Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

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Warped.

I have an email from a parent, thanking me for five years’ teaching her child. The grade at G.C.S.E. was not high – but given that the child had significant learning difficulties, as a colleague observed, it probably still represents positive value added. According to the parent, my subject was the only one at school the child had really engaged with, thanks to my teaching.

I have a second email from a pupil in the same class thanking me, as I mentioned previously, for my support when the going got tough. That pupil got an A*.

Unfortunately, an algorithm predicted that the first pupil ‘ought’ to have scored four grades higher (even though the pupil didn’t manage that in any subject), whereas the second pupil simply got what was expected. I submitted both emails as annual review evidence; I cannot be certain they have even been read.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman reportedly gave a speech this week criticising schools for their obsession with league tables. She rightly pointed out that gaming the system simply to improve schools’ standing is in effect a corruption of the education process. Sean Harford of the same organisation has apparently said that data is a signpost, not a destination.

And yet we continue to be deluged with initiatives, from the College of Teaching down, seemingly intent on furthering ‘research-driven’ teaching. Presumably the research relies heavily on data for its ‘proof’.

I cannot accept that this is anything more than a distortion of the education process – and I have never been able to let my own teaching be driven by such concerns. The emails mentioned above might suggest why. As far as I am concerned, both of those pupils fulfilled their potential and equally important, had an affirming experience along the way.

Data/evidence/research/league tables have nothing to do with how educated young people become; knowing you got an A* may be a validation, but it is not being ‘educated’ per se. No, this obsession is not about pupils at all – but everything about teachers and schools ‘proving’ they have met political requirements. The sheer energy going into this at the moment shows just how narcissistic the education sector has (been forced to?) become.

Educational data simply cannot be impartial: there are too many unknowns involved. But if the system is going to set so much store by them, then it has a profound responsibility to get it right to a very high level of confidence. And if one accepts my concerns, then that it cannot but fail to do.

I will restrict myself to a couple of observations, which are not without personal signficance.

  1. Little heed is paid to the volatility of small data sets. In a class of 25, each child represents a +/- 4% effect on the data. One child’s performance makes a significant difference. Quite apart from the inherent instability, it is not consistent directly to compare the results for a teacher who had, say 75 exam candidates (and hence a less volatility) with one who only had 25.
  2. The breakdown of classes makes a difference. A former colleague had two classes in the same year group. One group scored 100% A*-C; the other scored 25%. Nobody questioned that because the classes were of different ability. And yet my colleague’s average A*-C percentage is lower than the one that got me into trouble with a mixed ability class. It came down to an arbitrary judgement that my result ‘ought’ to have been higher – even though comparison of ‘my’ grades with the same pupils in their other subjects suggests otherwise.

That is not a rigorous use of data, but equally, it is not clear what would be – and this is the reason I have no faith in this approach. Selective use of data thus becomes just another managerial weapon.

And what about the data suggesting that pupils’ results may correlate with their teachers’ state of mental health? Bitter experience makes this plausible for me; it is only on such grounds that I might be prepared to concede some deficiency. But it is hardly something I should be held accountable for, particularly when my working conditions arguably have been the cause to start with. Amanda Spielman may perhaps be thinking similarly – but in my case it is looking increasingly as though I am going to pay for my earlier obduracy with my career.

If statistics are inherently so powerful, then ones for mental health surely ought to be treated seriously and the root cause of the problem addressed. Yet the system seems intent on doing the opposite by just scrapping people when they burn out.

Furthermore, by using such tenuous grounds to make teachers’ lives more difficult, the sector is contributing to its own difficulties by wantonly disposing of experienced staff who, in any wider reading may be doing a perfectly good job.

And that is just warped.

Summerhill by the back door

Desperate times call for different solutions. No, not more about Brexit, though there are parallels. Rather against my better judgement, I found quite a lot to agree with a report in The Guardian about a Berlin school that has turned traditional assumptions about school structures upside down.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/no-grades-no-timetable-berlin-school-turns-teaching-upside-down

In essence, it is the pupils who decide what they wish to study, rather in the way that A.S. Neill’s notorious (?) Summerhill School did (and in fact still does).

http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/

I must admit I still struggle with the dilemma between the traditionalist view that the teacher knows best, that they are the experts in the room, that they should decide what children need to learn and that children should therefore be expected to comply – and the problems that this clearly poses in modern times, where children are simply not equipped with the necessary powers of concentration and respect for authority and knowledge that this approach requires. For all my traditionalist leanings, some of the arguments used by the Berlin school may have some traction.

