Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

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Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.

In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time.  Secondly,  you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.

This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.

The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.

Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.

What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.

I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.

Micro writing: extended writing made easy!

The basic premise of micro writing is focused on that age old problem for teachers: a student’s ability to transfer subject knowledge from articulated utterances and thoughts into high quality extended writing against a specific criteria. The problem with this transference is it doesn’t always happen very well. Knowledge and/or opinions about a subject do not always translate into being able to write well about a topic in the exact form required by the task or assessment in hand. This problem is amplified when it comes to extended writing. Within one or two paragraphs, sometimes sentences, we could say ‘stop writing because I have no need to read two pages of this writing to tell you what you are doing wrong’. Just like with whole class marking, I’ve no need to give detailed feedback repeated ad nauseam on the whole essay. In fact, much of the time I don’t need an extended piece of writing unless it is a full dress rehearsal of the real thing. The moment you buy into that idea is the moment you can reduce your workload and increase the precision of the feedback.

As an example, let us look at a typical form, an essay in response to a posed question. For an essay, you would often drill the various components of the essay in micro writing sections which you would then spread out over a number of lessons broken down as follows:


A very brief plan for the essay (a handful of bullets at most)


Opening two paragraphs


Thematic or topic sections consisting of 2-3 paragraphs in 100-300 word blocks


Concluding paragraphs


Having broken the essay down into the four different types of writing, you can now drill these in micro writing.

At each stage of micro writing, you would use both types of modelling – modelling of process using live writing and articulation of the decision making that you are taking; and modelling of finished products with colour-coded section highlights.


Writing out essay plans – frequently they would be given a question out of the blue at some point in the lesson (Do Now, transition time, plenary) and then have to frame how they would have approached that question, the decisions they would make and outline a brief plan. We would then examine the decision making process of this and review the resultant plan. It’s very easy to mark these and comparative marking would do the job here as well. Visualisers can also be very helpful here. I think a good visualiser is worth its weight in gold for bringing a writer’s lens to written work and enabling everyone to have an insight into the decision making processes of a writer at work.


The opening two paragraphs – these are tricky things to write and both frame and foreshadow the rest of the writing. It’s a frequent writer’s block, this point of an essay, so drilling works well. It’s easy to read their opening paragraph and comment on in seconds. It’s not whether they do it effectively once that’s important. It’s whether they can do this effectively every time. Get them to reflect on their confidence to do this.


Two to three paragraphs on a topic or theme – these paragraphs need to cite evidence and synthesise it into the body of the writing. Here there will be a need for them to recall knowledge and to integrate it well. Once again, they need to be able to do this effectively always rather than just as a once off. In an essay, they will usually need to write a thematic chunk of writing two or three times in an extended piece. So there is no need to write three thematic chunks of the essay straight off. Get the art down first then scale this up. They need to be able to produce their 1-300 word chunk of writing at quality whatever the topic.


Lastly the conclusions. Again, they struggle with the writing of these and lose a lot of marks. Give them lots of practice of this. Write a conclusion to an essay you might have written to one of the practice questions, Write a conclusion to your peer’s essay. Write a new conclusion to one of your old essays. One paragraph conclusions are easy to mark. As always, they need to be good at concluding, not just be able to write one good conclusion.


At the end of this, you bring the pieces together in the full essay in timed conditions. Again, you would be using modelling and close textual analysis to enable the students to see how the different sections operated together – particularly with signposting and foreshadowing.

Students trained with micro writing will be able to immediately tell you which sections of the essay they did well and which they need to improve and direct you to the section they felt most troublesome and where they need the most feedback, making your formative feedback focused and high impact.

This approach works for any writing where they are taking knowledge and/or opinions and have to articulate that knowledge within composition. It’s also less labour intensive than making them write lots of poor copy. You want to intervene quite early on before they’ve written too much at the lower standard. This saves them time and it saves you time.

If you like the premise of micro writing then try it out on an individual level with other forms of extended writing. Collect in tiny pieces of micro writing from each of them to quickly mark formatively or use them as a resource in your teaching – visualisers, comparative marking, peer work, etc. It makes extended writing much more manageable for both students and teachers.

Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Eye to the telescope: Why teachers need theoretical lenses.

