What works

I am nearing the end of the course with my hard-working Year 11’s. In last Monday’s lesson, I tried to enthuse them for the final push by saying that with determination, we might just finish before Easter. – and we proceeded to have a lesson where their work-rate was noticeably slower than normal. I can only assume they felt they could afford to put their feet up a bit; it just goes to show how unpredictable the classroom dynamic really is.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that some pillar of what we do – say, the pressure of preparing for high-stakes examinations – really did cause serious damage to young people, say long-term psychological harm, or at least depression and demotivation. Would the decision be taken to abandon it? Or are the institutional imperatives now so strong that we would continue anyway?

I suspect the issue would be evaded by saying that there is in fact no way of proving such a claim – and that is probably correct, for all that I may feel that excess pressure in my own education caused me to put the brakes on. (Come to think of it, things have not changed so much: the enormity of the marking mountain now being presented as a necessity is hardly making me all the more eager to climb it…)

Yet if one tries to deploy considered doubt in the same way to critique any of the seemingly questionable initiatives we are routinely required to enact – that same, utterly surreal marking regime for example – it is normally ruled inadmissible. I have had two conversations about marking in the past few weeks; in both cases, mine was a genuine enquiry regarding the provenance of cast-iron evidence that marking at such intensity does actually make a proportionate difference. In both cases, the tone of the response seemed to imply that my question was ridiculous; only one made any other response at all – and that was to invoke the name of Saint John (Hattie).

It is true that Hattie talks about the importance of feedback – but to the best of my knowledge, nowhere does he specify that this means mountains of written marking, let alone double marking, at any particular frequency or in any specific colour of pen.

What’s more, Hattie’s calculations themselves are not beyond doubt, nor the appropriateness of his ‘effect size’ as a technique in the first place. And, I would add, the results of meta-analyses can never be refined to a point that makes them useful at the level of the individual classroom: they are just too generalised. To be blunt, Hattie is simply not much practical help when one is struggling to cope with the daily realities of being a classroom teacher.

Yet this ‘proof’ is apparently deemed sufficient to warrant the consumption of vast amounts of teacher-time plodding through mountains of exercise books, writing www/ebi comments that pupils, unless prompted, will scarcely look at, let alone act on in any meaningful way. (I have suggested before that cognitively immature minds are basically after the affective ‘hit’ of praise, rather than deep academic analysis). It is even more groundless to believe that the addition of stickers, stamps, forms, coloured pens or any other such paraphernalia will make any substantial difference whatsoever to what people learn. And if they are intended to be a coping mechanism for teachers, they are only likely to compromise any benefit that properly written feedback might bring.

But judging by the current tsunami, someone somewhere has decided that this needs to be wheeled out as widely as possible. Who – and where – are they? Or is it just some kind of educational meme? In which case, someone ought to be scotching it before it gets completely out of hand – this is no basis for the running of a credible profession.

To take the matter further, just how much of what we do really is, in its fundamentals, simply beyond proof? I would suggest that most of the educative process is still taken largely on faith. If, as David Didau and others have suggested, learning is invisible, then we simply have no way of knowing. Teaching will never become an evidence-based profession, simply because we cannot see the evidence. At best, we have weak indicators in the form of ‘progress’. But as Robert Bjork argues, I think convincingly, performance is not a reliable indicator of real learning either.

So what is left? Well, we know that learning happens. But it happens all the time, irrespective of what teachers do – it’s a normal, universal brain property; even Hattie accepts that. We know there are some things that impair formal learning, such as unruly classrooms and poor pupil attitudes, and it makes sense to minimise those where we can.

If we accept this, then all sorts of vanities start to slip away – such as the fact that teachers have anything like total control over their pupils’ learning, or the fact that teaching styles have a huge impact on learning (they shouldn’t, so long as classrooms are purposeful). That same year 11 class was genuinely horrified when I hinted that lazy pupils’ failings are held attributable to their teachers…

The only other thing of which I can be reasonably certain is that my ongoing presence in a room with a group of young people does have some impact on them – but I won’t pretend I know the half of what it actually is. I know that it is possible to engage their interest to a greater or lesser extent – but I also know that the factors that affect it are only partly within my control. It makes sense to maximise those that are.

But to do that, I need time and energy – both of which are increasingly being wasted on huge, mind-numbing, multi-coloured bureaucratic tasks whose ‘proof’ of effectiveness is no stronger than that with which my objections are regularly dismissed.

