Nine Things That Gave Me Joy in 2020

I’m not known for my upbeat nature. A few months ago, someone on facebook asked me if I was ever happy about anything. It was a supercilious remark that did not deserve an answer in the middle of my railing against the things I normally rail against: climate change inaction; the creeping disaster of neoliberal culture; all those things that are called ‘democracy’ but are not; the madness of Brexit… it’s quite a long (and closly related) list. But this is not a ranting blog entry for a change. During the time of Covid19, the time of our most incompetent government ever and the confirmation of the irredeemable stupidity of the human species, there were still some good things. In the true tradition of the Internet, here are Nine Things That Gave Me Joy in 2020.

Jamulus

For fifteen years, this open source software, authored by Volker Fischer, has been available to musicians like myself but like many previously niche programs, has been a game-changer at a time when a deadly respiratory disease put paid to so many real life interactions. As an amateur musician, I’m very fortunate. The cancellation of events did not affect my livelihood – but I missed playing. My new, lightweight MarkBass cab had only two outings before the first lockdown and I had a full diary of gigs lined up on sax and on bass! Everything was cancelled, and yet my musical experience has broadened considerably. Thanks to Jamulus and the WorldJam, I have played a wider range of music than ever before, and with musicians from all over the world – all in real time and all online. I’ve even given the double bass its debut!

Elephants

One of the best ‘thankyou’ gifts I ever received as a teacher, was a year’s adoption of little orphan elephant, Ndotto from the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. It was a great gift for two reasons: 1) It was not a candle or a bottle of wine (I’m not a great drinker), and 2) the daily videos full of inter-species compassion and affection are a wonderful antidote to news of human stupidity and violence. I kept the adoption going and added another. Baby elephants are endearing, of course, but the Sheldrick Trust’s success rate is truly uplifiting. To date they have raised 263 orphaned elephants and seen the birth of 38 babies to former orphans now reintegrated into the wild.

Tiny Recorder

Prior to the pandemic, my facebook feed was already full not just of elephants but of insects. Several sites share extraordinary photographs by their members who also help each other with identification and recording. On one occasion, I came across Tiny Recorder and was hooked. Tiny, with the help of his big person friend, The Narrator, explores the British Isles and showcases the (mostly tiny) wildlife. He’s gathering quite a following which is not surprising, because although there is plenty of excellent biology, Tiny is superbly portrayed through humour and crafty camerawork.

Women Politicians

This is another unexpected one from me and I’ll need to be more specific. Even as a woman myself, I’ve never been a fan. I’ve always felt, and to some extent still do, that women are complicit in their own status as lesser humans. There isn’t always an external barrier – they often just choose to not do things they could do. Sometimes they continue to do things which don’t help – like wear those ridiculous shoes. But 2020 was a year that changed my view of women, not as a general thing but because of those who were morally grounded, intelligent, compassionate and authentic – all traits that seemed to give women leaders the edge when dealing with the pandemic. Women can and do change the narrative and perhaps we can hope for a cascade effect. Here’s a short selection of some class moments.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US congresswoman – confronting US abusive masculinity specifically and generally.

Greta Thunberg, young climate activist and Times Person of the Year – staying cool in the face of troll behaviour from a mad president.

He tweeted, “Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!”. She changed her bio to “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.” But better than that, – when the time was right she returned the advice.

Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South – speech to UK Parliament on gifts for favours. Why are most MPs silent about it?

Molly Scott Cato, Former MEP – response to Brexiter challenge on her expertise. OK, this is strictly 2019, but it has made me laugh ever since.

Jacinda Ardern, of course, New Zealand Primer Minister, who did her job and got it right because she did not think there was an ‘acceptable number of deaths’ or that some lives were less valuable.

Art on TV

Painting by my friend, Karen, taking Bob Ross to heart.

In all my years as a primary teacher, I saw the arts denigrated and abandoned as high-stakes tests in maths and English dominated the curriculum, so it was interesting to see how important music and fine art became during the pandemic. Many people turned to painting, finding Bob Ross for the first time. As a lapsed painter myself, I found I was inspired to pick up a brush for the first time in years, after watching Portrait/Landscape Artist of the Year and to see if I still ‘had it’. My favourite though, was Grayson’s Art Club, featuring Grayson, his wife Philippa, and several guests (celebrity and otherwise) in a gentle, creative chronicle of the time of Covid.

Open bionics

Young Tilly, aged 10, with her bionic arm when Open Bionics was just a start up in Bristol

A simple one, this. Somewhere in my research for a primary school theme, I came across this company and ‘liked’ it on facebook, thereby improving my timeline by their positive posts. They have changed many people’s lives with their Hero Arm, an affordable, light and cool-looking prosthetic that actually works and is particularly popular with children. I’m reminded that there are groups all over the world quietly doing their best to make things better.

Dave and Nandi

There are so many things to love about this drum off between a legendary US rock musician and a young drumming prodigy from England.