As I have mentioned before, the intake at my school is changing significantly. In some ways, I suspect this simply marks the end of the charmed life that it has led for most of my time there, and it is now being forced to address the reality that many schools have faced for years. But there have been times this year when I admit I have been at a complete loss for how to engage children who seem to have no inherent interest whatsoever in anything I teach,  whose starting-point is below anything I have encountered before, who have no regard at all for the authority of the teacher or indeed any other adult, and on whom my long-established practices make barely a dent. I am very reluctant to go down the edutainment route because I believe I would be neglecting the very things these children above all others need to have addressed. But on the other hand, the traditional approach is being found somewhat wanting too.

In some cases, these are children who hitherto would have gone to other schools, but no longer. Some of them I suspect come from homes where any kind of structure is absent – but by no means are all from underprivileged backgrounds. Some are clearly quite the opposite, and the phrase ‘silver spoon in the mouth’ does not begin to describe the attitude of entitled condescension that they manifest. But the one thing these two types have in common seems to be the sense that they need not lift a finger in support of their own education. Indeed, when challenged over their lack of work, one eleven-year-old this week told me to my face that my lesson had “not been entertaining enough”.

As I said, desperate times call for new solutions. I wonder whether this German approach might have something to recommend it. I think there are two important points here: firstly, so far as one can tell, there is no judgement made about the teacher in situations where, for instance, children choose not to engage with their lessons; likewise, there remain consequences for children if their chosen approaches do not yield the required outcomes. This is not responsibility-free freedom.

By coincidence, I have been deploying a somewhat unorthodox approach to my dilemma outlined above. I am fortunate to have a connecting classroom that is rarely used at this time of year. Consequently, the opportunity has arisen for children to be given the choice of whether to participate in my lesson and thereby accept my rules and expectations, or to spend the time in the other room (albeit under discrete observation by me).

The only consequence is that they will need to explain themselves if found during learning walks (having chosen to opt out of their lessons, they are not being deprived of anything by me) and the lack of marks in their books with consequent lowering of reported grades. In some cases, I provide opters-out with the work to be done at home. A few have chosen to remove themselves – but those who remained have generally shown improved co-operation, and lessons have been smoother without the disruptive elements. After a few weeks of this, one or two are beginning to see this a skive, and I need to think what to do next about them. But opting-out rates have fallen, and the effect seems to have been marginally beneficial. I expect to get into trouble for this sooner or later – but as I said, difficult circumstances require new thinking.

In an age when children come with the Attitude that they do, I increasingly believe that making them face the consequences of it is the only way to break through the arrogance and complacency that causes many of them to think that they can behave as they like within the classroom, safe in the knowledge that their “rights” are inalienable.

Schools and teachers have increasingly been shorn of the ability to deploy sanctions that hit home to this breed of sassy, brazen youth, and children know it. Given that children are now so marketised, perhaps the only thing left is to make them face the consequences of their consumer choices, make them actively ‘buy in’ to their education if they want it, rather than letting them get away with the diminished responsibility whose main effect is to damage the opportunities of the better-thinking others.

Sometimes it is only when we are deprived of something that we come to realise its true value.

Gimme PROOF!

I got my knuckles mildly rapped on Friday for failing to provide the fortnightly data on my exam class. No matter that instead of setting a data-yielding past question, I had specifically directed them to spend an hour’s homework revising, in an attempt to bust their self-confessed reluctance to start preparing for their mocks (and had passed this information on). Apparently, this was insufficient reason for not providing the data; a rather rude word went through my head. I expect it will do so again tomorrow for my insufficient deployment of green pens.

A colleague has calculated that just to mark all his pupils’ work to the stipulated level requires in excess of sixteen hours’ work per week – in addition to all the other stuff he has to do. Knuckles can apparently get rapped for failing to achieve that, too.

I’ve just finished Tomsett’s book, with mixed feelings. I’m disappointed that he feels that the way to great learning is through great management; my experience suggests that overt management (at whatever level, including self) is as likely to make things worse as better. Better to remain nimble on one’s feet.

On the other hand, he clearly values his staff and knows that treating them well is the key to treating his pupils well – unlike a manager of another school  who once told me that his attitude to his staff was “bullish”. To which one might as well add a ‘Y’. I’m afraid I simply don’t understand how anyone can think that antagonising people is the way to get the best from them. Quite apart from the inevitable psychological reaction, setting unachievable targets, for example, is a sure-fire way of corrupting the system.

