Archive for July, 2009

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Optimism

July 30, 2009

 

“And I expect the future of humanity or the human animal, the human species, to be in ethical and political respects, much like the past. There’ll be new inventions, new knowledge … but basically the future will be like the past, history will go on. Oddly enough, when I tell people like that, they say, ‘You mean we’re all doomed?’ I say, initially I became rather puzzled by it, what I’m saying is that we carry on coping the way we did in the past.’ [and they say] ‘Do you mean we’re all doomed?’”

From John Gray in a radio interview here http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/stories/2008/2284016.htm

“My question is, does anyone actually do much work trying to identify the causes of bad behaviour in individuals and sort of the problems rather than just implementing the sanction. Do you feel you actually understand behaviour management or do you simply understand sanctions. … Your blog [i.e. this one] seems a little depressing and negative at times. Maybe this represents your experiences of dealing with pupil behaviour.”

From “busy_little_bee” on the TES forum here http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/336148.aspx

It should be easy to tell the optimists from the pessimists. Optimists believe things will get better, pessimists believe they will get worse. By this definition I am an optimist. I write this blog not to say “we are all doomed”, but to say “this must stop” and to encourage others to help stop it. I am angry, not depressed, and my mood is only ever as bleak as the reality around me and I am easily cheered up by the opportunity to change that reality. The belief that currently things are simply not good enough is an optimistic belief. Even the belief that our next education initiative (whatever it may be) is doomed by its own inherent stupidity is not pessimism when it is accompanied by the belief that improvement can be brought about if we were to stop wasting time on what is stupid.

This is why it never ceases to amaze me to be accused of any type of negativity. This happens with people on the internet who are shocked that anybody could challenge the latest bright idea, or that efforts to “reform” badly behaved children could be anything other than a complete success. It happens with students who cannot believe that I expect them to work, learn and behave in my lessons and am not satisfied with only getting one or two of the three. It has happened with people in the schools I work with who think that is unreasonable to be upset by SMT dishonesty or incompetence, or by the fact that we systematically fail children. From their point of view optimism is how they describe complacency. It is positive to think that things are already good enough. A problem is only a problem if we identify it as such. If you have a picture in your mind of just how good schools could be; just how satisfying our working lives could be; just how much of a difference teachers can make, then you are a cause of unhappiness. How dare you get teachers to think about their working conditions! How dare you get people to think that children, particularly working class children, could learn or behave! How dare you think that we could do better than APP or SEAL or any other imposed initiative! How dare you think!

There is only one part of education that I am not optimistic about. I am not optimistic about attempts to perfect human nature. The moment I know that a scheme, or an aim, is based on the idea that students will be changed on the inside, then I know that we are wasting our time. The moment that education is meant to be a replacement for religion; when it is to tamper in the stuff of people’s souls; when it is meant to result in some secular form of salvation, then I do feel dread. When we are meant to be changing our students from underclass to Übermenschen by talking to them, whether this is through therapy or philosophy, then I do despair. But, like John Gray, even here I am not claiming that we are doomed. What I am claiming is that the people of the future will be much like the people of the past and that we need to cope with that. If that is too much of a nightmare to face, if it is unthinkable that our pupils will be human beings in a world like our own rather than inhuman citizens of a utopia, then I guess I could be accused of pessimism. But then I ask: why can’t the Utopians go away and set up their Utopia somewhere far away from me? Why do they have to commandeer my classroom as part of their doomed project? If the future is to be so inhumanly wonderful why do we have to be conscripted into it? Why is my scepticism a form of pessimism, when I am resolutely optimistic about how good the future can be so long as we stop trying to build it on the sand of a denial of human nature?

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A.P.P.

July 15, 2009

A spectre is haunting education — the spectre of APP. All the powers of the educational bureaucracy have entered into a holy alliance to impose this spectre: the DCSF, OFSTED, senior managers and Local Authority consultants.

APP is “Assessing Pupil Progress”. Or possibly it is “Assessing Pupils’ Progress”[1].

It is a method of formative assessment[2]. Or possibly it is a way to calculate a grade[3].

It is a way to assess an entire class[4]. Or possibly it is based around monitoring a sample of students and then guessing for everybody else[5].

It is a new package of assessment materials[6]. Or possibly it is meant to be based on normal class work[7].

It is meant to be used alongside other forms of testing[8]. Or possibly it is meant to replace other assessments[9].

It is meant to be occasional[10]. Or possibly it is something that happens all the time[11].

It will be expected in all schools[12]. Or possibly it will be completely voluntary[13].

It is based on collecting evidence[14]. Or possibly on the opinions of teachers[15].

It has been thoroughly researched by pilot schools[16]. Or possibly the pilots only ever tried using it on a small sample of pupils[17].

It all depends who you ask. The idea has never been consistent or clear. There are only two things anyone seems to be sure of.