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Teachers need theory. They also need to theorise. To us as a group of academics, this seems self-evident; theorising in education means thinking about why things happen in the classroom, and offering models that explain that why. However, it has become increasingly clear that education academics in particular, and perhaps academics more widely, have not been particularly proficient at explaining to teachers (both experienced ones and those closer to the commencement of their careers) why theory matters. The quote at the topic of this post, taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, should remind us that we need to look at how we might use theory to frame our experience of the world, while at the same time, remembering that the frame is not the same as the experience itself

A recent article in the British Educational Reasearch Journal brought this home to us with some force. In the article, a group of researchers had collected some data about the practice of setting by ability in British schools, and had then chosen to look at that data through a theoretical “lens” provided by the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. What does this mean? For most academics in most arts and social sciences, when they collect data, they need to locate that data in a theoretical framework, both because they need to think about how they will analyse the data but also, for practical reasons of time and space, they need to articulate how they are thinking about it.  These researchers  were interested in the idea that setting simply reproduces an educational status quo, and so looked at the data with Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic violence” in mind. For Bourdieu, this term describes a situation in which a state of affairs has been established in society which damages a group of people, but has become so accepted or legitimised that even the people who the situation harms ,  often agree with it.  Some of the data that the researchers collected did support a Bourdieusian analysis of setting; for example, very few of the respondents in the survey – who were children in schools where they were set for subjects such as Maths and English – challenged the notion of setting as being the best way to determine who was taught what, even if they were in the ‘bottom set’.  However, the researchers also acknowledged the limitations in that this Bourdieusian analysis was less successful when helping to determine other things, for example why there is a significant gender difference in terms of pupil attitudes to setting.

Putting to one side the arguments that surfaced later in the online discussion  about methods and validity of data , what interested us were the nature of the responses to this article that appeared on the internet. These were fascinating, most notably because what became apparent to us was a) that some people did not really understand the way that the researchers were using Bourdieu and b) that a large number of teachers at best, did not really value the idea of theoretical lenses, or at worst understand the idea.

The point is here that that these researchers, like many across education, are deliberately choosing to look at their data using a theoretical model. They are doing this in order to do two things. Firstly, to see what that data can say beyond the obvious, literal description (to offer an interpretation of it) of it and secondly, to test out the theoretical model. In this particular instance, the researchers determined that some of Bourdieu’s ideas were useful for thinking about why pupils feel the way that they do about setting, but that in other respects they were not. Academics do this all the time in research.  I started my academic career using theoretical lenses from cultural studies to explain how I thought children worked creatively. Now,  alongside these, I use cognitive and sociological ones. I don’t think any of these tell the full story of the writing  and films that young people produce, but pragmatically, they make me think about how that production happens.

This does not mean that the theoretical model works or successfully explains real world phenomena all the time, but rather that it might offer some perspectives on it that we may not have previously considered. This is the important thing about theoretical lenses for teachers. You may not agree with the researchers’ findings regarding  (in this example) setting, but what you should probably do, as an informed and reflective teacher, is think about the inherent problems of setting – and most teachers would agree there are at least some of these – from both your own and other academic perspectives. People who suggested that the researchers had decided on the outcome of the study prior to collecting the data are sort of missing the point here;  this was a Randomised Controlled Trial, and the data included quantitative as well as qualitative elements, but the researchers were clear  from the outset that they were coming from a place in which the social justice imperatives of education were driving their work.  As such, they chose to make a Bourdieusian analysis of that data. Other academics might choose to look at that data through a different lens.  It would be interesting to see, for example, something like Creemers & Kyriakides’ Dynamic Model of School improvement  applied to the same data to see what it said about setting in terms of school effectiveness – or the extent to which Lave & Wenger’s ideas about communities of practice might work in schools which stream by ‘ability’. Even if we want to view data in purely scientific terms, it is highly likely that we will be applying a theoretical lens to it – perhaps Popperian falsifiablilty, or the Kuhnian idea of the scientific revolution. Either way, these are still theoretical models, with imperfections and limitations, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with them.

Are you a PGCE mentor or PGCE trainee? Read on…

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Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee meets their PGCE mentor. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter  ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’

You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever.

The first thing to think about is that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious

What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?
Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?

Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly.

You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like.

How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?

Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.

What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?
What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?

Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:

If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?

And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.

There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.

How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment?  Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.

I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit.

What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously?  Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?

That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.

