The Future of Assessment for Learning

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Making Good Progress is an important book and should be required reading for anyone involved in designing, administrating or interpreting assessments involving children. Given the significant changes to the assessment and reporting landscape at every level, notably in the secondary context at KS3, this book is a timely read, and for my money it is the most helpful guide to designing effective formative and summative assessment models currently available to teachers.

I’ve heard Daisy speak at various education events over the years, and it is interesting to see how many of these individual talks have fed into the development of this book. Making Good Progress is a coherent and highly convincing argument for re-evaluating our existing understanding and approach to formative assessment and for moving away from the widespread practice of using formative assessment for summative purposes.

Life after Levels

From what I can tell, schools have responded to the abolishment of levels in three main ways. The first is business as usual, maintaining the use of levels – and thus ignoring the manifold problems associated with their misapplication – or recreating levels but in another name. Such amended approaches appear to recognise the flaws of levels and offer something different, but in reality too often they end up simply representing the same thing, changing numbers to letters or something else as equally fatuous. In many respects our first iteration after levels – the Elements of Assessment – fell foul of some of these same mistakes.

The second response to life after levels is the mastery-inspired model of assessment. In this approach subjects identify learning objectives for a student to master over the course of a year. This approach, which usually includes mapping out these myriad goals on a spreadsheet, appears more attractive in theory – what is to be learned is clearly articulated and not bundled up into a grade or prose descriptor – but in practice can prove equally unreliable and particularly unwieldy to maintain. Often the micro goals are watered down versions of the final assessment, not carefully broken down components of complex skills.

The final approach is the popular flight path model. This comes in various forms, but generally tends to focus on working backwards from GCSE grades to provide a clear ‘path’ from year 7 to year 11. I can understand the allure of this, and appreciate how such a model appears to offer school leaders a neat and tidy solution to levels. The problem is that learning is not this straightforward, and introducing the language of GCSE at year 7 seems to me to entirely miss the point of what assessment can and should be at this point of a child’s education – some five years before any terminal exam is to be sat!

As you read Daisy’s fantastic book, it becomes clear how all of these approaches to assessment are in one way or another fundamentally flawed: none of them really address the two underlying problems that ultimately did in for levels, namely the tendency for interim (or formative) assessment to always look like the final task, and for assessment to happily double up for formative and summative purposes. Making Good Progress destroys these widely held beliefs, albeit in the kind and sympathetic manner of a former teacher who understands how all this mess came to pass.

Generic Skill versus Deliberate Practice

In chapter five Daisy takes up what, from my experience, is the biggest barrier to improvement in the use of assessment in schools: how teachers conceive of their subjects in the first place. Daisy carefully unpicks the misconception that initial tests should reflect the same format as the final assessment. She outlines two very different methods of skill acquisition that account for how interim assessments are constructed – the generic skill method (where skills are transferable and practiced in a form close to their final version) and the deliberate practice method (where practice is deliberate and focused may look different in nature to the final version).

In the generic skill model, an interim assessment, such as a test of reading ability in English, will look very similar to the final assessment of reading at the end of the course, an essay or an extended piece of analysis in a GCSE exam, for instance. This approach, however, completely misunderstands how students learn such large and complex domains like reading, and prevents the opportunity for the interim assessment to be used formatively because it bundles up the many different facets of the domain and hides them in vague prose descriptors.

The alternative to this model, Daisy calls the deliberate practice model. Informed by the work of Anders Ericsson, this view of skill acquisition respects the limitations of working memory and recognises how complex skills are learnt by breaking down the whole skill into its constituent parts in an effort to build up the mental models that enable expertise. In this model very little, if any, practice tasks look like the final assessment. Sports coaches and music teachers have long understood the importance of this method, isolating specific areas of their domain for deliberate practice. As Daisy notes: ‘The aim of performance is to use mental models. The aim of learning is to create them.’

These two distinct approaches to skill development have a significant consequence for the design and implementation of assessment in the classroom. If you are a history teacher and you teach in accordance with the generic model of skills acquisition, you will tend to set your students essays when you want to check their understanding of historical enquiry. You may get the illusion of progress through your summative judgements, an emerging student might appear to become a secure student from one assessment to the next, but neither you, nor your students, will really be any the wiser of what, if anything, has improved or, more to the point, what needs to be improved in the future.

