Theresa May has done us a favour. I think it is high time that educational paradigms are discussed again: all the tweaking and meddling of the past decades have made for a complex muddle, and is perhaps an acknowledgement that the current system is still not providing as well as it might.
That is not the same as taking sides on the Grammar Schools issue. But the assumption by some/many of the pro-comprehensive majority that their preference is so morally and practically superior that the alternatives warrant nothing more than outright dismissal is both wrong and unprofessional. In many walks of life, such an approach would be considered rather suspect. There is enough evidence from around the world that it is more complicated than that. The present system arguably has at least as many flaws as the alternatives; much of the additional workload and pressure on teachers and schools seems to be caused by the need to counter these issues in what are possibly sub-optimal situations. It is right that an open debate should take place.
In the past few weeks, I have heard several local stories about Saturday road-gridlock on what turned out to be Eleven-Plus morning. I must admit, it had not fully registered how the exam has changed. It turns out that grammar schools now largely administer it themselves, as most primaries refuse to have anything to do with it.
It seems to me that this only accentuates the undesirable aspects of that exam, since it favours those with the awareness/determination/ability to reach those venues at the weekend. Very probably this is primarily those who have also paid for coaching etc. and it may disadvantage those, for example, whose parents are at work on a Saturday.
Contrast this with my experience from 1974, when the Eleven Plus took place anonymously as one amongst a series of relatively low-key tests conducted in the final-year classroom at primary school. This reduced pupil stress (although we did know what was happening) and it also meant that the entire mixed intake of that school had equal access to the exam. It seems to me that this was about as fair as that system could get.
On balance I do not agree with the Eleven Plus as the sole method of selection: there are other, if more complex alternatives. But it is not the entirely fault of the grammar schools that the system has been distorted like this, and therefore the present iniquity of the exam is weakened as an argument against selection more widely. It is just another example of what happens when what is effectively deregulation creates a free-for-all.
This weekend, I will make my final offering in this debate. It is in two parts, and examines the reasons why the gridlock still occurs. I think this matter is not being faced.
My motive for banging on about this at length is simply the desire to see the issue properly debated. When one repeatedly encounters occasions where senior colleagues use their platform openly to denounce the issue without any apparent regard for considered differences of opinion or the offence they may cause, it reinforces the view that dogma is taking precedence over debate.
In my case this only strengthens my determination to ensure that the alternative side is properly heard. It does not mean that my own views are entirely one-sided. Equally, from my induction into this profession thirty years ago, fully subscribing to the comprehensive model, my concerns have grown steadily that it may not be the best way of addressing many people’s – or society’s – educational needs. The alternatives surely warrant more substantial consideration.
It is a known phenomenon that (ex) P.E. teachers are disproportionately represented in management circles. In fact, I remember during my P.G.C.E. hearing them specifically advised to ensure they secured management roles because of their physical expiry date in terms of how long they could continue to keep up with energetic teenagers. As someone who increasingly feels the pace of even classroom teaching, I am not going to disagree when it comes to the effects of ageing.
I am not going to launch an ad hominem criticism, for despite that rather calculating advice, I am sure the majority of such people have a lot to offer: there are some aspects of learning where the P.E. approach would appear valid. But I am also getting sick and tired of sporting types trying to convince the rest of the world that it would be much better if only we could run everything through the medium of sports psychology.
Regular readers will also know that I have nothing against Psychology either. In fact, I think we need more of it in teachers’ professional armoury. But Sport Psychology is not the only, nor even the most appropriate type for the whole of education, let alone wider human endeavour.
Yesterday, I was invited to consider why the U.K. Olympic team has improved its performance so markedly over the past twenty years. A number of responses were offered by colleagues, but we were assured that it was, in the main, down to the psychology of marginal gains. It is the cumulative impact of lots of small technical adjustments that add up to large effects. This is what led to Olympic success, and it is to what Team Sky coach Dave Brailsford attributes Tour de France success too.
Members of my break-out group were asked to identify marginal gains that we could use in education. It was suggested that we could provide rulers and highlighters for children as they went into the exam hall. Some other ideas emerged. But they were all logistical: practical steps that teachers could do to remedy children’s deficiencies. (Whether we should do that is another matter; there is a view that says bringing the requisite equipment to an exam is part of the test). But when I asked how we might instead deliver – and identify – marginal learning gains, there was silence. Even those who were generally in favour of the concept seemed to struggle to know what a marginal learning gain is, and how we should know it when we see one. And that is before we can explain just how or why a specific marginal increase in knowledge might be tangibly more useful.
