How to teach with John Stuart Mill, by Daisy Christodoulou

Thanks to the one and only Daisy Christodoulou for this contribution to our Lib Dem Teachers blog.  Get in touch on Twitter (@LibDemTeachers) if you would like to contribute – we would love to hear from you. 

Let’s imagine you want to teach pupils what a verb is.  You give them a brief definition, and a few examples of verbs being used in sentences.

  • Jack sprinted to the shop.
  • She plays football every day.
  • Trains are a type of transport.

What’s the problem here? The verb is always the second word in the sentence. So a pupil might end up assuming from the examples you’ve presented that this is a defining feature of a verb. Suppose you then give them the following sentence and ask them to find the verb.

Every day, she plays football.

If they reply ‘day’, you’ll know they’ve made the wrong inference.

Organising examples, and predicting the inferences that will be made from them, is a key issue in John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic. Mill mainly thought that the principles he outlined here could be used in science, and didn’t think they could be applied to education. But two American educators, Douglas Carnine and Siegfried Engelmann, think that Mill’s principles are relevant to education. Carnine and Engelmann have spent years developing textbooks where the organization and sequencing of examples is given the utmost care and attention. They realized after years of doing this that their principles were very similar to those of Mill’s in A System of Logic.  The example I opened this blog with is one that I developed after reading a guide by Engelmann to presenting grammatical examples.

In the brilliantly titled Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? Carnine and Engelmann look at how Mill’s logical theories can be applied to education, and at the difference it might have made to history if he had done so.

Many Lib Dems will be familiar with Mill’s political writings on education, and indeed with his own idiosyncratic educational biography. Carnine and Engelmann show that his writings on logic have just as much relevance.

Teachers are mostly liberals. Including the conservative ones.


I was interested by John Rendel’s recent post, in which he shared an insight into his ideological background, and his impressions of Tories:

“When you meet a senior Tory (and I encourage you to do so if it’s not too painful), you realise that they often believe what they believe simply because they have so little understanding of what is going on in the real world. Ironically, for that reason, I’m a big advocate for getting as many Tories into teaching in comprehensive schools as possible. Over time, Tory policy should adjust so that the progressive ideals we are fighting for today might just be realised in this decade rather than the next.”

Perhaps this comment about senior Conservatives is true—I haven’t really spent enough time talking to them about serious issues to be able to say with confidence. I do however know a few conservatives in education. I thought I might reply to John’s post with another point of view.

John mentioned the liberal aims of education:

“Teachers are mostly liberals. Teaching exists to empower children through their growing capability and ultimately to set them free.  While valuing education might be consistent with many political ideologies, it is only Social Liberalism for which universal, quality education is such foundational bedrock.”

I often think about the way in which education might set people free. To me, it seems not to be merely a question of opening up career paths, but also of enriching personal lives with the practical wisdom that comes from literature (for example) and the positive liberty that comes from a deep understanding of human societies and the world we live in. I’m sure I am not saying anything controversial: we all want people to have a good choice of occupation, a rich empathy with other humans and a deep understanding of humanity with its social and political structures.

I’m sure everyone will also agree with Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. etc. when they say, in different words but with the same sentiment, “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of of oneself”. We all want people to be able to for example, be more successful mothers and fathers by controlling their anger, be richer and more content by knowing when their desires are being manipulated by advertising, and be able to resist crippling addictions. These things make us freer.

So far, so trite. Here’s where it gets controversial. Although my experience of teaching is limited to just two years, I am convinced that although we all would agree with these aims, many of us unwittingly undermine them.

I won’t go into detail on which policies and practices I think are self-defeating. If you’re already reading education blogs then you probably know exactly what I’m talking about, but some of what I have in mind is explained in Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools.

The problem is that the very reason that these bad ideas persist is because they seem Toryish. Teaching books by dead white men, insisting on the memorisation of information, strictness over empathy—these all sound like the enthusiasms of the quintessential mean-spirited Tory. Why do some cognitive scientists, school leaders and teachers believe in their effectiveness? Isn’t it obvious? Because they’re Tories.

I’m not a Tory; I’m a card-carrying Lib Dem. Some of those who share my beliefs about education are Corbyn-supporters.

Doing what feels liberal in the classroom often undermines liberal aims. It is not enough to have for us to have our hearts in the right place; we need to have our heads in the right place too—and the heart often sends the head down the wrong path.

Perhaps John had something else in mind (like grammar schools, which would not further liberal aims) and would agree with me on a lot of pedagogical points. So apologies, John, if this reply has missed the mark.