And much weaker than the evidence of my own eyes, that suggests the opposite. Evidence-based profession? Hmm; to use evidence this selectively and one-sidedly is really not to use it at all.

This way madness lies…

Some days ago, I found myself in the unexpected position of contemplating a new job. An appealing post came up in a local school – a Free School, no less – and despite having more or less concluded that I will probably see my career out at my present school, I began wondering whether a change might not be such a bad thing.

The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things,  notably the issue of marking. I’m going to bend my usual purdah on matters specific here, because I suspect the issue is actually more general. In my faculty, there are long-standing guidelines about the frequency of marking, which are demanding – some would say unsustainable – as they are. We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking. There are also burdensome codes that must be used for every conceivable error.

In addition, older pupils must have timed assessments at least once a fortnight, to be returned within a week and re-done and re-marked  if they do not meet their target grades. No matter if the weaker pupils end up in a mess with several on the go simultaneously. I should make it clear that, at present, this is not a whole-school issue, but the doing of an over-zealous middle manager.

I calculated that this would involve me in more than three hours’ marking every day of the week in order to meet the demands, and other colleagues fare even worse. That is without the additional work of planning and other tasks that the difficulties of our timetable impose. I also brought home several classes’ worth of assessments to mark over half-term, and a bag-load of G.C.S.E coursework and could easily have spent the whole week working.

There were protests, but they were brushed aside. I contemplated mentioning the impact on family life, but was advised this would simply be ignored. Where this will lead after the holiday, who knows.

Britain’s “patchy education system” is mentioned in this month’s Prospect as one of the country’s Achilles’ heels. Who working in education would not want the system to be as good as it can be? I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important.

But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. On a practical level, there are insufficient hours in the day, especially as marking time at school is almost non-existent. The only option is to mark in lessons, which is not a good use of teacher-time. Anyway, my brain cannot cope with such endless drudgery; I find that quality drops, and I end up howling for a break. It is simply not possible to maintain quality in such quantities with such intensity. Stultification sets in – and yet the system will not budge.

Teachers have been left with the prospect of eating yet further into their personal lives, cutting the quality in order to cope with quantity, or failing to meet the deadlines while trying to maintain quality. Either way, the stress of being set up to fail like this is unacceptable.

I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that shows that marking is the panacea we have all been looking for. There are plenty of countries with excellent education systems that do not take this approach; there are plenty of well-educated British who did not experience this regime either. Some of the most successful systems are so laid-back that you’d hardly recognise them as such; they tend to have people who actually enjoy working in education. Experience suggests that while pupils can be trained to respond to such systems, they do not do so voluntarily. Much of the response is mechanical and needs regular prompting, all the more so amongst those who might most need the support – and a necessary activity just becomes a millstone.

What we have here is just another example of the grinding, bureaucratic response that is the only way the British education system knows: if you need more horsepower, just flog the teachers again. No matter that it seems to have minimal impact on the effort or attainment of the pupils, and may even be counter-productive. This country’s system  knows no other way – but this is not the path to ‘world-class’ excellence. In fact, it is the response of a system that has not the slightest inkling what that phrase might mean in educational or intellectual terms.

I am resolute that this is where the ‘line in the sand’ lies; many colleagues concur. We have been left with no other option but to ignore the stipulation and deal with what consequences may emerge. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that this rapacious system knows no limits at all. The more we deliver, the more it demands. So, as it seems incapable of doing so, we will set the limits ourselves – at a point which delivers a more civilised and reasonable work-life balance. I have cut my evening watershed from 10pm to 9pm and anything that does not get done by then will not be. But it is not an entirely happy feeling; despite the welcome rest, the anxiety lurks even though finishing work at 9pm each day is hardly slacking.

And so I found myself looking at the job description for a free school. I wondered whether ‘free’ might mean free from the kind of madness described above. But then I read of the school’s rigorous policy of coloured-pen marking, of multiple-marking of pupils’ work, of peer assessment, learning walks, work scrutiny and the rest. What’s more, the foundation that runs it stipulates the exam board that must be used. Teachers are required to work in teams with partner schools to assure quality and develop approved teaching strategies.

And I wondered which conceivable definition of ‘free’ this might be.