Despite my tone, I don’t decry the ‘innovations’ that educational management has exposed us to; an awareness of, say, differentiation or effective feedback is a helpful addition to a teacher’s armoury. But these things largely happen all the time in classrooms anyway, in a thousand unobtrusive ways; the burden is proving it. The time taken doing this often detracts from just getting on with it.

Tomsett calls for an evidence-based profession, which is curious since much of the case he builds in his book is distinctly anecdotal. He cites healthcare as being evidence-based, despite the fact that many within it have big misgivings about this approach. Caring for people (as opposed to merely treating them) is distinctly heuristic, and ‘interventions’ are less cut-and-dried that it might seem. Judgment is still called for – and even in the Law, ‘evidence’ is often far from conclusive.

I wouldn’t have an issue with evidence if much had been forthcoming – for despite all the discussion, precious little has emerged that can be claimed as hard evidence for universally effective, specific practice. Even its proponents increasingly seem to be ring-fencing their findings with caveats. If hard evidence could indeed be produced, it would enable managers to direct teachers absolutely in what they should do – and there would be little argument to be had, for who could oppose ‘proven’ good practice? But would even that make for good teaching?

But the fact remains, much of what we are being directed to do is NOT proven. It is based on whim and managerial convenience and plain old petty, jumped-up bureaucracy.  Where is the evidence that intensified written marking makes a substantive, universal difference to pupils? Where is the evidence that the colour of that marking improves their education? Where is the evidence that entering data on a spreadsheet makes a substantive difference to anyone except the bureaucrat whose job it is to check it?

From the current argument, teachers should not be required professionally to do anything except that which is proven to improve their pupils’ education, and perhaps some basic good housekeeping. (As always, I define that in opposition to the narrower (though sometimes necessary) objective of exam cramming).

On that basis I look forward to the forthcoming massive reduction in my workload.

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.

What did you expect?

The boy was confident; despite his mere twelve years, he betrayed no sense that he might need to moderate what he said to an adult more than four times his age, and one of his teachers at that.

“I don’t concentrate because Geography’s hard. It’s not fun and I don’t like it”.

My heart sank a little; whatever our views on teaching, this is not really what we want to hear. But the reasoning is worth exploring further:

  1. I expect lessons above all to be fun;
  2. This subject is difficult;
  3. Therefore it is not fun;
  4. Therefore I don’t like it;
  5. Therefore I am justified in not engaging with it.

I had held him back after a lesson because he has been presenting low-level issues with poor attention and work-rate. He is something of an attention-seeker and one of the many children I encounter who, I would consider, have a self-confidence vastly inflated beyond the normal egocentrism of childhood.

But my teaching has clearly not engaged this pupil, and that gives cause for reflection. Needless to say, my reading of the situation was different. Consistent with the views of colleagues who also teach him, the lad’s reasoning needs to be reversed: being an attention-seeker, he tends to ignore the rules of the classroom, and he needs regular steering in order to keep him on task. He tends to shrug off gentle reprimand and needs firm treatment before he begins to take notice. He is of moderate ability and has struggled to understand the work as a result of his inattention.  His need for instant gratification means he lacks the tenacity when the going gets difficult. In short, he is not equipped for the secondary-school classroom.

There is a clash of expectations here that says much about the central conflict within education.

Given that the pupil concerned has been in this school for less than a year, much of his outlook has probably carried over from his earlier experiences. Whether the attention-seeking is simply temperament, the effects of over-indulgent parenting or a sign of something more complex is not yet clear. Whatever, this boy clearly perceives his schooling as something where his response and effort are conditional, rather than – as I would prefer – an opportunity at which he has a duty to try his hardest. How to turn this round?

He appears not to distinguish between himself and adults in terms of knowledge or authority; while not disrespectful, he shows no embarrassment when reprimanded, and considers it acceptable to respond with his own view.  This may be part of regular childish immaturity, but the over-assurance of the response perhaps is not. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of his home.

No matter how unacceptable I find this boy’s attitude, I am nonetheless required to address it. Indeed, it is going to be necessary to break through it before it is possible to educate him effectively. By the age of twelve, it may already be too late, and the degree of progress possible is unclear, for all that I will continue to correct his behaviour. Maybe the lad will find the teacher who ignites him, but I’m not holding my breath.  Any change is more likely to be gradual and partly a matter of how he matures. We cannot claim sole credit for that…

The progressive movement correctly identified this problem: we cannot, ultimately, control the autonomous actions of our pupils – only influence them (however strongly). But it arrived at precisely the worst conclusion – that therefore we need to curry our pupils’ favour by making school ‘fun’. The problem with this is its denial of the conditions necessary for learning. Most subjects vary internally in their appeal, but learning is also matter of hard work. Then there is the historic fact that children have disliked school throughout the ages – probably because of the loss of freedom that it represents as much as anything more specific. Believing that one can address this by changing the nature of lessons is a step too far.

