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Why We Should Mistrust Ken Robinson

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Sir Ken – A knight amongst educationalists the world over.

A couple of weeks ago, like millions of other teaching professionals, I watched the latest iteration of Ken Robinson’s celebration of creativity on TED. It reminded me of the first Sir Ken talk which I had the pleasure of watching in Athens…whilst working! Yes, you heard right – I trained to be an International Baccalaureate teacher in the blazing sun of Athens; watching Sir Ken celebrate creativity in a fan-filled Greek classroom for part of that time (those heady days for comprehensive school teachers are long since gone!). Great work if you can get it! Perhaps it was the heat of the midday sun, or the heady scent of sun tan lotion, coupled with the wit and charm of Sir Ken, that made me feel like his words were a sort of watershed for me as a teacher, or education the world over.

I was entranced. I felt determined that a whole new paradigm for schooling was required: the ‘factory model’ of schooling was dead. I felt what I was doing in the classroom was hopelessly ill-fitting for the needs of my students. I was enraptured by his stories of creativity and enriching personalisation. I bought the book (his talks usually precede a book – fair enough, I’m sure he has to pay the bills). I felt myself nodding along with the book, only once I had read it the trance had been broken. I was looking for something like answers for systematic school change, yet all I found were charming individual examples and beguiling prose. I watched the video once or twice more in various professional scenarios and at home. I still laughed. I was still taken by his persuasive argument, yet I had lost the initial spark – like a drunken first-sight infatuation spoiled by the cruel clarity of daylight. The watershed had become little more than a barely perceptible watermark.

Recently I read this article from a link by Geoff Barton entitled ‘Is This Why TED Talks Seem So Convincing?‘. The article was based on the enlightening scientific evidence that a fluent speaker can acutally fool us into thinking we have learnt more than we actually have in comparison to a less fluent speaker – see here. It brought all my frustrations with Sir Ken to the surface. His skilful words and rapturous call for change under warm lights and at the beck and call of a willing crowd had wilted. I was left without any real watershed at all. In fact, it wasn’t Sir Ken who was to blame at all – I had been seduced by the cult of personality – by the promise of change led by such a guru and I was culpable for blame. I had forgotten that the reality of education is a more gritty and compromised state of affairs: with politicians, Unions, teachers and the public all vying for their respective interests, often creating a maelstrom of muddled education policy. Compromises, fractured systems and vested interests abound. No call for creativity by Sir Ken would provide a universal panacea to the grey, ambiguous reality of schooling – whether in sunny Athens, the field of dreams that is California or wet and windy England.

Having recently written a well received blog post on teacher explanations – see here – I began to unpick the fact that Sir Ken’s latest speech was another barn-storming performance. But beyond the frilly knickers of the performance we are left searching for the less aesthetically pleasing undergarments that are the practical answers for change. He includes the memorable analogies – Death Valley in bloom. His charming anecdotes and well-timed wit abound. Only this time I was distinctly less enraptured. The Death Valley image was striking, only the analogy was a little more of the same: a pleasing picture but not an answer. Perhaps Sir Ken just takes the beautiful photo to inspire and that we have to go and work the land, toiling to create the conditions for betterment?

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Death Valley in bloom – hopefully not some Hollywood CGI!

On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency. The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.

Ken is undoubtedly a gifted speaker – like most teachers I can’t help but like him- but my infatuation is sadly over. I will take his glamorous TED talks with more than a pinch of salt. I won’t look to edu-gurus like Sir Ken to provide watershed moments. I will prioritise the ideas of my peers at the chalkface. I will attend a TeachMeet or two. I will read a blog or three. But I won’t expect a TED talk to change the world. I will conquer my finite disappointment in finding that Sir Ken’s speeches are nothing like promises and maintain my infinite hope invested in an education system that improves marginally day by day, by gritty perseverance. I will look spend more time looking for answers for teachers by teachers – being healthily wary of the words of eloquent speakers under the glow of cinematic lighting.

The ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’ and Holding Steady

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“I learnt this little performance trick in only twenty minutes!” “Outstanding!”

My school is awaiting the imminent visit of OFSTED. No matter how sensible everyone wants to be regarding the matter, and I would like to think our school is definitely not responding with the hysteria I have heard attending other schools, there is always a sense of palpable unease. This springs from many matters, but primarily from a culture of uncertainty created by OFSTED, with subsequent uncertain and ill-judged decisions made by schools in response to OFSTED, and with some educational consultants exploiting the confusion. In the research of Shafir and Tapersky (1993) they showed that when faced with uncertainty people fail to make logical decisions and often defer decision making altogether. Whatever the reasons for the uncertainty created by OFSTED, misnomers and fears abound, leading to a pervasive skewing of good learning and an erosion of trust in schools that we must fight against. We are left with the ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’: which is that given the irrational fear of OFSTED, and the lack of clarity in their communication, schools make bad decisions and a climate of fear erodes the required conditions to actually improve teaching.

A major part of the problem is the mixed messages that emerge from OFSTED (as well as the ill-judged response from some schools). @oldandrewuk has presented the many contradictions that exist between what Sir Michael Wilshaw says about good teachers and teaching (much of which is highly laudable, despite his pantomime villain status) and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/does-sir-michael-wilshaw-know-what-ofsted-good-practice-looks-like/. With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for fearful, rushed decisions that help no-one, least of all our students. Anyone in education over the last couple of years will have heard horror stories of excessive new marking policies devised to present a new focus upon learning over time, but really created to respond to OFSTED inspectors looking through student books. Or the new hoop jumping craze that is teaching in bitesize twenty minutes slots, reducing teaching and learning to a circus of ‘progress’ exhibitionism! The coloured lolly sticks and cups of branded AfL materials abound because they ‘exhibit progress’, therefore the circus of ‘progress products’ emerges and teachers are diverted away from the sound basics of great teaching, such as questioning, oral feedback and clear explanations. All less brandable, less saleable and packageable of course, despite the fact that they patently work and always have done! I believe whole-heartedly in the impact of real AfL – I am less enamoured by the gimmick industry that surrounds it. Faced with uncertainty, like some addiction to self-help books, we try to buy in the solution, forgetting that the solution is already there – a shared knowledge between committed, knowledgeable professionals.

Clearly, the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’ leads to a detrimental ‘industry’ for the supposed OFSTED model, which is too often divorced from what schools actually need to improve teaching and learning in their unique context. Take for example this advert for CPD I sourced from @hgaldinoshea only is morning which actually inspired this post:

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I’m sure there are many useful elements of this course, but the overt obsession with the ‘twenty minute’ teaching approach has become the latest ‘brand’ of teaching for the OFSTED industry that is wrong-headed and actually inhibits deep and truly ‘outstanding’ learning. I admit, this is not necessarily the fault of OFSTED, but they must communicate their aims across their organisation better, or school experiences shared between teachers by word of mouth threaten to waste any positives shared by Wilshaw himself. When coupled with the OFSTED good practice videos, schools build a picture of good learning that appears more about performing than learning. I know teachers who can perform brilliantly, but many other teachers who don’t sing and dance in twenty minute spells but help their students learn better and deeper and become disheartened and dissuaded from holding steady to their style that works brilliantly and is sustained and valuable. This short-termism of the ‘twenty minute make-over‘ (like the naff home improvement television show, it looks good, but when you scratch beneath the surface of the decoration nothing works properly!) is clearly insufficient for sustained, deep learning. It exhibits ‘engagement‘ but not learning. Teachers need to get the attention of their students, they need to engage them in the knowledge of their particular subject, but we must be wary that it does not necessarily translate into the deeper learning that produces actual knowledge and success for our students.

