The race to the bottom is still very much on!

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Like you, I get lots of emails every day. I’ve not yet figured out – or rather not bothered to figure out – how to turn off the automatic alert. As a consequence, I frequently get interrupted at work. Earlier this week, an email popped up with the subject Quotation Bank in it. Mildly intrigued and on this occasion needing a distraction, I clicked the link. I wish I hadn’t. I think I have discovered a new low in educational profiteering.

As their name suggests, The Quotation Bank offer banks of quotations for all the major exam texts, all helpfully analysed for meaning and method. Whilst they are probably no worse than any other study guide, online or otherwise – they all adopt the same cynical approach of focusing relentlessly on assessment objectives and working backwards from mark schemes – there is just something very depressing for an English teacher of reducing literature to a bunch of quotes. Equally disheartening is having a whole industry that exploits the narrow end goal, but invests very little (by way of decent textbooks) on how to actually get there.

Perhaps I have a particular beef with what Quotation Bank has to offer because to me it signals a new low in the race to the bottom – one step too far in the finding of cute ways to maximise exam success through the back door. It’s fair enough for teachers to arm their students with an understanding of the text’s key lines alongside the study of the text itself, but to build a revision approach around a few decontextulised snippets alone seems to me to be rather missing the point, and certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I came into teaching English.

All this reminds me of something that occurred a few years back when I was teaching Dorian Gray at AS level. I remember coming across a critical opinion crib sheet on the Internet, which consisted of a dozen or so quotations from different critics about the novel. I think I sighed before continuing my searches. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, were it not for the fact that a couple of weeks later when I was reading through some recently released exemplar essays from the exam board, I came across some of the essays that contained the exact same critical quotations. Word for word.

Now it may well be that the crib sheet came after the exemplar essays. Maybe a resourceful student (hopefully not a teacher!) got hold of the scripts and knocked up a list of all the critics mentioned onto a flashcard for their own preparation. I don’t think so, but it was over five years ago now, so I cannot be sure. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. A quick search now for some of the ‘critics’ cited (and their supposed thoughts on Dorian Gray) throws up multiple cheat sheets and online flashcards with exactly the same material. It’s the literary equivalent of what journalist Nick Davies calls Flat Earth News, where news stories become news stories by sheer virtue of being spread widely with no one having the time, inclination or expertise to check their validity.

Now, I don’t expect A Level students to read the whole of tomes like Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex – who has? – but I would hope they could handle more than just a few pithy lines from a dubious critic. I’ve always been of the belief that one of the purposes of A level study, particularly in a subject like English, is to prepare students for the next stage of an education, whether or not they choose to continue with it. A level should, in part, be about introducing students to scholarship, teaching them the concept of literary theory and giving them a decent taste of the real thing. Not watered-down soundbites designed to convey an appearance of knowledge.

In my opinion, these are both examples of the race to the bottom – a race that is unfortunately still being run, despite the best efforts of many principled teachers and school leaders to base improvement on long-term, sustainable developments informed by evidence and genuine subject expertise. The pressure to achieve success is clearly is still all consuming and fuels a desire to find ways to bypass hard work, to look for quick wins and is the reason why companies like Quotation Bank continue to exist. The knock-on effect for a university education is only too clear.

What I think confounds the problem is the failure of the exam boards to do their jobs properly. And I am not just referring here to their inability to distinguish between knowledge and soundbites. It seems to me that, at least in my subject, there are just not enough examiners and that those examiners we do have do not always have the expertise required to examine properly. Whilst anecdotal, I know of several teachers who examined this year on texts that they had not read. A Twitter poll I conducted a few months ago suggested these were not isolated cases. Now, if you think about it – that’s ridiculous: you determine the grades of students for a text you’ve never read!

The response to this would probably go something like, ‘oh, but it’s the skills you are assessing for on the mark scheme.’ Sounds plausible, but it’s really just nonsense. Again, only anecdotal, but we have had several cases where our strongest students got much lower grades than we expected. Obviously, I understand we all have good days and bad days, but almost every time we ask for scripts back it is clear the examiner has not fully recognised some of the more sophisticated points made, and that trite, yet obvious analysis is rewarded whereas insight and subtlety is not. Surprise, surprise – on almost every occasion we appeal, grades go up, sometimes by a ludicrous number of marks.

It would be better if exam boards stopped focusing on making money on designing resources to support the teaching of their own specifications. The primary function of an exam board is surely to design and assess their qualifications, and to make sure the grades they award are consistent and fair. The curriculum, teaching and learning is for schools and teachers to worry about. Likewise if exam boards put more money and effort into recruitment, and not relied on the dubious proposition of valuable CPD for teachers, they would not need to lower the bar to get all their scripts marked. If all examiners had expertise in what they were examining, students would be encouraged to understand the whole text and get to grips with hard content and not just how to create the impression that they understand.

Without a market for short cuts, there would be little incentive for anyone to provide them, and the race would turn round in the other direction.