Failure to face the difficulty of learning causes avoidance of precisely those elements essential to advance it.  This is not the approach advocated in other fields – for example it is accepted that prowess at sport requires graft, and musicianship likewise. So why does collective wisdom insist that academic learning must primarily be ‘fun’? We should be showing children that it’s more important than that.

I’m not sure that Geography is inherently ‘fun’ anyway. It has its appealing topics – but in the final reckoning, it is what it is – the rational study of the complex world around us. Developing an awareness and understanding of that is a profoundly important activity – but in my experience, the only way to make it self-consciously ‘fun’ is by using activities that distract from the content by masking it with trivia. Real interest requires a mindset that is prepared to find the world interesting, and which enjoys challenge. It is not something that can be generated by jelly-carving or puppet shows, and I suspect that the same is actually true of most subjects. By the time children arrive at my door, they need at least an implicit acceptance of that.

Interest (rather than ‘fun’) comes from the role- and knowledge-model that I present to my pupils. One can sometimes ‘hook’ children by reference to prior experiences – but this is restricted to things they already know about. Formalising our ‘study’ is just as good – and there are other ways: my classroom persona and wit are helpful tools for engagement, as is narrative, as is my ‘desk-side manner’ – all parts of the teacher-craft that conventional performance measures tend to diminish. Communicating the importance and ‘bigger picture’ of education plays a part too.

But what are we to do about pupils who are already lost to this? While much of the problem may come from beyond school, we do need to examine the expectations that the school system itself is creating. Children’s expectations of school inevitably come principally from what they encounter there, both formally and through peer contact.  I suspect that the call for ‘fun’ comes largely from unstructured primary school experiences, which may explain the difficulty some children find in coping with more formal situations.

In secondary schools, we should be careful with the messages we send: if we create specific expectations regarding teachers’ methods, it is hardly surprising if pupils respond accordingly. Almost as bad is the emphasis on engagement over all else; by highlighting this, we are all but legitimising disengagement. This also affects how teachers decide to teach. If enough opt for the high fun/low learning approach because that is what has been stipulated, then it is hardly surprising if pupils struggle when they encounter a teacher who makes more formal demands. It is hardly fair to judge the teacher alone on the consequences.

I am not suggesting that teachers should give no consideration to how they present their subject – but we need greater realism about the purpose of secondary education, and it is essential that pupils are equipped to cope with it. It is of course incumbent on teachers to teach as well as they can – though what that means and how it is defined is much wider than the mechanics of what happens in a specific lesson. But how, and to what extent they can be deemed responsible for the learning that results is another matter, especially when they are facing ill-prepared pupils. Neither am I convinced that less able pupils need ‘more fun’ in the name of differentiation – I have seen plenty of children of modest ability who coped perfectly well with formal learning; what makes all the difference is the expectation.

I was satisfied with one comment from my pupil: he is finding the subject difficult. Were that not the case, then I could stand guilty of pitching my lessons too low. But how we change the highly limiting perceptions he expressed is much less obvious. He needs to work harder and concentrate more – but how to ‘persuade’ him when that is not already engrained belief is much harder. It is not, I think, a bone of contention between traditionalists and progressives that the most effective learning requires intrinsic motivation; the problem is what to do where that does not already exist.

I may be required to address the situation as I find it – but what success might reasonably be expected for issues that range wider than – and possibly predate – my intervention is far from clear.

Turning it all around #3: Held to account.

Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Pasi Sahlberg

One so often sees in education the application of extraordinarily blunt instruments to a subtle and intricate process that it’s easy to wonder whether those devising them really have much understanding of that process at all.  Holding professionals to ‘account’ might seem like a perfectly reasonable step within a complex modern society – until one reflects further on both the meaning of the word, and the nature of what is being attempted.

I have no difficulty whatsoever for being held responsible for my actions as a teacher – but therein lies the first nuance: responsibility is accepted, but accountability is imposed. What is more, accountability has a whiff of retribution about it, suggesting no consideration of the circumstances whatsoever, whereas responsibility again is more nuanced, and has positive as well as negative connotations. But what, therefore, am I to make of the advice from a senior manager some years ago, that one should never apologise (to a parent)?

Teaching is not like working on a production line. Unlike machinery, people do not usually submit willingly to direct control – and immature ones especially so. Many of the impacts of my work depend on how others react to what I do – and I have little direct control of that: influence is the best I can really hope for. Claiming that failure is simply the premeditated failure of the professional to get it right vastly over-simplifies the nature of the situations we deal with.