Utter Rubbish – a postscript

Saturday’s post (Utter Rubbish) went straight to the top of my all-time-most-read. I’m not sure whether that means there a lot of people in agreement, or whether lots are thinking what an inveterate fool T.P. made of himself. Either way, here is a short clarification:

Andrew Sabisky commented that Lleras-Muney’s number is the result of large-scale research, and that it is possible using natural experiment (I like that) to obtain plausible figures. However, subsequent (peer?) review apparently contested the result. Thanks to Andrew for the link.

But my title did not principally refer to the research itself, even though its provenance may be questionable and I stand by my comments over why it cannot be applied to the individual. It is possible that this is not what Lleras-Muney intended. It is widely accepted that increasing educational opportunity can have significant aggregate benefits for populations. It is particularly noticeable in developing countries where general life expectancy is low, and where certain groups (notably women) gain access to education for the first time.

What I think is U.R. is the way that such data are misrepresented to support partisan(?) agendas, particularly in relation to specific classroom practice. I don’t know whether Dylan Wiliam was just being careless in his use of language, but to my eyes he is saying that one year in ‘school’ will add 1.7 years to one’s life. As a justification for formative assessment, I think he presumes too rather too much!

It exasperates me when discussion of classroom practice ignores the reality of teaching specific groups of young people. Extending their longevity is not normally foremost in my mind, even when embedding formative assessment!

While it is true that educating a population is achieved by educating many individual people, the process is oblique and it is not straightforward to make direct links between the specific process and the general effect. Likewise, I have long criticised the commodification of ‘achievement’ as something distinct from the process of actual learning. Neither is quantifiable in any absolute way, and such approaches fail to capture the real life-benefits that ‘being educated’ can bring, which are mostly not objectively experienced at all. I am not sure how one would go about quantifying ‘achievement’ in relation, for example, to a growing appreciation of Literature or competence in a foreign language, nor how this contributes to the effects that Wiliam suggests.

One might further argue that the marginal quantity of life is not as important as its quality, and even in economic terms, increased longevity is as likely to add to the cost burden on society as reduce it.

The promotion of this utilitarian, economised view of education by those with significant clout has diminished a more individual, cultural and humane appreciation of its effects. This is the outlook of those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and it has done untold damage to the wider perception of education in Britain.

That is where the Utter Rubbish really comes in.

Affirmative Assessment

People don’t like feeling threatened, so it’s no surprise that children look worried when I announce a no-notice assessment; tests are traditionally seen as threatening. Many of my lower school pupils have been doing their first round of ‘brain only’ tests, and the reactions continue to be interesting.

I’ve written about these before, but to summarise, they consist of a mind-map projected onto the board, with a few topic headings and sometimes some content hints but nothing else. The purpose is to put the onus 100% on the pupils to show what they know, without support of any kind. I refuse to give anything more away than clarification of the summary points, which forces pupils to make their own decisions about their knowledge and how to use it. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and a number of colleagues have also taken up the idea, which has the added benefit of being blissfully straightforward to implement.

The rationale, which I share with my pupils, is that things that have been properly learned should be ‘in there’ just waiting to pop back out; mugging for a test is inherently artificial, and prone to immediate forgetting once the ‘threat’ has passed. This way, they can’t do that; we are effectively testing long-term rather than short-term memory.

Judging from the initial reactions of those who have never done this before, the idea of relying entirely on their own cognitive resources is distinctly unfamiliar. I worry that so much teaching in the past decade has revolved around the idea of easy accessibility that we have scaffolded learning to the point where children themselves rarely have to break a sweat. Some seem unfamiliar with the concept of actually being expected to know anything long-term; when I mention the problem of leaving your learning at the lesson door, some (metaphorically) nod in recognition. This way plays to the ‘Quiet’ qualities of inner knowledge – and there is no escape.

So after a brief preamble, they are let loose and spend the remainder of the hour working on their mind maps. Pupils are given A3 paper on which to communicate their ideas as they decide. This format is helpful because it allows pupils to start writing at whatever point they feel they can. Getting started is often the most difficult part, after which everything does indeed just ‘pop back out’, with many writing at length. Credit is given for (correct) extra information that pupils can provide from their own knowledge.