Maryam Tsegaye

17 year old Canadian winner of the International Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Thoroughly deserved and what a role model! Do watch. It’s excellent.

Fall of Trump

Not much needs to be said about this. It was an unexpected brightening of the timeline. Jonathan Pie sums the Trump era rather eloquently.

What do you think is actually going on?

I asked this question on Twitter recently. I wondered what people thought and I wish that I knew. The answer may be depressingly banal. Humans doing stupid things out of short term venal self-interest. But let’s just look at some of what we know.

The Cummings debacle

We’ll start at the end and work back. Why, someone asked, has the population become enraged by Dominic Cummings’ stunningly arrogant and inexcusable car trips up and down the country, whilst he was supposedly infected and infectious, when they weren’t upset by everything else he has done to the country to date. My answer is this: most people cannot grasp what he has done, disbelieve it because it is like the plot of a complex thriller or, for the best part, are completely ignorant of it. In some ways I don’t blame them. I find it pretty hard to process it all myself. In contrast, his latest known misadventure sparks a visceral, old brain reaction. Even very young children have a built in fairness detector and I’ll warrant that everybody, even Cummings’ purported supporters (whatever they said publicly) understood that he broke his own rules and that his reasons were utterly spurious. So the gut reaction of the Real People of the Glorious Kingdom of Brexitania, was, “Oi. That’s not fair! We’ve been doing what we were told.”

It did look like they might have got it wrong this time. Perhaps it is a case of collossal hubris. Playing with populism is like playing with fire. You think the People are under your control, but you only have to make one miscalculation and you can find yourself in the centre of a conflagration. Cummings certainly seems to think he had the malleable part of the British population doing whatever his algorithms dicatated and he is extraordinarily arrogant. Is that what this is? An actual mistake? The trouble with knowing that population manipulation has gone on in great measure, to the point of the destruction of a country, is that it’s easy to ask the question, ‘What is actually going on?” and to attribute incompetence or indifference to an actual Machiavellian scheme. Is there any possible truth in the theories that this is just part of the original ‘herd immunity’ strategy to cull the weak by manipulating them to break lockdown without actually telling them to break it? Or is it another of their interminable dead cats? Because it is true, that while this dominates the country’s social media circles and the media and possibly couch conversations at teatime, the other things that should be causing anger, still go on unremarked by the mainstream.

What other things?

This is where it gets difficult. It’s a brain-ache to think about the commercial deals, the carving up of resources, the selling off of assets that is part of the agenda and in which Cummings appears as a self-appointed mover and shaker. More robust commentators than me, present pieces of evidence on twitter and as I read them, my soul dies a little each time, much as it does with the statistics on Covid-19. Decades of watching the response to climate change has numbed me to the point where anger has been seething for a long time and new shocks don’t register much. The details of the evidence are many and complex with networks and covers and personal relationships and clandestine meetings that boggle my mind. Companies I’ve never heard of are given untendered contracts on vital services. Personnel within orgnaisations that receive contracts, turn out to have links with personnel in the cabinet. Huge amounts of money are spent on dead duck enterprises. It’s easy to fall into the trap of finding conspiracies and links, but what is frightening is what is not fake news. What is frightening is the actual visible network – the links between the cabinet, the current, parasitised Tory party, Tufton St, the Leave organisations and USA big business, Koch Industries, the Russians (who incredibly have bought British Citizenship without a word from the xenophobes), and Putin. Those are there and well-documented and evidenced. Sometimes I try to fathom how Tory voters square this knowledge with their belief that they’ve voted for the ‘People’s Party’ and that Brexit was about gaining some kind of freedom from unaccountable players. When I’ve talked to Tory voters about these links, the most common responses are “lol” or “I don’t listen to that bullshit”. So the answer is simple. Tory voters ignore what they don’t like and believe the story in their head. A story that may be implanted through the media, of course.

But what is actually going on, then?

The simple answer is that I don’t know. The political answer is that the rich and the powerful are empire-building as they have done throughout human history. They may use the notion of unfettered markets and assets may include virtual entitites, but these are still secondary, a means to an end in terms of real real-estate, physical resources, access to energy, food and water. And this is where I, and many others struggle and mentally or actually face-palm ourselves. In this neoliberal world, the rest of us appear to be expendible. Is it that they only need a small portion of the human world to carry on business as usual? How does that work in a capitalist system that relies on consumption? Or are they already thinking beyond that to the minimal requirement of the bunker? Can that be possible? It’s hard to believe that any normal, intelligent human being, (Is Charles Koch one?) is really a climate science denier in private and does not understand the impact that their continued business will have on the human species, including themselves and their own dynasties. So their endgame is unfathomable to me. Or maybe they really are just that stupid.