Another history teacher might share the same desire to teach her students to write coherent historical essays. This teacher, however, knows this is an incredibly complex skill that requires sophisticated mental models underpinned by a breadth and depth of historical knowledge. This teacher isolates these specific areas and targets them for dedicated practice. When she checks for understanding, she sets tests that reflect these micro components, such as setting a timeline task to show students’ understanding of chronology, or a series of multiple choices questions designed to ascertain their understanding of causality. Extended writing comes later when the mental models are secure. For now, the results from the tasks provide useful, precise formative feedback.

Koretz and Wiliam

For much of the book, Daisy draws on the work of Daniel Koretz and Dylan Wiliam to support her arguments. Koretz’s Measuring Up is another great book, which outlines the design and purpose of standardised testing and how to interpret examination results in a sensible way. Wiliam’s work is equally instructive, in particular his SSAT pamphlet Principled Assessment Design, which is a helpful technical guide for school leaders on designing reliable and valid school assessments.

Making Good Progress complements both these other works, and together the three books tell you everything you need to know about how to construct valid, reliable and ethical assessments. Like Koretz and Wiliam, Daisy considers the key technical assessment concepts of reliability and validity, and similarly exposes the uses and abuses of assessment, which she does in such a way that makes the need to assess better seem urgent and necessary. What it also offers, however, in particular through the deliberate practice paradigm, is the means through which to improve assessment and to link it to a coherent progression model of learning.

If I had one minor criticism of Making Good Progress, it would be that the closing chapters that outline this coherent model of curriculum and assessment are perhaps a little idealistic. Whilst the arguments for more widespread use of textbooks to support a coherent model of progression are sound, and the idea to create banks of subject-specific diagnostic questions for formative assessment purposes makes complete sense, the chances of either of these things happening any time soon seems to me rather remote. Both require significant agreement amongst teachers on the nature of their disciplines, some kind of consensus around skill acquisition (as Daisy notes herself, the generic skill method is pervasive) and for schools to systematically work together. Oh, and stacks of investment too. None of these things seem likely in the current education climate.

One much bigger criticism of the book, which I really must take Daisy to task about, is that it was not written several years earlier. Whilst I get that it may have taken her a while to formulate her ideas, and perhaps a good few months more to write them out, it still seems pretty remiss of her not to have co-ordinated better with the DFE. Had Making Good Progress been published in 2013 when the abolishment of National Curriculum levels was first announced (perhaps in a Waterstones 3 for 2 offer with Koretz and Wiliam), then I think that I, along with a number of other teachers, would have not wasted quite so much time and effort floundering around in the dark, trying to design something better than what went before, but often failing miserably.

Making Good Progress is a truly great read, and though its ostensible focus is on improving the use of formative assessment in schools, it covers a great deal of other ground in order to lay out the evidence to support the arguments. I enjoyed Daisy’s book immensely and commend it to anyone in the profession in any way involved with assessment, which is pretty much everyone!

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Cleverlands – A Smart Read

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Lucy Crehan‘s Cleverlands is a great read. As well as providing a fantastic overview of the workings of many of the world’s leading education systems, Cleverlands also offers a unique insight into the culture and people who live and breathe the systems on a daily basis – the parents, the teachers, and the students themselves, all of whom, in one way or another, are asking the same fundamental questions about education: what should young people learn, and how can we make education better and fairer for all?

After working for three years in a London secondary school teaching science, Crehan wanted to find out more about why some countries seemed to perform better with their educational outcomes than others, at least according to PISA assessment scores. She embarked on a journey that took in most of the world’s prominent education jurisdictions – the usual suspects such as Singapore, Finland and Japan – with the aim of getting to the heart of the reality behind the statistics of national comparison data. The result is this fantastic book, written by someone who clearly understands that headlines only ever tell part of the story, and who has a keen eye for the nuance of research data, which we know is too often appropriated by those looking for quick fixes and easy answers.

Cleverlands is organised into 18 perfectly weighted chapters that each focus on exploring an aspect of a particular educational system. One of the things that make this such a pleasurable read is the clarity of Crehan’s writing, and in particular her effortless blend of travelogue, considered analysis and opinion. One moment we’re inside the home of one of the many teachers who agree to house her during her travels, to show her around their schools and to act as her interpreter, and the next we’re taking a step back to review the bigger picture, looking at the research, or learning about a country’s social and cultural history.  Throughout I felt cheered by the essential kindness of strangers, and by the way that so many teachers around the world were willing to help Crehan on the back of just a few speculative emails, which she herself admits were rather optimistic and the potential actions of a ‘lunatic’.

