This much I know about…finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools
Do you want to find out what really works? Can research evidence lead to school improvement? Come and find out.
I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about finding out what really works when it comes to educational research in schools.
Do you want to find out what really works?
At a time of shifting tectonic plates in the educational landscape, the evidence provided by high quality research could prove to be a defining factor for school improvement and student success. Our research focus is to train outstanding internally-appointed Research-leads in schools to support the improvement of students’ attainment in English and mathematics GCSE.
Can research provide us with the crucial golden thread that connects school leadership decisions through to successful student outcomes? We think it can and this trial can help prove it.
Do you want to be part of a hugely exciting, and nationally prestigious Randomised Controlled Trial that…
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Love this blog post. I’m biased, as I work with those two teachers, but so what!
Last weekend I attended the Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington. It was brilliant. Sunshine, nice grounds, hundreds of people chatting about edu-nerdy things. It’s basically my nirvana.
Busy enjoying myself I didn’t take many notes or feel particularly moved to write a blog about it all. HOWEVER, one event stayed with me all week for what it encapsulated about the true spirit of teaching. So I thought I’d share that part.
At lunch-time on Saturday I was lucky enough to be in the ‘street’ – a part of the festival including street-y food vendors and a soundstage. In total, about twenty people were milling around, with the majority of attendees still tucked away watching talks.
Out of apparently nowhere I hear two booming voices: “HELLO!”
It was two men stood on the stage. They were in England shirts. The night before, England had crashed out of the cup.
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Please read this clear account, by Huntington School Head teacher, John Tomsett, of an exciting opportunity to engage with our Education Endowment Fund project on using research evidence in education.
I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about how you can be involved in our EEF Research Project.
Research-leads working through a structured school improvement process, involving external research and evaluation.
Political consensus is notoriously difficult to achieve. Consensus in the world of education is nigh on impossible. Tentatively, I would say that the use of research evidence in education has united many warring factions in something that resembles agreement. There appears to be a rare sprig of hope emerging, namely that using evidence to improve our students’ education is a priority for the school system, and a priority which could become a reality.
Is research evidence a universal panacea for education? No, of course not. Should we be circumspect about the what, how and who
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This blog post captures so many important messages about how to become a better teacher. I feel wholly privileged to be mentioned. How do you roll as a teacher?
Last weekend I had the pleasure of reading some fabulous blog posts but 2 of them really struck a cord with me. The first was from Alex Quigley and the second was from Kenny Pieper both talked about self improvement and plateauing as a teacher and you can read both of their excellent blogs here. I had a short twitter conversation with Alex after having read his post and it prompted me to write this one.
As many of you know, I am a sea kayaker. I paddle every Sunday come rain or shine. I have to paddle, it’s my release from the stresses of work and family life. When you are on the water, you simply cannot think about anything else either because the landscape is so jaw dropping or because the sea may teach you a lesson that you won’t forget in a hurry!
I have only…
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On Friday the 15th of March I had the great pleasure to watch my mother, Rita, finally become a graduate, a couple of years short of sixty. It was a moment of sublime pride to stand with my father, my brother and my two sisters and watch my mother hobble across the stage (thanks to a recent knee replacement!) and receive that little envelope that means so much. I don’t normally write about my personal life, but I know my parents are a key reason why I am a teacher, why I value education so much. I also wanted to publicly celebrate my main role models for grit, perseverance and wisdom: my parents. Of course, they made me teacher I am and the person I am. My mother completing her degree, whilst working full time, confirmed every cherished belief I have about the value of having a great education.
I came across this quotation recently and I thought it very wise:
“You don’t really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around – and why his parents will always wave back.” William D. Tammeus
I knew that I didn’t really understand fully the love of a parent, so crucial to human nature, until I became a parent myself. That incredible and irreducible tug of love that keeps you perennially in its wake became so real, so quickly. Now that I am a parent of two beautiful children I am more thankful than ever to my parents for the values they have instilled in me and the love that have given unreservedly. I began to reflect more closely upon the ‘education’ my parents had given me.