A 21st century curriculum for the fourth industrial revolution

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As the profession reacts to Spielman’s pushing for richer and better thought out curriculums (School Inspector Threatens D- For Exam Factories) it is time to return to thinking about a long term curriculum for pupils rather than a short term curriculum for the school. A while ago we published a controversial blog asking if it would ever be possible to create a curriculum for the white working class. Most replies suggested that people very much hoped we would never create such a curriculum. They did miss the point that we have already got a curriculum for the white working class – the one that they currently study and in some places, reject. We asked, why is it that those in the UK, ourselves included, react uncomfortably when asked to design a separate curriculum for anyone, rather like the curriculum which we see in Germany?

It now seems that Germany have issues with the two sided curriculum they design. Joe Kaeser, who leads the Siemens group, said at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed a thought he’s been having and saying for some time: the fourth industrial revolution is going to make a lot of people redundant. Anyone in a job where some of that work can be done by computers will see their sector shrink and this means large numbers of people will need to retrain for other careers. People will have to take the knowledge they have learned in one context and move to another working context. I suggest this gives us an opportunity to think about the knowledge we provide as part of the school curriculum as we, as a profession, are producing the 21st century generation of workers for this fourth industrial revolution.

Whilst I see many issues with Bourdieu’s work on habitus (a difficult to define body of knowledge which reproduces cultural and social hierarchies), I have found the notion of transposable habitus much more relevant to today’s society. This is the notion that when you arrive at a new context you use both your explicit and tacit knowledge to help you meet the challenges of the new context. My doctoral research found that pre-service teachers on arrival for their post graduate teaching course immediately set up private social networking groups through WhatsApp and closed Facebook pages, groups which excluded those in power: mentors, tutors and so forth. This tacit knowledge – the use of private social media interactions to subvert power lines, access & create knowledge, and resolve community & individual problems is both transposable and also seen in other areas of society. The European Research Group, run by Jacob Reese Mogg, uses a WhatsApp group to function from within the Conservative party.

There exists, I suggest, knowledge which is more transposable. Knowledge which is better suited to being moved from context to context. Knowledge which is not rooted precisely in context, but which functions very well when moved from one context to another: how to collaborate successfully, how to problem solve, fundamental ideas from academic subjects which apply to a wide range of situations and so forth. A transposable curriculum of knowledge which would help those entering a workplace going through the fourth industrial revolution. A period of regular transition rather than a lifetime of working in one context.

When I look at the curriculum in schools for transposable knowledge I see a variable picture. We are doing well in some areas and not so well in others. Knowing explicit knowledge as part of learning has improved, but the debate over what should be known has somewhat stalled, caught in an intellectual vice. There is also a lack of tacit knowledge in many of these curriculums. Something which Spielman sees in her attack on the ‘PiXLfication of education’.. Being able to interact with others online and physically in fluid ways e.g. as a temporary community of practice, is patchily done. Efficient online interactions are clearly not being taught despite efforts from the DfE to push it into the PSHE curriculum. It’s not only ‘programming in code’ that every child needs to know, it’s interacting with others online in a safe and productive way. Physical social interaction skills also need work. Being able to show up to a new context and be socially confident has to be part of a transposable habitus.

Imagine a GCSE in Physical and Online Social Interactions. Imagine Physical Education reformed as Physical and Mental Health Education. Can you? It’s that kind of contemporary and bold thinking I think we are missing from our curriculum planning as we move into this fourth industrial revolution. One that thinks hard about transposable knowledge and transposable tacit knowledge in a way that answers some of that question of how we as educators are ‘developing a curriculum for the 21st century’.

Off-rolling – is this just the tip of the ethical iceberg?

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At university, if we want to initiate some kind of intervention in schools as part of a research project we would be expected to review the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) guidelines. This guideline is full of sensible advice such as:

Researchers should immediately reconsider any actions occurring during the research process that appear to cause emotional or other harm, in order to minimise such harm. The more vulnerable the participants, the greater the responsibilities of the researcher for their protection.  (BERA, 2018, p.19)

So the first thing we have to consider is the likelihood of the intervention causing harm to the pupil. And the second thing we need to consider is that a pupil’s ‘vulnerability’ amplifies our need to protect the child from harm.

