The secret to well-being for us all in education…

The origin of this theory actually comes from medicine. At our university, we train individuals from the ‘helping’ professions such as teachers, social work, and healthcare professionals including  nurses, midwives and allied health (not good for your league table positions on ‘salaries after five years’, but we just ignore that). This means we’ve got experienced professionals from these fields who have then become academics. It’s a fantastic thing really – these people aren’t traditional academics, but people who’ve forged two careers and stand on the boundary of both. We also share practice across helping professions – there’s a lot of similarities: caring nature, mentoring models, standards, excess work, high stakes accountability, unbelievable stress and so forth.

As part of our enrichment programme in teacher education we wanted to introduce more well-being sessions, but ones that were grounded in theory. So we turned to our healthcare practice colleagues. Podiatrist, Dr Adrienne Sharples duly came and offered a session for the trainees and the session was theoretically quite interesting. Adrienne asked questions like: who is checking their work email in their own time? Who thinks about work outside work hours? And of course all the teachers in the room were putting their hands up. The idea she introduced was ‘bounded empathy‘ – the notion that as caring and empathetic professionals we had not established firm boundaries between our duty to empathise during working time and our ability to switch off this empathy during our own time and subsequently we had ‘unbounded empathy’. Her research demonstrated that those with ‘unbounded empathy’ experience poorer well-being. We become ever more involved in loco parentis as teachers, taking accountability and empathy from our professional persona and bringing it with us, through the boundary to our own persona where it reduces our well-being.

Now that this idea is with us in the teacher education department we’ve taken it further and developed the notion of ‘bounded professionalism’. The reason we are checking work emails, working excess hours and generally sacrificing our personal well-being for the sake of a micro-point on someone’s spreadsheet is not solely due to unbounded empathy. Quite often, the things we are doing in our own time don’t really contribute very much to learning at all. Excess marking, data drops – there’s actually quite a lot we’d happily remove. However, in the teaching and education profession we’ve cultivated a notion of what a professional is like and what a professional does. And a ‘professional’ sacrifices well-being and personal family time in order to ‘do the job to a professional standard’. We’ve got a wholly soft boundary that leeches and leaks from one side to the other. I frequently meet senior managers who think that working 55-65 hour weeks is what is expected of a senior manager and that having a soft boundary, that lets them work all weekend, is expected and that only seeing their family for a limited time at the weekend, let alone during the week, is the ‘price paid’ for being a senior manager. Why should a senior manager give more of their own time than any other professional? Do they deserve less time with their family? They are paid extra because the decisions they take carry more risk for the organisation, not because they do 15 hours extra per week. One reason we haven’t substantially reduced workload in the profession is because senior managers are reluctant to let go of the extra work and ensure bounded professionalism is in place. That attitude then permeates the profession: those who already work 55 hours a week and who then complain about 20 hours a week of winter mock exam marking are seen as not fulfilling their professional demands. Having family commitments is almost seen as unprofessional when they prevent a teacher from pulling enormous hours at pinch points in a year.

As a profession, then, we need to have ‘bounded professionalism’. This means to inhabit your professional persona within firm boundaries. When you exit your professional persona you no longer operate in work mode – checking emails, working on marking or plans. You can move from one persona to the other with your empathy checked and your professionalism checked. There is also a realistic and sensible work loading on this professional persona.

When the work load is too high and the bounded professionalism is too weak, then the only option is to sacrifice well-being in order to meet the excess workload. And we all know the end game of that: they leave their job and sometimes they leave the profession. If they don’t, their well-being and their physical and mental health suffers (and quite possibly their family and relationships). Senior managers and teachers alike have to establish new firm boundaries: turning emails off over the weekend and cultivating a culture of not working on the PC into the late hours. Further, they need to be reviewing the high impact events which can shock the professional boundary – the mock exam season just before Christmas, the endless run of late night open evenings, parent evenings and options evenings or even just weekend emails requesting work. Sitting down and planning directed time means these things can be done and people can have hard professional boundaries. It’s time to reclaim the profession and for all of us to reclaim our well-being.

 

 

Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

person holding string lights photo

Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

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.

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.