Increasing the intervention may even result in the opposite effect to that desired. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that the more I do for my pupils, the less they feel they need to do for themselves, and I have colleagues who are finding the same. The incitement to teachers to do more may well be having a negative effect, while a ‘failure’ to act may just as easily be the result of insightful judgement as neglect.

There is a multitude of external factors that also affect the outcomes of a teacher’s work, many of which involve purely reactive relationships. And yet institutional thinking believes it reasonable to hold teachers individually to account for many such situations – sometimes so precisely that a numerical target is applied. This is a denial of reality, for production targets are meaningless in real educational terms, more subject to apparent chance than anything else.

Such has been the emphasis on the supply-side of education in recent years that my pupils often react with surprise when I remind them that their teachers also exist to assess how they respond to the education they are being given. Many now seem to see schooling as a situation where they are the purely passive recipients of a service, where they need take no responsibility for any of their actions or outcomes.  This has been exacerbated by the demise of things that ‘remind’ them of those responsibilities, such as end-of-year exams in lower-secondary education.

Teaching children such responsibility is in itself part of their education.The effect of ramping up the demands on precisely those who have only partial control of the situation has been to shift the emphasis away from those whom we are really seeking to influence. The argument that children have diminished responsibility on account of their immaturity misses the point in typically progressive fashion: the whole purpose of education is to develop such understandings in them, not give in to the fact they don’t already have them. It is, in my view, entirely reasonable to place upon children a requirement that they too accept some responsibility for their actions, and that includes engaging with the educational process. But I would also argue that a teacher’s responsibility therefore also extends to not duping them into believing that lessons are simple matters of transient fun, with no longer-term consequences.

To remove from children any sense of their own ability or need to influence their own futures is about as great a disservice to them as I can imagine.  What is more, the zero-sum argument that children only have one chance in life is just another denial that reality is not perfect. Some children will always ‘fail’, whatever the criteria we use, through no fault of our own. And it is also worth remembering that without ‘failure’ there can also be no ‘success’ either. Forcing people onto the defensive about this is hardly helpful.

I would not wish to visit accountability on others – but if we are going to use it, then it needs to be done wisely. The key considerations must surely be:

  • an accurate identification of what the real determinants of a situation actually are;
  • where and to what extent control of them really lies, and
  • the appropriateness with which success and failure are defined.

I find it perfectly acceptable to be held responsible for my actions as a teacher – to a degree proportionate with the real influence I have over the situation. This must include an acceptance that I do not have the benefit of hindsight when making decisions about particular courses of action. I also accept it on condition that the criteria for success or failure reflect the reality of the situation, and that the assessment is made by those who have sufficient sophistication themselves to understand the interplay between all of the relevant factors.

But I do not accept it unconditionally in order to become a fall-guy whose function is to absorb the poor decisions and risk-offloading of others simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

Responsibility is a complex dynamic, particularly in collegiate institutions such as schools, and I think the balance is currently so far from being correct that it is probably doing more harm than good. If we are going to continue with such notions, there is probably only one indicator which comes close to giving a proportionate and realistic assessment – and that is intent.

In other words, we need to examine people’s motives, for this is the clearest indicator of whether they are acting in good faith or not, while also accepting that we do not live in a perfect or predictable world. This is in itself difficult, but it comes back to the concept of an on-going, individual professional ethic. Appraising this – over a suitable period of time – would provide a fairer and more accurate reflection of a teacher’s conduct that any number of attempts to pin on individuals blame for situations whose outcomes they could neither accurately predict nor fully control – or whose causes were actually collective.

But the real problem is the misidentification of the locus of responsibility in the first place. Of course teachers need to discharge their duties as well as humanly possible – but that is rarely in genuine doubt. Therefore they are not usually deserving of blame. We need to spend less time holding teachers to account and more time ensuring that the expectations of the children themselves are sufficiently demanding.

Pygmalion

 Pygmalion__final_version_by_mrDExArts

http://stevedelamare.deviantart.com/

The calls for an ‘evidence based profession’ keep coming, as though this would somehow solve all our troubles. But the problem with evidence is that it still needs to be interpreted by good old Mk1 fallible human beings. The idea that we will somehow be able to produce an education system that does not depend on this strikes me as not only probably impossible but highly undesirable.