My parents are both from proud but humble roots. Education was very much a privilege in our house – without doubt. It was, however, a privilege we were free to spurn or cherish. My parents didn’t look to the best Primary around, or a Secondary schools with stratospheric results. OFSTED reports were an alien document back then. My parents believed simply in going to the local school with your friends and doing your best. My parents, both hard working, expected us to be the same. In the main, we did work hard, but not always and I experienced failure more times than if I were mollycoddled . I cannot once remember being chastised about homework or pushed regarding exams – I failed in those areas more often than I would have liked. My parents had little knowledge about the actualities of getting into universities that so crucify many parents with anxiety today. The whole attitude of my parents was rather laissez faire – if you worked hard enough you would be what you wanted to be. If you didn’t, well, you would get what you deserved – nothing!
For years, into my mid-twenties, I had thought my parents hadn’t known enough about education, hadn’t pushed me. I hadn’t gone to a great school like the one I teach at myself. I compared the situation to many of the forthright parents I see today, supporting their child with specific resources, guiding them into learning instruments, moving post codes to secure the best school – that sort of thing. I had thought my parents rather naive about education on the whole. It had turned out that I was the naive one all along. My arrogance stopped me seeing it for too long. I had received an exemplar education from my parents – I only hadn’t been wise enough to see it.
My father’s boldness of character, wit and warmth have always been qualities I have wanted to emulate (if I ever get there I will be a happy man!). My mother’s loving generosity and sheer grit and determination were always qualities I had secretly wished I could possess. I hadn’t realised that an education of character from my parents was the best education possible – more than any school prop (be it tutor or computer), or even wisdom regarding the machinations the school system. Both my parents have worked as carers for the elderly for the majority of their lives (including their infirm parents as a more natural obligation) in different capacities. Once more, their utter dedication and emotional intelligence stood me in better stead to deal with the complexities of my job than my teaching training ever did. My father was, and is, a home carer for the elderly; my mother arranges care packages for the elderly. I couldn’t be prouder that they do the jobs they do. They both work with dignity and integrity that I will always strive to imitate in my fashion. That is an education to be proud of indeed.
Most recently, my mother’s pursuit of her degree (whilst working full time) has been something of a culmination of my understanding – my education of character. It is also a very appropriate circle of experience, as my young daughter will start school for the very first time this year. My mother’s four year degree has never been a sure thing. Working full time, and being a grandmother to a legion of grandchildren, whilst researching, writing essays and sitting exams, created a gruelling schedule that would stretch the capacity of anybody. A few times she contemplated quitting, but she simply refused to give in. Holiday suitcases were filled with books and essay materials. She would have you believe it was other people around her who kept her going, and yes, our family were supportive, particularly my father of course, but it was her inner-drive – this personification of grit and resilience – which meant she hobbled proudly across the stage to receive her degree. In some ways, professionally, the degree will make little difference. But, once more, to me and my family, it means more than we can express.
It is another step in my brilliant education. It makes me want to be better. A better parent, a better partner and a better teacher. In my role ‘in loco parentis’, I hope I can be a proxy role model for my students. More so, I hope they receive an education from their parents the like I did from mine. They will be lucky, loved and well educated if they do. The motto of the Open University is ‘Live and Learn’. I most certainly am learning. Thanks Mum – thanks Dad.
Does public speaking matter?
What do the Houses of Parliament, the Oxford Union, big business board rooms, assembly halls and court chambers have in common? They are the seats of power for people who lead our nation, the great…and the not-so-great and good. What other common factor is at work in such settings? Each respective setting requires expert speaking and listening skills. Indeed, power in society equates with the power of knowledge and to speak and to listen in such social settings. We must empower every student with the tools to speak in such settings if we seek real social mobility. Now, my argument is that when Gove suggests that we should move towards an ‘all eggs in one basket‘ summative exam, we should reject that proposition. We should instead look to a richer, much more varied assessment model that has speaking and listening rooted at its core.
