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.

 

 

 

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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)

It’s 2017 – What on Earth can we do?

Though I felt I would have preferred to be at home drinking cocoa, I played saxophone for a small, local gig on New Year’s Eve. The revelry seemed suitably subdued as the clock struck midnight and the guitarist wished me a ‘Happy New Year’, saying that there was no way 2017 could possibly be worse than 2016. I sadly disagreed and prophesied that we would look back on 2016 as the last year of Recognisable Things before we really began to notice that nothing was ever the same again.

Anyone who has read my blogs before will see that they tend not to be very upbeat, generally. Nobody would describe me as a ‘bubbly’ personality and  I’m generally inspired to write when I have something to critique. As much as I admire spirit-lifting attempts, I perceive them as fundamentally flawed and self-centred in the sense that they seem to ignore reality.

So how do I manage to work with primary school pupils? Basically, I lie by omission. I can not possibly tell them what I believe their future holds and were I to openly discuss with them what’s going on in the world, I would risk censure for ‘extremist views’.

It was in a staff room, over 20 years ago, that I said that I was pretty sure that climate change would be the biggest challenge we would face in the new millennium. The reaction then was along the lines of, ‘Oh, really? Is that because of CFCs and things? I don’t really know much about it. We can’t be doom-mongers. Well I’m not really into the environment and all that – it’s more your sort of thing.’ Over the decades, everything that I said was likely to happen, has happened and sadly, the reaction I get now is pretty much the same, in spite of the global scientific consensus and the general acceptance that it is no longer a conspiracy.

On a day-to-day basis, I engage with the business of ‘business as usual’, and in 2016 I made some efforts to push against what I felt to be detrimental to the education of our pupils. I actively responded to every government consultation and was gratified to give evidence on primary assessment to the Education Select Committee. I try to promote an agenda that a quality education is a global citizen entitlement and is not about toxic notions of ‘attainment’ and ‘social mobility’. I agree that curriculum subjects should be rigorously taught by teachers with excellent subject knowledge and I welcome the increase in attention to evidence over mythology. Perverse incentives aside, I do continue to try to do my best to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding in the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects of our National Curriculum, as though the future will resemble the past. Deep down, I have misgivings; I probably should spend more time teaching them basic survival skills. From how things are currently panning out, the next few decades will be an escalation of the challenges we have faced this year:

It was wrong to make heroes of those who have climbed the greasy pole over their fellows, those who have risen to the top of their chosen career and gained huge amounts of wealth, and those who have dominated nations through displays of power and authority, because their big noise drowned out the voices of reason to which we should have listened and now we have to face the consequences as well as we can. Knowing that we have tipped the climate balance, it’s very difficult to see how things could improve or even stay the same but there is something to do.

If things are going to get a lot trickier, then I see that there is a need to remember that many of us are not psychopaths. We know about co-operation, consideration and compassion and we should exercise these. If we possess the trait of empathy, we know about the suffering of others and we have to be kinder – to humans and non-human animals. If we know the difference, we need to be emphatically better to each other, because there are those who will be emphatically worse. How we treat each other should be a matter of concern – in school, the supermarket, on the road, and in our (t)wittering online which appears often to deteriorate into childish insults and point-scoring. If we have the wit, let us use it to exercise consideration and circumspection in 2017.

Primary assessment is more than a fiasco – it’s completely wrong

I’ve written my submission to the Education Committee’s inquiry on primary assessment for what it’s worth. I can’t imagine that they’re interested in what we have to say, given that this government have ignored just about all the expert advice they’ve ever received or requested on nearly everything else. This country has ‘had enough of experts’ after all.

I won’t paste my submission here – there are various restrictions on publishing them elsewhere, it seems. However it’s a good time to get some thoughts off my chest. Primary assessment (and school-based assessment generally) has all gone a bit wrong. OK, a lot wrong. It’s so wrong that it’s actually very damaging. Conspiracy theorists might have good cause to think it is deliberate; my own cynicism is that it is underpinned by a string of incompetencies and a distinct failure to listen at all to any advice.