Matthew Syed is a well-known motivational speaker, which followed from his career as a top table-tennis player. I have no issue with his success – but he seems to be someone else who believes that what works for sports is directly transferrable to all other human endeavours. I disagree.
Syed falls foul of the Achilles’ Heel of sports psychology: he does not seem to understand the difference between practical, measurable performance such as a sporting ‘best’ and something that is a philosophical or existential imponderable, such as those which concern the effective development of the intellect. And he multiplies his error by demonstrating his inability sustain an appropriate analogy.
His recent TEDx talk compared the mindsets of the aviation industry to sub-optimal performance with that of the medical profession.
Syed claims that the aviation industry has a rigorous and open culture that discusses its mistakes and conducts forensic investigations with the aim of improving performance. This, he claims is a Growth Mindset. He contrasts it with the medical profession, which he characterises as largely closed-mindset, where complacent professionals rest on their laurels, and will do anything including subverting uncomfortable truths in order to perpetuate their own status and hegemony. Quite where the evidence to support this claims is, is not made clear; it sounds suspiciously like lazy generalisation to me, and is certainly not what my knowledge of the Health Service would suggest.
But the real weakness of the analogy concerns the nature of these two ‘industries’. Aircraft are constructed by (human) engineers using known technologies to perform single, predictable tasks. When they fail, it is relatively straightforward to identify the failure, even if it is human error, and to put mechanical ‘fixes’ in place to rectify recurrent problems. One might also observe that the aviation industry is driven primarily by the profit motive.
Human bodies are not (in the evolutionary sense!) made by people. For all that we do know, they remain in many ways mysterious, and it is certainly not true that a specific intervention such as the administration of a drug will have only one, knowable, proportionate effect. It is also considerably harder and more risky to dismantle a human body and observe the malfunction in concrete terms – especially while it is still functioning. Human beings’ diagnostic software is notoriously unreliable and also subject to whim and emotions such as fear.
The job of a medical practitioner is therefore not the same as that of an aircraft engineer when it comes to offering confident diagnoses and plans of action. While the general principles of the human body are known, the way forward is much less certain, and that is without the problem that a human being has feelings and multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes and priorities in the way an aircraft does not. Given these differences, I would suggest that any reticence or even defensiveness on the part of medical practitioners is at least highly understandable. I suggest that at least in the U.K., much of the medical profession is not primarily driven by financial profit.
In many ways, medicine remains in part a matter of judgement, rather than a knowable applied science like mechanical and electrical engineering.
I have discussed this at length because too much is made of such analogies in educational professional development terms. The objections outlined above occurred to me pretty spontaneously – and to others as well. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising when such claims are greeted with scepticism. There are undoubtedly some elements of education that are quantifiable, but much of what concerns people like me comes much closer to the considered judgement of medical professionals than the conscientious but largely mechanical procedures of aviation.
But there is a further objection, for which Mr Syed is as responsible as any: this is not being used dispassionately, but to promote the Growth Mindset and other specific agendas. There is an implication that those who disagree do so because their thinking or worldview or personal motives are deficient. Or to put it another way, ‘if only you thought properly you would come to the right conclusions’ (i.e. Ours).
I have no difficulty with the Growth Mindset, given certain caveats – but any value it has can only be destroyed by using it in a partisan way: this is not good academic practice. I have heard tell that even Dweck is not entirely happy at the way her concept is being used by education.
With my maverick’s hat on, I argued that the success of the Olympic team shows that selection by ability works. At least some of those athletes were head-hunted for their talent, and then around £5 million per medal thrown at them. No-hopers lost their funding.
I wonder how many of the Syeds and disciples of this world would demonstrate a growth mindset if presented with that argument, particularly in the field of education.
Unfortunately, the fallout of such P.C., partisan approaches is the undermining of training within our profession, not least in the eyes of those who are meant to be benefiting from it.
In the rush to impose sports psychology on even the most inappropriate of fields, such people ably both demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties of education, and perpetuate the misgivings some of us have as to why it is they are deemed suitable to be telling the rest of us what to do.
The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.