“We value what we measure, rather than measuring what we value” is a common refrain in education. Michael Gove has recently declared that if we are to return to an education system of rigour we must have a fitting assessment model. Now, few professionals could argue with this ambition for rigour, but Gove has indicated that high standards will only be upheld by the narrowest of assessments – an ‘all eggs in one basket’ summative exam approach. Such a narrow model (although it does signal the positive jettisoning of endless resits and time-consuming controlled assessments) fails to prepare our students of today for a complex tomorrow. One shift we must make is to place challenging oral assessments at the heart of our curriculum model, across curriculum subjects, if we are to move towards a curriculum fit for the twenty first century. We need to show we value those key skills for success: speaking and listening skills. They should be rooted in our daily practice – not be seen as burdensome or extraneous high-stakes assessments.
I can remember with vivid immediacy my experience of speaking and listening presentations in my English lessons. Notably, I remember no such challenge outside of English, except a couple of Spanish orals, which were rather less than memorable. I loved many of my English lessons, as you would likely expect, but the prospect of presenting to my peers filled me with dread. At KS3 I gave a dire talk on earthworms; at KS4 I lowered the bar still further with a bleak explanation of cancer. Each time I had to present to the group my fear was nearly insurmountable, resulting in my feigning illness on more than one occasion. Now I am confident speaking to a hall of over one hundred fellow professionals. How has this transformation occurred? Repeated deliberate practice. Was it solely down to those assessments – of course not – but they made a difference. I was made to undertake that challenge, whereas if the assessment was not an external requirement I may not have had to complete such a task. If those assessments didn’t exist on a more formal basis would we have undertaken them given factors like student recalcitrance or merely absence? Ultimately, one lingering impact of those tentative presentations and group discussions is that am able to become successful at my job and so much more.
Oracy has always been the poor sibling to reading and writing and once more we are failing to exploit a realigned curriculum to raise the status of speaking and listening. Despite its lowly status, educationalists across the globe recognise its primacy in the very act of learning. Even a rudimentary understanding of child language acquisition will spell out that oracy is the very foundation for successful reading and writing. I know, for example, that my young daughter’s oral proficiency will correlate strongly with her future ability to read and write successfully. Indeed, reading itself is a form of listening – described here by E. D. Hirsch:
“Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently. We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening.”
To say that listening complements reading also highlights its crucial role in the writing process. ‘Subvocalization’ is also inherent in the writing process, so much so that we commonly use the phrase ‘the writer’s voice’ without a second thought. You are likely voicing this blog this very moment! Extended talk and oral rehearsal can aid the writing process as much as it can prepare for a speaking performance. Put simply, speaking and listening are integral to reading and writing. If we foreground the assessment of speaking and listening, we enrich reading and writing.
I teach English and we have three speaking and listening assessments at GCSE for English Language (none for English Literature) which accounts for 20% of the overall grade for English Language – not far off from an appropriate percentage for how I see speaking listening could being assessed in all subjects. Of course, Modern Foreign Languages has oral assessment at the heart of its curriculum, but in my opinion, there is a paucity of high quality oral assessments inter-connected across our curriculum (which would bolster the learning of foreign languages, a particular need for British students). To use an aural metaphor, we need each teacher in the school to be a player in a orchestra, each contributing to the music that is speaking and listening skills. We fail to exploit the many rich opportunities for rigorous assessment in the form of debate and individual presentations. We expect students to undertake university interviews, to give seminar presentations, to perform a ‘viva voce’ in further education – not even getting starting on the world of work; yet we only tinker at the margins with preparatory assessments that would further nudge teachers and schools to raise the standards of speaking and listening assessment. The opportunities are legion, but too often forsaken.