I have refined the process over the years – I judge more carefully the point at which they are allowed to consult their books deferring it if it seems appropriate. This is a one-way decision of their own choosing, following which they notionally score marks at half the rate. They must write in a different colour from that point, for which we now use GREEN – the idea being that knowledge which requires book consultation is effectively that which needs further work.

I have used this across the ability range, with very little modification – the intention being for all to aim as high as they can. I  level the results broadly using KS3 levels, with five or above needing reasonable explanation and six or more needing analysis. Writing diagnostic comments is easy – and the scripts are relatively quick to mark.

But the best bit is that, once familiar with the process, many pupils say they like the format. Quite a few rise to my challenge not to need to open their books – and very many report being pleasantly surprised at how much they find they do know; that is very empowering. I find it rewarding, too, to observe the explicit effects of my teaching. There is ample scope for positive reinforcement, and it also forces a realisation upon those who struggle that maybe they do need to pay more attention. Over time, this procedure provides an incentive to try to retain what they learn in lessons, as they now know they will be expect to demonstrate it. We are talking about real learning here, not just short-term performance.

Progressive teachers may be nodding knowingly at this point – but I see little to contradict the traditionalist ethos either, in giving pupils what amounts to a half-termly exam in silence. The key thing is that the task is demanding but still affirmative. And it has an interesting effect on behaviour, which also makes me wonder what the pupils are experiencing across their education more generally as a result of the all-singing-all-dancing type of lesson they perhaps more frequently encounter.

For all that they often seem unable to focus for long, when given a challenging task of this sort for which they have no option but to concentrate on their own resources, many do seem perfectly capable of rising to the challenge. Last period on Friday, I had a sometimes-difficult low ability class writing in silence for an hour without any bidding from me. Now that has to be worth doing.

Contrary wisdom

I’ve continued to edge forward through Tomsett’s book. I am not finding quite the kindred spirit that I expected, but there are nonetheless moments of insight which spark recognition here. Foremost amongst these is his sensation that the longer one spends doing this work, the less certain one becomes about things one formerly took as given. Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognise the same trend in my own scribblings. But at the risk of sounding hubristic, I think this is probably a sign that in our respective ways, we are both finally gaining the true wisdom that comes from knowing our work inside out. And I think it is only from this perspective that one finally perhaps appreciates why it may be unwise to promote people too quickly to positions where they are supremely able to cramp others’ style.

I’m disappointed that Tomsett identifies himself proudly as part of Gove’s Blob, for as I’ve said many times before, I don’t think that it is the role or right of the profession to attempt to impose particular ideological models or templates on society. I believe this can never succeed, and moreover any attempt to control what people may know or how they may think can only ever constitute a restraint on the pursuit of free Thought.

But there are pearls in there that schools would do well to heed. I well remember having a discussion some years ago with a youngish deputy head (now departed for promotion) in which he expressed incredulity that I only planned my lessons a few days ahead. As a Maths teacher, he said he planned his lessons at least half a term in advance. Perhaps it works in Maths, but it doesn’t in Humanities, and yet here was one model seeking to impose itself on the workings of another which it perhaps didn’t understand as well as it thought.

I’ve been instructed to prepare some materials in pretty much the same vein and it rather goes against the grain. It is reasonable to devise a plan of a course, outline its content, and perhaps some of the key materials, but as Tomsett says, how can you specifically plan the next lesson until you know how the last one went?

Indeed, this is actually an expression of formative assessment, where one refines one’s plans according to how a particular group of pupils progressed last time. And yet, the approved line seems to be contradictory: one should know precisely what one is going to do weeks in advance. You can’t do both. I’m glad Tomsett supports my own instinct on this one – once again the voice of practical experience counters the (sometimes naive) administrative will.

The next step could also be to listen to those of us who argue that the current obsession with marking conflicts with the best use of our time, which is surely spent planning in a more responsive way. I know many colleagues who admit that their lesson planning has suffered since the drive on marking appeared. And given the time required to do both tasks to a high standard, it is simply not acceptable to expect teachers to eat even further into what is left of their private lives.

It just goes to prove that there is always a perfectly justifiable counter-argument in education, which in itself should be sufficient to silence those who claim there is only one right way to teach. Leave it to people’s judgement.

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

A book that is creating some ripples at present is Teaching Backwards by Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns.

This was promoted at a recent training session and is currently being read by a like-minded colleague who is sufficiently impressed that I will probably follow.

