In the last week Michael Gove has challenged teachers about the setting of the highest standards in our schools. Beyond the Mr Men debate, there is a truth that we should all be seeking the highest standards of teaching and learning possible. In my experience there have been very few teachers who don’t agree with Gove on this, or who do not attempt to challenge students and inspire curiosity with the highest of expectations on a daily basis. Rather than focus upon pointless political point scoring I want focus upon some practical solutions to help raise standards and I would hope Gove lessens his point scoring politicking to do the same. This post aims to explore how we can improve Continuous Professional Development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality – the singularly most important factor impacting upon standards in our schools.
My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at last year’s SSAT conference in Liverpool, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust – see here – has proven that CPD informs practice, but it is still yet to be proven to embed practice and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’, but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly; however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years (see my article here on reaching the ‘OK Plateau‘) and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.
Currently, the DfE are presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove, but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.
The current financial plight in schools does mean that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the means to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success – within schools and in broder partnerships. David Weston (from the ‘Teacher Development Trust’) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:
– It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
– The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
– The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
– The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
-External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.
Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion across the country. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and, pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under…oh, and it works.
‘The Coaching Model’: Embedding a Culture of Coaching
One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:
“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” Dave Brailsford
I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement here. The above quotation is rightly simple, but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.
Why invest in a team of ‘Teacher Coaches’? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organization. Hierarchical, top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes in the classroom. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.
‘Teacher Coaches’ are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course, but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind: undertaking research; tweaking the school environment; providing evidence of successful pedagogy; supporting underperforming colleagues; embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners, and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with underperforming colleagues, colleagues looking to become truly great, and to undertake the practical and theoretical research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.
No matter how effective the team of ‘Teacher Coaches’ are, of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organization – from students upward. What coaching promotes is an institution committed to learning to improve through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many Head teachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organization? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top.
Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently by school leaders and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilize they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).
Schools can help work together collaboratively to unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED report here. International models, such as the ‘jugyou kenkyuu’ lesson study’ model in Japan (see here for an explanation) have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.
I wrote this post to articulate some ideas for the SSAT #VISION2040 action group. Organisations like SSAT can help connect schools and teachers to better share successful coaching models on schools. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within, and ideally from the bottom up, but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – see here. In the #VISION2040 group, Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model in his school that hones in on formative observations, research and reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach – see here. If we are to improve teachers and teaching and learning, our raison d’être, we can do many things, but systematizing and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.
Useful further reading:
‘Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution’ by the National College: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/cflat/news/documents/CoachingSkillsTWFinalwebPDFv3.pdf
‘Creating a Coaching Culture’ by the ‘Institute of Leadership and Management’: http://www.i-l-m.com/downloads/publications/G443_ILM_COACH_REP.pdf
‘Creating a Culture of Coaching’ by the National College: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2980/1/download%3Fid%3D147562%26filename%3Dcreating-a-culture-of-coaching-full-report.pdf
The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ Website and newsletters: http://www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org/
Coaching in Schools – Top Five Reads:
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.
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
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.
It is clear that the SSAT organisation are corralling some of the best teaching and learning academics, school leaders and teachers to lead the charge to take student learning in our education system forward into our twenty first century, not harking back to a nineteenth century ‘golden age’. The SSAT conference this week was a veritable smorgasbord of reflection, evidence based knowledge and innovation, shared by luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas etc. Like any good meeting of minds, the less well known speakers and practitioners left the most lasting impression on many. My high points were the sessions by Emily Cummins, Ewan McIntosh and Tom Sherrington (although I was inspired by those ours mentioned in this post). Now, any good review or summary would attempt to summarise the multitude of ideas in a pithy, wise thesis statement, as fallible, reductive and no doubt biased as that may be, so I will give it a go. For me – note the glaring subjectivity – the conference laid the foundations for a reinvigorated pedagogy and curriculum the puts learning and students at the heart of education – not beginning with measurable, replicable and ultimately sellable end assessments as our politicians propose.