But this seems like a good opportunity to make a plea that we avoid unwarranted partisanship and stay clear-eyed about which methods and schools are genuinely advancing our socially liberal aims. We can learn from conservative teachers (and labour teachers) and the last thing we should do is ignore their voices because we assume they come from a place of callousness or ignorance. Teaching is not the right place to coalesce around political ideologies. Even Conservative teachers are mostly liberals in their educational aims. Defining ourselves against them might prove to be a disservice to those we want to help.

Mr Rendel Sucks

This is a guest post written by John Rendel, CEO and Founder of the African secondary school network – PEAS.

“Mr Rendel sucks **** and licks *****.” I try not to read reviews and I rarely ask for feedback, but this one had been written with black marker pen.

On the front of her mini-whiteboard, Lyla had provided the correct solution to a problem I’d set my year 8 maths class. On the back, she’d added her view of my early attempts at inspiring the kids of Camberwell. She was sitting near the front of the class and so, as I nervously looked out at them, I knew that whatever she had written must be very, very funny.

I’d started teaching via Teach First to ‘make a difference while keeping my options open’. Lessons like that one made me question whether I might have better luck changing the world via some other route. Thankfully, as time went by, my lessons improved. Bit by bit, I began to feel not only that I was making a difference but that, as a teacher, I was in a position of extraordinary privilege. It was never easy. As GPs like to diagnose it, I was TATT (tired all the time) and yet, every day I was able – in some small way – to help a child in my class go on to live a bigger and hopefully happier life.

For children like Lyla, who’ve experienced tough relationships from a young age, new positive relationships represent a risk. Often they will push away those they fear they might come to value in order to reduce the pain of a harder separation later on. In the months that followed that incident something wonderful happened. Lyla grew to respect and value my commitment to her learning and my refusal to take her anger personally. After two years with her Lyla had risen to the top of the class. When, in 2005, I let them know I was leaving teaching (to launch the PEAS school network in Africa) she wrote the kindest of notes.

Teachers are mostly liberals. Teaching exists to empower children through their growing capability and ultimately to set them free.  While valuing education might be consistent with many political ideologies, it is only Social Liberalism for which universal, quality education is such foundational bedrock. I’m not sure how Lyla’s life has panned out but I hope that she is in some way more ‘free’ than she might otherwise have been.

Growing up the son of the former Lib-Dem MP for Newbury, David Rendel, I hope I can be forgiven for tribal Liberalism. If we had had a family motto, it might have read ‘fairness and rationality’ or whatever those are in Latin perhaps. Encouraged to question everything and yet somehow convinced (almost in vitro) of the virtues of Social Liberalism. My brothers and I went to pretty good local comprehensive schools but spent a lot of time and most of each holiday with cousins and family friends attending public schools. As a result, it was immediately apparent that education wasn’t distributed fairly and that that unfairness underpinned injustice everywhere. Even within the schools I attended, many of the most important learning opportunities – like residential school trips –  were limited to those whose parents could meet the cost. Committing my life to tackling educational disadvantage was, therefore, the simplest route for me to live out the values of my father who I grew up idolising.

Newbury had been a Tory seat for something like 80 years before my father won it in a by-election in 1993. I still remember the majority. Twenty two thousand and fifty five. The previous year, at the age of 11, I had started to help out with the campaigns. Back then, I was mainly tasked with keeping up the spirits of the least mobile OAPS and deployed alongside them to fold and stuff leaflets. Famously, 1992 was the election in which everyone was convinced Labour would win and we were sure that the Lib Dems would make good gains against the Tories. Having read all the literature, I had come to understand that voting Tory indicated either stupidity or evil. I felt confident there were insufficient numbers of either group to defeat the progressive parties so when we lost, I was heart-broken and spent half the night crying. I cried for my father who had been effectively been turned down for a job by a panel of 80,000. But also because I had begun to understand for the first time that the world was a lot more selfish, more myopic and more scared than I had grown up to believe. Because I remain an eternal optimist, I can see now that the Lib-Dems played a key role through that period. Even when the world isn’t ready for the latest progressive thinking, yesterday’s liberal ideas have usually become today’s mainstream policy. The challenge is that by the time an idea is mainstream, Liberals have moved on to something even more radical. Our role seems to be to drive the policy agenda for the next decade while allowing Labour and the Tories to fight over who gets to enact the policy people have adjusted to today.

Not long after I left home, my parents downsized to a tiny hamlet outside Newbury. In parliament from 2001 my father had supported the ban on fox-hunting. As a fly-fisherman, I was conflicted. On the one hand, fox-hunting did seem unnecessarily cruel. On the other, it brought communities together and got people to engage with and enjoy the countryside. Banning anything takes away at least some of our freedom to make independent moral choices. Ultimately, the liberty and rights of the fox were up against personal freedom. Where investing in education was a no-brainer for a liberal, banning fox-hunting was anything but. The issue was particularly difficult when you remained a meat-eater. These days, eating meat is hardly more necessary than hunting for fun. While fox-hunting may be cruel it is cruel for a matter of minutes where modern agriculture can be cruel across an animal’s lifetime.