 

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Everything Now: resisting the urge to implement too much too soon

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There are so many good ideas in education at the moment – knowledge organisers, whole class feedback, multiple-choice questions, low stakes quizzing, dual coding, etc. – it is hard to keep up. I’m on board with almost all of these ideas approaches, and in this enlightened evidence-based age in which we live, it feels good to be finally doing the right thing!

And yet, I wonder that we may be in danger of repeating some of the mistakes from the past. I don’t mean we risk returning to the dark days of learning styles, multiple intelligences unfounded taxonomies and pyramids of this and that. Thankfully, I think those days are long gone. I’m more thinking that as profession we still tend to rush towards implementing each and every new idea that comes along without engaging in any real process of critical evaluation. We’ve eschewed some of the guff from the past, but I am not sure we have learnt how to handle research evidence in a disciplined way, and as a consequence we risk creating future brain gyms.

It seems to me that we are still of the mindset that when we see something new, particularly something that conforms to our biases, our eyes light up and we want to get it up and running in our classrooms as quickly as possible. This is probably why so a lot of good ideas get implemented so badly, because we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to think about how they are going to work, if at all, in our contexts. As Mark Enser points out in this excellent post, what start off as promising interventions or sensible ways of managing workloads, run the risk of getting bastardised into something less effective and even more time-consuming.

Dylan Wiliam and Graham Nuthall understand the two main threats to effective implementation: lack of practical guidance and/or lack of theoretical understanding. For Wiliam, ‘Teachers will not take up attractive sounding ideas, albeit based on extensive research, if these are presented as general principles which leave entirely to them the task of translating them into everyday practice.’ Indeed. And for Nuthall, ‘in most cases, there is a description of what to do and how to do it, but no description of why it might work. There is no explanation of the underlying learning principles.’ Again, this strikes a chord.

I would add to this a third threat: time. In my last post, I provided some advice on how to use mini whiteboards more effectively in classrooms. The post was not well read (to be fair, they never are!) which was not really a surprise. It’s not a sexy topic and most people already know how to use whiteboards well, don’t they? Maybe; maybe not. The reason I wrote the blog was because what I see time and time again is ineffective use of mini whiteboards in lessons. Too often, there appears to be a conceptual misunderstanding of their purpose, or a lack of expertise and confidence in their practical application. More time working on this simple strategy would probably make for its better use as a teaching tool. But we are always searching for something new.

Knowledge organisers are anther case in point. You only need to type the phrase into Google to see a huge disparity in what people think they are for and how they are using them with their students. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that up and down the country a lot of time and effort has gone into generating knowledge organisers, but not so much care and attention into working out exactly how they should be used with the students. Do they even work? I think they are excellent, but do we actually know if they make a difference to outcomes. Alex Quigley poses similarly troubling questions for a range of other current ideas in this thought-provoking piece.

I should stress here that I don’t see myself sitting atop any of this. I’m not scoffing at others putting into practice things they read about on Twitter or learn about at conferences. Most of it is excellent and seems eminently sensible. I am just the same as everyone else. If I see someone share something that I think sounds good, and if that thing is grounded in some kind evidence, then I am inclined to agree with it and want to bring it into my classroom and across my school. The risk of not doing something that sounds so right is often enough of an impetus to make me want to act.

It is only in the last couple of years, that I have not only learnt the value of stepping back and thinking things through, but also, importantly, developed the discipline to resist acting immediately. Often the pressures of getting results and wanting to do well by your students – whether as a class teacher or a school leader – can make it very difficult to not try new ideas and approaches. But resist we must. If we don’t allow ourselves the time to properly understand the theory and practice of a new idea, and the time to turn that theory into practice, then even the best ideas will likely fail.

Which leads me to evaluation – quite possibly the biggest thing missing from most school improvement activity, whether at the classroom or school level. I’m a huge advocate of helping to turn research evidence into practical action, but I am increasingly mindful of the need to try and evaluate the impact of any changes we make to our practice, however hard or imperfect that might be. If we don’t properly consider the impact of the changes that we introduce in our classrooms and our schools, we will never know what is worth doing what is best left alone.

Whereas earlier in my career, we tended to implement an idea from the DFE or the senior management team without any real kind of evaluation of its impact, we now tend to implement an idea from research or cognitive science without any real kind of evaluation. I’m inclined to think that these ideas, often helpfully distilled by popular educationists or other bloggers, are far superior to the days of yore, but I still think we need to hold them up to the light through the process of evaluation. Findings from fields such as cognitive science are really only the first stage of the evidence process – the bit that often takes place in the lab, or uses undergraduates and inauthentic learning materials. Whilst this is hugely important and valuable, there is another important stage, and that is the evaluations we set up in our own contexts using some variation of this simple formula: does intervention X work in context Y under Z conditions?

If we cannot answer a question like this, should we really be implementing something into our classroom or our school?

Thanks for reading.

References:

Black, P. J. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners

 

 

 

 

The Unexamined Life

One of the statements on this post about educational ideas to bin in 2015 piqued my interest.* The comments relate to the apparent tedium of on-going debates on social media about the merits of progressive and traditional philosophies of teaching. According to this post, debating teaching philosophies on social media is dull and along with lesson grading (yes, I agree) and textbooks (no, I don’t agree) should be consigned to the past.