1)      APP involves using the National Curriculum to identify objectives known as “assessment focuses”[18] (or is it “curricular targets”?[19]) and then ticking students off on a grid when they reach them.

2)      This ball-achingly, pointless piece of paperwork is the responsibility of classroom teachers who will have to be trained, patronised and scrutinised.

God help us all.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why a long list of objectives is never a good way to assess students.:

  • There is too much paperwork, particularly for secondary teachers who may teach hundreds of students. It takes too long to do and when done often creates more data than can ever be used productively.
  • It is seeking to measure something which is largely a matter of opinion, i.e. whether a student’s grasp of a particular skill or piece of knowledge is firm.
  • It is measuring something that is complex and constantly changing. Children will learn new skills and forget old ones faster than the paperwork can be updated.
  • It encourages vast bureaucracies which spend time creating objectives to be met.
  • Because of the sheer quantity of knowledge and skills that might usefully be taught in schools, attempting to list them will result in either woolly objectives that cover many different things, or content will have to be reduced in order to fit a limited number of objectives.
  • Because it is time-consuming, useless and subjective teachers will just fake it anyway, and spend the time doing something that will actually benefit the kids instead.

You might think I am being negative for the sake of it. You might think I am resisting an idea simply because it is new.

But if so you have forgotten one of the wisest aphorisms in teaching: There is no such thing as a new idea.

Of course, this crap has been tried before:

1)      It was used briefly back in the late 1980s when the National Curriculum was first introduced, but soon abandoned as a waste of time.

2)      This was the approach used for assessment for NVQs. These were one of the biggest of the many disasters in vocational educational. Despite a fortune in government money and attempts to convince employers that they were valuable qualifications, most NVQs turned out to be pointless exercises in box-ticking that nobody wanted to do. Hundreds of NVQ qualifications were created at great expense that nobody at all ever did[20].

3)      This approach has been tried in the US where the objectives were known as “standards”. This resulted in reduced rigour and eventually the political tide moved in favour of more conventional pen and paper testing[21].

So when we look at APP we are talking about an idea that has repeatedly failed in the past, for which there is every reason to believe it can never be effective, and for which every utterance from the authorities has been contradictory and confused.

Good schools are ignoring it, or playing with it half-heartedly, confident that it will either fall apart, change into something less ridiculous or that somebody will come up with an effort-free way to fake it. Bad schools are declaring that OFSTED will require it to be “embedded” and have wasted time, money and good will trying to impose it on their teaching staff before anybody even knew what it was. Worse, there is a real danger that it is resulting in more reliable forms of assessment (including genuine formative assessment) being squeezed out.

Happy holidays.


[1]The former title is the one I first heard, and it is still used by some Local Authorites (e.g.  http://tlfe.org.uk/ict/assessingict/ and http://www.sgfl.org.uk/mathematics/primary/LearningandTeaching/assessment/app )  and others (e.g. http://www.gl-assessment.co.uk/education/resources/pupil_progress/app.asp ) still use it, however, http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/primary/assessment/assessingpupilsprogressapp and most up to date sources use the latter title.

[2] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20396 has a video which clearly describes it as “formative assessment”. http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/downloads/assessing_pupils.pdf includes a series of quotations from experts advocating formative assessment as if it was about APP. http://publications.teachernet.gov.uk/eOrderingDownload/DCSF-00341-2008.pdf makes it clear that APP is part of an AfL strategy and funded by money intended for promoting AfL (Assessment For Learning, i.e. formative assessment).

[3] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/46563?uc=force_uj

[4] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20396 says it is to be used on all children in a class.

[5] This is what a number of primary teachers in my Local Authority have told me. Other authorities are also telling teachers this, eg. http://www.kirklees-ednet.org.uk/subjects/assessment/documents/primary/smb-08-11-23-app-for-asses-cos.ppt

Evidence that teachers have been told this elsewhere can also be found here: http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/211488.aspx?PageIndex=1

[6] For instance this stuff: http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/187513?uc=force_deep

[7] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20718?uc=force_uj says “It does not require special assessment activities but involves recognising significant evidence from the opportunities generated by planned teaching and learning. It reduces the need to use tests and specific assessment tasks to make assessment judgements by taking into account a far wider range of evidence.”

[8] http://www.gl-assessment.co.uk/emails/documents/Thebiggesttest.pdf talks of using “a balanced combination of assessment and regular methods” and says teachers “can also make use of the standardised and diagnostic tests that are available.” More importantly this is the approach recommended by “The Expert Group on Assessment”, whose report,  http://publications.dcsf.gov.uk/eOrderingDownload/Expert-Group-Report.pdf, was intended to decide what would replace Key Stage 3 SATs.

[9] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20718?uc=force_uj describes various forms of testing as “Practice before APP” and contrasts it with “Practice after APP” which doesn’t mention testing. http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/160703 says it is “is not a ‘bolt-on’ to existing arrangements. APP is all you need” and advises against continuing with other forms of assessment.