Now let’s turn to schools. If a member of staff in a school or group of schools wishes to initiate some kind of intervention as part of an evidence informed project to increase outcomes for the pupils or schools what guidelines do they have to follow? Well, the answer is, quite simply, none. Yet, if they did the same project in their school as part of undertaking a PGCE or Master’s then it would have to go through the exact same ethical approval process as described above.

It is important and worthwhile at this stage to set out that I am not talking about low level interventions of the sort that schools and teachers do all of the time. I’m talking about practice which could cause harm. And to vulnerable pupils in particular.

Let’s take off-rolling as an example. Here we see that staff in a school or group of schools have decided to create an intervention. The intervention could possibly benefit the pupils in the school cohort through redistribution of resources. It could even hypothetically benefit those who leave the school through the process of off-rolling. As part of an ethical approval process you would evaluate the likelihood of harm falling to those who are being off-rolled and look at the outcomes for them after they leave mainstream schooling.  Well, it turns out the outcomes for those who leave mainstream schooling are poor: 1-6% get their 5 good GCSEs. That’s considerable harm. Then you evaluate who is being off-rolled. Well, it turns out it is SEND pupils amongst others. I think we can safely say that they meet the term ‘more vulnerable’. This intervention would have died at the proposal stage at the table of the ethics committee. Even internal off-rolling such as a grammar school preventing Year 12s from moving to Year 13 if they did not attain specific grades would most certainly fail the ethical test.

But here is the rub. These schools that are off-rolling pupils are ‘compliant’. They meet the requirements that are set out by the accountability framework. The DfE doesn’t approve, OFSTED doesn’t approve, the children’s commissioner for England doesn’t approve, parents struggle to get provision for the SEND children or a second year of A level education for their children and yet despite this, schools are ‘compliant’.

So is that the requirement? That schools have to be ‘compliant’ and that this does not take into account ethics? Should not all major decisions of this type have to go through an internal ethical panel which in itself is reviewed and checked by an external ethical body? If schools are to be more evidence informed does it not also follow they should be ethically sound? Should governors and trustees also be part of this ethical process and receive training?

Before you say this is unworkable, consider how it is done at university. If a student proposes an intervention they have to write a section on ethics setting out how it meets the ethical requirements. It is reviewed by a qualified tutor. There is an ethics board for more contentious interventions. At each stage, if there is any doubt about the intervention, it is passed up further through more senior boards, staffed by more experienced and qualified senior professionals. The bigger the proposal, the more scrutiny for ethics it attracts.

The government could legislate against off-rolling easily and the affected schools would all change their actions and become ‘compliant’ again. Until the next ethically challenging idea thought up to affect outcomes within the accountability framework. Wouldn’t it be better to also have a headteacher’s body draw up a code of ethics similar to that from BERA and for all teachers and schools to use this when considering evidence informed interventions for their pupils?

Should you be hothousing your child for the new baseline entry test for 4-year olds?

boy child childhood happiness

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I know the controversial base line testing is not due to start until 2020, but believe me, parents of children aged 0-4 years old and parents whose children will be in child care before the age of 4 will be thinking about this test already. The test will come in after the education secretary has said that parents are not preparing children for school properly. And I want to talk about some of the issues around teaching after and preparing for this test.

I love teaching.  At this late stage of the academic year I may be looking at the world through a rose-tinted prosecco glass, but I love the kids in my Key Stage 1 class. I love working with them, their enthusiasm and watching their progress.

I even like some of the parents and I don’t tend to grumble about pay or workload. However, some of the testing I do have issues with.

Phonics Screening check:

What has this test achieved?  It’s shown me that a 6-year-old child, with an assessed reading age of almost 10, can get five words wrong because they are desperate to make sense of nonsense words with strange alien pictures beside them.

nonsense

It has also shown me that an education system seemingly starved of money, has enough spare cash to finance a visit from an inspector to check your phonics materials are appropriately stored just in case you or the children in your class see the test prior to the launch date and memorize all 40 words.  Oddly, we are trusted to teach the nation’s youth but not to have enough integrity to store a test.

At the end of the day, this is a test that doesn’t tell me anything about a child’s reading ability that can’t be gleaned from hearing them read a book to me as a professionally qualified teacher.

KS1 SATS:

Those teachers lucky enough to teach a combined year 1 and 2 class get hit by the double whammy of phonics testing and the joy of SATS – another thing that parents pay attention to.  Not to mention another year of a narrowed curriculum (something OFSTED acknowledges), which focuses on maths and reading comprehension.