There is something to learn from each of the countries under examination. Not so much in terms of directly taking any of the ideas or approaches being described and blindly applying them to a different classroom, school or even system – the book is clear that, despite what some politicians might think, it’s a bit more complicated than that – but more in the sense in which the insights that the book offers into the lives of others, enables a greater understanding of ideas, beliefs and practices much closer to home. In many respects, I found myself thinking how much we fall short in comparison to our international colleagues, and I don’t mean in PISA scores, which often don’t reveal the complete picture.

Compared to the very best education systems our system does not appear to be very systematic at all, at least where it really matters: in developing great teachers, in raising the status of the profession and in giving the time and resource necessary to genuinely improve educational outcomes. Whether or not you like the Singaporean approach to widespread streaming (I suspect you won’t and to be fair, neither it seems do the Singaporeans), you have to admire the fact they have a coherent plan, one that a great deal of thought went into producing. Time after time what emerges from each of the stories of educational success from China to Canada is the notion of coherence and joined-up thinking. There are drawbacks, caveats and nuance aplenty, but at least the world’s leading education nations have a strategy, whereas all we seem to have is fracture, self-interest and free market chaos.

Depending on how much you read about teaching or follow education policy in the media, there will be bits of Cleverlands that you will probably already know about, or at the very least with which you will be quite familiar. For instance, Japan’s large class sizes, high levels of parental engagement and collaborative teaching practices will be common knowledge to most who will seek out this book in the first place. Likewise the triumphs of the Finnish system that lead to the outstanding results of the 2006 PISA report are well documented, in particular the high standard of teaching training, the prestige of the profession in society and the role of high quality textbooks in ensuring curriculum coherence. Familiar too will be the backlash against this success and the supposed fall of the Finnish star in recent years.

But even within the familiar, there are surprises and lesser known, but nevertheless fascinating, observations. For instance, the significant changes in demographics that Finland has faced in the last 20 or so years was news to me, as was their heavy investment in a multi-discipline approach to tackling welfare issues early on in a child’s education. Crehan describes the weekly meetings that take place in Finnish schools between education specialists and class teachers to discuss individual students and devise plans to tackle their social and academic needs. Whilst there are, admittedly, signs of the all too recognisable bureaucracy here, as Crehan rightly points out, it’s ultimately the right approach at the right time. Whereas the Finns look to act on disparity and need early on, in this country we tend to put ‘interventions into place that attempt to deal with a symptom of a problem, rather than its underlying cause.’ Too little, too late in other words.

Cleverlands is published by Unbound using a crowd-funding model, where readers who like the sound of the book’s synopsis contribute to its production. Judging by how quickly Crehan reached her target, it’s clear that there is a lot of interest for this kind of well-informed, well-written educational voyeurism. Whilst there are similarish books on the market– I’m thinking of Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World ­– nothing I’ve read quite manages to achieve the same happy balance between human sentiment and cool analysis. Clearly Crehan’s previous incarnation as a teacher has helped her to focus on the things that we want to know and presented them in such an engaging way that leaves you feeling better informed, if not slightly frustrated at the continued failings and short-sightedness of our own not-so-clever land. This really is a smart read – buy a copy as soon as you can.

Raising Kids Who Read – a review

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It is hard not to really like Daniel Willingham. Here is an academic and psychologist who has helped a great many educators, including this one, to understand a range of complex cognitive processes and given practical advice about how to apply insights from the field for the benefit of student learning. His 2011 book Why Don’t Students Like School? is regularly cited by enthusiastic teachers in their blogs who value the explanations and examples he has provided, particularly around dispelling some of the myths about the way people learn and the importance of knowledge acquisition in the learning process. He is not the only name in town, but he is certainly a leading figure who I suspect has made a significant impression on a great many classrooms up and down the country.