An approach to public speaking could be rigorous and systematic – a balancing point to end of course exams. We can record assessments with ease and relatively cheaply – it is already a requirement for parts of the iGCSE and the International Baccalaureate. This may create somewhat of a burden, but that does add greater rigour and consistency to the process – a price well worth paying. We can also balance internal and external assessment judgements too to add greater consistency. One interesting comparison between AQA GCSE English and the International Baccalaureate, for example, is that with the IB all written coursework is assessed externally and half of the speaking and listening is assessed externally too. It would cost exam boards some money, but it would be roundly welcomed by teachers and it would take away accusations of ‘cheating’ or grade creep levelled at teachers.
A rather unhidden truth is that our assessment models are largely dictated by the exam boards, of which we pay handsome sums of money for the privilege of the undertaking. I am not shocked when a company driven by a profit motive selects an assessment model which prioritises cost over quality. When I consider controlled assessments: the bastard child of coursework and examinations, the reality is that exam boards have a vested interest in an assessment model that are cheap, easily digitalised, easily replicable and mass produced tasks. Reductive written exams are the epitome of an easily outsourced and replicable model – but such exams alone do not provide a rich, holistic model of accurate assessment. Speaking and listening assessments, rigorously assessed, ideally with a balance of internal and external judgements, but at the very least recorded for standardising purposes, cost time and money. But we must ask, what is the best education worth? According to official accounts released by Companies House, Edexcel made profits of more than £60 million in 2010 – compared with just more than £10 million in 2004. AQA and OCR are actually charities, with a mission to “do good in education” – a better, more comprehensive assessment model would go some way to doing that ‘good‘. We must lobby fiercely for a system of assessment fit for the future.
If we truly measure what we value, rather than value what we measure, and we want to leverage as much social mobility as is possible in a system distorted by social inequality, then we must broaden our assessment model. We must encompass speaking and listening skills, with as many opportunities for public speaking as possible, into our assessment model if we want to develop students who can thrive and succeed.
I recently wrote a post about how a singular ‘all eggs in one basket‘ three hour examination would have a negative and narrowing effect upon our curriculum and, of course, our students. After thinking about what prospective assessments we can look forward to, or not, I thought about our purpose beyond helping students make the right moves along the conveyor belt of passing exams. Before I came to thinking about what assessment model would be more appropriate, I thought about starting with what type of students we are aiming to develop. We often focus upon the quantifiable outcomes in school: league tables, international measures and evidence based outcomes of cognitive ability, but we too often neglect those non-cognitive learning dispositions which will see our students flourish in a rapidly changing world. We ignore the less easily quantifiable aspects of an education – such as developing character: dispositions like resilience, perseverance and self-discipline. How do we value those aspects in a system so bent on measurement and examined assessments? How do we go some way to balancing cognitive development with character development?
As we teach the International Baccalaureate at my school, alongside A Levels, it occurred to me that their ‘learner profile’ was a good place to start to investigate a fitting school curriculum, with a functional assessment model, which purport to have that aim of engendering confident, flexible and resilient learners who will thrive in a future abound with complexity and challenge at their core.
International Baccalaureate Learner profile: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/profile/documents/Learnerprofileguide.pdf
The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.
IB learners strive to be:
They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.
They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.
They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.
They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.
They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.
They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.
They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.
They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.
They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.
The IB ‘Learner Profile‘ is emblazoned about my school, and although in reality we have a relatively small cohort in the context of the whole school, the learner profile sparks my interest each time I walk past it. It makes me think how the IB constructs its aims and shapes it curriculum around its students. The IB is rightly lauded by Gove and he is critical of our qualifications not stacking up against such international models, but I am yet to be convinced that he is leading an authentic shift towards our core purpose being centred around our students and their future. With the IB Diploma foregrounds qualities, such as ‘open mindedness’, they are fostered in real terms by having the ‘Theory of Knowledge‘, at the core of the diploma, a philosophical exploration of knowing, with a rigorous focus upon the domains of knowledge in each other subject area of the IB Diploma. It is placed alongside the ‘Extended Essay‘ – a genuinely independent piece of assessment that requires students to devise their own thinking and undertake real inquiry, supported by expert teachers. Not only that, with the ‘Creativity, Action and Service (CAS)‘ assessed element of the qualification, active citizenship is made real. The ‘Learner Profile‘ isn’t just window dressing – it underpins the philosophy and aims of the qualification – shaping the assessment model to fit those aims.
