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.

It may not be wrong…

…that I stayed at school later than usual supervising students on the Controlled Assessment catch-up.

…that as a result I endured a significanty longer journey over the thirty miles home.

…that as my wife got caught behind an accident and took 80 minutes to go fifteen miles, by which time I was already working again, I have hardly spoken to her this evening.

…that she still cooked the dinner so I could carry on working.

…that because of a few days feeling off-colour, I am having to work extra-hard to catch up with the backlog.

…that I have just enough time to take a shower and read for ten minutes before bed – and that is the day done.

…that all of these things need to be done in the name of providing today’s children with a good education.

But it sure as hell is wrong that the uppermost thought in my mind as I did those things was the need to cover my back because of what ‘might’ happen at the forthcoming work scrutiny if I don’t get it all finished.

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.