He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.
In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.
However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.
People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.
If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.
So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.
However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).
I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.
My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.
This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.
This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.
One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.
So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.
I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.
That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.
In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted what became a very famous experiment known as the Marshmallow Test. A pre-school child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of them, and a bell. The adult left the room, having told the child that they could ring for attention at any time, at which point they would be able to eat the marshmallow. But if they were able to resist until the adult returned (up to twenty minutes later), they would be able to double the reward. The experiment has been repeated many times, and there are plenty of entertaining covert videos on YouTube watching children’s attempts to resist.
One of the issues I want to address this year is that of sustaining children’s engagement at a time when attention spans and motivations seem to be shortening. The school’s intake seems to be changing for the more difficult, and keeping children’s effort and attention is requiring new thinking. As I wrote some months ago, I am increasingly exasperated by the constant demands to have ‘Fun’ in lessons, and that comment by one Year 7 girl who had not done her work “because my lesson was not sufficiently entertaining” is still ringing in my ears. Not because it hurt, but because I felt it is symptomatic of a problem we face with today’s children, namely that many are so indulged that they have no sense of obligation to do anything other than seek immediate gratification. That expectation has been perpetuated by schools encouraging children to want their lessons to be, above all else, fun.
When asked, many pupils are actually very vague about what kind of fun they want; what they really want, I think, is to shorten the pay-back time to their perceived ‘reward’ for the lesson. In a materialistic world, the notion of intrinsic rewards unfortunately seems increasingly thin.
Mischel himself describes the difficulties encountered by indulged children when the school agenda changes with the primary/secondary transition, so I am in good company here. It was a fortunate coincidence that my wife bought me Mischel’s book at this time.
I had already been playing around with developments of Daniel Kahnemann’s two brains model, and wondering whether I could use this to tackle the issue in the classroom. I had decided to use three brains (the third, or first, the unconscious brain, being responsible for bodily functions), and I mentioned this rather spontaneously to a class last term. Rather unexpectedly, they threw the idea back at me some weeks later, so it clearly stuck. I am now wondering whether formally presenting pupils with this concept at the start of the year might help them understand why they need to be able to defer their gratification in my lessons at least.
The Marshmallow Test is a measure of the ability to do just this, and Mischel’s longitudinal studies (using precisely my own year-group, I realised…) suggests that this early ability can indicate future life prospects quite closely, even into adulthood. In essence it is about the ability of people to over-ride their ‘Brain 2’ (hot, emotional brain) with their ‘Brain 3’ (cool, rational one) when difficult decisions are needed. The stronger one’s ability to do this, the more likely one is to be able to persevere in the short term for the sake of longer term gain.
It turns out that Mischel worked with Carol Dweck, and he outlines strategies that can help people to develop greater resolve. He is directly concerned with their use by teachers and parents, and the link with the overworked but basically plausible idea of the Growth Mindset is clear.
I have prepared a Prezi that I am going to trial with likely-looking classes, and it can be found here:
I think this might be the making of a ‘nudge’ strategy – I also have a PowerPoint slide of a marshmallow ready to project at a moment’s notice when attention seems to be slipping or the F word gets used…
One unknown is the extent to which the target group of children will be prepared to pay attention to this in the first place, and the extent to which they are willing (or able) to take its message on board. Does conscious awareness of such things make them more or less useful? There is a risk, of course, that precisely those who most need to know this may be those least likely to be able to make any deliberate response. We will see.
Where do mobiles come in? I am also increasingly convinced about the negative impact of mobile phones on children’s concentration spans, let alone ability to find anything else interesting. Mischel writes about the strategies children (and others) can use for increasing resolution to resist. One concerns the mental ‘distance’ one puts between oneself and the temptation. Actively thinking about the tastiness of marshmallows makes temptation worse; thinking about them as fluffy clouds weakens it.
It strikes me that mobile phones are nothing more than the mother of all marshmallows when it comes to modern children’s attention: by definition immediately to hand, and of almost unlimited, instant gratification. The more they use these devices, the shorter their attention span becomes as they get hooked on instant feedback; by comparison, the deferments required by serious learning must seem deeply unattractive, even without all the surrounding inducements.
No wonder they can’t think about anything else. So I am also considering declaring UDI when it comes to phone policy in my lessons. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I have to separate the damned things from the little addicts…