In contrast to the course outlined above, feeding off the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, OFSTED have released some excellent information about good teaching. As an English teacher, I refer to the excellent ‘Moving English Forward‘ document regularly. I started off the school year with it in my department as a timely reminder. It makes clear that ‘excessive pace’ and an ‘excessive number of activities’ is one of the attributes that actually inhibits great learning. I expect the message of the report contradicts many messages currently being circulated around schools when presented with the message of twenty minute progress performances. @oldandrewuk, once again, shared this speech from Wilshaw that makes many salient points all teachers and school leaders would know to help them hold steady. If schools demand three page lesson plans then Wilshaw’s point that planning “shouldn’t be too detailed” and should be flexible is a stark assertion. If schools are advocating a common lesson structure formula, particularly one that includes twenty minute ‘progress points’, then Wilshaw’s statement that a “formulaic approach” that becomes a “stultifying mould” bears serious reflection. My Head teacher, @johntomsett, chose to share that speech with the whole staff to quell misapprehensions, misnomers and fears. I think it created some sense of relief and eased fears. I was asked a question by a colleague, when I was delivering training on questioning and feedback, about whether every student had to answer a question to exhibit the required progress. Expected by OFSTED – in a class of thirty…in twenty minutes! This may seem an absurd and unrealistic requirement, but committed teachers are clearly uncertain if they are even asking that question. Sir Michael would do well to exploit his media machine and considerable influence to repeat his message over and over until it sticks with teachers and leaders…and inspectors… in every school.

The blame doesn’t lay solely with OFSTED, although they exhibit contradictions in their messages to schools and inconsistencies in their approach which are damaging. We, as teachers, must respond by rejecting the false idols of teaching and learning supposedly labelled the ‘OFSTED way‘, particularly any shallow notion of progress – especially in its latest twenty minute gimmickry guise. We must retain trust in our colleagues and hold steady to our shared understanding of great teaching and learning. We must present compelling arguments for what great teaching is in our specific context: to OFSTED, to the DfE, to parents, to governors and to anybody else who is listening. Finally, we must collaborate and trust one another to eliminate the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, resisting temporary, knee-jerk changes in favour of sustained and shared shifts in our practice that make a real difference.

Reading with Michael Gove

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“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.” Spike Milligan

My usual attitude closely resembles a ‘less is more’ approach with regards to the curriculum: less bureaucracy, less outcomes and data, less focus on testing – the list goes on. So I agree when Gove and others recommend the abolition of our endless succession of tests, from controlled assessments to a catalogue of resits, in favour of deeper learning. The more I teach English and lead an English department the more powerfully I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach must be completely reversed when it comes to one aspect of the curriculum: reading.

When Michael Gove, early in 2011, announced that students in Britain should read fifty books in a year (he had visited the Kipp Infinity School, in Harlem, that had undertaken that very challenge) I can remember being surprised at the suggestion of such a seemingly Herculean task, given my knowledge of the actual reading habits of children in my school and beyond. Despite my surprise, I could not but applaud the ambition. I still think his view is laudable, but that it is flawed regarding how Gove believes it should be approached. I had forgotten this challenge until hearing Gove speak recently about it once more in his ‘Social Market Foundation’ speech – see here. One part of the speech came back to his Kipp school inspired challenge:

“Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture. In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.

When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking. A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply. As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts.

Now, I will credit Gove with his ambition (how could more reading be a bad thing), but I would identify that his views fail to recognise the seismic shift in society since the 1940s, which means our approach must be more nuanced than he argues. What Gove fails to do on a consistent basis, when he discusses the benefits of ‘cultural capital‘, is to recognise that society has changed. What we cannot do is simply wish our society to hark back to a bygone Industrial Age. Literacy and reading in the traditional sense have waned, but other literacies have emerged in our digital age and we must realign our curriculum accordingly.

In his speech, Gove presents knowledge of the literary canon as the primary driver of ‘cultural currency‘. Then he propounds his baseless theory that a traditional pedagogy is the only fitting way to impart such a cherished collection of the best of what has been thought and written. He proposes that ‘progressives‘ have given naive working class boys false hope with the fake democracy of ‘co-construction’ and other such dangerously ‘progressive‘ methods, and that we must simply accumulate a broad knowledge of the canon to pass through the higher echelons of society. I would ask Gove to proffer definitive evidence to prove there is any serious causation, or even correlation, between progressive teaching methods and social mobility.

To suggest that there are not a legion of social factors at work to militate against such ‘working class boys’ entering the higher rungs of society is absurd and disingenuous. To argue that ‘progressive‘ teaching methods have been a major factor in harming social mobility is also nonsense and a false cause. The success of KIPP schools in getting students into American universities is much-lauded, but the drop out rate is huge – only a fifth of the original KIPP university cohort completed their degree. The causation goes far beyond tests scores and reading ability: there is a whole host of challenging social factors which inhibit the success of the working class students Gove talks about (see this Economist article for an interesting exploration of the issue).

What is glaringly obvious is that books were not only high cultural currency for boys and girls in the 1940s, they were also one of the few outlets, as a pastime, for those many hours spent inside the home. Children now have a world of imaginative outlets, such as: television, computer games, the Internet and film…the list that begets our modern cultural capital is seemingly endless and militates against the reading of the classics. Of course, Dickens was the low brow family soap opera of his day; Conrad your niche ‘Homeland’ or ‘The Killing’ television series. What we must do is end the canonisation of dead authors at the expense of a rich contemporary landscape of fiction and non-fiction reading, as well as the complex wealth of media and digital literacy. Gove builds a false dichotomy when he speaks of reading – it is a ‘classic is best, to hell with the rest’ approach. Or so it appears through the refracted lens of the media (I hope I am wrong). What we should do is enlarge the reading at the heart of our curriculum, but do so in a way that in a way that celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary literature and media, as well as the best of the canon. We will not be able to communicate this to students of the 2010s without so-called progressive methods, or the digital media that pervades every aspect of their young lives.

Gove cites E. D. Hirsch repeatedly – again, turning to America for his model for his inspiration. Granted, I have a lot of time for Gove citing Hirsch. Hirsch has related some excellent analysis of the power of vocabulary as a knowledge base which is simply fundamental for success in life. He has repeated the striking metaphor of ‘the Matthew effect‘ (an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”), whereat the word poor become poorer, the word rich become richer. Here is a driven article by Hirsch on the power of literacy in helping transform life chances: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html. There is sound neuroscience to suggest that the brain requires such a deep knowledge base and vocabulary recognition to free up the working memory to tackle the daily complexities of life and to succeed in the classroom, exam hall and ultimately the workplace. Yet, Hirsch also relays the same vague argument about ‘progressive methods‘ being to blame for a supposed dearth of knowledge: “under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies”. I would say I was one such Machiavellian ‘progressive‘, but I pride myself on reading challenging literature; I pride myself on an approach that is rooted with rigour and a liberal dousing of classic literature, alongside contemporary texts that span the multi-media landscape.