Another school school system celebrated by Gove is that of Singapore. I am interested in the ‘Desired Outcomes of Education‘ in Singapore. Once more, a core focus is centred upon what type of learner their system is looking to develop:
1. The Desired Outcomes of Education (DOE)1 are attributes that educators aspire for every Singaporean to have by the completion of his formal education. These outcomes establish a common purpose for educators, drive our policies and programmes, and allow us to determine how well our education system is doing.
2. The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life.
In sum, he is:
• a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;
• a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;
• an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and, a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him
Lastly, I was interested in another programme praised by Gove, that once more places character development, and a more holistic view of the student, at the heart of its core purpose – of course, alongside exam success etc. – the KIPP programme in America. The debate about KIPP schools fills column inches in America, so a quick Google search will do the job of beginning further research into their system, but I wanted to focus upon their ‘Character Growth Card’. Students are graded on their ‘character’. This may seem anathema to some, but at least it is a recognition that some things are valued in education beyond examination scores.
KIPP Character Growth Card: http://www.kipp.org/files/dmfile/KIPPCharacterGrowthCardandSupportingMaterials.pdf
These qualities best embody what type of students the KIPP programme aims to develop:
OPTIMISM: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it;
Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly;
Believes that effort will improve his or her future
ZEST: approaching life with excitement and energy, feeling alive and activated;
GRIT: finishing what one starts, completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience;
Finishes whatever he or she begins;
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure;
Works independently with focus
CURIOSITY: taking an interest in experience and learning new things for its own sake; finding things fascinating Is eager to explore new things;
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding;
Actively listens to others
SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself; including the ability to reason within large and small groups;
Able to find solutions during conflicts with others;
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others;
Knows when and how to include others
GRATITUDE: being aware of and thankful for opportunities that one has and for good things that happen;
Recognises and shows appreciation for others;
Recognises and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities
SELF-CONTROL: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
SELF-CONTROL – SCHOOL WORK:
Comes to class prepared;
Pays attention and resists distractions;
Remembers and follows directions;
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating
SELF-CONTROL – INTERPERSONAL
Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked;
Allows others to speak without interruption;
Is polite to adults and peers;
Keeps temper in check.
The formation of ‘character’ being explicitly linked to an education is nothing new – Plato advocated the telling of stories to help “fashion” the minds of the impressionable young; John Locke had the revolutionary idea that women were equally deserving of an education that developed character. Today, educationalists, such as Guy Claxton, have proffered their own version of such skills; creating a sort of ‘character taxonomy’. I do get slightly suspicious when ‘solutions’ are bandied about easily; particularly if such ‘experts‘ start selling their particular ‘brand‘ of character building. Each school should look at their own context and needs for their students – not buy in some quick fix. I happen to think the whole programme of PSHCE is a rather elaborate sham that doesn’t help create character, as much as reading ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling over and over can do so! Covering topics such as ‘open mindedness’ in splendid isolation from domains of subject knowledge is foolhardy, but having a curriculum where we reinforce and foreground learning dispositions and character traits throughout the curriculum, in a coherent way, with assessment models constructed for that aim, is entirely valid. Perhaps we could use the time freed up from PSHCE in a more productive way?