In thinking about why it has all gone wrong, I want to pose a possibly contentious question: is the attainment we are attempting to measure, a thing that should dominate all educational efforts and discourse? I’ve written before about my growing doubts about the over-emphasis on attainment and how I think it detracts from the deeper issue of education. The further we get down this line, particularly with the current nonsense about bringing back selective education, the more this crystalises for me. Just to be clear, this is not an anti-intellectual stance, nor a woolly, liberal dumbing-down view. I fully embrace the idea that we should not put a ceiling on all kinds of achievement for everybody. Having a goal and working towards it – having a way of demonstrating what you have achieved – that’s an admirable thing. What I find ridiculous is that the kind of attainment that is obsessing the nation, doesn’t actually mean very much and yet somehow we are all party to serving its ends. Put it this way – tiny fluctuations in scores in a set of very narrow domains make headlines for pupils, teachers, schools, counties etc. Every year we sweat over the %. If there’s a rise above the ‘expectation’ we breathe a sigh of relief. If, heaven forbid, we had a difficult cohort and a couple of boxes are in the ‘blue zone’ we dread the repercussions because now we’re no longer an outstanding school. But, as Jack Marwood writes here, there’s no pattern. We’ve even begun to worry about whether we’re going to be labelled a ‘coasting school’! Good should be good enough because the hysteria over these measures is sucking the life out of the most important resource – us. Of course the inspectorate needs to be on the lookout for actually bad schools. Are these really going to be so difficult to spot? Is it really the school that was well above average in 2014 and 15 but dipped in 16? Is the child who scores 99 on the scaled score so much more of a failure than the one who scored 101? Is our group of 4 pupil premium children getting well above average, in a small set of tests, an endorsement of our good teaching compared to another school’s 4 getting well below?

Attainment has become an arms race and teachers, pupils and parents are caught in the crossfire. In spite of the ‘assessment without levels’ rhetoric, all our accountability processes are driven by a focus on an attainment with one level. This is incredibly destructive in my experience. Notwithstanding those self-proclaimed paragons of good practice who claim that they’ve got the balance right etc., what I’ve mainly seen in schools are teachers at the end of their wits, wondering what on earth they can further do (what miracle of intervention they can concoct) to ‘boost’ a group of ‘under-performing’ children to get to ‘meeting’, whilst maintaining any kind of integrity with regard to the children who have never been anywhere near. I was recently told in a leadership meeting that all children should make the same amount of progress. Those ‘middle achievers’ should be able to progress at the same rate as the ‘high achievers’. It’s the opposite which is true. The high achievers are where they are exactly because they made quicker progress – but the ‘middle achievers’ (and any other category – good grief!) will also get to achieve, given time. And while all this talk of progress is on the table – let’s be honest – we’re talking about ‘attainment’ again: a measure taken from their KS2 assessments, aggregated, and compared to KS1 in a mystical algorithm.

It’s not like the issues surrounding assessment have never been considered. Just about all the pitfalls of the recent primary debacle have been written about endlessly, and frequently predicted. High-stakes testing has always been the villain of the piece: perverse incentives to teach to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, invalidity of testing domain, unreliability/bias/downright cheating etc. The problem is the issues won’t go away, because testing is the wrong villain. Testing is only the blunt tool to fashion the club of attainment with which to beat us (apologies for extended metaphor). I’m a big fan of testing. I read Roediger and Karpicke’s (pdf) research on ‘testing effect’ in the early days, long before it became a fashionable catch-phrase. I think we should test as many things in as many ways as we can: to enhance recall; to indicate understanding; to identify weaknesses; to demonstrate capacity; to achieve certification etc. I was all in favour of Nicky Morgan’s proposal to introduce an online tables test. What a great idea! Only – make it available all the time and don’t use the results against the pupil or the teacher. No – testing doesn’t cause the problem. It’s caused by the narrow, selective nature, the timing and the pressure of attaining an arbitrary ‘meeting expectations’ (one big level, post levels). The backwash on the curriculum is immense. Nothing has any status anymore: not art, not music, not D&T, not history nor geography, and certainly not science – that ‘core subject’ of yore! Some might argue that it’s because they’re not tested, and of course, I agree up to a point, but the real issue is that they’re not seen as being important in terms of attainment.

I shall add a comment here on teacher assessment, just because it continues to drag on in primary assessment like some old ghost that refuses to stop rattling its chains. If teacher assessment is finally exorcised, I will be particularly grateful. It is an iniquitous, corrupted sop to those who believe ‘teachers are best placed to make judgements about their own pupils’. Of course they are – in the day to day running of their class and in the teaching of lessons – but teacher assessment should not be used in any way to measure attainment. I am not arguing that teachers are biased, that they make mistakes or inflate or deflate their assessments. I am arguing that there is simply no common yardstick and so these cannot be considered reliable. The ‘moderated’ writing debacle of 2016 should have put that fact squarely on the table for all doubters to see. Primary assessments are used in accountability. How can we expect teachers to make judgements that could be used against them in appraisal and in pay reviews?