A change of focus

I started this blog when I was still a teacher and needed an outlet for expressing what I knew and felt about the education system in the UK, specifically England where I worked. Of course it was underpinned by politics – those who tell you that politics should be kept separate from any discipline are those who have led us into this disastrous present. But my blog posts, apart from the occasional digression, focussed on the the specific disasters related to schools and teaching and learning.

I am now happily retired, just in time to be locked down due to a global plague. It was a positive step to remove myself from the eternal frustration of English education, but now we find ourselves in a social, medical and political maelstrom and so from now on, blog posts on here are going to be more general, starting with my response to my own question ‘What is actually going on?’

Testing their resilience

After nearly 3 decades of primary teaching, you’d think I’d have a secure philosophy, but we’re currently caught in the variable winds of different approaches, sometimes considered more traditional or more progressive, and often seeming to be contradictory.  I can’t follow the apparent narrow path of either, but I do question myself on what mine is. If anything, it’s that education is paramount – and by that I don’t mean ‘learning’ and I definitely don’t mean ‘attainment’ as I have blogged about here, before.

I tried to give my class an analogy last week. I drew it as a bowl into which different pieces of knowledge were put. There’s no predicting what will be useful knowledge, but what is certain is that the more there is and the wider the range, the better equipped they will be to link it together in an effective way. This bears no relationship to fixed notions of attainment, cleverness, ability, SEND, class or all the other supposed divisions this country likes to impose on its citizens. Anybody can add to their bowl of knowledge at any time.

With that in mind, I want to ride rough-shod over anything I see as an impediment to the education of each and every human being. It’s a global goal for good reason and it’s not difficult to think of examples where the high-attaining, poorly educated have had a negative impact on all of us – on the planet.

I try hard to explain to my pupils that the important thing is ‘knowing stuff’. They think it’s important to be ‘good at stuff’ and increasingly, I’m stunned by some of the reactions and self-denigration I’m seeing: a small error causes a child to throw their book on the floor; not immediately ‘getting’ long division makes another child throw his hands up and begin to weep; feeling like something is hard, stops one from ever tackling a new area. Simply talking ‘growth-mindset’ has no impact.

Is it really all the high-stakes testing culture that we’re in? Though I totally agree with the arguments against it, I struggle to accept that this is the issue completely – mainly because there has always been high-stakes testing, since I’ve been teaching, but this feels like a new phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve yet encountered pupils with such a fragile sense of their own ability to overcome small set-backs, no matter how much I tell them that learning happens when we put right what we got wrong.

Recent whole-staff CPD seems to pull us in opposite directions. In some, we’re to challenge pupils to step outside their comfort zone. In others, the stress of our system is damaging their mental health. It’s difficult to know when to persevere and when to back off. I’ve always found it hard to do the latter. I’m a fan of tests, for example, even when they’re not embraced by every child in the class. In the past, they were tested regularly on old SATs papers, without any of the symptoms I’m seeing recently. Tests help us establish what we can remember and identify what we don’t know. Furthermore they aid memory. This is now common knowledge, though it wasn’t six years ago when I first came across Roediger‘s work.

This year, a SATs-style arithmetic test caused Ferdy* to cry and put his head on the desk when we marked them. The second one caused him to wail when it was announced. He was furious with himself again when we marked them. He wasn’t ‘doing badly’ he just wasn’t perfect. It was nearly impossible to help him with the misconceptions that we could identify – it was like he thought it was magic and he didn’t have the special ability. At this point it seemed like cruelty to force the poor lad to go through more. I was conscious however, that it’s not actually torture – it’s just maths. I feel pretty sure that giving up and giving in – avoidance – reinforces the negativity and doesn’t help Ferdy in the long run. So I persevered and gave them all another, two weeks later, and then another. Ferdy has pretty much sorted out every misconception that was revealed in the first test. He correctly calculated all the long divisions – his nemesis. So it paid off. Ferdy’s sense of his ability to overcome obstacles is strengthened and he’s very pleased with himself. It’s a bit of a relief to me, too.

 

*He’s not really called Ferdy.

 

Assessment for Accountability – Taking the Biscuit

Thinking about assessment and accountability again. I adapted this from a letter I wrote to the then Ed Select Committee.

The problem of accountability

If we take it to be the case that teachers and schools need to be ‘held to account’, then we need to ask ourselves some questions.

Held to account for what?

The answer to this is  crucial. For a long time we were held to account for pupil ‘attainment’. Recently there has been the reasonable suggestion that there are many factors outside of our control which impact on attainment, and that progress might be a better measure of how good or bad we are. The measurement of progress nevertheless, remains a massive challenge, in spite of attempts to contextualise it, or to use national trends for comparison: baseline data is not reliable (it’s ludicrous to believe that you can use the behaviour of 4-year-olds to derive data that will hold teachers to account at the end of KS2 – and beyond!); pupils do not make standard amounts of progress; domains at the start and end of the progress measurements are different (GCSE art teachers, beware!); cohorts are different; significance is difficult with small groups, etc.