[10] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/primary/assessment/assessingpupilsprogressapp talks of “structured periodic assessment”.

[11] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/46863?uc=force_uj features a teacher who says it involves “get[ting] to know how the children are performing on a day-today basis”;http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/98224 mentions “gather[ing] assessment evidence during the course of teaching” and http://curriculum.qca.org.uk/key-stages-3-and-4/assessment/Assessing-pupils-progress/How-does-APP-work/index.aspx?return=/key-stages-3-and-4/assessment/Assessing-pupils-progress/index.aspx%3Freturn%3D/key-stages-3-and-4/assessment/index.aspx mention collecting evidence from “day-to-day interactions”.

[12] http://www.qca.org.uk/libraryAssets/media/12707_Assessing_Pupils_Progress_leaflet_-_web.pdf describes it as “central” to thee vision of the QCA (the people who decide how students are assessed).

[13] http://www.teachers.org.uk/story.php?id=4722

[14] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20576 describes files full of evidence.

[15] http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_13581.aspx says it’s intended to allow teachers to improve teacher judgements.

[16] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/18037?uc=force_uj describes “extensive” research and http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20718?uc=force_uj describes benefits of APP from the pilots, as if the pilots were a reliable guide.

[17] Both http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_23863.aspx says the pilot “required participating teachers to submit termly data from a small sample of pupils in their classes” and http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_23864.aspx concluded by admitting that the pilot “required participating teachers to submit termly data from a sample of between 6 and 12 pupils in their classes”. There is no report for using APP at Key Stage 3.

[18] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/20396 . It would be too much to hope they might be called Assessment Foci.

[19] http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/node/182286

[20] The full story of the NVQ disaster is told in “Does Education Matter?” by Alison Wolf (Penguin 2002)

[21] A good description can be found in “Dumbing Down Our Kids” by Charles J. Sykes (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

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Sports Day

July 4, 2009

Potentially one of the more enjoyable times in the school calendar is sports day. This is a chance to get out of the classroom at the height of summer and do pretty much nothing other than watch or  (for the students) take part in sport. This can involve some hassle. Students can be funny about taking part, particularly as they get older. If there are no appropriate facilities on the school site then it might involve taking students on a coach, something which is rarely fun. Students still have to be supervised during sports day, but it is no worse than, say, break duty. On the whole, even at tough schools, it can, and should, be quite a positive experience.

Nevertheless, I have experienced roughly as many bad, stressful sports days as fun, enjoyable ones.  There’s really one issue here that makes the difference. All sports days are dependent on students being in the right place and doing the right thing, both when they are competing and when they aren’t. Apart from the obvious issue that they might be doing something harmful or dangerous when unsupervised, there are real difficulties if students cannot be found when it is their turn to compete, or if they are left at such a degree of liberty that they end up disrupting the events, for instance, by wandering onto the track during a race.

The ratio of pleasure and pain on sports day depends on how much time you have to spend controlling students, and whether or not the day has been organised with this in mind.

The best sports days I have had are ones where I had limited responsibility for controlling students or, if I was supervising students, it was only my own form group, and expectations and rules had been established properly beforehand. You know you have a competently run sports day if both you and the students know where the everybody should be at all times and there are rules governing any kind of movement of students. This can be achieved through proper planning. Students and staff need to be told before the day begins where everybody, and particularly the students, will be located and how important it is to keep them there. Staff meetings and assemblies need to be used for this purpose, then once you get there, you won’t have to spend time telling students where they should be based and you can concentrate on the exceptions, i.e. letting students go to compete or to use the facilities. This kind of planning also means that in the event that a student does start causing a problem then you know where to find the correct person (e.g. head of year, or SMT) to deal with it.

Sports days are considerably less enjoyable if you are left in charge of an amorphous group of children who either keep wandering off, or you keep being joined by other students who you don’t know. It becomes very difficult to ensure students turn up to events and it becomes far more difficult to keep a lid on things like litter or silly behaviour. This will become extremely stressful if you are faced with a student who is kicking off with no clear plan in place for what to do about them, and for that reason a lot of teachers start turning a blind eye to problems.

The worst case scenario, and I am glad to have only been in this situation once, is if you are told to supervise students you don’t know, and what you are told to do with them is inconsistent. Letting students wander is not good for organisation, but it is still less stressful than being told one moment to keep them together and the next moment that they can sit where they like. My worst sports day consisted of being told that I must keep 7Y (who I didn’t know) together all day, and then, having spent hours struggling to do this, just as they began to defy me directly to my face, I was told by their year head that actually they could sit where they like after all. Rules which are not enforced are often far more harmful than no rules at all and a chain of command which breaks is worse than no chain of command at all. Unfortunately, this applies to more than just sports days.

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