Should a child’s performance even hint at not reaching an expected standard then, in our school, TAs, HLTAs and even the Head Teacher are taking small groups right, left and centre to work on partitioning or reading inference.  Art, music, design and technology?  What year 2 child would want to do those when they can be trapped in a small, sweaty office with someone sequencing the events in a story about foxes and fishermen from 1 – 5?

Hopefully, the new shift in OFSTED’s focus will at least result in the rejuvenation of foundation subjects even if this does mean further change for teachers and an even shorter summer break while we work on the extra planning demands.

Reception Baseline Assessments:

For those of us in Key Stage 1 prepared to stick it out, 2022 – 2023 could see some light at the end of the long dark assessment tunnel.

Key Stage 1 SATS are (probably) being made non-statutory when those four-year olds unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the Reception baseline assessment start to filter through the system.  No matter how this initiative is dressed up, I haven’t spoken to one EYFS teacher yet who agrees with such a thing or even thinks it is necessary.

Surely it will result in those at the competitive end of the parental scale hothousing their toddlers and testing them on their knowledge of number recognition, shape and letters of the alphabet.  No playing in the garden making mud pies for you until you can repeat your alphabet three times! I can see why. Parents want their children to score highly in any assessment and are prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen. However, just as in education, you can begin to see how an assessment could narrow the curriculum at home as everyone tries to prioritise learning the knowledge of the assessment.

If you think hothousing them is a good thing and can only help us teachers, you’re probably misguided.  For, in my experience, parents do not always approach education in a joined up way with the school. For example, they often tend to teach letter names not sounds. The result: many a Reception teacher will spend a year trying to get them out of this habit and learn their Letters and Sounds phases 1 – 3 instead.

Unfortunately, while primary and lower schools are fielding criticism for narrowing the curriculum to focus on statutory tests the very real danger is home could follow suit for pre-schoolers with this new baseline assessment. We have seen the impact of national assessment on curriculum at all stages of school – what will happen to the curriculum at home with this new national assessment? And if parents are thinking about this assessment that will happen in 2020 – perhaps right now they are also thinking about how they might hothouse their child to do well in this assessment.

I’m looking forward to September already, but in the meantime, I’ll refill my rose-tinted glass of prosecco and enjoy the sunshine …

A curriculum for the white working class

WWC Boys

Recently there has been tensions between the Heads’ Roundtable and OFSTED over the alleged existence of system bias against schools with large numbers of white working class pupils. OFSTED has rejected this interpretation of the data and further clarified some of the data used in the original piece. They say that they acknowledge ‘factors’ that make it harder for these schools such as not being close to art galleries and museums and working with monocultural communities. Amanda Spielman has waded into the argument accusing this cultural group of people as ‘lacking aspirations and drive’ in particular when compared to migrants to the country.

Heady stuff indeed. However, we can hardly be surprised when schools are partly measured by how well the pupils achieve the specific knowledge that is defined by GCSEs (Outstanding schools especially). Why does OFSTED give some schools lower grades? Because it measures schools partly on their ability to deliver the knowledge based outcomes of GCSEs and, according to the Chief Inspector, these schools’ cohorts and families do not aspire to achieve them – as evidenced by their own interpretation.

Ofsted grades

OFSTED says schools whose cohorts cannot (will not?) achieve these outcomes are offering an inferior education and so this justifies them being  downgraded. They acknowledge the difficulties in hiring staff, in countering factors, but retain the right to downgrade these schools.

A child will learn from the culture that they grow up in what kind of knowledge will be helpful to them, or is valued within that community –  and what knowledge is a waste of their time. They then aspire to achieve that knowledge which is valued. Their parents’ opinions,  based on the knowledge & experience that their parents have, will also be influential as will the school teachers that they meet and experience. Contextual events might also affect these aspirations. The loss of local manufacturing jobs could influence families to reconsider a career in manufacturing for their child. Aspirations are a complex thing.