I’m an idealist in education. I think that it has a purpose beyond the establishment of social groups for different purposes (leadership, administrative work, manual labour). I don’t think that it is best served by a focus on a narrow set of objectives and an over-zealous accountability practice based on dubious variations in attainment. I tried to sum up my proposals for the Education Committe, and I will try to sum up my summing up:

  • Stop using small variations in flawed attainment measures for accountability
  • Give us fine-grained, useful but low-stakes testing, for all (use technology)
  • If we have to measure, get rid of teacher assessment and give us lots of common, standardised tools throughout the primary phase
  • Give us all the same technology for tracking the above (how many thousands of teacher hours have been spent on this?)
  • If you have to have end of stage tests, listen to the advice of the experts and employ some experts in test design – the 2016 tests were simply awful
  • Include science
  • Be unequivocal in the purposes of assessment and let everybody know

I didn’t say ‘get rid of the end of key stage assessments altogether and let us focus again on educating our pupils’. Maybe I should have.

 

 

 

Of Wasps and Education

A long time ago I lived with Jim, a zoologist – the sort that actually liked to know about animals. He taught me, contrary to all popular English culture, to be friendly to wasps – to sit still and observe rather than flap about, leap up, scream, etc. Actually, I was an easy pupil because I’d not had that particular education and was stunned and appalled when, as a 15-year-old, newly-arrived and attending my first English school, I witnessed a fellow pupil smash a stray wasp to death rather than simply let it out of the window as we would have done ‘back home’. Anyway, Jim used to let the wasps land on his finger and drink lemonade – a trick I subsequently performed (without being stung) in front of many a bemused audience. Since then, I’ve learned lots about these clever insects. They can recognise each other as individuals and they can recognise human faces. Allow a wasp to do its zig-zagging buzz in front of you it will learn what you look like and generally fly off, leaving you alone.

This year, I’m one of the very few to be concerned that there are practically no wasps about. Nor many other insects. I take their absence as a bad sign, where I suspect most people are just happy not to be ‘pestered’ by them. I did see one last night though, whilst waiting with my fellow band members before a gig. It took me a while to realise why they were jumping up and flapping their hands – it was a lone, wasp interested in the meat in their pork baps, so I did the trick; the wasp landed on my fingers and took the small piece I offered. I didn’t get stung, it didn’t get tangled in my hair, it didn’t land on my face or do any of the the other things that terrify people. It didn’t bother me at all and I could continue to sit on my hay bale and calmly contemplate the beautiful evening.

So how does this relate to anything? Well it’s something like this: what I have learned about wasps trumps popular culture and folk knowledge, and allows me to make both a compassionate and a superior decision. This is what I consider to be the goal of education. Yet, it’s a losing battle – education is pointless in the face of both a widespread, ignorant culture and a ruling minority that makes decisions for us, based not on evidence and expertise (badger cull, abolition of dept of energy and climate change), but for some other agenda, unnoticed by the majority and unfathomable to the rest.

 

Got the T-shirt (a moderate tale)

Given that teacher assessment is a nonsense which lacks reliability, and that moderation can not really reduce this, nor ensure that gradings are comparable, our moderation experience was about as good as it could be! It was thus:

Each of we two Y6 teachers submitted all our assessments and three children in each category (more ridiculous, inconsistent and confusable codes, here), of which one each was selected, plus another two from each category at random. So, nine children from each class. We were told who these nine were a day in advance. Had we wanted to titivate, we could have, but with our ‘system’ it really wasn’t necessary.

The ‘system’ was basically making use of the interim statements and assigning each one of them a number. Marking since April has involved annotating each piece of work with these numbers, to indicate each criterion. It was far less onerous than it sounds and was surprisingly effective in terms of formative assessment. I shall probably use something similar in the future, even if not required to present evidence.

The moderator arrived this morning and gave us time to settle our classes whilst she generally perused our books. I had been skeptical. I posted on twitter that though a moderator would have authority, I doubted they’d have more expertise. I was concerned about arguing points of grammar and assessment. I was wrong. We could hardly have asked for a better moderator. She knew her stuff. She was a y6 teacher. We had a common understanding of the grammar and the statements. She’d made it her business to sample moderation events as widely as possible and therefore had had the opportunity to see many examples of written work from a wide range of schools. She appreciated our system and the fact that all our written work from April had been done in one book.