Whilst ‘progress’ seems at first fairer and a preferable measure to ‘attainment’, neither is sufficient for our purposes – not the way currently measured and not when matched against the aspirations of the National Curriculum.

Does the current system even serve the right purpose?

In the drive to measure ‘attainment’ and ‘progress’, I think we sometimes forget that we are using these things as proxies for the quality of the education being provided. We need to return to the drawing board for how we might ensure this happens. Currently we use an assessment system that cannot do this; the measurement is too narrow, subject to chance variables, and too much driven by fear of failure, leading to all the perverse incentives the assessment experts have been writing about for so many decades. A quality primary education is not ensured by testing the very few items that are currently measured at the end of KS2, any more than a quality factory is ensured by eating one of its biscuits.

I think schools and teachers do want to provide a good education to their pupils and that a climate of fear is unnecessary and counterproductive. Real accountability must involve a move away from looking only at outcomes and focus instead on quality input: we need well-educated teachers with excellent and maintained subject knowledge, quality text books produced by experts and thoroughly vetted by the profession, online materials and required reading, use of evidence and avoidance of fads. Quality training is essential, as is development and retention of teachers with expertise.

How can we ensure accountability where it counts?

Realistically, I don’t expect a quick move away from summative assessments for the purpose of accountability, in spite of all the arguments against. But I feel that we could address some of the issues that arise with the current system by generating and providing (to the DfE if need be) not less but more information:

  • Frequent, low-stakes tests help both teaching and learning – require/provide tests throughout the year, every year.
  • Fine grained, specific tests provide useful information – test what we want to know about – keep that data.
  • Assessing the same domain more than once and in different ways helps to reduce unreliability – do not rely on one single end of year test.
  • Testing earlier in the cycle gives useful feedback for teaching – do not wait until the end of the year or the end of the Key Stage.
  • Random selection from a broad range of criteria helps to reduce ‘teaching to the test’ – test knowledge in all curriculum areas without publishing a narrow list of criteria.
  • Use assessment experts and design assessments that test what we want pupils to know or do. Criteria need to be reasonable – not obscure and mystical as they have been recently.

If these aspects were applied to an assessment system throughout the primary phase, I believe we could enhance learning, improve accountability in what really matters and provide vast amounts of data.

We really need to make better use of technology at all stages; this is the only way in which we can feasibly make assessment serve multiple purposes. There would need to be a move away from the high stakes pass/fail system which is not fit for purpose, towards a timely monitoring and feedback system that could alert all stakeholders to issues and provide useful tools for intervention. Data collected from continuous low-stakes assessments provides a far more valid picture of teaching and learning.

Whole class reading (and Macbeth)

It was several years ago – long before the latest surge in popularity of ‘whole class reading’ – that I found I no longer wanted to have anything to do with the old carousel method of guided reading and I abandoned it in favour of working on a text as a class instead. When, later, it felt that I might need to try and justify it, I sought out information online and came across Mrs P Teach’s blog. I was glad then, that I wasn’t alone in thinking it was preferable teaching 5 different lessons, to teaching the same one five times and letting the pupils do the others independently. When I took on the role of English subject-leader for UKS2, it didn’t take me long to encourage some of the teachers to use a whole class approach. Many jumped at the idea. Some were a little resistant but realised the benefits pretty quickly. One is still attached to the intimacy of the guided group and I understand why. I have suggested that for now, we use a combination and that my colleague tries at least one week of whole class reading. There have been too many imposed practices in my history for me to want to take that approach here.

At the time of looking, Jo Payne’s blog was one of the few that came up in the search engine. Googling it now, reveals just how much the idea has been taken up and welcomed. Some good links are:

The Teaching Booth

Solomon Kingsnorth

(Not so) New and Quietly Terrified

DM Crosby in the TES

And the powerhouse of whole class reading:

MissWilsonSays

I’ve drawn from these and various twitter exchanges and discussions, for the simple approach I take. There might be more honing necessary, but the following is my current practice. I felt it was time I shared something, so I have also included resources on Jon Blake’s adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ for Oxford Reading Tree. I used this text this term alongside Shakespeare’s original and I have included the witches’ poem comprehension.

Reading sessions are daily – 30 minutes.

Monday: I Read the text aloud. Pupils sometimes follow. Often they listen and make accompanying illustrations. I may get them to read aloud as a class.

Tuesday: We look at specific vocabulary from the text, discuss synonyms and usage. This is also the day for reciting and learning things by heart and for addressing spelling issues.

Wednesday: Read your own book day. It may include an activity based on their own book. Often it’s just the luxury of uninterrupted reading. 5 pupils a week use Ipads to access a set reading activity.