As Hirsch would surely agree, knowledge begets more knowledge – the ‘word rich become richer’. This is because so much conceptual understanding is based upon the foundations of prior knowledge. It is these solid cognitive foundations which provide the structure required to become an expert reader, one who can then derive pleasure from reading. The issue is that I see on a daily basis students without anywhere near the foundations of language they need to grasp fifty books from the canon or elsewhere. The prior knowledge we need to activate is typically then the supposedly ‘low culture’ stories from the multi-media that pervades students lives. If this is connection making is progressive dumbing down then we are stuck in a cul-de-sac. From Piaget to Vygotsky, to Hirsch and Willingham (both celebrated by Gove), there is widespread agreement about the requirement for activating prior knowledge – the truth is we need to look for that knowledge beyond the narrow, conservative parameters suggested by Michael Gove. Of course, if Gove was serious about a foundational reading knowledge he would fight tooth and nail against the widespread closing and funding decimation of our national library system. Not just that, he would bring children into libraries with a balance of multi-media reading and research, alongside more traditional reading. I await the fight with eagerness!

If Gove’s diatribe against progressive methods is an attack upon constructivism then he will give little attention to the crucial peer culture that works crucially alongside the teacher led discourse, whether we want it to do so or not. As expert teachers we cannot afford to ignore the crucial social interactions and we must harness the power of student discussions and debate; we must get students to problem solve and undertake interdependent inquiry – all crucial skills required of a twenty-first century citizen who needs apply their knowledge in real contexts. I don’t want to play top trumps with Hirsch or Vygotsky, unlike Gove, I want to see diversity in reading and diversity in pedagogy. In evidence, provided by Hattie, progressive methods peer tutoring and peer influence can be harnessed positively alongside reciprocal teaching and direct instruction.

Unlike Gove and Hirsch, I am very much a child of the digital age. My reading primarily takes place on my iPad rather than traditional books; my reading is a post-modern mash-up of the modern and the classic; I span blogs, educational research, fiction, tweets, FB links, Youtube videos, websites…often in the space of fifteen minutes! My interleaved reading, spanning digital texts – both fiction and non-fiction – is much nearer the experience of our students. My vocabulary recognition is based upon reading a host of traditional classic texts, but my passion for reading as a teenager was sparked by books I chose outside of the school curriculum, modern authors like Bret Eastern Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Most of my early independent reading was inspired by school reading AND television. I therefore feel I am appropriately educated to foster greater reading for pleasure that many who purport to be experts; better placed to leverage classic reading with modern cultural references. When I imagine children reading in 2040 it bears little relation to Gove’s traditional mode. I think reading for children may be more like an immersive game experience than an analogue approach (think of the constructive power of astronaut or flight simulators). We shouldn’t ignore Shakespeare for game based learning, but we should also not pretend popular culture does not exist, or that the very notion of reading is not adapting rapidly.

Is not a comparative study of great literature with contemporary media not enriching in its exploration of meaning? Hirsch himself talks about existing knowledge being “mental Velcro”. Is not drawing upon existing media narratives from popular culture a way of channeling understanding – hooking into the interests and passions of our students? I am not suggesting we hand out iPads and let them loose on Wikipedia as a proxy for reading; or advocating playing Assassin’s Creed over the artistic and cultural study of Renaissance Florence – but I am arguing that we should not exclude popular culture (Dickens was the popular culture of his day, frowned upon by the literary establishment) when creating this ‘common core‘ of knowledge as propounded by Hirsch.

We should leverage popular culture as a way to understand better the classics of the literary canon. Gove himself reviewed the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker. He labelled the book a “Masterpiece”. The premise of the book is that there are seven archetypal stories that span the history of storytelling. The book relates literacy as classic as ‘Beowulf’, linked to modern ‘low culture’ films such as ‘Jaws’. This comparative meaning finding, between high and supposedly low culture, much better reflects our modern cultural experience (the post-modern) and it activates that crucial knowledge base so crucial for learning. Does the media ‘reading’ of film not have value in a media saturated society?

Hirsch goes onto argue about the methods used to teach reading in English classes: “In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author”. These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary.” Once more, I agree in part. We can deaden the love of reading by slowing down the reading process (part 2 of my reading blog focus, to accompany this post, is about ‘Reading Fast and Slow‘ and how we must simply find more time for students to read in that natural state, sans analysis). I would argue; however, that a metacognitive understanding of reading skills is no bad thing – it foregrounds the ‘how’ of the reading process, allowing for the working memory to tackle challenges like understanding new vocabulary or analysing the narrative method.

Hirsch also criticises a ‘thematic‘ approach to reading. Once more, I can see the potential for a reductive slicing of great texts into bitesize chunks, which is something examiners are inclined to do; however, a thematic understanding to reading can also deepen the crucial knowledge base. Is not Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, lauded by Gove, an exercise in pattern recognition? Do we not order the world by ‘chunking’ such information successfully? In our English department we study Dystopian fiction. As part of that learning we do read extracts from classic literature, such as ‘1984’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ ‘When the Machine Stops’ and ‘Brave New World’. We also study great contemporary literature, such as ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Not only that, we engage in flagrantly ‘progressive methods’, such as watching Dystopian films trailers, creating their own dystopian desert island, and, shock horror, we do close analysis of language and style – killing their soul by locating the main idea! We also have a class reader, where we read a novel, typically dystopian but not always, in Year 9. The library uptake for books such as ‘1984’ is brilliantly healthy. I find our progressive methods can actually inspire a love of reading, where before a love of film or television existed alone; whilst connecting to their prior knowledge, thereby heightening their ability to make positive connections in their learning.

Gove has issued his social mobility busting canon. I shall engage with it and shape it appropriately. I will teach it the best way I know how. I will teach it with a wide array of progressive methods, alongside more traditional methods. I will endeavour to inspire students to read with a passion, reading a whole host of varied literature….maybe even inspiring something approaching fifty books a year if we are lucky with some students! Am I criticising Gove’s ambition – no. Do I applaud his celebration of the classics – absolutely. Am I a child of the digital generation that sees the rich compatibility between the classic and the modern – most definitely.

I am reminded of another American educationalist and his words:

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” John Dewey

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‘All Eggs In One Basket’ – The Three Hour Exam

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Timothy Salthouse is a University of Virginia psychologist. He has conducted extensive research into testing, from intelligence to aptitude tests (from the age of eighteen to over eighty) in the snappily titled: ‘Implications of Within-Person Variability in Cognitive and Neuropsychological Functioning for the Interpretation of Change‘ (Neuropsychology 21, no.6 (2007). Now, why is this relevant to our current British education system and Michael Gove’s proposed changes to our curriculum and assessment at KS4 and beyond? Please let me explain. The research prompts serious reservations about something most teaching professionals know instinctively – putting all our eggs into one exam basket is both reductive and destructive.