Discussions and examination of the evidence, by and large led to an agreed assessment. One was raised from working towards; one, who I had tentatively put forward as ‘greater depth’, but only recently, was agreed to have not quite made it. The other 16 went through as previously assessed, along with all the others in the year group. Overall my colleague and I were deemed to know what we were doing! We ought to, but a) the county moderation experience unsettled us and fed my ever-ready cynicism about the whole business and b) I know that it’s easy to be lulled into a false belief that what we’ve agreed is actually the ‘truth’ about where these pupils are at. All we can say is that we roughly agreed between the three of us. The limited nature of the current criteria makes this an easier task than the old levels, (we still referred to the old levels!) but the error in the system makes it unusable for accountability or for future tracking. I’m most interested to see what the results of the writing assessment are this year – particularly in moderated v non-moderated schools. Whatever it is, it won’t be a reliable assessment but, unfortunately it will still be used (for good or ill) by senior leaders, and other agencies, to make judgements about teaching.

Nevertheless, I’m quite relieved the experience was a positive one and gratified and somewhat surprised to have spent the day with someone with sense and expertise. How was it for you?

 

 

 

 

Not good is sometimes good

I was reading Beth Budden’s blog on the cult of performativity in education and thinking of the many times when I’ve thanked the gods no-one was watching a particular lesson. It’s gratifying that there is a growing perception that a single performance in a 40 minute session is no kind of measure of effectiveness – I’ve railed against that for many years. During observations, I’ve sometimes managed to carry off the performance (and it’s always a hollow victory) and sometimes I haven’t (it always leads to pointless personal post-mortems). Lately I’ve managed to introduce the idea that I will give a full briefing of the lesson, the background, my rationale, the NC, the focus, the situation etc. etc. before any member of the leadership team sets foot in my classroom to make a formal observation. It’s been a long time coming and it goes some way to mitigating the performance effects. Not everyone in my school does it.

But what about the lessons that I really didn’t want anyone to watch? If they had, would I be recognised as a bad teacher?  If I think about lessons that seem to have been pretty poor by my own judgement, they almost always lead on to a better understanding overall. A recent example is a lesson I taught (nay crammed) on the basics of electricity. It was a rush. The pupils needed to glean a fair amount of information in a short time from a number of sources. The resultant writing showed that it was poorly understood by everyone. Of course, it was my fault and I’d have definitely failed that lesson if I were grading myself. Fortunately I wasn’t being graded and nobody was watching. Fortunately, also,  I could speak to the pupils the day after looking at their confused writing on the subject, tell them that I took responsibility for it being below par and say that we needed to address the myriad of misconceptions that has arisen. We did. The subsequent work was excellent and suggested a far higher degree of understanding from all; I assumed that something had been learned. Nowhere in here was a ‘good lesson’ but somewhere in here was some actual education – and not just about electricity.

 

 

An upbeat end to a long, hard week

This is an uncharacteristic post for me. I started this blog as a vehicle for sharing critical views on aspects of education and I suppose a lot of them are approaching what some might term ‘rants’. In any case, it’s never been a blog for sharing good practice or teacher resources (although some of those are actually available elsewhere!) and yes, much of it is somewhat negative.

This, however, is simply a feelgood story after a week I expected to be hard-going. The latter because maintaining concentration following 6 hours of parents’ evenings after school is always quite a slog. That was all good, however, in spite of the very depressing and alarming expectations thrust at us by the DfE on Monday.

Today, however, was a delight. We had set aside the whole day to cover some of the art curriculum which has taken such a back seat recently and the pupils apparently had an incredibly good time. It wasn’t complicated. We were developing the theme I had introduced earlier and extending the creative bit through printing and 3D mobile sculpture. It was almost a guilty pleasure to not be shoehorning them into passive sentences and modal verbs for a change.

So that was fun – but to cap it, I run the band after school on Fridays. While we were waiting for the keyboard players to sort out their parts, I picked up the bass, since my bass player was away ill, and started plucking out the line to Zawinul’s ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, at which point both guitars and the drummer started playing along like it was a bona fide jam session. Bear in mind that the age range is 6 to 11yrs. We followed that by a full play through of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and it appeared that the keyboard players had actually learned their (synth flute) parts at last. Several players took solos on ‘Watermelon Man’ and then, as we were packing up, we got into conversation about other music they would all like to play. The list included: Smells Like Teen Spirit; Paranoid or Iron Man; anything by ACDC; ‘something by Steppenwolf’ and possibly Oye Como Va, Santana style. I couldn’t be more chuffed.