Excerpts from the blurb say:

“… Teaching Backwards offers a more reflective and measured approach to teaching and learning.”  

Well, Good.

“Where many teachers focus on delivering content in a linear fashion, those who teach backwards start with the end in mind. This means that they know in advance what levels of knowledge, attitude, skills and habits they expect their learners to achieve, they define and demystify ambitious goals, and they establish their students’ starting points before they start to plan and teach.”

“Teaching Backwards ensures that learners consistently make great progress over time …[to] further develop their attitudes, skills and habits of excellence both for themselves and for their learners.”

I realise that I am creating a hostage to fortune by commenting on a book that I have yet to read – but it still generated a discussion earlier this week that is worth examining.

My beef is not with the aspirations, which are pretty universal – but as always, with the assumptions. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing team rather than the authors, but any book on education that claims to ‘ensure’ anything should be treated with caution. Furthermore, this does not conflict with linear teaching as implied, but strangely it does seem to suggest that teaching is a linear process once that start-point has been identified. Can we really anticipate the outcomes of a genuine learning process this closely?

The concern with ‘levels of knowledge, attitude, skill and habit’ comes across as yet another attempt to know the unknowable. It is true that eventually one has to settle one’s objectives, but I remain unconvinced that it is possible to delimit human behaviour this closely. Too many of those decisions depend on value-judgements, ultimately opinion masquerading as fact.

I am not sure what a ‘level of knowledge’ is anyway. From my own experience, there is just stuff I know and stuff I don’t. Maybe it is possible to apply a taxonomy to it – but does that really help? It makes relatively little difference to my lived experience of that knowledge, though possibly more to someone attempting to assess it. And lo! We return to the usual conundrum: this definition of learning is ultimately of more use to the teacher than the learner.

A similar criticism can be made of ‘ambitious goals’ and ‘great progress over time’: there is nothing wrong with the aspiration, so much as the claim that a single approach can deliver an objective outcome.

My colleague is greatly taken with the notion of baseline testing, after which he intends to plan backwards starting with his end objective. I wish him good luck in finding it. While it is straightforward to identify given knowledge that one wishes pupils to have, other objectives such as ‘attitudes, skills and habits’ are not only more nebulous, but also subject to the vagaries of time and values. Personally, I would hope that I never reach a measurable end-point in such things, because they should continue to develop throughout a lifetime, and applying arbitrary judgements to them is both artificial and value-laden. (It is not that I don’t have such things which I promote, just that I recognise the slim likelihood that others will ultimately experience my ‘truths’ about the world).

Our discussion moved onto the value of this approach for differentiation: how can one differentiate if one does not know where one’s pupils start from? A reasonable question. But there is no single answer: no two people’s knowledge is the same, particularly at the specialised end of a discipline – and I would argue, nor should it be. Trying to homogenise knowledge is of no inherent value, and probably only matters for the purpose of passing exams (which I don’t decry – but it is not the same as ‘real’ knowledge).

But my biggest reservation is the implication that if one knows these things, one can then plan better for them. We come again to the Achilles ’ heel of all current teaching – the notion that it alone controls what goes on in (and into) children’s minds. My colleague argues that if there are four children in a class who already know the content of the lesson, they should not have to repeat it – and this is only possible if the teacher knows the situation in advance. But you can always know more about a topic to make it worth revisiting.

And what about the idea of revision? There is much evidence (notably from Robert Bjork) that repetition is important. Is it really a waste of those children’s time to revisit material, even inadvertently? There are other ways of dealing with the issue: they can be given leading roles in the class discussion – dare I say (as I did this week in this situation) putting them out front to ‘teach’ the others?

There is also a matter of numbers to consider: where lies the balance between ‘wasting’ a few individuals’ time and benefitting the rest? Should the same decision be made irrespective of whether the prior knowledge belongs to one child or twenty? In the latter instance, the teacher clearly needs to review the pitch of the lesson – but they may still conclude that revision is worthwhile. It can be an affirmative experience to share prior knowledge.

However, my biggest reservation lies in the supposed need to plan everything so closely. By all means find out what pupils already know; in fact, they tend to make it vocally known, even if it doesn’t become rapidly self-evident. But the way to respond is not by rigid planning, but by being heuristic, by knowing one’s subject well, and being sufficiently intellectually flexible as to adapt on the hoof.