One of the reasons why I think Willingham has become so popular is due to the clarity of his writing: it is engaging, warm and so obviously on the side of the teacher. His latest publication Raising Kids Who Read continues in the same vein. The book is not primarily aimed at teachers, though there is much that I think most teachers can take from it, particularly if they have children of their own. Raising Kids Who Read is aimed more at parents, specifically parents who want to help their children to develop a love of reading and create a home environment where reading is part of their son or daughter’s ‘self-conception’ – something that they do, see as part of who they are and, crucially, something they enjoy.

Establishing the self-concept of the child as reader is the central thesis of the book and there is a great deal of practical and actionable guidance on how to make this possible. For Willingham, ‘reading motivation is fragile and difficult to bring back once its gone’. As such, any parent eager to help his or her child to improve their reading, whether through developing their ability to hear different sounds, to make sense of the marks on the page or to understand the significance of what they are reading, must not lose sight of the enjoyment first principle. Whilst by hook or by crook teachers are responsible for ensuring every student learns to read, mothers and fathers who want to support their child’s journey to fluency and understanding have to resist the urge to create classrooms at home.

Raising Kids Who Read is organised in a clear and methodical way, beginning with a brief overview of the science of reading before moving on to the tripartite structure that underpins the rest of the book. These three sections broadly cohere to the different phases a child goes through as they learn to read: the preschool years of preparing to decode by learning speech sounds and the relationship between sounds and letters; the early years focus on learning to decode and acquiring necessary background knowledge; the move towards increased fluency and enhanced comprehension. At each turn there is a short research overview followed by helpful practical steps on what this actually means for a parent looking to support their child’s reading development.

There is much food for thought, even for the most knowledgeable of parents. Those unfamiliar with the technicalities of learning to read will likely learn a lot, such as the idiosyncrasies of the English alphabetic code, the role that background knowledge plays (particularly how it enables the drawing of inferences from texts), the arguments for and against phonics teaching, and the ineffectiveness of teaching general reading strategies. Willingham remains clear and accessible throughout and places emphasis as and when required, such as stressing how ‘you need knowledge to read, and reading gives you knowledge’.

Throughout Willingham’s preferred style is to present evidence about what is most likely to lead to successful reading in a clear and reasoned way, one that allows readers to draw the conclusions he has reached but without ever feeling that they have been made to do so. Willingham acknowledges where evidence is inconclusive and is big enough to concede ground to views he does not seem to share, such as the arguments put forward by supporters of whole word learning. He points out that evidence can be presented to support either camp and that ‘the advantage conferred by using phonics instead of whole-word learning is moderate, not huge.’ Rather than assessing who is right, Willingham focuses instead on the consequences of following each method. This way the conclusion that ‘systematic phonics instruction maximises the odds that everyone in the class will learn to read’ appears obvious and necessary.

Despite Raising Kids Who Read being largely an advice manual for proactive parents, I found it impossible not to read it from the dual perspective of both parent and teacher. I nodded along at the parts that sang to me as a father, such as the sections where Willingham emphasises the importance of being able to distinguish between the different sounds in words when learning to read. As with many other children, my eldest daughter suffered from glue ear when she was in her reception year and her inability to hear sounds properly had a marked effect on her early reading progress. She could not hear the sounds, so found it hard to discern them in print or say them out loud.

At other times, the teacher in me came more to the fore. For instance, my week day persona fully understood the importance of Willingham’s explanation of the distinction between given information and new information, and the way that meaning is built across sentences that assume a certain level of reader knowledge. Whilst this is essentially a recasting of E.D. Hirsch’s contention that reading is more about teaching background knowledge than pushing redundant comprehension strategies, it was useful to see the point expressed here in a very clear and concise way. I am sure many readers will find it incredibly helpful to see the problem of comprehension as boiling down to the distance between ‘stuff you have already been told in the text’ and ‘stuff you haven’t’ yet learned about which the text relies upon to make its meaning.

This is a good book with a laudable aim. But there is a problem, or rather a cruel irony – one that Willingham himself recognises and that anyone with even a basic understanding of issues in education will hone in on. The irony is, of course, that the parents who will buy Raising Kids Who Read are not really the ones who need to read it. If you are going to go to the trouble of buying a book about helping your child to improve their reading, you are likely to be the type of parent who already reads regularly to your children, encourages them through library visits and talks to them in a rich and engaging way that models effective speech and builds their vocabulary. Most parents I know already limit their children’s online activity and provide them with the kinds of experience that develop the background knowledge required to be a successful reader.

