Ouroboros by Greg Ashman

Posted on 09-04-2016

I’m a bit late to this, but I just wanted to write about how much I enjoyed Ouroboros by Greg Ashman. It’s a very elegantly and sparely written account of Greg’s experiences of teaching in England and Australia, and of the education research which is relevant to his experiences. The central organising metaphor is the ouroboros, ‘an ancient symbol of a snake or dragon that is consuming its own tail.’ Ouroboros can be ‘a vicious metaphor to represent the antithesis of progress – we cannot move forward if we are going round and round. Moreover, Ouroboros adds something to the cycle. It represents the reinvention of old ideas as new ideas. Again and again.’

I found this metaphor very helpful when thinking about modern education. It is so demoralising to see the number of fads that get warmed over and served up as new. And the great fear is not only that bad ideas persist. Even worse, the constant recycling of bad ideas prevents the adoption of new ones, and makes teachers understandably cynical and mistrusting of innovation in general, even though real innovation is what we desperately need to break out of this cycle.

But ouroboros can be a more positive metaphor. ‘We can also view Ouroboros as a virtuous metaphor; a feed-back loop with information flowing from the effect back to the cause. When we teach, we do not speak into the void.’

Greg thinks that this kind of feedback loop is at the heart of good teaching. However, he also notes that attempts to promote the use of feedback over the last decade or so, under the name of Assessment for Learning, have led to disillusion. ‘In U.K. schools, formative assessment followed an unfortunate trajectory that hollowed-out much of the original purpose and has therefore left many teachers quite jaded.’ However, as he notes, ‘the basic principle is sound.’ And there is much good advice in this book about how to rescue the sound principles of formative assessment from the ‘bureaucratic barnacles’ that have grown up around it.

Highly recommended.