I taught what superficially appeared to be the same lesson on plate tectonics to four varying classes last week. The resources were broadly the same (although I have a large reserve of electronic resources to draw on depending on how the lesson progresses). Some classes took two lessons to cope with the basic mechanics, though not without some left-field questions being let fly. Other classes rolled through in half the time and we extended into matters of continental drift, the discovery of tectonic theory, how it might be wrong, the difficulties of researching deep-ocean volcanoes, and the relevance to the Chilean earthquake. Many of those discussions could not have been tightly anticipated, and in some cases they only occurred with certain individuals who were forging ahead. Some came from pupil questions, some from snippets I judiciously introduced. All pupils gained the core knowledge – but their actual learning differed not only from class to class, but from individual to individual. Is this open-endedness a problem in the way tight planning implies?

Teaching backwards from objectives may be a sound concept, but as usual my feeling is that making this more than a broad-brush underlying principle risks emasculating it. It also implies there is consensus as to what those objectives should be.

Differentiation is an important part of the classroom teacher’s work – but planning it in advance reduces one’s ability to cope with the real-time needs of the classroom. Skilled teachers differentiate instinctively, moment by moment, and it can involve little more than a judicious additional comment to certain pupils. It relies on the here-and-now, supported by a wide knowledge. Why make it more complicated than it need be?

I will report back when I have read the book.

Do It Yourself!

I don’t normally comment on specific classroom practice, partly because there is already so much out there about it, and partly because I tend to be sceptical about broad claims made for or from any one person’s experiences. I’m also not sure that pupils should be used as guinea-pigs, though I suppose the research has to be done somewhere…

But I thought I’d bend the rule to discuss one particular experience from recent weeks, inasmuch as it may shed just a little light on a wider current debate. I’m certainly not claiming any originality for the technique – it’s hardly complex – and nor am I going to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from what is after all one very small sample. I’m sure more sceptical readers will see many flaws in what I am about to describe, to say nothing of the philosophy underpinning it.

There seems to be a growing torrent of people questioning more and more of the erstwhile non-negotiable wisdoms of recent years, and this week it seems to be the turn of AfL (Assessment for Learning). As several writers point out, this has been a central plank of the drive to quantify learning, and as those writers are now also pointing out, for example here and here, the premises upon such things are based seem shakier the harder you look at them.

As David Didau (a.k.a. Learning Spy) observes, AfL is a particularly sacred cow to slaughter. That may be so, but I have had my reservations about it all along. It strikes me that the main reason we ‘need’ (want?) to be able to measure learning has nothing to do with the process itself, and once again everything to do with validating and accounting for our professional systems. I’m not saying it isn’t helpful to know whether pupils are actually learning stuff, but the notion of being able to control and measure that process accurately enough to direct one’s planning lesson by lesson always struck me as daft – unless you are obsessively worried that those outcomes might not be ‘good enough’. As Didau and others are now pointing out, not only is learning invisible, but the relationship between it and the teaching process is not the mechanistic, directly causal one that AfL presupposes. The only perplexing thing about all this is the expressions of apparent surprise and disappointment that this may be so. I think this whole edifice was just another case of wishful thinking on the part of the educational engineers.

So I offer the following experience as a small contribution to the debate. The activity concerned was most definitely not conducted with formal AfL in mind; in fact it took place before I became aware of this debate at all. All I was curious to know – in the roundest, most subjective terms possible – was what my pupils had retained in their memories from a sequence of about five or six lessons. I also wanted to create an opportunity to discuss with them the matter of personal attitudes and responsibility for learning.

It just so happens that my findings may be of some relevance.

For the first time in a number of years I have used the very simple technique of providing pupils with an A3 sheet of paper, and on the screen at the front a template with selected prompts from a recently-completed topic. All they have to do is write down as much as they can – purely from retained knowledge – about the various aspects of the topic just learned. I do not give pupils any warning of this as I want them to write without the boost of prior cramming, just to see precisely what may remain in their longer-term memories. As a sop, I allow them after some thirty minutes to choose to consult their exercise books – on the provisos that they change writing colour and that once the book is open it can’t be closed again. (Quite a few chose not to).  They are also told that ‘book knowledge’ scores credit at half the rate of ‘brain knowledge’. I actually look largely at the first section.