As much as I enjoyed Raising Kids Who Read – and believe me I really did – I couldn’t shake this thought out of my mind. If we acknowledge that parents play a pivotal role in the development of their children’s reading, whether directly or indirectly, how do we ensure that all parents are suitably equipped to do so? How do we ensure that the excellent ideas and approaches in this book get to where there are really needed? Reading this book will make me a slightly better teacher; it will definitely make me a much better, more aware father. The trouble is I already knew the importance of building a positive reading environment at home, as do all of the people I know who also have children.

If Willingham is right that attitudes towards reading are extremely important and that these are rooted in our early emotional responses, our job as parents is to do what we can to ensure that we foster the right kind of environment that creates the right kind of emotional response. Helping our children see themselves as readers is vital: it is a virtuous circle that starts with the ability to read well and leads to an enjoyment of reading which in turn increases the attitude and means that we read more. This is the Matthew Effect by another name. I just hope that those that read this book can find a way to close the gap between the word and rich and the word poor – between those that enjoy reading and are good at it and those that don’t and cant’.

I’ve taken some good ideas from Raising Kids Who Read, but (touch wood) my children are not likely to be the ones that struggle most to read.

Building a Better Teacher – a review

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Can you build a better teacher? The answer given in Green’s excellent account of how a number of inspired teachers and researchers have tried to change the educational paradigm in America is an emphatic ‘yes’. The central premise of Building a Better Teacher is that there is no such thing as an innately gifted teacher, and that the characteristics of a good teacher can, and should, be identified, honed and passed on from one generation to the next.

I suspect that for most people reading this post, the idea that teachers are not naturally blessed with the ability to stand in front of large groups of children and inspire, challenge and educate them on a daily basis will seem self evident. But what Green makes clear, is that in America (and I suspect in many other parts of the world too) this has not always been the case, and, indeed, many people continue to see teaching as more of an ‘art than a ‘science’: that you either have it or your don’t! And while I may not perhaps agree with all aspects of the pedagogical approach Green describes as the means of professionalising our profession, I couldn’t agree more with her book’s central formulation that a ‘good teacher is not born. They are built.’

The early chapters tell a fascinating version of American educational history, in particular the efforts of a few dedicated individuals who worked hard to make it possible for teachers to teach better lessons. These inspiring figures, some largely unknown to me like Nate Gage and Lee Shulman, were responsible for helping to harness the intellectual abstractions of the American education colleges of the late 1950s onwards for the practical benefit of the classroom. Up until the likes of Gage and Shulman it hadn’t occurred to many university professors, who often ended up in education schools by default, that their primary audience should be teachers and that their primary purpose should be on producing the knowledge necessary to help them to teach more effectively. Many of the revolutionary educationists documented, such as Gage, Shulman and the father of modern educational psychology Edward Thurndike, fought against a prevailing scepticism that believed the characteristics of successful teaching could not be identified, let alone recorded and used as means of structuring teacher-training programmes.

The story of how education became more of a profession and less of a vocation really begins with Gage, a researcher who, after becoming frustrated by the lack of available research to help him improve his own teaching, set about trying to establish what went into making a successful teacher – what actions meant that some teachers were much better than others. In a time where behaviourism was the dominant approach to conducting psychological studies, Gates undertook his work by recording the behaviours of hundreds of different teachers as they taught. His method was entitled the ‘process product’ paradigm; it compared the practice of teaching (the process), to the learning that took place (the product). It involved videotaping lessons and painstakingly cataloguing the things that successful teachers were doing and correlating them with students’ results. The flaws in this approach may seem obvious now, but as the time this was revolutionary stuff and in many ways reminded me of what a colleague of mine described as the ‘Sistine Chapel of educational research methodologies’ employed by Graham Nuthall in The Hidden Lives of Learners.