Thursday: Reading comprehension – 5 questions based on the part of the text that has already been read aloud by me. Pupils have access to a printout of the text. The questions are based on retrieval, interpretation and explanation. I use the acronym APE to help pupils write longer answers. I don’t overdo acronyms, but this one works:

  • Answer
  • Prove
  • Explain

We look at the answers together. Strong answers are shared. A good version is always modelled.

Friday: Pupils who were less confident with the comprehension activity are supported to give stronger answers, including looking at the model. The rest of the time is reading their own book again. I have tried to increase the amount of time they spend ‘free reading’ as it used to be called. It has felt that in recent years, they’re almost desperate to do this and never have enough time, so that books are creeping out surreptitiously during other lessons!

Here are the resources for the Macbeth text:

Vocabulary witches’ spell

Vocabulary p 82.83

Vocabulary p 50,51

Vocabulary p 26,27

Vocabulary p 18,19

Vocabulary p 7,8,9

Macbeth questions p82,83

Macbeth questions p50,51

Macbeth questions p26,27

Macbeth questions p18,19

Macbeth questions p7,8,9

 

 

 

Cognitive Load

Well Edutwitter was unusually unforthcoming with teacher-friendly presentations on cognitive load so I’ve resorted to making one from scratch. I’m grateful, though to Greg Ashman for some curation of this subject and pointing us in the direction of useful materials such as this. It formed the basis of the presentation.

Here I’m including the slides I’ve made for the presentation I will give to the upper key stage 2 staff at our school. I’ve tried to adhere to the principles in the making of it – not using text and speech at the same time etc. I think I could be criticised for not making the images even simpler as diagrams.

Feel free to use if any of you need to do the same in your schools. Feel free to give critical feedback too.

cognitive load

 

A Tale of Two Teachers

Mr White* was legendary in my primary school; he was the teacher everybody wanted to have. He was young, dynamic and funny, and his lessons were quirky and exciting. Pupils did not earn house-points – they played a continual ‘game of life’ in which they could build ‘houses’, have ‘jobs’ (even get ‘married’!) and earn money. My brother was taught by him 4 years ahead of me and raved about him so that I couldn’t wait to be taught by him myself. He was particularly well-known for setting a long list of weird and challenging activities for the pupils to do for holiday homework. Of course there were lessons, too, though I struggle to remember them. Despite the ‘progressive’ sound of all this, our core education was decidedly traditional. I finally got to have Mr White in standard 4 (aged 10) and was duly delighted. He left us in the middle of the year, to take up a job as a deputy head in another school and we never did get to earn our dollars for ‘taking a swim before sunrise’, or ‘making a cheese toasty with the iron’.

Mr Smith was different. He was the deputy head in our school and had been since the dawn of time as far as we knew. We once had a lesson in which we were to identify what had happened on certain dates. He threw in one date that nobody could guess, until someone mentioned it was the year their grandmother had been born. That’s when we realised how old he was. We had him in standard 5, the year after Mr White. I mainly remember him sitting at his desk. He taught us from his age-old knowledge and from printed materials of all sorts, and he tested us often on everything. For example, alongside a rigorous maths and English curriculum, we studied to a fine degree, the life-cycles of several tropical parasites, knowing in great detail the scientific descriptions of the characteristics of each stage and their implications for health. He made no attempt to make the materials ‘child-friendly’ and he required that we did our own research projects to a high standard. I learned an incredible amount of a wide range of topics that year and I still remember much of it. As a teacher, I now can’t believe how much we crammed in, never seeming to be rushed or stressed for time. Nobody in our school would have called Mr Smith ‘fun’ or ‘funny’. He was a crusty old cove who gave up chain-smoking and tried to take up snuff instead – which he used in front of us in class.

I’m not sure, but I can guess, which teacher would have won the popularity contest, had we been asked as children. Fortunately for us, it was not our choice. The more I reflect on it through the years, the more I realise that Mr Smith was the outstanding teacher of my junior school, possibly my school years as a whole.

Teachers now seem to worry a lot about how they can be the ‘best’. There’s a huge amount of rhetoric about relationships, teaching styles, progressive and traditional practices, accountability for results and the problem is that most of it is either wrong, unfounded or measured in short-term, limited ways. Mr Smith didn’t have to worry about any of those things.

 

*Names changed, of course.

 

 

 

Ed Select Committee report – improvements to come?

The Education Select Committee has published its report into the impact of the changes to primary assessment. It’s been an interesting journey from the point at which I submitted written evidence on primary assessment; I wrote a blog back in October, where I doubted there would be much response, but in fact I was wrong. Not only did they seem to draw widely from practioners, stake-holders and experts to give evidence, the report actually suggests that they might have listened quite well, and more to the point, understood the gist of what we were all trying to say. For anyone who had followed assessment research, most of this is nothing new. Similar things have been said for decades. Nevertheless, it’s gratifying to have some airing of the issues at this level.