I told you my attempt wouldn’t quite do the job – but we learn from failure and risk taking regardless! The SSAT mission statement clearly does the job equally as concisely and more successfully:
Inquire – what class-based action research and teacher-led inquiry has raised standards?
Innovate – how have schools done things differently in order to do them better?
Inspire – how have schools influenced each other’s work through our network?
Impact – what changes have been proven to make a difference to student outcomes?
How does these worthy statements translate into real action and evidence. Well, the real evidence of an education system is the learners and their success, and the two most impressive people were young people who exhibited that they had flourished as outstanding learners. Firstly, Emily Cummins (see –@emilycummins), a young woman who broke free of curriculum constraints to exhibit true independent learning – ultimately becoming a woman achieving spectacular success, from inventing the ‘Sustainable Refrigerator’ and becoming ‘Woman of the Year’. She challenged teachers and leaders to question whether their curriculum was indeed fit for purpose. Secondly, James Anderson (see @iamjsanderson), an extraordinarily talented student, who, still a teen, co-founding the app making tech company: PixelBit Apps Ltd. What was common about these brilliant leaners was that they succeeded despite the limits of a stultifying exam system – they had undertaken learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom space, they had been encouraged by key individuals, grandparents and teachers. Dr Eric Mazur, a spectacular speaker and teacher, who originated the principal of ‘flipped learning’ (see here: Full lecture or for a bitesize explanation of flipped learning here) exemplified how and why learning must reach beyond the exam, beyond the classroom and beyond the pathway being proposed currently by the DfE. If we don’t innovate the learning to reach our students and challenge the current ideology being proposed by Gove, then we will have less chance of seeing people like Emily and James flourish. The approach of SSAT in the coming year is to put forward proposals on their ‘Redesigning Schools’ project in the coming year.
Common patterns of ideas were criss-crossing across the various speeches and sessions. What was central was learners and learning. Learning as an emotional and cognitive process kept on being reiterated – indeed, we need evidence and great skill to further process and adapt our pedagogy given our ever-growing greater knowledge of this science. Gove may wish to make teaching a trade, but it is so much more than that – we must be the skilled professionals and researchers we seek, in spite of divisive politics. I expected some more focus upon learning environments and innovative technology, and there were appropriate exemplars of technology being used to enhance the learning; however, the key focus was on the students themselves as the key ‘resource’. Co-construction was a definitive message for taking our curriculum and pedagogy forward. From Tom Sherrington’s brilliant school projects that put the student at the heart of real learning (see his great blog here), to Bill Lucas’s evaluation of how well we have formed the balance within our curriculum and pedagogy:
In my session with Ewan McIntosh (see his website), an ex-teacher, who brought that crucial viewpoint from the world outside of education that we very much need if we are to avoid naval gazing, I reflected very much about an idea/problem that Ewan proposed we look into and attempt to solve. My problem/idea was student motivation. For me, it is at the root of much of the talk from every expert speaker. Are we preparing our students for a world we cannot even imagine; in the words of Piaget, are we imbuing them with that key life skill:“Knowing what to do when you you don’t know what to do”? A few years ago I wrote passionately about a GCSE student named Craig (before I knew blogging was invented!) and how he had developed a learned helplessness and how I felt culpable as his teacher. A few years on, I feel we are far more canny with our students and we are teaching them better in my school, but the insoluble problem is still the lack of intrinsic student motivation for many – the hard reality that we are still working harder than they are in many ways! It is working for us in terms of league tables and external judgements, but I don’t think it is working for all of our students. If will not make our nation of children ready for tomorrow and the complex world in which they will live.
Student motivation is such a gargantuan problem that it may seem foolish to even broach it, but I will do so anyway! I am conscious the problems and potential solutions would encompass a book and not a couple of paragraphs, but permit me to summarise. The problems are legion: from our high stakes testing model and our punitive external school judgements; to the politicisation of education that ignores evidence, the profession and the students; to our habits as teachers in repeating the paradigms of how we were taught in a connected world which bears no relation to our youth; to a culture that promotes consumer values of instant gratification, an aversion to boredom and effort, with an attendant ideology that the end justifies the means in terms of educating students for schools and DfE statistics, and not for the intrinsic love of learning, or providing the authentic learning skills for a future we cannot quite imagine. The solutions – well, I humbly admit that I am wholly foxed by the issue! I would like to think that the people and sessions in this conference have advanced my thinking so that I may make practical advancements for developing the curriculum for my students and our faculty.