Lee Shulman, a philosopher cum psychologist, picked up on the work of Nate Gage and took it in a new and exciting direction. Rather than focusing on the directly observable behaviours of teachers, which he considered ‘garbage’ and an outmoded way of carrying out psychological research, Shulman’s work concentrated instead on cognition and to trying to work out what went on inside a teacher’s head, as opposed to what they did as a result of their thinking. Shulman’s own background in psychology involved working with doctors, who he believed represented an excellent case study for unmasking the role of cognition in complex decision making. Shulman’s success at working with doctors encouraged him to apply similar methods to uncovering the decision-making processes taken by good teachers in their practice. His studies drew him to the conclusion that in many ways teaching required even more complex cognition than the diagnosing of medical conditions. Perhaps, though, Shulman’s greatest contribution to the development of a better way of thinking about teaching and teacher training was the role he played in setting up an education laboratory at the University of Michigan. This laboratory, the Institute for Research on Teaching & Learning (IRTL), went on to be something of a magnet for pedagogical reformers, and led to the greater unification of research enquiry and practical application.

The majority of the book is concerned with two extraordinary women who were brought to work at Shulman’s educational school by Judy Lanier, herself something of a pivotal figure in Green’s story of educational reform. The two women concerned were Deborah Ball, now the dean of the University of Michigan, and Magdalene Lampert, also a professor of education, who at the time of her appointment was working as an elementary maths teacher. Ball also taught maths at elementary level and by all accounts was a pretty impressive and highly regarded teacher. Yet despite garnering the high esteem of her colleagues – many of whom would pack into her lessons to watch her at work – Ball was more sceptical of her ‘success’. She couldn’t understand why that, despite her best efforts, some of her students still did not seem to learn. They kept making the same mistakes with problems day in day out, even on those occasions when they seemed to ‘get it’ in class. Ball initially thought the answer lay in improving her own subject knowledge and set about familiarising herself with more and more maths content, but after a while realised that what was really needed was a specific way of teaching her growing maths knowledge.

Magdalene Lampert, the other star of Green’s book, joined Michigan State University in the early nineteen eighties, where she was employed in the unique dual capacity of researcher of education and practising elementary maths teacher. Like Ball, whom she had never actually met, Lampert believed that teaching maths successfully required a different kind of pedagogy, one that relied upon sophisticated levels of subject knowledge to underpin carefully planned lessons which involved the teacher guiding the students towards solving mathematical problems through reasoning and classroom scrutiny. Lampert grew up learning maths with her father who was a milkman and much of her thinking about maths pedagogy was based around her childhood experiences of learning maths by applying problems to real life situations. It is at MSU that Lampert and Ball first met, and together started to develop a different approach to teaching to the one more commonly seen in American classrooms. It was initially called TKOT (This Kind of Teaching) but then evolved into Subject Knowledge for Teaching (SKT).

SKT takes students through mathematical problems, from formulating initial hypothesis and mathematical proofs to the subsequent testing of those proofs by way of extended classroom discussion. Each lesson focuses on working through just one problem. This lesson design and sequence, at odds with what Green describes as the more common ‘I do’, ‘we do’, ‘you do’ format used in most American schools, is based on the individual and collective student participation working, where possible, on the application of mathematics to ‘real world’ scenarios. I am not a maths teacher myself and am sceptical about how this essentially constructivist approach to teaching would apply to my subject of English and within the context secondary education where I work. Whilst there are some sections dedicated to examples of English teaching, I would have liked to have seen more of Pam Grossman and the work that she has done on developing an English pedagogy. However, despite these biases I really enjoyed the detailed descriptions of maths lessons using the SKT pedagogy. It is surely the sign of a good book, that despite my preference for more direct instruction and learning across the kind of teaching sequence described by David Didau, I could still appreciate another way of teaching and wonder at how I could apply some of its methods to my own lessons.

At this point the focus of Green’s reporting switches to Japan, where on the back of a chance encounter at a conference she is speaking at, Magdalene Lampert becomes aware that in the Far East there is a similar model of instruction already in widespread use to the one that she had been developing with Deborah Ball. Some of the most fascinating sections of Green’s book are those concerned with detailing the characteristics of good teaching in the Japanese education system, in particular their focus on continual sustained improvement through attention to the little things and to teachers systematically working together to share the burden of planning. Whilst I was already aware that the roots of Lesson Study emerged in Japan, I had not fully realised the extent to which Lesson Study (or jugoyokenkyu as it is known) drives pedagogical and teacher development. It was also surprising to learn that the essential underpinnings of jugoyokenkyu, somewhat ironically, began life in America.

