Is your organisation [part of] an efficient Machine, or is it a bag of spanners?

I had a bit of an epiphany recently. I was in interview-prep-mode and on the day of the interview I woke up at about 4.30 am feeling like something was missing from my presentation. So I got up, went downstairs, sat with my notes about the Far East, Hirsch and Cognitive Load Theory and then proceeded to construct the mother of all spider diagrams. What dawned on me was that while I had been looking at every facet of what is done in schools in the Far East to make their pupils better mathematicians (and people, for they work harder and care about family more than we ever do), I had not fully realised that I was actually, all along, looking at an almighty and all-encompassing Machine. Such was the shock of that realisation, the glimpse of the sheer scale of this Far Eastern Machine, that I actually felt a bit sick and my thoughts quickly turned to questions about whether we, in the UK, could ever create wave upon wave of great young mathematicians (and students in general) like they do in Shanghai when we only ever choose to see the superficial cogs (usually the cogs associated with teaching practice).

The Machine
Everything you look at is part of an enormous machine designed to produce the best mathematicians

To test my ‘machine’ theory, I started to think about all the other facets I had not yet written into my spider diagram, and they too seemed to be yet more cogs in this machine. Let me give you some examples:

  • Maths textbooks. These have been organised in line with a curriculum planned to each day, designed by experts and upscaled to a national level, but even the lack of pictures seemed to be a choice based on a singular focus of creating great mathematicians and not wanting to distract them from their core focus of getting better at dealing with numbers. Any child could switch school and instantly mesh with all the other little cogs (children, future brilliant mathematicians, students and teachers) without stopping or causing The Machine to temporarily halt its operations.
  • Evolution of teachers. Lesson study is a normal thing and teachers are continuously evolving at a high rate based on good quality CPD and learning from each other, contributing too to the evolution of the national textbooks. This is an aspect of The Machine that enables it to continuously generate its own perfect cogs. What do we do? Our cogs are disposable and some of them don’t even work properly.
  • Stories. Children are told about legends from their collective past, children who worked hard and did well. So, even from the youngest age, children are being primed to work hard and focus; this is yet another deliberate cog in the education machine. What do we do? We just tell nice stories to little children to make them happy.
  • Co-opting parents. Test results are sent home regularly (with information about what constitutes the average) and parents get to see each page of the maths textbook, knowing what the child is expected to do for homework practice and what is coming next. Whether they want to or not, they will not be able to help themselves because, like all parents, they want their child to do well. Many choose to do a little pre-teaching and inadvertently become important cogs within this enormous Machine.
  • A fine-tuned learning journey. Pre-teaching, explicit teaching interwoven with modeled examples and examples for children to do, massive amounts of intelligent practice, more practice at home, analysis of said homework and daily intervention coupled to routines that have been in place since the equivalent of reception year ensure that children go on a maths journey that is so finely tuned it is almost impossible to fully appreciate. This is a cog within a cog within a cog. No amount of bashing a teacher into submission by some hotshot young leader who’s read about Visible Learning will ever create a teacher-cog that can do this alone.

Each aspect, no matter how obscure or seemingly distant from the core purpose of educating young mathematicians, be it the number of breaks in the day, the lay out of classrooms or the comfort and ease of movement of their school uniform, reveals itself to be a cog in an incredibly efficient and highly evolved Machine that has one core purpose. How many cogs are there? If you include all the stakeholders, resources, protocols and systems that have been efficiently co-opted: millions and millions and millions, all of them shiny and self-renewing. Many school leaders might be thinking that their organisation is as good as any Machine that is the entirety of the Chinese education system, but no way is their organisation any match for this supreme Machine that we cannot even see properly, let alone emulate. Frankly, this goes beyond making your marking policy the same across a school, or guiding a uniformity of rhetoric across all subject policies and action plans, or even being that bit bolder and creating whole-school discipline policies to help teachers actually teach. I’m talking about a Machine that is the same size as an entire, enormous nation and has been evolving for thousands of years.

Not even the DfE has seen it properly, although various people are clearly learning about all the different cogs, but they are still only seeing cogs. To some extent, this is no one’s fault because we Westerners are brought up to look at everything in a reductionist way, measuring each cog’s effectiveness using the no-quibble methods of statistical analyses. If we’re only used to looking at cogs, it’s no wonder we only see cogs. Many leaders too would only choose to see cogs that they can blame, hence the obsession with looking constantly at and blaming teachers for the lack of progress of certain children, when in fact the blame lays with the machine that these teacher-cogs are part of.

When you try to take your Western hat off, and it’s a very pompous hat that assumes we’re better than everyone else in the world, what you see is truly amazing. I was only really able to see things after I had learned about Confucianism; this is what I would consider to be like the operating system of The Machine, this uniform belief that everyone can do well and that hard work and study not only makes you more intelligent, but a better person too. Perhaps we could all take our Western hats off, if only for a moment, and truly appreciate the sheer scale of this Machine and then look back at what we are doing in the UK, wondering why on earth the College of Teaching would promote a certain kind of teacher autonomy, or personalised education that effectively weakens an already weak education Machine that exists in the UK (if it does actually exist). Why too, would leaders write about their ‘concerns’ that individual teacher bloggers are only ever writing about personal experiences, effectively trying to shut off another vital group of cogs that could collectively be part of the evolution of an education Machine in the UK?

Let’s create an efficient education Machine, not a bag of spanners.

Who’s with me?



2 thoughts on “Is your organisation [part of] an efficient Machine, or is it a bag of spanners?

  1. It’s not often that I fundamentally disagree with you, but this great machine fell to pieces a few hundred years ago, and was effectively humiliated by a few British gunboats and subsequently by Japan. Then it produced Mao, the Great Leap Forward (in which something like 30 million people starved) and then the ‘cultural revolution’, which persecuted the brightest and the best and killed a few million of them.

    By contrast, England was one of the last European nations to mandate state schools for all, yet we led the world in the concurrent scientific, financial, commercial and industrial revolutions which have freed the bulk of humanity from want, hunger and disease. The British Empire was created by private ventures, not government.

    I’d go so far as to argue that our educational establishment represents a machine of sorts, one which crushes people like you, but with nothing like the efficiency of the Chinese. Happily, our system still has enough gaps for a few people like Katherine Birbalsingh to slip through.


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