Coming to a stadium near you soon!

 

If I were the school leader…

I have a student teacher on placement in my class at the moment. It’s interesting to remind myself of the long list of criteria in the teachers’ standards, that we have to consider in observations. As a teacher giving advice, I know which of these are important and which I’d give a lot less weight to when making any kind of value judgement.

I’ve never been a fan of classroom observations – for all the reasons that are now part of general discussion – particularly those that attempt to grade the teacher based on a snapshot of 20-40 minutes. It’s not how I’d do it. But the job of a school leader is a tough one, I believe, and nowhere tougher than in securing quality of teaching among the staff. If it were me, what would I look for?

When teachers are worrying about trying to tick the increasing number of boxes put forward to us, actual performance deteriorates. We’re focussed on what we think will be the assessment of what we should be doing, not on what we are actually doing. Humans can’t multi-task. By thinking of the process, the process itself suffers. This is a well-documented tactic used by those who would seek to remove unwanted personnel: increase the level of scrutiny and nit-pick every move so that eventually the subject can hardly function. This is a hard-nosed game that often ends in resignation, mental breakdown and sometimes suicide.

It’s not really the way I would go, and if micro-management is not the best way to ensure the pupils are getting a good education, then perhaps it boils down to a much reduced but more important key set of desirable features/skills. I think my list would be brief. I’d be looking specifically for evidence that the teacher:

  • Knows the subject(s) (and the curriculum) well
  • Knows what the pupils have learned and what to teach next
  • Manages behaviour so that pupils can focus
  • Teaches clearly so that pupils can understand
  • Picks up on issues and remedies them
  • Is compassionate

Everything else, surely, is either part of the craft or derived from opinion?

Challenge to this is welcome.

 

Education, not ‘attainment’.

I clearly remember two separate, but similar introductions to the new year from teachers at my junior school, though the identity of the teachers has now faded from my memory. On both occasions, something was written in chalk, on the board and obviously with enough dramatic impact for me to recall for 40 years. One of these was the literal translation of the word ‘educere’ as ‘to lead/draw out’ and the other was the old catechism ‘wissen ist macht’ translated as ‘knowledge is power’ but conveyed to us as our knowledge would give us power (to think for ourselves, to make informed decisions, to resist negative pressure). I’m reminded of these when I am witness to educational debates and particularly those that focus on the purpose of education. Of course, like so many of us, I must be strongly influenced by my early experience, which in this case leads me to question some of the current assumptions about teaching and learning and to wonder what happened to the idea that education was about education as opposed to being about attainment.

What is wrong with attainment?

I think the issue is less with the notion that we can ‘strive to attain’, but rather with what it leaves out, or shoves aside, and the perverse incentives which it generates. I’m concerned, currently, that there has been a recent surge to embrace, in England, the ‘freedom’ afforded by the removal of levels alongside a new, unquestioning fandom for ‘mastery’ and the idea that all primary pupils in a certain year, learn a certain body of knowledge in order to be ‘meeting’ the requirements of that year. I would worry about the assumptions behind what that body of knowledge should be, whether it was appropriate for all pupils within a year, regardless of their age and experience, even without the high-stakes ranking tests at the end of KS2. But this should be a matter for concern. Attainment has moved from being a step along a continuum and has returned, very much to a comparison of a pupil’s worth against other pupils of the same year, within school and within the country. You can only attain highly, if you are well above the average score. Teachers can only be very successful, if they achieve the impossible and somehow push their students to the right of the bell-curve. This, like the drive to achieve ever higher levels in the old system, is high stakes indeed. Unfortunately, if we focus so highly on attainment, we increase the incentive to cheat – examples from education and sport abound. The focus on doing it well has been replaced by the focus on doing it better than everyone else. I’m suggesting that is a corruption of the purposes of education.

But I’m concerned not only with the focus, but also our failure to question the presumption of what ‘doing well’ means. I think it would be true to say that we don’t all agree on this. The polarisation of the debate about skills v knowledge is only one example of difference in views and of the pendulum swing of ideology in English (US?) education. This matters, because it affects what is valued and what is taught.