So, it isn’t that the white working class are not aspirational. They are perhaps, just not aspiring to develop knowledge of the curriculum being offered to them. Schools do not have the freedom to offer an alternative range of curricula due to accountability frameworks. And then, even despite their best efforts, they are still being told they are not meeting the requirements of the system – to make large numbers of white working class pupils aspire to develop the knowledge identified by OFSTED.
This possibly brings us back to curriculum design. Certainly, this point has been raised before: e.g. @paulgarvey4

Paul Garvey

If we are trying to select, with more detail, knowledge for the curriculum, then we have to have more debate about what this knowledge is. I’ve already written about how we need to develop more tacit knowledge rather than just explicit knowledge. But it goes further. Pupils are learning knowledge from their cultures. They are learning knowledge from their online interactions with others. They are learning knowledge from electronic stores of knowledge with direct instruction built in – YouTube features so many of these (and I have issues with some of this learning which I have written about in my book). We are making value judgments about this knowledge, so that we only value very specific domains of knowledge as being suitable for assessing pupils and schools. Much of what we should be doing is building curriculua that go further than  they  do currently –  as OFSTED duly acknowledge. We should be working with pupils on ways to acquire knowledge, to evaluate knowledge, to build new knowledge, to transpose knowledge to new contexts and so forth.

Yet, the moment you stipulate one curriculum over another, to recognise the value that either academic or non-academic knowledge has, then you run into issues. Many that I speak to tear themselves in two over this. Is an alternative curriculum like that offered in Germany  one of  low expectations (a technical education) or is it a suitable curriculum (they culturally aspire to achieve it)? Who chooses the curriculum that a child studies? If a school says, we are an academic school, don’t send your pupil here if that is not what you want for your child: is that acceptable? What if the child has a Special Educational Need or Disability?

passmores

Who decides what an appropriate curriculum is for the children of taxpayers? Is it the government of the day? OFSTED? The schools? The parents? I don’t think we have the answers yet and downgrading the OFSTED rating of schools serving these communities just seems to encourage schools to reject specific types of pupils in the hope that it will benefit their potential OFSTED outcomes. As Stephen Tierney says, it is career-ending suicide to take on leadership of some of these schools. That doesn’t sound like we have got it right to me.

Designing a knowledge rich curriculum? A discussion around knowledge…

adorable blur bookcase books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Epistemology is a personal thing (I’m going to leave numbers alone here), but with the current Hirsch-fuelled push for knowledge in school curriculums/curricula, how one perceives knowledge is, and must be, important. I’m of the opinion that we don’t just teach knowledge to children – a posteriori, we develop their abilities to create knowledge in future known and unknown situations, a priori. I don’t just want explicit knowledge taught to them, I want them to develop tacit knowledge. We need children to develop motivation and curiosity into finding or creating, through reasoning, new knowledge of all kinds.  Because once their teacher has gone, we need them to be good at creating or sourcing knowledge and knowing that it is knowledge and not buzzfeed bunkum.

Yet, I’m not convinced we have really dug into our ideas about knowledge and its longevity. If children need some knowledge only for a GCSE assessment and never ever again then the experience of learning that knowledge needs to confer upon them some kind of transoposable habitus type advantage else what is the point of learning it? Habitus, is a Bourdesian term:

…acquired, socially constituted dispositions” (Bourdieu, 1990, p.13)

and it does have limitations as it is not empirical evidence (it featured in the somewhat criticised EEF’s study on setting). Yet there are many times when we want to know about non-empirical knowledge – powerful knowledge even. The habits and tacit knowledge that people develop through being a part of society are still seen as important even if we reject Bourdieu’s notion of habitus.

Is extraneous knowledge actually part of successful habitus of powerful knowledge? Do we seek to locate it and thus it drives an innate curiosity which develops our ability to develop tacit knowledge? Knowledge of the powerful does seem to be the ability to challenge and locate the knowledge that is being presented as well as knowledge which others can’t easily seen as readily powerful (ballet, plays, etc.)  – something Bernstein has inspired quite a bit of work around. I once read Don Quixote simply to understand an intertextual reference in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Should we all understand when someone is tilting at windmills? Or are we reinforcing the cultural elitism of this sort of ‘knowledge of the powerful’ by insisting on this?