Michael Gove has proposed that we should do away with coursework or other internal assessment procedures, except for specific subjects, such as Geography fieldwork or Drama practicals. That leaves subjects like mine, English, looking likely to end up with a summative judgement of a three hour examination. We all have our reservations about the exam system. Like the Heisenberg principle in quantum physics, we know that to precisely test one thing, we must inevitably be less precise with testing others. Therefore our testing system becomes narrower and narrower, to make a judgement on a narrow definition of the ‘progress’ of our students. In our results driven system, the curriculum gets ever condensed to meet the progress measures. All the while, the complexity and wealth of information our students have to deal with in our digital age is not narrowing at all, but growing exponentially! Surely our reservations about an ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment aren’t just unfounded fears from educators seeking to survive in a judgement laden, punitive system?

Salthouse’s research presents us with really unsettling answers about the accuracy and efficacy of such a crucial and singular ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment. His research has uncovered that there is a wide degree of variability ‘within the same individual’! That, on different days, people could sit the same test and perform in a vastly different fashion. This clearly raises the issue that any one single measurement provides an insufficient evaluation of a young person. His data showed that ‘the within-person deviation’ in test scores averaged about 50 percent of the between-person deviation for a variety of cognitive tasks. With such a bell curve of performance for individuals, sitting the same test, without specialist revision or preparation, simply on different days, how can we justify an ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam to culminate years of study? How fair is it for students that examinations on a Friday afternoon, for example, may suffer a degree of variability which may make students worse off than other students sitting a different exam board on a different day, with some bad weather? The variables are huge and the stakes are sky-rocket high. Of course, we see punitive attacks on entire schools for deficient performance.

This issue does not take further issues into account, such as the quality of examiners, or lack thereof. There is no professionalisation of examiners and the consistency of exam grading is annually brought into question, particularly for subjects such as English, which have a significant degree of extended interpretation. I could show you some exam papers of my past students which have been marked shockingly badly. Coupled with within-individual variation, such summative judgements become even more questionable. To ignore the breadth of quality internal assessment for such a high-stakes test smacks of ignorance.

In other curriculum and assessment models lauded by Michael Gove, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, there is a significant proportion of internal assessments; from portfolio work, to oral recordings and to extended coursework essays, externally moderated. The iGCSE assesses oral recordings for the speaking and listening component. If our politicians are scared of cheating in the system then provide a better model that deals with the gaming (or better still, remove the corrosive competition inherent in league tables with course comparison indicators!), such as using oral recordings; live moderation; draft evidence in essay work, or a portfolio approach. These assessment models may be more expensive, but they will mitigate the risk of the high stakes end of course exam model. Perhaps Gove has these in mind, he is just keeping his curriculum cards close to his chest – I hope so!

As Salthouse puts it: “…the existence of within-person variability complicates the assessment of cognitive and neuropsychological functioning and raises the possibility that single measurements may not be sufficient for precise evaluations of individuals, or for sensitive detection of change.” A bit of a mouthful, but the idea is simple: we simply cannot have a system where one bad day can scupper the life chances of any given young person. That is no model for a system looking to enhance deeper learning and militate against teaching to the test.

The culture of resits is ultimately corrosive to deeper learning. I do not advocate a resit culture, the perverse multiplication of exams, it gains nothing, except perhaps the ample profits for the exam boards! Yet, surely we have advanced beyond the antique paradigm of the ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam. Portfolios, speaking and listening assessments, well structured coursework all have their place in a more holistic approach to assessment. Let it be rigorous – I have no argument with that – but let’s not play roulette with the future of our students.

As Michael Gove concedes on the issue of the EBC qualifications replacing the GCSEs he is still intent on measures such as eliminating internal assessments for academic subjects, and other such narrowing effects upon educational outcomes. He clearly lauds the certain judgements of examinations, when evidence put forward by the likes of Timothy Salthouse calls their consistency and accuracy into question. We must therefore challenge the narrow and reductive proposals and put forward better curriculum and assessment models. We have a moral imperative to ensure that our students have a fit for purpose assessment model that is rounded and fit for the twenty first century.

Universal Panacea: Revaluing Education

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Firstly, let me dismiss the notion that there is any one universal panacea which will have a transformative impact upon education. Sadly, we cannot uproot the Finnish education system and replant it in our green and pleasant land; its roots are bound in a rich local context. That being said, I am interested in the root of the word panacea and its relevance to our current predicament. The word panacea derives from the Greek: ‘panákeia‘, equivalent to ‘panake-‘, with the stem of ‘panakḗs‘, meaning ‘all-healing‘. I am particularly interested in the healing aspect. Our education system is fractured and in need of healing; our policy is driven by polarising ideology and each tier of our system is at destructive logger-heads. As a profession we are in dire need of some restorative healing. My palliative, alas, not an ‘all-healing’ panacea, is to our Department FOR Education, and indeed the current, and subsequent, British governments, to realign what it values and to work in cooperation with the teaching profession. I see cooperation and interdependence as the core values which will help improve our education system and begin the healing.

The idea of ‘investment‘ I am interested in spans broader borders than just monetary value. As Warren Buffett said, ‘price is what you pay, value is what you get’. What would have an enduring impact upon schools in the coming years is that each Department FOR Education begins to truly value state education, school leaders and teachers; not pay mere lip service to valuing education either, but displaying this conviction through policy and investment. This policy needs to be depoliticised like never before and professionalised like never before. We can better professionalise our education system through a concerted commitment to research and development. What we need is a relentless focus upon what works in education, not a rigorous defence of ideology at all costs.

As the media and the government will tell you, we are in dire need of cuts. Cut fast, cut deep…cut pretty much anything. Of course, there is an attempt to hold onto what is valued. Much was made by our current coalition government about education budgets being retained, but the reality is one of harsh cuts, with capital expenditure particularly slashed:

“Over the period covered by the 2010 Spending Review, the state-funded school population in England is expected to grow from 6.95 million in 2010–11 to 7.14 million children by 2014–15.4 Furthermore, the education leaving age will be gradually increased from 16 to 18 starting in 2013. Once phased in, this will eventually require students to stay in some form of full-time or part-time education or training until the age of 18 (instead of 16 as currently). As a result, the declines in education spending over the next few years will be spread over an increasing population, so that resources per head will probably decline by even more than total spending.

In summary, education spending experienced relatively robust growth during the 2000s. By the end of the decade, education spending as a share of national income stood close to its highest level for at least fifty years. However, over the next four years, almost all of this growth will be reversed. Having grown historically quickly during the 2000s, it is now set to fall historically fast during the early 2010s.”

