We know that Ofsted put lots of references in their own publications these days and we are confident that it will impress them if we do the same. Finally, we know for sure that telling students to think about their thinking adds seven months to their progress, whatever that means, so you must make it absolutely clear how you are going to do metacognition in all lesson plans and submit them to me at the start of each week for checking in the usual way.’

Squealer rolled up the bundle of sugar paper in his trotters before concluding his session. ‘Thank you, everyone, for your hard work this morning. Before everyone leaves, is there anything you want to say, Comrade Napoleon?’

Hearing his own name mentioned, Napoleon turned his attention from Benjamin back to the whole company. ‘I think you have made things very clear, Comrade Squealer,’ the leader said. ‘I would just add that this morning gives us yet more evidence of how much freedom we have all been able to enjoy since the Revolution. When Mr Jones was in charge, he tyrannised you with the writing of pointless, nonsensical “vision statements” for everything. We all knew that this was a complete waste of time. Now that we live according to the light of animalism, we have been liberated from “vision statements” so we can spend our time intelligently and productively, writing “intent statements” instead. I can only imagine how grateful you must be for what the Revolution has done for you.’

Napoleon straightened his tie, which looked suspiciously like one which Mr Jones used to wear, turned his back on the room and shuffled off towards his stall. There was a brief moment of confusion as he remembered that he had moved into the farmhouse at the start of term, and was forced to leave in the opposite direction, but everyone knew better than to laugh at his mistake. Once he had departed, the animals stood and went their separate ways, their heads lowered and their hearts heavy.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that George Orwell would forgive me for mangling his masterpiece. Clearly nothing that goes on in schools is in the same universe, let alone the same ball park, as the real-life terror which he allegorised in Animal Farm (1945). However, I think there is genuine cause for concern if educational research and disciplinary expertise, which have the potential to take teachers’ thinking to new heights and liberate them from unhelpful practices, are over-simplified and applied uncritically. It is especially alarming if they are abused to create a whole new panoply of ways to force professionals to prove that they are doing their job competently. The evidence revolution, if I can call it that, is the most exciting development which has taken place in the teaching profession since I joined it in 2001, and I feel very strongly that it must be a thoughtful, nuanced, compassionate revolution, with leaders who will safeguard these qualities. Thankfully my own experiences of CPD in recent years have been overwhelmingly positive and nothing I write about here is based on them, or on any specific schools of which I am aware. I fear, however, that it could all too easily happen if we are not careful. When asked about his own work, Orwell pointed out that ‘revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert.’ Whether we are members of the ‘masses’ or not, we need to make sure we heed his advice.

References

Educational Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit Educational Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit (accessed 280619)

Orwell G (1987) Animal Farm. London: Penguin Books

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