Summative and formative assessment

The introduction to the report clarifies that the issues being tackled relate to summative assessment and not the ongoing process of formative assessment carried out by teachers. For me, this is a crucial point, since I have been trying, with some difficulty sometimes, to explain to teachers that the two purposes should not be confused. This is important because the original report on assessment without levels suggested that schools had ‘carte blanche’ to create their own systems. Whilst it also emphasised that purposes needed to be clear, many school systems were either extensions of formative assessment that failed to grasp the implications and the requirements of summative purposes, or they were clumsy attempts to create tracking systems based on data that really had not been derived from reliable assessment!

Implementation and design

The report is critical of the time-scale and the numerous mistakes made in the administration of the assessments. They were particularly critical of the STA, which was seen to be chaotic and insufficiently independent. Furthermore, they criticise Ofqual for lack of quality control, in spite of Ofqual’s own protestations that they had scrutinised the materials. The report recommends an independent panel to review the process in future.

This finding is pretty damning. This is not some tin-pot state setting up its first exams – how is incompetence becoming normal? In a climate of anti-expertise, I suppose it is to be expected, but it will be very interesting to see if the recommendations have any effect in this area.

The Reading Test

The report took on board the wide-spread criticism of the 2016 Reading Test. The STA defense was that it had been properly trialled and performed as expected. Nevertheless, the good news (possibly) is that the Department has supposedly “considered how this year’s test experience could be improved for pupils”. 

Well we shall see on Monday! I really hope they manage to produce something that most pupils will at least find vaguely interesting to read. The 2016 paper was certainly the least well-received of all the practice papers we did this year.

Writing and teacher assessment

Teacher assessment of writing emerged as something that divided opinion. On the one hand there were quotes from heads who suggested that ‘teachers should be trusted’ to assess writing. My view is that they miss the point and I was very happy to be quoted alongside Tim Oates, as having deep reservations about teacher assessment. I’ve frequently argued against it for several reasons (even when moderation is involved) and I believe that those who propose it may be confusing the different purposes of assessment, or fail to see how it’s not about ‘trust’ but about fairness to all pupils and an unacceptable burden on teachers.

What is good to see, though, is how the Committee have responded to our suggested alternatives. Many of us referred to ‘Comparative Judgement’ as a possible way forward. The potential of comparative judgement as an assessment method is not new, but is gaining credibility and may offer some solutions – I’m glad to see it given space in the report. Something is certainly needed, as the way we currently assess writing is really not fit for purpose. At the very least, it seems we may return to a ‘best-fit’ model for the time being.

For more on Comparative Judgment, see:

Michael Tidd  The potential of Comparative Judgement in primary

Daisy Christodoulou Comparative judgment: 21st century assessment

No More Marking

David Didau  10 Misconceptions about Comparative Judgement

Support for schools

The report found that the changes were made without proper training or support. I think this is something of an understatement. Systems were changed radically without anything concrete to replace them. Schools were left to devise their own systems and it’s difficult to see how anyone could not have foreseen that this would be inconsistent and often  inappropriate. As I said in the enquiry, there are thousands of primary schools finding thousands of different solutions. How can that be an effective national strategy, particularly as, by their own admission, schools lacked assessment expertise? Apparently some schools adopted commercial packages which were deemed ‘low quality’. This, too, is not a surprise. I know that there are teachers and head-teachers who strongly support the notion of ‘doing their own thing’, but I disagree with this idea and have referred to it in the past as the ‘pot-luck’ approach. There will be ways of doing things that are better than others. What we need to do is to make sure that we are trying to implement the most effective methods and not leaving it to the whim of individuals. Several times, Michael Tidd has repeated that we were offered an ‘item bank’ to help teachers with ongoing assessment. The report reiterates this, but I don’t suggest we hold our collective breath.

High-stakes impact and accountability

I’m sure the members of the Assessment Reform Group, and other researchers of the 20th century, would be gratified to know that this far down the line we’re still needing to point out the counter-productive nature of high-stakes assessment for accountability! Nevertheless, it’s good to see it re-emphasised in no uncertain terms and the report is very clear about the impact on well-being and on the curriculum. I’m not sure that their recommendation that OFSTED broadens its focus (again), particularly including science as a core subject, is going to help. OFSTED has already reported on the parlous state of science in the curriculum, but the subject has continued to lose status since 2009. This is as a direct result of the assessment of the other subjects. What is assessed for accountability has status. What is not, does not. The ASE argues (and I totally understand why) that science was impoverished by the test at the end of the year. Nevertheless, science has been impoverished far more, subsequently, in spite of sporadic ‘success stories’ from some schools. This is a matter of record. (pdf). Teacher assessment of science for any kind of reliable purpose is even more fraught with difficulties than the assessment of writing. The farce, last year, was schools trying to decide if they really were going to give credence to the myth that their pupils had ‘mastered’ all 24 of the objectives or whether they were going to ‘fail’ them. Added to this is the ongoing irony that primary science is still ‘sampled’ using an old-fashioned conventional test. Our inadequacy in assessing science is an area that is generally ignored or, to my great annoyance, completely unappreciated by bright-eyed believers who offer ‘simple’ solutions. I’ve suggested that complex subjects like science can only be adequately assessed using more sophisticated technology, but edtech has stalled in the UK and so I hold out little hope for developments in primary school!