Institute for Fiscal Studies report: http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn121.pdf

Of course, in austere times we must spend near aligned with our means, but by devaluing education we will inevitably stifle the very innovation that will drive our small nation back towards success, especially when faced with the rise of vast Brick nations in our changing global economy. It may not be short term enough to fit political cycles (a key issue with the politicisation of policy), but it will be enduring and transformative. Many arguments are made to sustain spending in different government sectors, such as defence spending, but evidence leads to the fact that it is a high quality education system which generates jobs, innovation and wealth creation. This American research gives some intriguing evidence to compare state spending and job creation: US education spending creating jobs – University of Massachusetts research.

I am particularly intrigued by the global comparisons of state spending on education and defence. Perhaps it is a universal example of the endemic of governments spending on the ‘cure’ (defence spending) and not the ‘prevention’ (education spending). In Britain, we have spent an estimated £83.5 billion on an outdated Cold War Defence system in Trident, when the annual education budget is an estimated £99 billion. We must get our values right – which will take a significant realignment. One other facet of the education and defence spending comparison is that of ‘research and development‘. Defence RandD spend stands at £2 billion annually. There is no real equivalent budget for RandD for schools! Higher education funding is being slashed and no ‘Big Society’ substitute will do this significant undertaking. This is at a time when Gove and Clegg seek such a valuable evidence base from the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation, showing they are aware of the impact of such rigorous research evidence, but they are tinkling with the issue. Not only that, there is significant current research being wholly ignored by the DfE.

What would be the scope if we invested £2 billion in evidence based research in Education? Higher Education funding stands at a fraction of current military RandD spending and currently the link between Universities and schools is being severed, due to the change in the teacher training model, so such quality research is becoming ever more difficult. What we must do is connect not fracture: universities and particularly Teaching School Alliances can work like a solar system, drawing together schools and practitioners in rich collaboration, rather than work in corrosive competition. The OECD have explored the striking disconnect that sees government ignoring research and development for education, preferring to base policy upon baseless ideology:

“It is striking that there is generally little public funding for educational research. Private businesses do not seem to invest heavily in knowledge that can be applied to the formal education sector, and policy makers do not seem to have a clear strategy for stimulating business investment in education R&D. On average, OECD countries allocated 15.5 times more of their public budgets to Health research than to Education research, but only 1.2 times more of their public expenditure to education than to health.”

Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century LESSONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, Edited by Andreas Schleicher, OECD 2012

Value Driven Solutions

– Coordinate a substantial, world-renowned R&D programme
– Establish a Royal College of Teachers
– Make teaching a Masters level study profession
– Retain national pay agreements and attract the best candidates
– Systematically link Teaching School Alliances
– Go further than ever before with planning, preparation and research time

It is about time we explored the palliative investments required to heal our fractured Education system. We need our current Coalition, and future governments, to end the cycle of botched and rehashed top-down initiatives, and instead root reform bottom up, through the profession, and focused upon evidence that always accounts for the central importance of teaching and learning. How do we source the best evidence that can create policy without a political criteria? We need to create a Royal College of Teachers that coordinates a substantial RandD budget with schools and universities (John Hattie should be employed immediately as a key leader!). With the recent merging of the Teaching Agency and the National College of School Leadership there is an overt recognition that there needs to be a powerful, respected and well resourced body that hones in on the key factor which improves any education system – the quality of teachers and teaching and learning. The core purpose of the college would be to drive the engine of evidenced based policy, independent of politicians and the short-termism of the political cycle. The real problem is that mergers come and go, new bodies and quangos fly by night, strangled by Whitehall mandarins and politicians hungry to put their name onto the latest set of changes. Any such Royal College must have a truly independent mandate, substantial funding and a strong media voice.

In tandem with that body, teaching would be raised back to the status of true professionalism, with a high bar of entry requirements and a requirement for Masters level study. In Finland, new teachers are expected to be fully versed with a knowledge base of educational development, but they also are required to write a research based thesis as a final requirement for their Masters degree. The rationale is clear: teachers should be classroom practitioners and undertake disciplined inquiry into the impact of pedagogy etc.

The research that outlines that teacher impact trumps every other factor in education is now incontrovertible, and frankly little more than common sense. With that in mind, the palliatives outlined above will help raise the status of teachers and teaching, exhibiting that the government values Education and is investing in the people that will drive its improvement. Teacher pay, particularly performance related pay (all the evidence stacks up against it!), isn’t my priority, as I happen to believe the vast majority of teachers are driven by public service and not the profit motive; however, if we are to professionalise and raise the standard of the profession to be the highest it can be, creating the rigour so celebrated by politicians, then national pay agreements will help retain those high standards. A North/South pay divide in teaching would only provide a further fracturing and enfeebling of the entire school system, leaving school leaders to pillage their budgets still further.

A further investment in people is providing teaching professionals with the greatest of commodities: time. In successful Asian nations, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore (all lauded by Michael Gove), teachers are given substantial time to plan lessons, respond to assessment and to develop their pedagogy. It is that time, and not class size, which is invariably large, which is the most significant shift from our approach. What would be obvious would be to make that time synchronised with the aforementioned programme for RandD: focusing upon teacher quality and great pedagogy. Networks of teaching schools would be synchronised with Universities well versed in research, but with a concerted focus upon practice in the classroom. Also, in Japan, ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘, translated as research lessons, are a crucial part of the developmental learning culture. Every teacher periodically prepares a best possible lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal in collaboration with their fellow colleagues. Rooted in their culture is that highly professional skill of reflection and a research based methodology.

The cooperative model of ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘ brings me back to my central point about a shift in values from our Department FOR Education towards working with the professionals on the front line. Like ‘jugyou kenkyuu’, we learn and improve through dialogue, not by dictat. We need to move towards a cooperative model, where schools and teachers are encouraged to collaborate and school interdependence is engendered, rather than a culture of fearful and corrosive competition. Autonomy can still flourish in a climate of embedded and systematic collaboration: indeed, a remodelled OFSTED could have a core purpose of supporting schools to raise standards of pedagogy, rather than being simple a punitive measure. We need to move towards a revalued model of education that places autonomy and authority back into the hands of teachers, with the highest expectations of research driven pedagogy.

In his ‘Precepts’ Hippocrates (a Greek physician: 460 BC – 377 BC) states: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Let’s collaborate to seize to opportunity to demand better values from our politicians and to demand the best from ourselves as professionals.

Evidence Driven Education

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I started the school year talking with my faculty about our success in the summer and throughout the previous year and of course the areas we needed to improve. Upon reflection we could identify some clear reasoning why the successes occurred, hard earned as they were. The reasons primarily centred on having a team of very good teachers who taught very good lessons consistently (to bastardise a Bill Clinton phrase: “It is the teaching stupid!“) – which is backed up by hard-nosed lesson judgements. This was bolstered by our effective managing of data and our concentration upon the things that mattered that we could control, like controlled assessments (I think we are all agreed that is a dirty word that we will be happy to be rid of soon enough). What struck me, particularly having read John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers‘, was that we had some experienced ‘intuitions‘ about why we did well, some hard data and some soft data, all leading to the same conclusions, but that to continue to replicate that success we needed to be much more systematic with our evaluations and our evidence.