Primary science is a classic victim of ideological meddling having an impact on what goes on in schools. It goes briefly like this: science is seen as having too low a status. It is given ‘core’ status and tested at the end of KS2. The tests are seen to be inadequate in assessing ‘real science’ and are having a negative ‘backwash’ on the teaching of science. The tests are scrapped. Teaching is supposed to focus on science skills, but without the tests, science loses its comparative status. Subject knowledge resurfaces as crucial. Teachers are given dozens of knowledge-based objectives against which to assess pupils, but as of yet, no effective means to do this. (I would predict the return of some form of testing). International comparisons (PISA) historically place England above average, with little change from 2006, in terms of science (pdf), but the impact (or lack of) of scrapping the SATs in 2009 has yet to be measured.

But what of PISA, anyway?

I confess, I love data. I want to see trends, graphical representations of percentages, comparisons, etc. and I crave evidential bases for actions. However I’m not alone in questioning the validity and reliability of the use of data in the day to day business of education, especially in the form of international comparisons which have a major impact on what we do in English schools: ‘PISA says xxxx and therefore…’ My issues are this:

  • How do we measure attainment?

As yet, we are still dependent on conventional testing as the reliable method of measuring attainment. PISA write at length of the limitations of this, but ultimately have no alternative. Reliable, however does not mean valid, hence the arguments in favour of alternatives such as teacher assessment, which I argue strongly against as a means of reliable measurement.

  • What are we measuring, exactly?

Although I’m a massive fan of tests and exams for their impact on personal learning and as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge, we have to accept that they are selective and limited in what they test. PISA represents a view of what should be tested, but what is left out, is necessarily vastly more than what is included. What exactly does a high score in PISA represent? It represents something but is it the thing that we most want out of our education system or is there something that we haven’t measured? We necessarily have to cherry pick our criteria but these relate to attainment in very specific curricula and not, we could argue, to the overall education of a population. Extrapolation is also a problem. If we look at high attaining countries, do we really know what it is that makes the difference and can we really just extract that and apply it to our own, even if we think this measure of attainment is valuable?

  • Who is it for?

This is an important question and a political one. PISA represents an OECD idea of what to measure for attainment. We might agree with much of this and we might recognise (as I do!) that national curricula map quite closely with each other. However, there is room for doubt, particularly when one’s own government can make a political decision, for example, to leave out any mention of climate change in its new curriculum! PISA was set up, apparently, with a view to improving education policies and outcomes, which seems laudable, but which outcomes and for whom? Are we talking about a future of a reasonably competent population, capable of contributing towards the ‘economic success’ of their country, or of a highly informed, analytical, thinking population that has the wherewithal to solve problems and question policies? Or, is there something else, too?

So what then?

I will continue to argue for something rather more idealistic than an attainment model of education. Although competition can be some kind of incentive, and I have used it myself in the class, education, in my view, is not about being better, higher up the tree, earning more than the other or, dare I say it, consuming faster and causing more destruction. Education is really big. It’s too big to consign to the ‘mastery’ of a handful of objectives and it’s not measured by the attainment of a high score in a set of tests at the end of a Key Stage. Really good teaching is useful but insufficient and, I have to say, not essential (had it been, I would never have passed ‘O’ level Chemistry). Any single source, such as one teacher, is not enough. Without learners taking responsibility, it doesn’t happen. Maybe ‘character’ is what that drives people to the top, but ‘the top’ can be a very destructive place and it’s not everybody’s idea of fulfilment. Education doesn’t require ‘character’ it requires a kind of craving, not for attainment but to know and to be able to do and to understand more than before. By all means, learners should be given opportunities to challenge themselves in chosen areas, marked by assessments of various types, but these shouldn’t be hurdles; they should be available when wanted.

Some views of attainment

Here are some models of pupils within the system in relation to attainment of objectives. The question is, who is doing better? Who is attaining higher? Who is likely to get a lot less teacher attention and why? (apologies for the blurriness – I’ll get back to that but wanted to get this posted while I have time)

p a

pb

pc

My curriculum that isn’t in the curriculum

I thought I’d just end with some examples (we could all come up with these and please feel free to add yours) of some of the ‘important’ things I’ve taught so far this term:

  • Talking politely gets a better result
  • The large spider is called Tegenaria and he is a male – look at his clubbed pedipalps
  • The environment won’t change to suit your needs
  • Using a back loop when you’re sewing means the thread stays in
  • Slugs have a right to live, too (and by the way are related to to the octopus)
  • You’ve just used an example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, without knowing it
  • Excel needs numerical data
  • What you learn in class time is not enough
  • Poems work better if the strong rhyme comes in the second line