When I think back to my comments to the enquiry, I wish I could have made myself clearer in some ways. I said that if we want assessment to enhance our pupils’ education then what we currently have is not serving that purpose. At the time, we were told that if we wished to further comment on the problem of accountability, then we could write to the Committee, which I did. The constant argument has always been ‘…but we need teachers to be accountable.’ I argued that they need to be accountable for the right things and that a single yearly sample of small populations in test conditions, did not ensure this. This was repeated by so many of those who wrote evidence for the Committee, that it was obviously hard to ignore. The following extract from their recommendations is probably the key statement from the entire process. If something changes as a result of this, there might be a positive outcome after all.

Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results
in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself. Key Stage 2
results are used to hold schools to account at a system level, to parents, by Ofsted, and results are linked to teachers’ pay and performance. We recognise the importance of holding schools to account but this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school. (my bold)

Timings and Tides: the Chartered College of Teaching inaugural conference – Sheffield

I’ve followed the development of the Chartered College of Teaching with some interest and much scepticism. In this mode, I joined as a founder member and spent not an inconsiderable amount of money and time attending the inaugural conference in Sheffield. I’d have liked to attend the London conference, but they saw fit to hold it during the week when only half of us were actually on half-term and many of us could not attend.

Nevertheless, I went with an open mind. I’m aware that there are great enthusiasts out there who see this as a bright beacon of hope on our general plain of educational misery. I wanted to see if there was any basis for this. The answer is that I’m not sure; I’m still sceptical. This blog is my discussion of the conference itself and the College overall.

Why the profession needs a collective voice

I’m afraid I am unable to comment on the first two items on the agenda, as it was impossible to arrive on time, coming by train but I was in time to catch the talk by Professor Chris Husbands (Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University). He drew well on his experience as a teacher and spoke convincingly, I thought, on notions of ownership and what matters. He sought to redirect the idea that ‘teachers matter’ towards ‘teaching matters’. I think he was making the point that we needed to focus less on individuals being the key to a successful education system and more towards a systematic improvement of the process. If so, then I would agree this is probably correct – we need to address education in this country, at a level that is more than just ‘holding teachers to account’. Nevertheless there were dissenting voices in the room, arguing (rightly) that teaching is dependent on the individuals, in terms of defending teachers’ well-being, and because teaching requires complex ‘on-the-hoof’ analysis and seems inextricably tied up with human interactions and relationships.

I question, too, the fundamental assumption of a collective voice. Whilst I hate the ‘pot-luck’ approach to education that the English seem unable (and unwilling) to challenge, I know that there are many voices and I worry that collective may turn out to be dominant. I’m unconvinced that the cult of evidence is going to prevent teachers being censured, yet again, by the opinionated but ill-informed, for doing the ‘wrong thing’. I know this is certainly the fear of the neo-trads, even though the tide seems currently in their favour and in fact it’s a cultural, not a political problem: fads and flavours of the month cut all ways, and always have. Which brings me to the next item.

Why we need evidence

Chaired by Ann Mroz, The panel was: Sinead Gaffney, Lisa Pettifer, Aimee Tinkler, John Tomsett and Professor Samantha Twiselton. John opened by proposing the need to weigh up the forces of authority and evidence, with the suggestion that we should not be afraid to swim against the tide if necessary. Well, at this point, I couldn’t agree more, although I suspected that not all tides were equal in his mind. There was much discussion about the need for an evidence-based approach, but I was prompted to tweet thus:

There was a lot said about the importance of an ‘evidence-based’ profession, the use of evidence and about teachers conducting research in their own environments; this is where I derive my  concern that we’re heading towards something more like a ‘cult of evidence’ than an informed profession that questions assumptions (I’m not alone, I imagine). To those without a scientific or a sceptical background, the use of ‘evidence’ as a holy grail, is as dangerous as it is essential. I felt that Sinead was something of a lone voice calling hard for the critical evaluation of evidence rather than the gullible application of a set of tools condoned by the EEF. Personally, I have found that most people are easily persuaded by rhetoric and quickly descend into ritual. Teachers generally are ignorant. (If you wish to rebut that, consider (my anecdotal evidence) that not a single member of the very large staff at my school had actually heard of the College of Teaching, as I was leaving on Friday).