All the evidence I have seen during my time in the classroom points to the fact that this would amount to the end of education and the start of people-programming. It would remove the ability of those in schools to function in an authentic inter-personal manner and replace it with a prescribed machine-ethic, which would produce human robots rather than complex individuals. Education is a social and intellectual activity, not a scientific-mechanical one; why would we want to make it otherwise?

This is not to say that evidence is useless – so long as it is defined in the broadest possible sense as ‘incoming information from the world around’. Indeed, doing anything without due regard for the context would seem to be little more than a form of madness. In my classroom, as in daily life, I constantly respond to the evidence of what is happening around me – but that it not to say that the response is simply formulaic. People are more complex than that.

Evidence comes in all manner of forms, and people use it in all sorts of ways. The evidence of the affection of one’s significant other does not usefully come in numerical form, any more than does the pleasure of a good meal or the first signs of Spring. The responses that ‘evidence’ of this sort evokes may just as likely be emotive as rational. People are more complex than that.

But  I suspect that those most loudly demanding evidence-based teaching have in mind something along the lines of medical procedures or scientific experiments, which they can plug into classroom situations safe in the knowledge that the desired outcome will pop out the other end. I fear they are going to be disappointed. People are more complex than that.

But other people use evidence too – artists and artisans, for instance. They work their material with an intimate knowledge of its properties, a deep skill in the use of their tools – and most importantly of all, an eye for the intrinsic potential of a particular piece of material. These methods may use science, but be less obvious and less easily transferrable than straight scientific procedure – but that does not make them ineffective with respect to their intended purpose. In fact, the very uniqueness of each artisan’s approach is what gives it its most desirable qualities.

In my mind’s eye, I see my practice a teacher more akin to the work of a sculptor than a scientist. As the JISC report mentioned in my previous post concluded, teaching can be seen as an artisanal activity, but I would argue, no less a skilled profession for that. I believe that this model would be much more helpful in guiding professional practice than the concept of a pedagogic scientist.

A skilled sculptor, Pygmalion brought forth from a crude piece of stone a figure of such beauty that he fell in love with it. He presumably did this only partially by recourse to his knowledge of the nature of stone. He also needed, in his mind’s eye, a conception of the beauty he was intending to create – and he then needed to fashion the stone in question to his ideals, while simultaneously reading, and accommodating, the flaws, blemishes and beauty of the material he was working with. His subjective reactions to what was unfolding would have guided his hand at least as much as his technical expertise.

One can consider the work of the teacher in a similar way: the purpose is to fashion a unique human being from the crude piece that one is given. In the early stages, this will mean removing large amounts of unneeded material, but the process will be increasingly one of refinement using a skilled eye and even more skilled hand to make just the necessary interventions to create the perfect result. But the process will never be the same twice, except in its most basic elements, since every sculpture will be different and every piece of stone unique.

It may be easy to dismiss sculptors as being of relatively little ‘use’ when seen from a scientific perspective, and yet they are equally skilled in their own way. What is more, they produce items that are not of mere practical application, but which beautify the world. And they do have a further purpose: to express  those aspects of existence than numbers cannot adequately communicate. In the case of Pygmalion, he produced a sculpture of such beauty that he yearned for it to become human – as indeed it did, thanks to the intervention of Aphrodite. And it was by becoming fully human, rather than a mere likeness in inert material – the stuff of scientists and statisticians – that it assumed its greatest beauty of all.

In researching this post, I happened upon another application of the Pygmalion story – the Pygmalion Effect. This has direct relevance for educators as it describes the effect of teacher expectations on pupil outcomes. I would argue that expecting our students merely to conform to technical definitions of success is actually to have low expectations of them, for all that this receives so much attention. It represents a failure of imagination: why would we wish future people to have merely technically accomplished lives, when living to the full is so much more? Surely it is far more important that those lives are things of beauty, lives well lived in an aesthetic, cultural and societal sense?

This need not conflict with an academic understanding of education, because it is through attaining the intellectual peaks that the wider views become visible, for all that the climb may be sheer hard work. But it requires a rather more organic view of learning than the sterile hitting of targets that the evidence-mongers seem to want.

If we are to use evidence, we need to be certain it is of the right kind, and that an appropriate response is possible. It needs to be the servant of teachers, not their master – and it needs to permit educators to raise people above the status of the merely technical, not plug them ever more tightly into it. My vision of education is closer to the classical ideal of  eudaimonia than the industrially mechanical, and for artisanal teaching we already have most of the evidence we need, simply through using our senses and intellects.

But I think it will be left to those teachers who have the sculptor’s aesthetic sensibilities to achieve this, not those who merely deal in technicalities.

As any teacher know?

