Bob Bibby 1942 – 2014

Bob Bibby, former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and English Advisor for the West Midlands borough of Dudley, died on June 6th. Another former Chair of NATE, Shona Walton, has written an obituary on the NATE website here.

Bob interviewed me for my first job as an English teacher at a ‘new school’ in Dudley (that’s all it said in the job advert). My training with Tony Adams in Cambridge had prepared me for the teaching of texts and the use of computers in schools (bloody big old useless ones attached to cassette recorders) but it was Bob, through his leadership of the borough’s English, Drama and Media advisory team, that gave me opportunities to develop as a teacher that were, I now see, literally priceless. It was the way that Bob worked with heads of English – such as the legendary Pat Montgomery – that created the conditions for the rest of us.

Bob’s Dudley team involved me in the National Writing Project (advisory teacher Chris Morris), the Language in the National Curriculum project and the National Oracy Project (advisory teacher Rachel Robinson). Through this involvement, I extended and deepened my knowledge of pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, at the same time both a practical and deeply intellectual activity. The children I taught (I think) benefited from increased attention to rhetoric and process in my teaching of writing; emphasis on the relationship between varieties of language and power, grammar in the proper sense of understanding and manipulating a meaning-making system; oral language development, the relationship between narrative and the development of higher level thinking. My students’ work appeared in books and reports and, horrifyingly, I appeared in Common Bonds, the Oracy Project video. I wasn’t special. You will see the work of lots of Dudley English teachers in these projects’ publications.

As an approach to teachers’ professional development, Bob’s style might be described as that of an organic intellectual who sought to transform the activities of the teaching profession by getting them to articulate their own scientific knowledge. These days a sentence like that can sound like a fine example of Blob-ism or simple wanker-dom. And that’s a problem with the times we live in and their dominant discourses. It’s not Bob’s problem or, dare I say it, mine. (OK, it may be mine).But an English advisor like Bob didn’t think that an MA would save your soul as a teacher. He didn’t indulge in cack-handed liturgies about epistemology and ontology and your ‘stance’ as a teacher-researcher. First and foremost you were a teacher – one word, teacher, that was good enough. You were given opportunities to read things you hadn’t read before; talk to people interested in the same questions; try out some new ideas in the classroom; reflect and engage in some robust dialogue. You learned new stuff; you grew as a teacher; your students were joint beneficiaries.

That’s an important point: they were joint beneficiaries, meaning you as the teacher benefited too. It wasn’t only about the students as data, their test scores, your performance targets. The assumption was that if you were enabled to flourish as a teacher it was more likely that your students would flourish and also do better in measurements of their progress.

Bob became a thriller writer post-retirement and this one opens with the discovery of a dead Ofsted inspector mid-inspection
Bob became a thriller writer post-retirement and this one opens with the discovery of a dead Ofsted inspector mid-inspection

Bob was one of the last, great English advisors, people of great expertise, close to the practice of teaching and with a license to help teachers improve it by understanding its complexity. There were quite a few stellar English advisors in the West Midlands alone. They are now virtually all gone. First, they were required to become inspectors. Then they were required to pursue a ‘school improvement’ agenda. By then, they were mainly handlers of ‘data’, meaning numbers not words. Finally, they were retired early, given voluntary severance or employed on fragile contracts subject to the political whim of councillors. If they survived, they focused on leadership and management – running NPQ franchised tick boxes, pandering to the narcissism of ‘future leaders’ who wanted to know everything about ‘leading’ and sweet FA about teaching.

If there were two positive aspects of the recent Labour Party policy review, for me they were the explicit proposals for regional connections between schools (Labour being unable to use the word ‘local’ after what they did to local authorities with the academies programme) and the tacit acceptance that CPD in England has focused too much on leadership and not enough on pedagogy. Advisors like Bob were the real experts in developing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge across networks of schools in a particular geographic area. That kind of person is now all but gone, human infrastructure lost in the service of a political goal. Professional knowledge and wisdom purposely evacuated from the system on the basis that we should always look to government and the political class for guidance..

RIP Bob. Thank you for everything you did to start us all off and for helping me enjoy the job so much. But how can we plan for a new generation of locally-embedded pedagogical experts such as you?

Who needs Pädagogik? A reflection on whether we do

The Luxembourg conversation was an interesting one. Posing the question from a continental European perspective, we were asked whether we needed an Education discipline, one focused on the academic study of education as a cultural and historical phenomenon but a discipline nonetheless committed to the improvement of educational practices. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, this discipline might be named Pädagogik. In those countries, the general feeling in the room was that Pädagogik was becoming ‘marginalised’; new, more ‘psychological’ or ‘sociological’ perspectives were coming to dominate and a more instrumental subject was emerging that might be named, in some contexts, ‘learning sciences’.

I use quotation marks around psychology and sociology as there seem to be a widespread understanding in the room of both as positivist and scientistic: either behaviouralist experimentalism or political arithmetic. More critical views of both psychology and sociology were not apparent and psychology, in particular, was often used as the whipping boy. Philosophy, albeit of different colours, dominated the discussion. Key references throughout the two days were Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 – 1841), whose Allgemeine Pädagogik was probably the most cited text, and Kant, Hegel, Hume and Leibniz. Allgemeine Pädagogik is still being studied in European university courses and not only those intended for student teachers. Herbart, whether he was loved or loathed, was one of the  centres of the debate.

I was the only UK academic in the discussion and I tried to show how pedagogy has existed as an academic interest in England, despite Brian Simon’s book chapter that famously asserted otherwise. I discussed the work of the English teacher educators at the University of London Institute of Education in the 1960s and ’70s who studied key educational concepts but were simultaneously interested in improving educational practices. I referred particularly to the work of James Britton and Harold Rosen whose work was deeply informed by contemporary and classical philosophy, new Vygotskian psychology, literary theory and emerging fields such as sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication. Their work was with pupils and teachers in schools and committed to improving school as a context for pupils’ and teachers’ learning. Both Britton and Rosen not only raised educational questions and defined educational arguments, they also sought to address those questions and materialise those arguments in ways that were not only comprehensible to teachers but presented in such a way that teachers could take the ideas forward themselves, developing the theory as well as their practice. I tried to argue that this sort of work, exemplified by Britton, Rosen and their colleagues, instantiated pedagogy or Pädagogik as a discipline in the way my European colleagues were elaborating as an ideal.

I am not sure whether I convinced many in the seminar but was impressed by the thoughtful articulation of a new perspective on pedagogy as an integration of theoretical and empirical interests by Johannes Bellman from the University of Münster. Unusually, I found myself wanting more account taken of the American contributions to pedagogy, of the critical variety, whether influenced by Freire, Gramsci, Marx, Butler, Warner, Fanon, Giroux, Shor and so on. An ‘international’ conversation would have looked west a little and drawn its resources from wider cultural and intellectual resources. And I would also like to have seen further exploration of how an academic discipline, practised in universities and colleges by all these Professor Drs, might make a positive difference to educational practice without just expecting teachers to listen to or read what we say or write.