The answers of course start with the students and their learning. We must stop putting the cart before the horse, as Brian Lightman articulated. We must workWITH the students: co-constructing learning; adapting and personalising the curriculum to meet the changing needs of our students (the ‘flipped learning’ model is one of the many methods) in reaching them by building real learning, with real audiences – not some atomised task by proxy. We must use a language that encourages a growth mindset and promotes good habits of thinking. We must build resilience by encouraging risk taking and accepting failure on the pathway to ultimate success – helping students learn how to learn – not as a bolt on quick-fix, but as a way of thinking and learning. We must connect with technology in a real, flexible and frequent way. Even more importantly, we must connect the chain of people: the golden triangle of students, parents and teachers.
The devil is of course in the detail, and this blog is simply about quick reflections, so I don’t offer detailed examples or answers – but of course, schools are innovating and, quite frankly, ignoring national directives and making the learning real and are making the students better motivated – which leads to the desired outcomes even hardened, cynical politicians desire. Of course, there are no silver bullet solutions here, the answers will be rooted in the school contexts and the people in unique school scenarios; but, crucially, a commitment to searching out those answers is the
thing. In the coming year, SSAT is clearly committed to synthesising these ideas with great experts and brilliant practical teachers and leaders at the chalkface – collaborating and connecting to create what Bill Lucas described the “great pedagogical shift”. The buffering stresses of the daily jobs and the criticisms by politicians etc. cannot shift us from keeping the learning the main thing, from working hard to imbue students with the crucial intrinsic motivation and helping them ‘know what to do when they do not know what to do’.
My favourite quote of the conference was made by the sage Dylan Wiliam and it is about teachers, but fundamentally, it gets to the root of improving learning for students, thereby improving the motivation of students – which is crucial in sowing the very seeds of future success:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
My favourite image of the conference was from Tom Sherrington’s brilliant talk about co-construction and being bold enough to inspire students to own their learning, provoke their own leadership and questioning and to learn with real motivation:
The problem is complex – great minds in this conference are busy tackling it, teachers and leaders are working with them too. I feel simply privileged to be there listening in! We all can and must join them, or be left at the behest of ignorant politicians without having challenged them. We must show our passion for students and for helping them learn by undertaking deliberate practice. I must stop reflecting – I need to get planning – I have students to motivate!
P.S. Thank you to all the kind people who said hello and talked to me during the conference – very much inspiring for me to share my time with you!
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:
Or this continuation of the casino banking that has left the government without the money to support edcuation:
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’.
Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”
I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.
There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:
Where is the place for Project Based Learning?
The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:
” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””
This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?
Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?
A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.
In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?
Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?
Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.
Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?
Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.
How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?
The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.
Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.
When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.
I emailed the following letter to Stephen Twigg this morning at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will post it to his office: 229 Eaton Road, Liverpool, L12 2AG early next week. I encourage every school teacher and parent to make their views known.
Dear Mr Twigg,
I am writing to you as an English teacher highly disillusioned with the direction of the corrosive educational policy being conducted by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I am not writing to Mr Gove – he is a myopic ideologue who is simply undertaking his openly stated goal of bringing market forces to bear in education. I am writing to you because you are the primary cause for my current state of disenchantment. Unfortunately, as a life-long Labour supporter, born down the road from your West Derby constituency, your complete failure to challenge the systematic dismantling of state education has left me saddened and angry. I feel like there is little political choice to exercise in our defence, little protection for our profession and our state schools and, most importantly, the children we represent.