Anyway, one day in late spring, during the election in 2005, a large group from the countryside alliance had gathered outside my parents’ cottage to blow hunting horns and generally try to scare him and the family. Dad, who had an uncanny ability to argue both sides of any debate better than his opponent, went outside and discussed his position with them and had remained there for over two hours. While I doubt he convinced anyone, I’m sure the huntsmen came to respect him for facing up to their anger. Sadly, after finally losing his seat that year, he was trolled by supporter of the hunt. As we continued to sift through his papers a year after his death, we found one note which said something like, ‘I’m so glad you lost and I hope it makes you very, very unhappy’. When the backdrop of family life includes stories like that it is hard not to see the world of politics through a ‘them and us’ lens.

As the years have passed (I’ve even met two or three nice Tories since then), I’ve become a little less tribal and a little more Socratic – wisest is he who knows he knows nothing etc. Having said that, it still seems to me that when they are in power, Tories tend to make choices which make most people’s lives smaller and less free. Most frustratingly they do so in the name of personal liberty. Indeed, I’ve come to understand modern Western politics as an eternal battle over how best to define liberty itself and having done that, how best to ensure it is distributed fairly. Reading Mill, Rawls, and Amartya Sen, I spent my university years trying to work that question out.

One final thought. When you meet a senior Tory (and I encourage you to do so if it’s not too painful), you realise that they often believe what they believe simply because they have so little understanding of what is going on in the real world. Ironically, for that reason, I’m a big advocate for getting as many Tories into teaching in comprehensive schools as possible. Over time, Tory policy should adjust so that the progressive ideals we are fighting for today might just be realised in this decade rather than the next.

Ex-teachers – your liberal democracy needs YOU!


A few years ago I left teaching to work “in and around” education.  This year I returned.  Friends told me I was crazy to switch back – I was leaving a well-paid leadership role – but I believe in citizenship and social justice and I want to unleash the power of young citizens to be a force for positive change, regardless of where they grow up.  To achieve this they need access to knowledge.  If I can teach, I thought to myself, I had better get back to the classroom.

Unsurprisingly, there was a gap between my rhetoric and the reality I faced on my return.  I work in a very good school but this year has been a baptism of fire punctuated by insecurities and doubts about the wisdom of my return to school.

Over the last few months I have reflected on some of the issues that may put off ex-teachers returning to the classroom.  So here are ten dos and don’ts for policymakers and senior leaders in schools.

  1. DO back staff Some management practices are unforgivable. Number one on my list is undermining teachers in front of classes and pupils. This could include SMT returning a student to a classroom after being removed by a teacher, or saying to a pupil “But you were good for me last year”. As a returning teacher, just like an NQT, it helps to know that people have your back.
  2. DON’T tolerate inconsistent behaviour policies – I am amazed that schools are happy to allow every teacher to manage behaviour in a different way
  3. DO centralise detentions for poor classroom behaviour – When deciding whether to give a detention I have a very simple trade off – do I want a 20-min break to eat my sandwich in peace? Do I want to go to the loo? If so, I can’t give a detention.
  4. DO give dedicated time and support to returning teachers – It has been informal networks that saved me. I regularly pour my soul out to a nearly retired teacher who helps me think through different situations. This has been indispensable. Every returning teacher should have a mentor – NQTs do – why not returners?
  5. DO explain the mission – Having worked for charities I have seen the power of mission-driven organisations. I worry that teachers have got caught up in catchphrases – engagement, progress, value-added. Why don’t we talk about our actual mission more? We are the guardians of the next generation; so often this is lost in management speak.
  6. DON’T use generic skills and GCSE grades 1-9 at KS3 – In some schools the removal of KS3 levels has resulted in the immediate return of levels where generic skills are being used to create a hierarchy of skills for the new GCSE 1-9. It is utterly meaningless and at odds with genuine progress.
  7. DON’T track what is meaningless  – As if to add insult to injury, the above skills frameworks are used to create dazzling dashboards of red, yellow and amber traffic lights to identity pupils whose progress is on or off track. While this may look like a nifty system, it is completely meaningless given the random skills identified in the skills criteria above. All parents really want to know is how their child is doing in relation to others – too many of our current systems leave parents baffled
  8. DON’T use new Grades 1-9 to track progress – At the end of the day a cohort will sit the exam and then a proportion of top papers will get the top grade. To try to pretend otherwise is just guess work. I can’t think of anything worse than having your predicted GCSE grades hanging over you like the sword of Damocles when you have only just started secondary school.
  9. DO unite against workload – A united front on workload by government and unions would go a long way to unleashing the focused and dedicated profession that I know we can be.
  10. DON’T create a them and us profession – There are now many routes into teaching but we should unite as a profession behind the ultimate goal of unleashing the next generation as our future citizens. It should not matter what route we took into teaching.