One of the things I wrote about in my book was rapid knowledge acquisition and disposal. Disposable knowledge I called it. If you want to do something quite obscure in Office Word or Excel, just as a once off, with no need to understand how it works, you don’t go on a long in-depth course on Office. You simply google and youtube the knowledge, find some direct instruction, apply it, and then forget it. If you need to know it again, you’ll google it again, get the direct instruction and achieve the outcome again. You use google as your long term repository of such specific knowledge and the direct instruction needed to access it for your needs. That to me is a really key skill for the modern world. It’s still based around knowledge, but it rejects rote learning, retention and the rest for some types of knowledge. It also suggests that direct instruction could be used in the wrong way as well as the right way. It really depends on why I need the knowledge. If I need the knowledge on a regular basis or I need to understand why and how the knowledge interacts with other knowledge then that is quite different. This is where key knowledge comes in – vocabulary, mathematical reasoning, foundational concepts and so forth.

I’ve also got issue with the verisimilitude of knowledge, to use one of my favourite Sherlockian words. That’s the truthfulness of the knowledge. In a post truth world, these are good questions to ask. I learn facts, but when I go to use them again later in life I have to check my understanding because the chances are that what I thought were ‘facts’ have shifted. A simple example would be ‘dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid.’ I would have to check the knowledge behind my fact every time I needed to use that as the ‘truthfulness’ of that ‘fact’ habitually shifts.

Facts are also contextual. Ask yourself: what were the years of WWII? At one level, you’ll say 1939-1945. However, a historian would say – ah, well, that’s a very European perspective. So facts change depending on the level or perspective of which you are studying them and we aren’t really debating that transition of knowledge from one level to another enough. It suggests we need to really think more about curriculums/curricula for KS3, 4 and 5 and how they connect.

I note the MP David Lammy’s outrage at the lack of black students in Oxbridge. Let’s be honest, it is not the knowledge they learn for the GCSEs and A Levels that are getting white, privileged and privately educated children into Oxbridge. There are many state educated children from a whole range of backgrounds that apply, don’t get in and yet have the same grades. The successful applicants must be learning some kind of knowledge not taught as part of the GCSE and A level curriculum. Even the schools with the strongest behaviourist approaches are not producing the knowledge being looked for here. What is that knowledge? How is it perceived by the interviewing tutors? I rather think it is more tacit knowledge than the explicit knowledge of the GCSE and A level assessments. Is it the subjectivity of the selection process or is it the poor design of curriculum in schools? Certainly others think the problem lies with schools not Oxbridge. 

One modern knowledge or skill, explicit or tacit, I am currently writing about as part of research, is that the modern student arrives with a transposable habitus of resolving problems through electronic social and work networking through multiple layers of privacy. If we meet a problem the first thing we do is employ our networks and communities to research and resolve the issue with the privacy setting adjusted depending on the type of problem to ensure we can get the level of criticality required. Even the highest cabinet ministers and MPs have WhatsApp groups to help them collaborate around problems like this. Reese-Mogg directly influences the Conservative party through his powerful European WhatsApp group. Collaboration is in the PISA test. Should we be teaching them knowledge about how to develop physical and electronic social networks to resolve problems? To understand how privacy can change the type of information being constructed? Is social interaction knowledge another domain that we need to develop in young people? And I mean physical social interaction not just electronic!

We also need to revisit the concept of ‘skill’ to reconcile the many contrary ideas currently manifesting around this area. We can teach the knowledge of grammar over and over, but it is not delivering quality composition. Originality, curiosity driven by extraneous knowledge, non-empirical knowledge, reader response and so forth are all shadowy areas in the notion of skill and the knowledge behind skill. When I read about the education systems we are supposed to be emulating, such as Singapore, then they all seem to be moving towards a model of developing skills and other non-empirical aims or virtues such as resilience or, something attracting funding in the UK, ‘character’, through a beefed up arts and outdoors curriculum with a reduction on the pedagogies of rote learning – we seem to be swapping curriculums (I’m going Amercian with this term I think) and pedagogies with those we seek to emulate.

What does this mean for teachers? It means before we head down the labelled ‘knowledge rich’  path that is currently vogue with some (and be warned, read: learning pyramids, learning styles, growth mindset, brain gym and every other clickbaitish educoncept that people cite repeatedly for a short period of time) there is a need to investigate the mapping (as Sue Cowley argues) and teaching of knowledge (as Debra Kidd explores) and the way knowledge interacts with the development of skill so that we can bring better criticality to the debate behind teaching knowledge in order to ensure that it is used effectively and with longevity. It is good to see the debate is moving, but there is still a need to develop some of the answers.