This excellent piece by Horatio Speaks does a great job in challenging some of the issues with shutting down debates about the virtues of different teaching beliefs. My interest, however, is more in keeping with the content of this post by James Theobald. I am concerned about the detrimental consequences of closing off teachers’ understanding of the forces that shape their professional lives and, in turn, their ability to make informed pedagogical choices about how they teach.

Before I joined Twitter and started reading lots of blogs and lots of books, I had no real idea there were two very distinct philosophies of teaching. Obviously, I could see some teachers taught and managed their classrooms differently, but I put this down to different skill sets and personal preferences born out of experience. There was, however, a notable uniformity of approach amongst more recently qualified teachers, which looking back I would say reflected a more progressive ethos. I never knew then about the underlying philosophies that underpinned my ‘beliefs’ about teaching or that these were even in contention.

To be honest, like most new teachers, I just assumed there was a broad consensus about the best ways for teachers to teach and for students to learn. Why on earth would the national inspectorate evaluate schools on the quality of their teaching and learning if there wasn’t a clear understanding amongst those in the know about how teachers should be teaching – what we should aspire to do in our classrooms and across our schools? It turns that those in the know, knew very little and – as the likes of Daisy Christodoulou have so eloquently shown – in many cases were advocating activities and methods that reflected a more progressive teaching philosophy.

And so it was for the first 6 or 7 years of my teaching that many of the approaches and emphasises commonly associated with progressive ideals, such as group work, active learning, creativity, relevance and the discrete development of skills, were what was promoted and expected as the norm. Conversely, more traditional leanings, such as the centrality of the teacher, individual work and the acquisition of knowledge were discouraged. This may not have been everyone’s experience, but it was certainly mine.

It has only been in recent years – and social media has played a massive role in this – that many of the values and pedagogical practices that I was trained in and led to believe were the most effective means of teaching children have been called into question. It might be hard for recently qualified teachers to appreciate, but these implicit, often progressive, beliefs about teaching were widely held and little questioned. From the content of my ITT course, the design and application of my schools’ lesson and observation proformas, the focus of our INSET sessions and, of course, the Ofsted rubrics and exam criteria that drove school behaviours, all promoted similar messages about how teachers should teach and how young people should be educated.

Now, I am not seeking to promote one teaching philosophy over another. This is not really about that, and you can probably tell where my own biases lie anyway. What I am trying to argue for is the importance of keeping this debate alive and recognising how much good has come from the resultant disagreements in recent years. Not only has it helped me (and I suspect a great many others too) to understand my own teaching trajectory, but also to make sense of the wider educational landscape.

Like James, my teaching has improved considerably in recent years – partly because of the activities and approaches that I chosen, but mostly because I understand why I have chosen them and that I now make sure they are consistent with my pedagogical beliefs. In short, I have a teaching philosophy and I think my students benefit from a consistent and coherent approach built upon principles. This would not have been possible if I did not understand the wider terms of the debate or had been exposed to different voices representing those standpoints, who either introduced me to new ideas or forced me to challenge my existing assumptions.

In the post I am responding to, the writer explains that ‘both methods exist in my school and in individual classrooms.’ I’ve also seen other people make similar comments on Twitter along the lines ‘of one day I am traditionalist and another I am progressive’. Aside from the confusion between methods and philosophies pointed out by Horatio Speaks, I think these arguments miss a couple of points. Firstly, as I have tried to illustrate, busy teachers are not necessarily as discerning as you might think. Their agency is often shaped by the dominant ideology of the institution, which I have suggested can, in turn, be influenced by wider forces, such as Ofsted.

Such a mix and match approach to teaching also misunderstands the idea of a philosophy. If you have a philosophy, which is obviously helped by understanding its name, its history and its influential figures, then you are more likely to make choices and decisions that reflect it. I know that in my teaching I am increasingly making more congruent pedagogical decisions that reflect my philosophy. Take the example of teaching my students to analyse texts. I used to encourage students to make their own inferences far too early on before they had acquired sufficient knowledge and understanding. I have now adapted my sequencing and choice of activity to reflect my belief that a certain amount of foundational knowledge is needed before meaningful insight can occur.

Perhaps, though, the most damaging consequence of shutting down the debate between progressive and traditional philosophies is that it runs the risk of missing out on the insights that can emerge from holding two opposing ideas in tension. This, to me, is very much the point of Martin Robinson’s brilliant book Trivium. The creative insight and energy that springs from the conflict between two ideologies can help us towards new levels of understanding and improve the quality of all our teaching. This should help teachers to be make much more informed decisions in their classrooms and leaders much more informed decisions across their schools. As hard as it can be sometimes to adjust to change, as this rather good recent post attests, I would much rather that teachers acted from a position of knowledge and insight, rather than relying on the implicit values prescribed by others, whatever side of the divide they fall.

Ignorance is not necessariliy bliss.

* In many respects this post is a little too late. James Theobald has already expressed what I wanted to say, and as you would probably expect from him, he has done so in a typically stylish and entertaining manner. At the risk of producing a poor man’s imitation, I have decided to post anyway.