A document from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) was recently brought to my attention. The author is Niall Sclater and it concerns codes of practice for learning analytics, largely with reference to the tertiary sector. However, there is one section that I believe may be of interest to  the school teaching community, and as it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 I offer a few sections from it here. (It can be found on pages 26 and 27 of the original). I will leave most conclusions to readers; suffice it to say that I feel it supports some of my recurrent arguments about the severe shortcomings of use of statistics to inform the educational process.

The original document can be downloaded here:

http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/5661/1/Learning_Analytics_A-_Literature_Review.pdf

“A working party at Charles Sturt University (2014) notes that “learning is a complex social activity and that technical methods do not fully capture the scope and nuanced nature of learning”. Reducing the complexity of student behaviour to a number or a traffic light is pointed out by Campbell et al (2007) to result potentially in oversimplified or insensitive conclusions. Any algorithm or method will be reductive in that it attempts to create a manageable set of metrics which do not necessarily reflect reality (Greller & Draschler 2012). No prediction can take into consideration all possible factors such as problems at home or financial difficulties…”

“Slade & Prinsloo (2013) point out that as much data related to learning is held in systems outside the control of the institution…it is impossible to obtain a holistic picture of student life. Moreover the data is itself temporal and may only afford a view of an individual at a specific place and time, not allowing for the changing and multiple identities of learners as they progress through their studies.”

“A number cannot represent the personal growth or development of relationships that arise from attending an educational establishment. Johnson (2014) worries that data mining can treat a subject as a collection of attributes rather than an individual. He discusses course recommendation systems where people are recommended to do what people like them have done before…For Johnson it appears that learners are being thought of as mere collections of skills to be matched to an outcome, rather than individuals. He thinks that such systems undermine student autonomy…denying students the opportunity to make their own decisions.”

“Tertiary education can be an “individual artisanal craft” where the standardised metrics and interventions of learning analytics ay not fit easily (Contact North 2012)

 

A cat’s chance in hell

Some years ago, my journey to work used to take me past a new development of Lego-like ‘executive’ homes, for which the temporary yellow direction sign gave the name ‘Aspire’. I used to cringe every time I saw it – until I realised that the location had views of the local church which, yes, has a……

Across my consciousness, at some point during the last week, crept the phrase, “It is important that children from all backgrounds are taught aspirational values.” The context was the fixed mind-set of white, working-class boys.

This served as a reminder that there is almost no time in education when unqualified, sweeping statements of values are appropriate. At first sight this might appear an educationally reasonable, err, aspiration, but as always the devil is in the detail. While tackling low expectations is hardly contestable, it only becomes meaningful once one has also understood a realistic upper limit. Is it really important – even healthy – to be encouraging free-floating aspiration for all, irrespective of the likelihood of attaining such unrestrained dreams?

Perhaps it is too easy for a habitual sceptic like me to question the meaning of the words –  yet Freudian slips have a habit of revealing inner truths. While it is possible to aspire to all sorts of things, the word has in recent times come to mean mainly material aspiration, such as the rather mundane ability to afford a suburban ‘executive’ home. So one needs to be clear what it is that children should be encouraged to aspire to.

Moreover, the word increasingly has passive connotations: aspiring is about yearning for ownership, the purchase of something one cannot yet afford. This casts one in the role of consumer and assumes that aspiration is met by earning power; the expectation is on someone else to deliver a finished product. Maybe I’m stretching the point, but this is a concept that I feel has very little to do with real education and a great deal to do with how much of society now perceives it.

There is a difference between ‘aspiration’ and ‘expectation’, but one easily slips into the other. An aspiration may remain unfulfilled, whereas an expectation carries the opposite connotation. Again, this is not an unreasonable concept in itself – but again, one needs to define the parameters. There is no obligation on either aspirations or expectations to be reasonable, or even realistic. One is free to dream of whatever one wishes – but that is no guarantee that it is attainable.

How, amidst such complexity, is the teacher usefully to define high/low/realistic expectations for pupils, let alone enforce them? The locus of responsibility needs to be clear, and we should also remember that aspirations and expectations can be both contingent and contagious.

On the surface of it, one might find little to object to in one’s expectations of oneself, and realistically framed, these can serve as a helpful stimulus to progress. Nonetheless, we need to remember that self-delusion is all too easy, especially in a culture that encourages almost limitless expectations. But it is much more difficult to hold oneself to account than it is others.