I do not doubt that development of domains of core knowledge are essential (this article by Daniel Willingham brilliantly sums up the importance of knowledge here), but whilst I agree that our choice of what knowledge is important (which is currently up for debate), it should be balanced with what dispositions of character we are seeking to develop in our students – such as the resilience to tackle challenging new domains of knowledge. Of course, assessment matters. What we assess skews how we teach, whether intentionally or more indirectly. If we create a narrowed curriculum of summative three hour exams alone we risk losing the opportunity to promote a rich range of skills integral to learning new knowledge. With robust and reliable speaking and listening assessments, for example, such as recorded public debates, presentations or a viva voce based upon their research, we can harness and hone communication skills so crucial in the formation of self-confidence and resilience. If we were to raise the profile of guided research and inquiry skills, bound to specific domains of knowledge, in our assessment, such as the IB style ‘Extended Essay’, or portfolio based projects, we could better foster resilience and perseverance, whilst honing skills appropriate for a future where information will only proliferate still further.
In our obsession for easily measurable outcomes (easily packaged, replicable and cheap to administer and judge of course!) we are forgetting that assessment can work in our favour, if we work backwards from the point of what we want students to know and how we want students to approach their pursuit of knowledge. Jean Piaget’s view of intelligence is appropriate: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” The US Department for Education are looking to address this balance between cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions, focusing upon dispositions such as resilience (indeed, resilience is included in the ‘Common Core Curriculum’ for mathematics). It is summarised in this very useful report: http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/technology/files/2013/02/OET-Draft-Grit-Report-2-17-13.pdf. I think the report is outstanding and the recommendations it poses should frame our curriculum development. Two such recommendations stood out:
“Educators and administrators interested in promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance should draw on key research-based best practices, for example, (1) provide students with opportunities to take on higher-order or long-term goals that are “worthy” to the student—goals that are “optimally challenging” and aligned with the students’ own interests, and (2) provide a rigorous and supportive environment for accomplishing their goals.” (Page xii of report)
“Administrators and educators need professional development, curriculum materials, and technological supports. Other potentially high-leverage strategies may be restructuring school days to have longer periods and increasing school staffing so that teachers can give individual students more thoughtful feedback and attention.” (Page xiii of report)
Is there a whiff of jargon about the whole business? Yes – and we should be wary of creating a new pseudo-subject akin to PSHCE. Are schools solely responsible for character building? Absolutely not – parental role models trump teachers every time – as John Hattie’s states: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. Should we do our best to reinforce dispositions that help (both students and parents) with learning and foster the qualities of character that make our students happy and more healthy citizens? Yes. Should we place character development at the heart of our model for a future curriculum, including, crucially, how we shape our assessment model – I think we should. That does not mean ramming our sense of morality in the faces of our students in the vain hope they will make significant changes to their character, but it is a positive belief that if we enhance our curriculum (keeping it richly broad) and tweak our assessment models towards a holistic and a more authentic range of outcomes that we can do a better job of developing rounded young adults ready for the future.
Finally, I would like to end with this quote from Novel Laureate Professor of Economics from Chicago University, Dr James Heckman, from a Boston Review article – see here:
“First, life success depends on more than cognitive skills. Non-cognitive characteristics—including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional qualities—are also essential. While public attention tends to focus on cognitive skills—as measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, and tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—non-cognitive characteristics also contribute to social success and in fact help to determine scores on the tests that we use to evaluate cognitive achievement.”
See here for an excellent research piece by Heckman on ‘soft skills’.
Note: I am aware there are debates about the selectivity of KIPP schools and the ultimate success of their graduates. Singaporean education has also been criticised for being highly conformist and hot-housing students to succeed. I do not believe simple education tourism works, but that we should consider carefully our new curriculum aims and our assessment model – reviewing international models as a point of reference, not as a quick fix.
I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘. Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.
The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me. Does this sound familiar?
The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.
As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons. I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:
A great video via Dan Meyer showing you how ‘Hollywood Hates Maths!’
Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages? In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear. How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’!
Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!). Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English. Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling!
What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick). We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).
We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers! We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways. Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.
George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.
I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics:
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom.
http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2013/jan/22/algebra-mathematics-masterclass-video A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way.
http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics.
http://maths4us.org/about/ This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.