I wanted us to focus even more closely on what happened in the good lessons that made them consistently good – after all, that is point of what we are trying to do isn’t it – get better at teaching. I wanted to explicitly know this so that regardless of what assessment models or curricular systems are imposed upon us in the coming year, or even future years, we could still teach great lessons consistently: essentially “keeping he main thing the main thing”. We also reflected upon the truth that there is no ‘one size fits all formula’ for good teaching, but that did not stop us analysing the evidence of high impact strategies. Knowing that, and what interventions worked best, would be a crystallisation of all the answers we need. It takes effort, but done properly the rewards are huge (I don’t underestimate such effort when we are all pushed to the limits to do the job well – perhaps schools should have their own ‘Delivery Units‘ to to do the job across the school?)

I therefore wanted to make a concerted attempt to think with both the heart and the head (or the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Rider’ to unite my previous post) and to source the best evidence possible for great teaching. That included the epic meta-analyses of John Hattie and his team. I am in no doubt of the efficacy of this type of research; it is essential for medical research and it does add value to educational debate. I was, and am, however circumspect at the same time. Instinctively I asked how could individual teaching strategies be fairly judged within school contexts when there are a whole host of other factors at work simultaneously – a complex web even the sharpest of minds would struggle to delineate. For example, how could the success of ‘questioning‘ be fairly judged when at the same time ‘teacher subject knowledge‘, ‘class size‘ and a whole host of other effect sizes are at work? Therefore, I surmised that such data is imperfect. Yet, the more I read, the more I couldn’t avert myself from the fact that this was still the best way to source the answers about what made good teaching and good interventions effective. What is key is that the sheer scale and selectivity of the trials improved the quality and accuracy of the data, and continues to do so.

The ethical basis of ‘testing’ on children is a valid objection to such an evidence based approach. The idea of a ‘control group‘ not having an intervention instinctively sits uneasily with me. In practice, with a technology trial for example, it is hard to deny a class the right to use technology which may be most appropriate with a task. However, when I thought about it, I considered that many interventions can actually have a negative effect, or be a distraction, so it was a case, once more of thinking differently, thinking more scientifically and less emotionally. I am simply not in my job to be unethical, quite the reverse. What would be unethical would be to not undertake RCTs (randomly controlled trials) and to instead base our teaching, our interventions, indeed our entire system upon a hunch, or on a personal basis, solely based on ideology. When we move educational policy at break-neck speed, we are likely to take in unnecessary risks, which I deem wholly unethical. This is my primary objection to Gove’s Ebacc proposals. There is no evidence, no research and no trials to support his radical change. I find his approach arrogant and potentially dangerous. He is so caught up in the political expediency of a ‘shock doctrine‘ style swift change that he ignores the experts and the evidence. the obvious question is why then should educational policy not be driven by such an evidence base?

What we cannot do is simply rely upon the ‘noble myth‘ (described by Plato as well meaning, but flawed reasoning to perpetuate comfort for the greater good) of our intuitions alone, however experienced we are. Our well meaning, but flawed emotional response to ‘what has always worked‘ for us is always going to be too narrow in scope, too bound with our own emotional bias to be sufficient. We need to focus in on the practice and the pedagogy, which often means stepping back from the personal. Yes, we are all emotional beings (thankfully so – the best of us often being those most in touch with their emotional intuition), who teach with our head and heart, but we must reflect and make adjustments and plan improvements with as scientific an approach as possible if we are to properly define what is good teaching. As an English teacher, this strikes against some of my natural instincts, stemming from the Romantic ideal of individual genius and the power of emotional intuition to find ‘the answer‘.

Of course, any one source of evidence is too narrow if we have the opportunity to source more evidence from a variety of methods. The best answers, as I have stated, are to be found when we have the greatest breadth of the evidence: including hard data (ideally through rigorous control based trials), but also including soft data – like student voice and teacher feedback – and our personal and professional intuition as experienced experts – those aforementioned ‘noble myths‘. What is crucial is that we have policy makers, school leaders, subject leaders or teachers who do not unthinkingly implement changes based upon statistical evidence, provided by the likes of Hattie, without taking a full account of the unique context of their country, their school and their students. This would be foolhardy and it is a valid concern levelled at evidence led policy that we must address. School leaders, for example, will be sold snake-oil by gurus looking to sell their foolproof educational wares based on what they present as the most rigorous of evidence (of course that data will be flawed and manipulated, as such data can be). Some leaders are simply looking for a quick fix to their problems, when quick fixes don’t exist in schools! Therefore we must question the methodology behind the evidence and weigh up the factors impacting upon the evidence – again, taking a more scientific approach.

So what is to be done? In our faculty it is about trialling strategies and becoming more systematic about that trialling. It is about sharing our good practice and our good pedagogy, but crucially then evaluating its impact in a more rigorous fashion. In all honesty, our current evidence does not stand up to the scrutiny I outline above. Therefore it is important that we so the hard work to make this so. Focusing with utter consistency upon the pedagogy and the practice…and the evidence of impact.

This model of sourcing better evidence to justify change needs to replicated at school level and even on a national level. This is happening, but typically away from view. The Education Endowment Fund is currently running trials across a thousand schools in Britain to source evidence to direct policy – read this fascinating research on school interventions for instance: Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The debate is happening and policy people in Whitehall are listening: listen to Ben Goldacre’s brilliant analysis here on how evidence led policy is being undertaken in Whitehall (the education focused section begins around the twenty seven minute mark – including debate about phonics teaching). We must challenge the many ‘noble myths‘ that attend our educational discourse and source as must high quality evidence of impact as we can.

A Creative Curriculum fit for 2013 and Beyond

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“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.” Horace Mann

Recently I came across a beautifully written ode to creativity written by @RealDavidCameron – see here. Please read it in all of its resplendent glory. The article, appropriate for our austere times, and rather bankrupt political leadership, is not all sweetness and light. Birth weight and poverty are recognized as near intractable factors that inhibit learning, but the driving force of the article resides in the transformative power of education. This was connected to another article by an inspiring school leader, Tom Sherrington – the @headguruteacher – with this article on creativity here: Teaching for Creativity and Innovation. Now, let me admit, when I sometimes hear the term ‘creativity’ used regarding education I wince slightly. ‘Passion’ and ‘creativity’ have become easy labels used across public and private sectors, becoming appropriated by advertisers, regardless of whether those qualities are exhibited or not, like some empty corporate mantra. When people laud Sir Ken Robinson I cannot but agree with his inspired speeches, but without action those words ring hollow. What leaders like Tom Sherrington and people like David Cameron do is put meat onto the bones of the creativity mantra in a real and valuable. They shine a light on creativity in practice and thereby encourage us to bask in the glow and feed the flame.