I am certain I am not the only teacher who has encountered pupils (or perhaps more saliently, their parents) whose expectations were vastly out of proportion with all evidence of their ability. The teacher, at this point is faced with a difficult balance, between dashing ambition and tempering it with a dose of realism.  In this situation, internal expectations are easily externalised, in the hope of acquiring what one tacitly knows one cannot secure for oneself. But it also risks transferring to the teacher an unacceptable burden to deliver what may well be impossible, and certainly not fully within their gift. This is why it is essential that we consider the locus of responsibility when discussing expectations: what is it realistic to expect, and upon whom falls the task of achieving it?

The situation becomes even more complex with our direct expectations of others: there is no sense of self-accountability to temper our demands. It seems to me that in this respect, modern society is deeply dysfunctional: collective levels of expectation have been widely hyped, often beyond what is attainable; a focus on peak performance (particularly in sport) has distorted our understanding of the rarity of the phenomenon. By definition, there can be only one champion.

When free-floating aspiration is channelled into supposedly-justified expectation, all sorts of distortions can result. When we commodify pretty much anything, we risk over-simplifying the means by which it is attained, and indeed the nature of success. We also deny the inherent intangibility of qualities such as health or education, expecting that they ought to be deliverable just as easily as any consumer product. We tend to externalise failure to achieve them, as we might externalise a faulty product: blame falls on ‘poor service’ rather than accepting the true complexity of the situation, or our own responsibilities within it.

Thus can expectations be said to be contingent. But they are also contagious: one’s own are not simply the product of one’s own mind, but are influenced heavily by peer pressure and the wider social climate. Again, this phenomenon encourages them to be free-floating, decoupled from the necessary personal understandings that are required to remain proportionate.

Soundings of ‘pupil voice’ at my school repeatedly reveal one contradiction: both in my own lessons and those of numerous colleagues, pupils agree that they are learning much – but at the same time, the constant demand is for ‘more Fun’. Somewhere, these children have been led to expect that school needs, above all else, to be ‘fun’. I will leave aside a discussion of what that might actually mean – but I would suggest that this is not inherent in all children. I think I can say with confidence that at school age neither I nor my peers expected school to be, above all else, Fun.

This might not be particularly serious if it did not have implications for their subsequent responses. If one expects fun and is not getting it, this may stigmatise the teaching as deficient when it is anything but. This in turn affects pupil responses, for example by making less effort. Empowering pupil expectation assumes that children have a realistic understanding of the nature of learning and an honest acceptance of the balance of responsibilities for it – which many do not, and which wider messages may not be promoting.

Last summer, I stated my intention to revert shamelessly to a more traditional classroom approach, and this I have done; fortunately, the change of expectations from Ofsted has meant the pressure to produce ‘progressive’ lessons has diminished somewhat. Experience so far suggests that my classes of all abilities are generally able to cope with formal teaching, even when they superficially manifest an expectation for something else.

But I have nonetheless encountered a repeated demand for ‘more fun’, and expectations do condition responses. I have also found that where pupils encounter difficulty, their expectation seems not be that they first tackle it for themselves, but that the answer will simply be provided by me. After all, struggling is not always fun.

Likewise, I have found that some upper school students who are doing well in class are finding it difficult to score high marks in assessments because (at their own admission) they are doing little revision. Revision is hardly fun.

Then there is the case of a couple of generally-able sixth formers who are struggling to reach their full exam potential because they lack the ability to write at length, despite repeated advice that they need to read more. Reading subliminally develops one’s understanding and own style and depth of writing – but for some, reading is not fun.

In all cases, the general expectation is that the teacher will be able to rectify these issues – and I would not deny that it is the teacher’s job to try. But doing so need not mean taking more upon oneself; sometimes the best intervention is to make a student aware of what they need to do for them self. This can be a specific academic action – but at least as helpfully, it needs to involve communicating a suitable balance of expectation between the teacher and the pupil. And in this respect, the expectation that study always needs to be Fun may not be proving very helpful.

The more one thinks about this issue, the more complex it becomes. Balancing such considerations has probably fallen within the professional wisdom of teachers for generations, but that may be no defence against externally-inflating demands. I have not, for example, discussed the various effects of the expectations that schools communicate to their pupils through targets; too-high expectations can be just as damaging as too low. Neither have I considered the impact of schools’ unrealistic expectations of teachers.

It seems to me that the imbalance of expectations within the education system today may actually be hindering students’ success – and simultaneously damaging many teachers, both professionally and personally. While one would of course not wish to dash young people’s dreams, I am not certain that creating ones that they have not a cat’s chance in hell of attaining, is very helpful either. We need to temper aspiration with a wiser and more realistic appreciation of the nature of dreams – and a healthy dash of realism.