Archive for March, 2010

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Just to Sum Up…

March 20, 2010

A thread on a forum I occasionally visit recently asked exactly how people would like to reform the education system.

I think it is worth repeating my answer here, although inevitably it does cover points I have made before.

The basic problem with the educational system that I work in is a lack of purpose. Schools are no longer identified as being there to make children smarter. They are instead viewed as an attempt to do something halfway between socialisation and changing (or denying) human nature. Efforts are made to make young people fit society, either by looking at the culture they come from and keeping their aspirations low enough to fit in, or by speculating about what society should be like and attempting to protect them from the harsh realities of real life, particularly those related to their actions having consequences, in the hope that they will thereby naturally become the responsible enlightened citizens of a utopian society uncorrupted by the influence of adults.

Because learning knowledge is not valued, then children who refuse to learn, and even stop others from learning are tolerated. On top of this, because it is widely believed that human nature is basically good, bad behaviour is seen as morally neutral and a result of either social problems, medical problems or a failure of teachers to socialise the child. Along with attempts to promote the autonomy of students, this has all resulted in a behaviour crisis which means that schools are battlegrounds and teaching (in the sense of passing on knowledge) is a struggle. Students will not expect to learn or to have to obey and will often react with verbal abuse and intimidation to any adult who tries to get them to learn.

In an educational culture where there is little knowledge to be passed on and a view that student autonomy is more important than student knowledge, teaching has inevitably been replaced with the organisation of activities. The teacher is no longer an authority figure either socially or academically. Teachers are not recruited or rewarded for academic ability; they are not expected to have academic expertise and they are not meant to be directing students. The modern teacher is there to encourage learning not to lead it. It is good to appeal to their interests; support their relationships with their peers, and persuade them that maybe some learning is, if they want it, a good thing. It is bad to tell them what to do, to put pressure on them or to cause them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Inevitably this has resulted in teachers whose strategies are to appease the worst behaved or create the impression of enjoyable classroom activity.

The lack of a clear aim for schools has inevitably resulted in a multi-layered bureaucracy carrying out contradictory tasks all pushing and pulling the education system in different ways. There are pressures to improve exam results, and there are pressures to ignore them and to make every child happy instead. There are pressures to improve learning and there are pressures to replace learning with entertainment. There are pressures to measure academic progress and pressures to make assessment less objective. There are pressures to teach effectively, and pressures to incorporate gimmicks and fads into classroom practice.

All these pressures result in a continual cycle of ineffective initiatives and fads with different funding schemes. Often bad ideas are recylcled endlessly as the latest “scientific” advance in teaching. In a single school a teacher might be asked to incorporate AfL, BLP, P4C, APP, WALT, WILF, Brain Gym and SEAL into their lessons. The initiatives are enforced by compulsory observations of teachers; continual retraining of teachers and a constant demand for ever more paperwork and documentation. This process is run by legions of functionaries who have no particular talent other than the capacity to regurgitate the latest nonsense and the ability to interefere at every level. So destructive is this bureaucracy that politicians are keener to create new structures (academies, trust schools, foundation schools) partially outside of the bureaucracy than to try to reform it.

My suggestions to reform the mess:

  • Stop all initiatives that interfere directly in classroom practice or have non-academic aims.
  • End the policy of inclusion of badly behaved children.
  • Child support payments to be dependent on children attending school and cooperating with the school.
  • Remove all non-academic targets and replace with one single “adequacy” threshold for academic achievement.
  • Consolidate the funding streams and the layers of bureaucracy.
  • Reward teachers for academic expertise.
  • Make all paperwork optional unless it is required for something obviously unavoidable like student safety or exam entry.
  • OFSTED to inspect only to see if schools are safe and orderly.

The thread can be found here.

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The Illusionists

March 13, 2010

One of the consequences of the poor management of our schools is that managers very often don’t know how to recognise teaching. They recognise activity; they will know that there are classrooms which appear productive and well managed, but they will have neither the experience of effective teaching themselves, nor the grasp of data, to accurately judge whether the activity in the classroom actually corresponds to teachers teaching and students learning.

These are the classrooms of the Illusionists.

Illusionists are masters of every classroom art other than teaching. They will have good discipline. There will be a buzz of activity in their room. There will be a variety of activities in the classroom. Students who can be disruptive will appear engaged. There will be work, often work that appears difficult, in their books. Indeed, everything that happens in their classroom will appear to be in order. Just one thing will be missing: learning.

Learning is hard work. In a battleground school the ringleaders among the students have a lot to think about just maintaining their social position. They do not need the extra responsibility of having to learn as well. They will willingly enter into an implicit bargain, with any teacher who cannot be overwhelmed by poor behaviour, which says: “You will not have to think hard in class; you will not have to work hard in class; you will not have to stop your conversations except briefly; you will only have to cooperate with the appearance of learning in the classroom, and you will be kept comfortable in lessons.”

The Illusionist will expect students to work, but only a little. The Illusionist will expect students to listen, but only a little. The Illusionist will expect the students to please them, but will be pleased by very little. When students cannot complete the work themselves the Illusionist will tell them the answers. When short cuts to completing the work can be found, students will be allowed to take them. When rigour can be avoided, it will be. Students will be praised for nothing, and failure will be glossed over.

Look into the classroom as an outsider and everything will appear fine. A class will be focussed on a demanding topic. There will be order. There will be the appearance of work. There will be pair-work and group-work and students interacting, sat in a horse shoe shape or around desks grouped into “islands” facing each other. Sometimes there will even be brief explanations being given by the teacher.

Other than good teaching, there will only really be two things missing: assessment and pressure. The Illusionist will not try to find out whether the student has really learnt anything and they will not try to make the student feel they should have. This makes for a calm comfortable classroom, the only pressure to learn will be that applied by the students themselves. In those subjects where students are not examined then none of this will ever be seen as wrong. In those subjects where students are subject to formal assessment then there may be greater difficulties, but not insurmountable ones. If the assessment involves coursework then this can be done for them. (Illusionists are about the only teachers who actually like coursework). If the subject has exams then students will be encouraged to compensate for the lack of learning in class with learning at home or through extra-curricular opportunities. Parents will be phoned; resources will be sent home; persuasion will be applied, all to this end. Target classes and target students may even be temporarily subject to some actual teaching. Results might not be incredible, but they should be passable because in our system only some classes count. As long as target students aren’t the ones who underachieve it doesn’t matter if all others do.

Power can also help here. Control of setting and allocation of staff within a department can direct probable failure away from the Illusionist and to other members of staff. Similarly, students or classes who are already set for success can be redirected to the Illusionist. Control of resources, either human (teaching assistants, student teachers) or physical (rooms, text books, ICT) can be directed for personal advantage. Control of assessment, data, or appraisal of staff can help conceal failure, or reassign responsibility for it. As long as there is no transparency in how decisions are taken, then nobody will be in a position to know what is really going on. If responsibility for line-managing others is held by the Illusionist then credit and blame can be assigned behind people’s backs. In some departments, in some whole schools, there seem to be nothing but Illusionists. The only game anyone plays is that of passing the buck. In such schools management responsibilities are passed around at a dizzying speed, with nobody holding onto a particular managerial responsibility long enough to be blamed for failing at it. Nothing indicates the presence of an Illusionist more than the personally successful manager of apparently unsuccessful colleagues, except, perhaps, the disillusionment of those who actually want the students – all students – to learn.

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