Magic mirror on the wall Who is the fairest of them all?

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Magic Mirror: What wouldst thou know, my Queen?

Queen: Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.

Snow White (1937)

In Snow White, the wicked Queen is determined on being the most beautiful in the land. The Queen takes this obsession to the extreme and orders her huntsman to take Snow White to the woods, kill her and bring back her heart as proof – or, as in the more gruesome original tale from the Brothers Grimm, her lungs and liver. But, despite all the Queen’s power and terrifying witchcraft, the Magic Mirror tells it as it is.

Earlier today I was reminded of this video, below, which originally made the headlines in the Washington Post back in 2014. The video depicts a professional development session in Chicago, USA as recorded – presumably surreptitiously – by one of the participants. Now, I’ve attended some pretty dire professional development sessions in my time, but, if this video portrays accurately what was going on in Chicago, it takes the biscuit by a country mile. Take a look for yourself:

The worst case scenario is that this is indeed how the professional event unfolded. The best case scenario is that these teachers are simply practising some of the new strategies they have learnt during this professional development event. The sort of strategies that when put to use in schools might make lessons look like this:

Now, it may be that you see nothing wrong in neither of these two videos. It may be that chanting in this way is normal practice for you and that you think that, despite the growing doubts about the effectiveness of schools which rely on kind of approach, it is a worthwhile activity in your setting. I won’t argue with you. If it works for you, who am I to say?

However – and I am glad you asked – personally, I suspect this kind of strategy probably falls under the category of what Dylan Wiliams calls “teaching that looks impressive” but actually has little impact on outcomes. Folks who use these techniques regularly may be just kidding themselves that children are learning better because they are doing exactly as instructed, in perfect choreography. Time will tell, I suppose.

However, what struck me the most was the unanimously negative reaction the Chicago professional development video received from teachers, who, all over the globe, immediately decried the lack of professionalism, the infantilisation of teachers and the appallingly poor teacher training to which these poor teachers were made subject. Teachers should not be demeaned like this. This is clearly why teachers are “going out of their minds”. No wonder we have teacher recruitment and retention problems, concluded the horrified reviewers.

Yet groups of schools in the US, such as KIPP or Uncommon Schools, populate the internet with videos in which adults treat children to precisely this kind of learning presumably routinely and hardly anyone bats an eyelid. Of course, you could reasonably say that it is ok for children to learn like this because they are children, and that, therefore, the comparison is not valid. You may be right. It may be that I’m wrong and that these techniques will solve our recruitment and retention crisis – though I would worry they would do so by attracting the sort of teacher who thinks teaching can be distilled into a little bottle labelled “take twice a day and teach like a champion”.

But, I did wonder if the negative reaction to the Chicago teacher training video could be more easily explained by asking: Did we look in the mirror? And did the mirror tell it as it is?

Queen: Magic Mirror on the wall, who now is the fairest one of all?

Magic Mirror: Over the seven jewelled hills, beyond the seventh fall, in the cottage of the seven dwarfs, dwells Snow White, fairest one of all.

Queen: Snow White lies dead in the forest. The huntsman has brought me proof. [holds up her opened box] Behold, her heart.

Magic Mirror: Snow White still lives, the fairest in the land. ‘Tis the heart of a pig you hold in your hand.

Queen: [repulsed] The heart of a pig?! Then I’ve been tricked!

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