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.

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

boy child childhood happiness

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.