In Japan there is a whole vocabulary in place to describe crucial aspects of the learning process and the various interactions that take place between pupils and teachers, terms that enable educators to discuss and refine their practice but for which there is no real English equivalent. For instance, bansho is the art of writing on the board and kikanjunshi, which describes the way in which teachers walk between their students’ desks in order evaluate their progress and determine which students would benefit from sharing their work, and which ones would be better served by way of a quiet word. There are words for some familiar concepts, like donyu (‘lesson opener’ or our term the dreaded ‘starter’), but also a lot of other terms that seem to articulate a different type of approach to teaching, for instance tsumazuki for the kind of mistakes or misconceptions that if shared with the class would benefit all. This is more than just semantics: the Japanese classroom lexicon appears to orientate itself towards a much deeper understanding of the complexities of learning from the students’ point of view.

In the latter stages of the book Green considers the rise of charter schools in America, including the KIPP, APR and Uncommon networks. She goes into quite a lot of detail about how these schools turned around some of the inequalities in the American system by focusing on establishing cultures of order and respect. She recognises the considerable achievements made by these schools and of the steps the entrepreneurs behind them had to take in order to produce better outcomes for disadvantaged students. She also draws out how a key component of the improvements made resulted from, as with their Japanese counterparts thousands of miles away, a collaborative approach to teacher training and to sharing examples of excellent practice. Green draws a useful comparison between the way Japanese teachers developed their own teaching lexicon and the terminology created by Doug Lemov in his taxonomy of good teaching, Teach Like a Champion. Although ultimately quite different in their orientation, both these vocabulary sets ultimately enable teachers to better understand their practice and therefore to improve the quality of their teaching.

Amidst her reporting of charter schools, Green offers a gentle critique of both the undesirable consequences of their tough, zero approach to discipline, and of some of the pedagogical methods they use to train their teachers. She points out that whilst paying attention and being obedient might be a necessary first step for challenging schools to create respect and get students to a position where they can learn, once that is established much greater nuance is required to deepen student and sustain long term learning. Her discussion of Lemov’s taxonomy acknowledges the way that whilst Teach Like a Champion has undeniably been helpful to teachers in the manner in which it codifies a wide range of teaching moves, many of which are counter intuitive, the basic premise that the taxonomy is founded on – that the majority of good teaching characteristics are generic – is ultimately flawed. There is not enough space here for me to fully explore my response, other than to say that I think there is room for a balance between helping teachers develops generic aspects of their teaching (such as classroom management), and on mastering subject-specific pedagogy, or pedagogical content knowledge to use Lee Shulman’s term. In the 10 or so years I have been a teacher there has been too heavy a focus on the mistaken belief that a good teacher can teach anything. I largely agree with bloggers like Michael Fordham and Kris Boulton who suggest that there is a need to focus much more on developing teachers’ subject knowledge and the ways that that knowledge is utilised as part of a subject-specific pedagogy.

What struck me most when reading this book was the way in which although far, far from perfect, the UK education system appears to be in much better shape than the fragmentary and divisive American model. Recent developments in the way UK schools are engaging with educational research, and the growing emphasis on informed decision making at both grass roots and governmental level are, I believe, reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic. Furthermore, changes to accountability – either through the way that attainment is measured or teaching and learning is evaluated – seem a little further along in terms of thinking than appears to be the case in America, where hierarchical rubrics are increasingly being devised to evaluate teacher effectiveness, as well as to guide teachers on ways to improve. I think that there is growing recognition in this country that there may is no single definition of a great teacher – that good teachers and good teaching exist in a myriad of different forms, many of which are not reducible to simple, or hierarchical, criteria. Whilst it may be possible to build a better teacher, it may never be possible to fully codify every aspect of what that looks like, and certainly not for purely evaluative purposes.

Ultimately, whilst there are one or two points I may not fully agree with, there is a great deal to admire in Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better Teacher. I think it would be very hard not to be impressed by the commitment shown by the individuals Green writes about and their desire to improve the profession by making this and every subsequent generation benefit from the collective wisdom of experienced teachers. It would also be very difficult to argue against the central message of the book: that the root to building a better profession is through placing a much greater emphasis on developing subject specific pedagogy, increasing the amount of time dedicated to the personal development of teachers and creating systems and processes that allow for much greater collaboration.

This is a very good book that I have only really touched the surface of here.

Further reading:

2010 New Yorker article that inspired the book

Sara Mosle review in The Atlantic

Critique by Tom Loveless

Critique by Robert Pondiscio