What is being proposed in the Ebacc is a reactionary and regressive response to the dynamic needs of our students, our communities and our wider economy. A ‘traditional’ curriculum, with a finishing post solely marked by a terminal three hour exam, is being lauded at a time when we must shape our society into a dynamo of creativity. I am not proposing we shun Modern Foreign Languages, Mathematics, Science and English for a playful curriculum of Dance, Drama and computer play (valuable though each can be in their own right); but if we are to once again devalue the Arts and the vocational aspects of our curriculum we are immediately performing a creativity and innovation lobotomy! As identified by the aforementioned David Cameron, much innovation and creativity derives from the dynamic conflation of different disciplines – such as a fruitful combination of science and literature for example – see here. To deliberately laud one discipline over another simply shows a lack of understanding about how creativity comes to life. We are not all a budding Leonardo da Vinci, but our curriculum should provide a breeding ground for such genius to exist and flourish – why aim for less? Gove lauds the supposed ‘freedoms’ of his systematic shift of our state school system from LEAs to Academies and Free Schools; yet, at the same time, by retaining reductive league tables with narrow measures of success, he distorts those freedoms of curriculum and school structures by narrowing the goal posts for what is deemed acceptable success. The current league table measures of success are widely deemed as insufficient, even by Gove himself (sagely expressed in this article by Chris Husbands) so we must make a thorough job of changing accountability systems for the better. What we have at present is a centralized system that serves the needs of absolutely no-one, perhaps except those Academy chains who stand to benefit from the ‘saving’ of schools being stuffed below floor standards. Creativity becomes dulled by expediency, central diktats and a repressive inspection regime. Innovative curriculum models will be circumscribed, particularly for the students in our society most in need of skills that will help them rise from their limited social circumstances. Many schools under pressure will regress into a conservative safe zone of exam driven teaching that is demotivating for students and teachers alike.

Where courageous leadership starts is a turning away from the threatening drum pounding of the DfE and turning towards our own students. We need a shining of a light upon what many of our schools are doing brilliantly and we need to spread that light. For me, our curriculum is the kindle for that flame. The very best teachers will be dulled and stunted by a limiting curriculum, no matter who we attract into our profession. We must scale up our creative endeavors if we are to inspire our students with a desire to learn. Our creativity will be found when we shine a light existing in our own schools (we will find the feeling needed for change all around us if we look properly), but we should also seek inspiration from elsewhere. Therefore I have compiled the following list of inspiring websites and blog posts that shine a light on the great creativity existing in schools all around us (in no particular order):

http://sloweducation.co.uk/?p=262
A movement to stimulate enquiry based learning over our content driven exam fuelled culture. Examples include schools schools taking leave of six hours per week of English, Humanities, Science and Technology lessons at KS3 to undertake enquiry based learning. A clear manifesto for the approach can be found in this document: Learning Futures

http://www.redesigningschooling.org.uk/
A national campaign by SSAT to coral leading thinkers and practitioners to define the core purpose of education and to synthesise the needs of our learners, now and in the future, with a curriculum which is fit for purpose. Hopefully this programme can synthesise and define many of the projects and thinking I go on to identify.

http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/09/23/project-based-learning-i-did-it-my-way/
An excellent idea for project based learning from an English curricular perspective that draws in the Arts and the Humanities, transforming the whole school to energise interest and bring the war to life for students.

http://www.edutronic.net/
An outstanding use of Web 2.0 resources. Edutronic is brilliant platform to share communication and resources between teachers and students; for students to blog themselves and to record learning with a global audience. This open source approach is clearly going to supplant VLEs as the future method for communicating and learning online.

http://pedagogicalpurposes.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/do-project-first-olympics-style.html?m=1
More project based learning, this time originating in Science, inspiring learners with a range of real word problems and projects and including blogged learning to help ongoing progress and reflection.

http://deeplearning.edublogs.org/2012/12/02/meet-the-ancestors/
A project based learning approach with an Art focus – with a great example of a public critique involving the local community.

http://taitcoles.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/punk-learning-fear-is-just-another-commodity/
An inspired approach to expeditionary learning and a student centred approach to learning. Tait’s ‘Punk Learning Manifesto’ is a brilliant synthesis of ideas to convey an original and exciting approach to Science teaching and learning.

http://www.pedagoo.org/category/curriculum/
A brilliant national collective of expert teachers sharing pedagogy to keep getting better. A brilliantly simple alternative to national initiatives like the long-since defunct National Strategies approach in England. Now reading beyond its Scottish origins, I can see this collective and cooperative approach being the future for innovation in pedagogy, alongside Teachmeets and other such ground-swell approach.

http://www.hightechhigh.org/schools/HTHI/
A brilliant school that embraces project based learning at the core of its entire curriculum. Using the principals of Ron Berger’s inspired vision of excellence in education, this school is a gold one of highly skilled and engaging pedagogy.

http://brookfieldcyclingproject.blogspot.co.uk/
This brilliant Physical Education project based learning approach brings together inspiration from British cycling together with sessions with local journalists to make literacy and the project real. The prospective public critique looks like another fantastic opportunity for students to share their brilliant learning with a real audience.

Surely these engaging and innovative approaches to pedagogy can be combined with a traditional focus upon core literacy and numeracy, and Gove’s beloved rigour, that would be more fitting for our complex and inter-connected futures. The selections I have made combine project based learning; a turning away from an obsession with terminal assessments; a skilled use of technology to leverage pedagogy; real audiences and so much more. We would do well to synthesise these principals of great learning. We must stick to our task – as the ‘real‘ David Cameron stated in his article:

“That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present.” David Cameron

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Alfie Kohn: ‘Achievement’ at the Expense of ‘Learning’

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Very few videos on the web can engage me enough to make me persevere in watching them for nearly twenty minutes, even less so inspire me to write about the video and encourage others to watch it! This video by Alfie Kohn does just that and I heartily commend it for your holiday viewing:

Alfie Kohn: Achievement at the Expense of Learning

Christmas is a time for wishful thinking. My wish would be that Michael Gove would view this video. As I am being wishful, I would imagine he would reflect and revise his obsession with ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’ after the same bankrupt language and ideology is so brilliantly skewered here by Alfie Kohn. I would imagine and wish he would question the continued regime of league tables and his own proposals for a system that is obsessed with terminal assessments. I would wish and imagine that he would question whether his method of the pursuit of ‘intellectual rigour’ is so fundamentally flawed as to have the exact opposite effect!

Perhaps short of that wish, I would want teachers, and school leaders, to watch this video and reflect upon the language you use in the classroom with your students; your habits of feedback and your focus on ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’. Are we guilty of perpetuating the flaws in our current system? What can we do to mitigate our situation and that of our students? Do we have solutions we can pose within our sphere of influence and power? In light of upcoming English exams, I am certainly guilty of using highly competitive language that promotes the commodification of learning at the expense of learning for its intrinsic value. Is there a better way than our obsession with a succession of terminal assessments? Can we pursue a curriculum that does not quash curiosity, challenge and an intrinsic love of learning, whilst still functioning as a respected, skilled and creative system? There are no easy answers, but Kohn certainly poses questions that strike at the heart of the flawed thinking and leadership currently residing in the Department for Education.

If you watch one educational video before Christmas then make it this one!