From a marking point of view, it is relatively straightforward, with L4 constituting reasonable description, L5 starting to offer explanation through to emerging analysis at L7 – all fairly broad-brush stuff, as it inevitably is in humanities. I have now done this task with a number of different classes from years seven to nine. Note however, that at no point did I mention targets, levels or expected outcomes to the pupils – I just left them to write unhindered by input from me…

What was almost more interesting than the actual results was the pupils’ initial reactions to the task. One should bear in mind that our ability range is positively skewed, but that many pupils perhaps have an excessive sense of entitlement resulting in sometimes-complacent attitudes to their work and high expectations of what teachers will do for them.

Many reactions were along the lines of “you can’t expect us to know all that!” and protests that they had been given no notice. These were somewhat allayed when I explained why we were doing the exercise and precisely how it would work. But there was still quite a lot of incredulity that I was expecting them actually to know significant amounts unaided. As planned, however, this provided ample opportunity for later discussions about why that was, and the implications for effort levels. It was also significant to note that most of the hardest-working pupils offered little protest and generally just got stuck in.

I was fairly hard-hearted with all requests to provide answers or significant further guidance; however, I did point out that getting started was often the hardest part, and they should just wade in with one of the questions they felt they could answer – hence the diagrammatic format. Indeed, once they started, it was gratifying to note that many pupils were indeed able to write quite a lot, often more than they expected. This in turn provided opportunities for positive feedback.

Conversely, there was a significant minority who were able to write very little; no prizes for guessing what the general attitudinal profile of those pupils tends to be. I’m afraid I left them to struggle and this later provided a useful opportunity to point out to the class as a whole the consequences of not making an effort in lessons. Who knows whether this will have a long-term benefit…

On marking the work, it was indeed pleasing to note good levels of knowledge, though less ability to explain than describe; that is of course consistent with cognitive development, but it makes me wonder whether some of these skills are less developed than they sometimes appear in more structured tasks. It was notable, however, that most of the grades were lower than the official module assessment, conducted about a week previously, which explicitly instructed pupils what they had to write to score a given level and gave them more material resources to draw on. What’s more, that task was done with minimal protest.

I think it may be indicative that taking away teachers’ ‘scaffolding’ of pupil tasks and asking them to rely purely on their own resources both elicited a very different reaction from the students and also had an impact on their apparent attainment.  I will leave readers to decide for themselves which they think is the more representative and educationally-sound practice, but I know what I think. It may also be worth reiterating an emerging argument that emphasising ‘progress’ may even come at the expense of genuine learning.

A further clear distinction was that many less-able pupils made comments along the lines of “I remember doing it, I understood it at the time but I can’t remember it now” and “I have a problem remembering things”. This is more difficult to draw conclusions from; it has certainly made me reflect on whether I am doing enough to help such pupils retain what we cover – but also whether it is in fact a reasonable or necessary expectation that they will do so. Clearly it’s necessary for formal examinations, but they seemed to be referring to limitations that are not subject-related (such as, “I didn’t understand it”) but more fundamentally cognitive issues. How much is it really possible to do about that, and how accountable should we therefore be for the outcomes?

I also think the reaction of the pupils to being expected actually to have retained any knowledge long-term was interesting. One always needs to allow for youthful hyperbole of course, but it makes me wonder whether this might show  something about younger pupils’ attitudes to and understanding of the acquisition of long-term knowledge, versus short-term recital for the purposes of demonstrating ‘progress’ and hitting NC levels. Their appreciation that learning was about anything more than a transient focus on something seemed surprisingly weak. This may be why the demands of G.C.S.E. and ‘A’ level hit many perfectly capable pupils hard – perhaps they simply aren’t being prepared for the long-term retention of knowledge, a task-skill that must surely take years. If this is the case, that lack of knowledge may also be hindering their ability to develop more complex critical skills.

If so, in real educational terms this expression of Learned Helplessness is probably doing far more damage than any inability accurately to measure what learning does go on. And what’s more, collectively it’s our fault.

What’s concerning about the questions now being asked about AfL is that the proposed solutions seem to involve tweaking systems, making them more complicated still, or even inventing completely new ones. Why we can’t just accept the fact that learning is a qualitative, oblique, almost unmeasurable process and stop worrying, I really don’t know. Formal exams will be a good enough proxy test – in the fullness of time. If it’s good enough for the Finns (and the Swiss) then it’s good enough for me.