We can be a mission-driven profession ready to unleash the next generation. Ex-teachers we need YOU! Your future citizens need YOU and our liberal democracy needs YOU! …..Please come back for good! I did, YOU could too!

The Veil of Ignorance

Not every post on this Liberal Democrat Teachers blog will relate directly to Liberalism, or even the Liberal Democrats, but to get things going I want to grapple with the challenge of creating an education system which caters for students of different levels of attainment, and whether liberalism might help us tackle this endemic challenge.

Providing for different levels of attainment is an endemic challenge because it’s entirely predictable that when you put young people together in a school or classroom they learn at different rates.  In a planning committee meeting for a yet-to-exist public education system, the question of how to provide for students working at different levels of attainment would have been scribbled on the flipchart from the very beginning, alongside other basic concerns such as which subjects should be taught and how we’re going to pay for all of this.

The fundamental and universal nature of this challenge is clear in Lucy Crehan’s brilliant book Cleverlands, which reveals the response of high performing education systems around the world to the quandary of supporting students at different levels of attainment.   Crehan makes a compelling case that the best education systems support students to take on challenges, rather than make concessions for lower-attaining students:

“Of the five top-performing systems I went to, four of them had common standards that nearly all children were expected to reach, right up until the age of 15. The teachers and the parents supported less able students to reach these standards through additional teaching and tutoring, and through having high expectations of those children – ‘I’ll help you get there but you’ve got to put in the effort’ – rather than making concessions, saying ‘Don’t worry, we can’t all be good at maths’, and sending them to a different school, putting them in a different class, or giving them a different curriculum.”

Crehan compares the Canadian system, in which lower performing students follow the same curriculum as their higher attaining peers, with the English system, where grammar schools, streaming, setting and target-setting can lock-in underachievement for those progressing at a slower rate.  Even within English classrooms there’s a tendency to lower our expectations for some students, with our all/most/some objectives, and our fixation with differentiation which, at its worst, can deny challenging tasks to those who need them most (“low attainers will draw a picture of a rainforest, middle attainers will describe a rainforest, high attainers will describe different types of rainforest”).

In Cleverlands, the exception to the rule that good education systems keep all students on the same track is Singapore, where students are separated by ability and sent to different types of schools at the ages of 10 and 12. By clustering kids who are performing better at these points, and putting them in highly academic schools with the system’s best teachers and facilities, the Singapore system accelerates the advantages that richer kids already enjoy, thereby exacerbating the challenges faced by poorer kids.

When I first started thinking about liberalism and separating students by attainment (which includes grammar schools, streaming and setting) I wondered if liberalism’s founding fathers would be pretty comfortable with the concept, as setting by ability could be seen as an expression of individualism, allowing students to flourish on their own terms, based on their talents and efforts.

Yet on closer inspection separating students by attainment is precisely the kind of external interference and entrenched privilege that liberals reject.  Under the grammar system, for example, a higher authority decides what kind of education an individual student deserves, rather than all individuals receiving their rightful entitlement to a sound education.

The ‘father of liberalism’ John Locke advocated a night-watchman state which would protect citizens when necessary but would otherwise allow people to get on with their lives.  The practice of kettling our higher attainers with other higher atttainers, and our lower attainers with other lower attainers, is far more like the meddling state that Locke and other liberals rejected, than the night-watchman state that they proposed.

The solution to our endemic challenge of catering for students at different levels of attainment might lie with another liberal named John – John Rawls.  Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance was his solution to the challenge of allowing for some variation between individuals in terms of their wealth and status, but not so much variation that those at the bottom suffer.  Rawls proposed that a society should be planned behind this veil of ignorance, so that any of the planners could occupy any position in the society that they create – this would ensure that no one would agree to a level of inequality that caused suffering to those at the bottom, since they themselves could occupy that place:

“Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”

Applied to schools and setting, our veil of ignorance would remind us that if we want to set students by attainment, the plight of students in the bottom sets must be forefront in our thinking – this could be us or our own kids – and we should only proceed if and when we are reassured that setting would not damage their prospects.

I’m pretty sure that an education system designed behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance would ensure that all students follow the same track until 15 or 16, and that the only form of differentiation experienced by our lower attainers would be increased support so that they can catch up and keep up with their peers. I’m pretty sure that these lower attainers would be guaranteed access to the best facilities and the best teachers in order to aid this catch-up.

Let’s learn from Rawls, Locke and the best education systems in the world, by keeping all our kids on the same track until the age of 16.