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Passion and Teaching – A Reply

This blog is a short reply to the brilliant English teacher Tim Boulter and his excellent blog post on passion in teaching to be found here: http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-problem-of-passion.html. Unfortunately, Blogspot websites appear to disagree vehemently with my iPad! So is my reply to Tom’s thought-provoking post:

Hello Tom,

I agree that the word ‘passion’ is typically overused and easily abused. It has become commercialised and corporatised to a degree that we become cynical by the mere mention of the word. For this reason we should reclaim it – we are English teachers so it is our mystical right to do so! As you mention Hattie, I would argue he gives the best definition, particularly for educators – one that equates to your ‘evidence-based’ passion (it is so good I typed it up and included it in one of my old posts!):

“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”

Some sort of emotional all-encompassing love of teaching isn’t what Hattie advocates here I don’t think. Rather, he advocates almost exactly what you express as your passion for teaching – appropriately ‘evidence based’. For me, the most important bit is ‘deliberate practice’. I think that any teacher, inexperienced or expert, needs to have this type of passion or they will not become a great teacher. You are right that in the early days simply getting a handle on the craft of teacher makes it s challenge that can be far from enjoyable at times. I also agree that your passion can grow as your expertise grows – I am living that experience. Yet, I don’t think passion is the preserve of experienced teachers alone – the early foal-like tripping and falling of our NQT year, our training, our tricky third year…our ropey last Tuesday can still inspire a different shade of passion – a desire and passion to be better, to bounce back up and fail that bit better.

We can all love a snow day (frankly, I can’t wait to chuck snowballs with my kids on the next one!) , we can all feel like we want to chuck all of our marking into the river once in a while, BUT we do need an overriding enjoyment for working with kids; in seeing the learning spark ignited; in being challenged daily in a multitude of ways (often in ways we never expected – which is the fun but frightening bit!).

Call it passion – I do. Expect it of colleagues – I do. Struggle with it at times – I do. Treasure having it – I do!

‘Against the Laws’: Why Every Teacher Should Dismiss the Criticism by David Laws

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This mornings I awoke to dark skies and the end of a very long half-term. My gloom was further compounded by reading this Guardian article in which David Laws liberally criticises teachers:

“Teachers, colleges, careers advisers have a role and a responsibility to aim for the stars and to encourage people to believe they can reach the top in education and employment. That’s not happening as much as it should do at the moment.”

The full article can be perused here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/oct/26/david-laws-teachers-failing-pupils. The article was all the more galling because it was from a man whose moral authority to speak about the future aspirations of our children has been completely discredited. His position lurking in the dark shadows of the DfE towers should be questioned and scrutinised at every step – which is what inspired this blog post!

A little contextual information about David Laws is needed I think before we start analysing his statements and his lazy, duplicitous criticisms about the entire teaching profession. He directly criticised teachers for letting “investment banking” be seen as a “different world” for our students. Now, Mr Laws grew up in Surrey, was educated at the fee paying Wolburn Hill School, the son of a banker, before successfully moving to Cambridge – then onto a career as a Vice President at JP Morgan, followed by a role at Barclays de Zoete Wedd. I will admit to being no expert about investment banking (I would go as far as to say I see it as a ‘different world‘ – a world obsessed by a selfish accumulation of wealth with little intrinsic good it appears), but isn’t that the JP Morgan that only recently were heavily criticised for massive losses stemming from derivatives and credit default swap losses – the very same futures derivatives that helped get us into our unregulated global banking crisis. The Barclays bank famous for its controversial involvement with South Africa during Apartheid; gave financial support to Robert Mugabe’s regime; faced money laundering investigations, tax avoidance issues and numerous conflicts of interest…you get the picture. Laws mentions banking, with journalism and a career in law, as being beyond the aspirations of many of our students. When in reality, the moral repugnance towards the banking sector for their ill-deeds may well account for the youth of today rejecting that particular career. Good on them I say. perhaps they have higher moral standards than Laws and his friends. Yet, this lazy accusation doesn’t tell a fraction of the real story about social aspiration about Britain today.

Laws directs his malicious attacks about low aspirations in the full knowledge that it is social inequality, perpetuated by the weasle-word complicity of his political party, which are at the root of the under-representation of state school students within the careers he mentions. He represents a particular brand of liberalism which is more Liberal ‘Plutocrat’ than Democrat; which is more interested in the freedoms of the markets than the aspirations and freedoms of our youngsters. His party most famously lied about university fees (with a pathetic apology being little solace for students terminally indebted by this shadow tax); agreed with the abolition of EMA; executed swinging cuts to 6th forms, colleges and universities, to oversee a shrinkage in opportunity for the very children he purports to defend. His cowardice and deceptiveness is staggering. By raising the fees and creating a pervasive culture where ‘work experience’ and internships becomes the privilege of the well off, he has created a closed shop, where the opportunities for those without patronage are narrowed to near non-existence. Is it any coincidence that Laws was able to move so comfortably through an education and banking sector that oils the wheels of a select elite? To blame teachers and careers advisors (whose sector has been savaged by cuts to the point of becoming near obsolete) is political manoeuvring of the most transparent kind. The idea we live in a meritocratic society is being eroded daily – the opportunities for the next generation of working and lower middle class children are being narrowed year on year. Whilst Laws and his banker friends carry on in blissful ignorance. How about this exemption for Laws and his banker buddies:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/8821083/Goldman-Sachs-escaped-paying-20m-National-Insurance-bill-in-HMRC-deal.html

Or this continuation of the casino banking that has left the government without the money to support edcuation:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2012/10/financial-crises-0?fsrc=scn/tw_ec/have_we_learned_nothing_

This article based on Laws cheap shots was released on a day where the beginning of the de-professionalisation of teachers, and the inevitable erosion of their status and working conditions, was ratified and academies were legally allowed to have untrained teachers. A fitting book-end to the relentless criticism and demonisation of our profession. It wasn’t long ago that our nation was up in arms at the criminal negligence and downright greed of politicians. Laws himself was at the front of the trough, dipping in, with his righteous sense of privilege, to the taxpayers pot, like his banker chums. He now skulks in the DfE, under-going his political rehabilitation. Lazarus-like he reemerges, criticising hard working professionals who undertake their very career, not for fabulous wealth or status, but to serve their community, to help children live better lives. To receive an accusation from this man about caring for the aspirations of children, from his sullied and hypocritical podium of pomposity, is offensive to the very bone.

If he thinks his phony ‘pupil premium‘ gives him and his fellow ministers of parliament the right to spout forth about education from a place of moral certitude he is sadly mistaken. Any professional who works with, and for, children knows that the premium papers over the cracks of massive budgetary cuts. They know that the cuts to capital budgets mean that rain may fall in tired, decrepit classrooms, but a small cluster of students may have some ring-fenced money to buy an umbrella! He is a joke and his words are to be summarily ignored. His credibility, and that of his colleagues is shot.

When you break the rules to the sum of £40,000 (to pay for his lobbyist partner’s rent), break six rules of expenses, when already a multi-millionaire, you forsake your right to preach about aspiration. Instead, you become a poster boy for the greedy cronyism that is rotting the heart of our parliamentary system, making aspiration for ordinary working people a near impossibility, as well as your friends in their morally bankrupt boardrooms. So Mr Laws, don’t come back from getting caught reaching into our till and telling us about not helping students ‘reach for the stars’.