I understand that many a pragmatic politician in opposition disappears into the shadows, becoming non-committal on any detail of future policy so as not to compromise future votes. As a young star of New Labour I am sure you are subtlety aware of the nuances of reelection politics. The spectacular flaw in your current plan is that the education system that grew under the last Labour government is being dismantled at an alarming rate – the school system will be so fragmented as to be beyond repair for any prospective Labour government or future Education Secretary. Teachers across the country are crying out for a representative and advocate that challenges Gove openly, skilfully and in a sustained manner. My perception of your challenge is that it is simply non-existent. I for one am completely unclear what your vision for education is beyond what appear to be irregular and ineffectual statements.
In the past week we have seen the futures of thousands of children compromised at the hands of incompetent and corrupt exam boards looking to appease Mr Gove in order to secure lucrative future contracts. This was the time for you to stand up for state education, and more importantly, the children suffering at the hands of a busted right-wing ideology – yet you have failed to present any narrative or vision that challenges Gove’s duplicitous argument about educational ‘standards’. His less than covert plan to drive schools towards Academy status and the profiteers of the private sector is continuing apace and you are completely failing to challenge this state of affairs. The myth of ‘choice’, the chimera of Free schools, and the falsehood of school ‘freedoms’ in a centralising power grab for Gove is going on unchallenged. His ‘shock doctrine’ approach appears to leave you trailing in his wake. You are being trounced in the media battle for hearts and minds – you need to inspire the legions of teachers and leaders behind the cause – you are meant to be the face of a skilled and value driven opposition.
The Labour party is supposed to stand for cooperative values, collective equality and the protection of universal rights for every citizen. Why are you not challenging the existence of league tables, the false idol of transparency and parental ‘choice’, that serve only to promote a narrow ‘gaming’ of the system and negative competition between schools? We have exam boards manipulating results and a powerful business lobby that demeans any of the achievements of our young people. When are you going to challenge the conduct of exam boards? When are you going to defend schools against the attacks by the CBI? We have teachers, committed public servants, who are having their profession regularly demeaned. Do you have a view on the matter? What is your view on the abolition of Qualified Teacher Status and do you have a policy to reestablish true professional status to the teaching profession? Do you have a view on teachers pensions? How about a call for transparency in valuing the teachers’ pension pot – rather than letting Gove do his dirty work of driving down working conditions of public servants. You have said you wouldn’t abolish successful Free schools – I understand your unwillingness to appear dogmatic, but you must know you appear as limp and dissembling if you fail to condemn the inequalities that these drivers of ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ represent. These are winnable battles you appear to be avoiding. You have a staunch ally in teaching unions and thousands of teachers, yet you appear to be ignoring us all (I assume the Unions do not fit a politically centrist obsession), even though these teaching Unions represent labouring workers – the founding value of the Labour party no less.
The Academy system initiated by New Labour, although imperfect, is wholly different to the Academy system propounded by Mr Gove. When are you going to make this clear to the electorate? The PFI funding of new school buildings was flawed, but the state of crumbling schools needed to be addressed and was, but we are now back on the path of decaying conditions for our children, with budgets dwindling whilst the wealthiest in our society flourish. When are you going to challenge this state of affairs? The school fields bandwagon drew you out of the shadows briefly, but the momentum is already waning. Our contemporary politics is fought in the media – you need to engage in that battle with a sustained campaign – enlist the army of willing combatants through social media and by travelling the length and breadths of the land. When are you going to spark the campaign for a positive vision of education which is unequivocally opposed to the systematic break up of our state school system? You will find you will re-engage a massive base of disillusioned voters that dwarfs the small battleground of undecided centrist voters if you were to do so.
Mr Twigg – if this letter appears full of questions it is because I am completely at a loss to articulate what you believe in, what you are defending and what you think should happen in education – even whether you truly oppose the plans of Mr Gove. I am an undecided voter and public servant who wants to know what you stand for and I want to hear it as loud as a drum – from a committed politician who serves their people, not their own career. I am a supporter of labouring workers and I want to know how you will represent us all in the face of this bankrupt coalition.
I would welcome you to articulate your views at my brilliant state school in York, Huntington Secondary School. We have outstanding results and we are a model for how a cooperative and successful state school can flourish with the right values, even in the face of a legion of morally bankrupt educational policies.
Alex Quigley, English teacher