It is very difficult to impress upon people that research evidence almost never says we should do something one way or the other. On the contrary, its power is in calling into question things for which there is very little or no evidence. Most educational research would be considered worthless by any scientific standards and much of it is contradictory. Almost none of it stands up to replication. See this timely article. Like Sinead, I have looked past the meta-analyses on the EEF toolkit and examined some of the original research. If you do the same, you’ll find much of it evaporates into thin air. Try it for ‘feedback’ and see what happens. Moreover, there should be serious doubts about encouraging widespread experimentation and research conducted by teachers. It’s difficult to obtain rigour in research, even under the best experimental conditions. Biology is notoriously tricky. If you add to that the ethical and social considerations of working with young children and then sharing those unreliable findings, we’re opening a massive can of worms (no biological pun intended). Whilst some on the panel were arguing that we needed to be able to judge whether the evidence was robust, audience members, without irony, were still calling for the application of instinct and John T reminded us that any consideration of evidence at all, was still ‘miles away’ in most institutions.

The other elephant-in-the-room is that there is probably far too great an acceptance of the way in which we measure effects in educational research. I don’t mean a statistical issue, but a logistical and a philosophical one. When we try to determine if a practice has an effect, how do we measure the effect, if the product is learning? It may be easy enough to determine if an intervention on multiplication facts has worked – simply test pupils to see if they know those facts. But what if the outcome is trickier to measure? I entered a discussion recently where it was argued that allowing pupils to  do practical science might not be important because the evidence showed that didactic methods trumped investigation! My question would be, ‘in what way?’ If the measure is filling in the answer boxes on a test paper (and believe me when I say I’m a strong advocate of that in appropriate ways), then perhaps teaching the pupils to do just that will produce a greater effect. Yet practical science is about being able to do practical science! Investigations should enable us to become better at investigations. I’m not alone in arguing for appropriate measures – yet most evidence is based on a very narrow set. It’s difficult to see a move away from this in an educational system that now expects secondary teachers to predict art grades from KS2 aggregated English and Maths scores!

Going beyond your comfort zone

Penny Mallory was extremely engaging and I was extremely discomfited by the implications of her speech. Penny overcame self-doubt and domestic adversity to become a champion rally driver. Her questions to the audience were, ‘Can anyone become “world class?”‘ and ‘What qualities does a “world class” person have?’. I was gratified to hear some of the answers along the lines of, ‘It depends what you mean’ and ‘Good genes’. I know what the motivational intention was: we limit ourselves; we need a growth mindset; we should take risks etc. I’m slightly, but not entirely, on board with the growth mindset philosophy. I believe it is true that we can play what Eric Berne’s patients used to refer to as the game of ‘Wooden Leg’ and I work hard to counter that with my pupils. However, I profoundly dislike the contemporary message of ‘social mobility’ and the new populism which the College also seems to be promoting. Winning depends on there being others who will lose. Climbing the greasy pole will require stepping on the competitors. It’s a toxic message in a ruthless climate which seeks to replace the greater aspiration of social justice. Aiming to be ‘world class’ as an individual is a very selfish pursuit which by necessity will always be limited to a few. Becoming world class as an organisation  (or as a country!) needs a different approach altogether – one that I feel we’ve departed from rapidly since the 1980s.

Why being brave is important

Tim O’Brien (Visiting Fellow in Psychology and Hyman Development -UCL Institute of Education) chaired this panel. It being after lunch, my note-taking had decreased and I had moved myself to the back of the room to exit, if need be, but it was interesting to consider ideas of bravery. Perhaps the College could be a force for good, recognising that the profession is currently driven more by fear than it should be.

I know that many pin their hopes on the College to remedy this. Tim’s an eminent psychologist who comes across as knowing his stuff. I was in one of the focus groups he led in the ‘grounded theory’ research he conducted when the College was deciding its remit, and he spoke of this, thanking those of us who were there. In the midst of all the concurrence on the need for bravery, however, I wished I could have had the opportunity to point out that there’s a reason for the fear in education; being brave comes at a cost. Do those advocating it, understand the risks they are asking teachers to take?

Networking

I networked just enough to find that most of the attendees were enthusiasts and that some of them at least, were waiting specifically for the last part of the day – ‘Improving Wellbeing in the Classroom’ – Professor Tanya Byron. She was a bona-fide TV celebrity, so to speak, and the audience seemed engaged. I left before the end – it was old territory for me.

So was it worth it? Well, I still feel I have done the right thing in joining and in attending. This is a novel development that may bring something good. At the very least, access to research is something that I’ve missed since finishing the Master’s. In the conference itself, I would have benefited enormously from a more structured approach to networking. This was left largely to us to do informally during the breaks. I knew that there were twitter contacts there I would have liked to meet, but it was not easy to discern who they were and my social ineptitude hindered me in approaching people ‘cold’, particularly if they were already talking in apparently established groups.

Ultimately, I’d make a plea to those who are sceptical, members or otherwise. Keep it up. To the enthusiasts, I’d say the same, alongside the request that you allow all manner of criticism. There was much enthusiasm evident among the attendees; this in itself can create a charismatic tide. Those who swim against it are always needed.