Archive for August, 2012

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More About Exams

August 31, 2012

Since my last post  the argument about GCSE English has rumbled on. There have been one or two people daring to suggest that the issue is about standards but the consensus still seems to be that a great injustice has been done. A few more arguments have come up which I didn’t mention last time, so I will address them here.

1) Grades are meant to be criteria based.

For as long as I can remember, there has been an ongoing attempt to match grades (and levels at key stage 3) to particular learning objectives. However, this has always been a theoretical exercise rather than an accurate description of assessment. It was never the case that a student with a grade C had met all of the grade C (and below) objectives, but not the grade B ones. In some subjects there were huge disparities between grades/levels and learning. This is because exams hinge on scores not criteria, and because the same objective can be met in an easy or difficult way. This appears true even in very precise subjects like maths; it is unavoidable in English. Despite all the talk of “what a grade C looks like” and the posters telling you these things on classroom walls, nobody took the criteria too seriously. If they had there would have been protests every time grades went up without any clear evidence that more objectives were being met. Inevitably, this has only been dredged up now that grades have gone down. It was never the case, even in the years of rampant grade inflation, that examiners could hand out any amount of grades as long as the objectives were, in some way, met.

2) If nothing was wrong there wouldn’t be all these complaints.

The claim is made that because a fuss has been kicked up, then there must have been a problem prompting it. At one level this is true. If schools hadn’t expected to be able to hand out vast quantities of grade Cs then there wouldn’t be this problem now. What this does not demonstrate, however, is that the problem is a failure to hand out more grade Cs or some kind of political scandal. The key problem, as I argued here, is a dumbed-down qualification that gave schools the impression that they could get lots of grade Cs. That is a real problem, and the exam boards and regulator are to blame, but it does not indicate that too few students have been given grade Cs or that the schools demanding the grades be investigated have a point.

3)  Something could have been done later.

A lot of people arguing that it should have been easier to get higher grades are desperate to claim that although they wanted the exam to be easier and more grades to be handed out, they are not actually arguing for grade inflation. One way to make this case is to suggest that although something should be done about grade inflation it shouldn’t have been done now. Grades should have continued to inflate for several more years first; perhaps there should have been entirely new exams before it was to stop. The problem with this argument is that when you consider the short term of office of most education secretaries, then putting something off may well amount to never doing it. The expectation that grades don’t inflate needed to be introduced as soon as possible, before the political climate changed. And let’s be clear, this has been coming for two years. The government have been talking about it since they got elected. Ofqual have been talking about “comparable outcomes” for well over a year. This is a shock to those who believed it would never happen, but it is not sudden or unexpected.

4) You can’t prove there was ever any grade inflation.

In a way this argument is a relic. Ofqual admit there was grade inflation. The opposition frontbench admit there is grade inflation. There is no serious dispute about this. However, a lot have people have built their careers and their self-image on getting students through ever easier exams. For a few years now every educational fad has been justified with a teacher (often an English teacher as it happens) claiming “well it works for me and my classes get really good grades”. For these people it is still hard to admit that there was grade inflation. Some refuse to look at old exam papers, or if they do, simply claim they can’t tell the difference. These people are probably best ignored for simply denying the obvious. Some try to suggest that the rocketing grades are caused by better teaching. However, grades have shot up for more than two decades, and in that time the fashions in teaching have changed in all sorts of different directions, not just in one particular way. It is hard to say that teaching in the last ten years has got better when the biggest trend has been a return to ideas last popular in the early 1990s. Some claim that English might be an exception to the general trend, but the rise in English results suggest otherwise and the exams taken this year hardly look rigourous.

While people have been desperately trying to get some mileage out of the above arguments, further facts have emerged. Any claim that giving the extra grade Cs would not have caused rampant grade inflation have been discredited by reports that the number of students affected by tightening up grade boundaries may have been close to 67000, i.e. more than 10% of the cohort. Any claim that the problem was last minute political interference from Michael Gove, or Ofqual, rather than exam boards moving to rectify a problem with an exam that was always going to be a problem has also turned out to be mistaken. It has emerged that Ofqual had been talking about maintaining “comparable outcomes” (i.e. consistency between years) for some time now and, according to reports in the TES, had been aware of problems with early entry in English since 2009.

So far, those who have been complaining have been reacting to these stories as if they simply confirm their complaints, rather than confirm that something had to be done. But we now have a situation where those complaining that more Cs should have been given out have been wrong again, and again, and again:

  • It was claimed the day before results day that there was a general problem with English results. Then it turned out that actually C grades were down only 1.5%. Then it turned out that this was probably a result of increased entries for iGCSEs rather than C grade being more difficult.
  • It was claimed that results were down because of deliberate political interference, probably at the last minute. Then it turned out that Ofqual had been saying results would be comparable for months and months and had been aware of problems with the exam since 2009.
  • It was claimed that there must have been so many grade Cs given out in January for controlled assessment that results in June must have been used to compensate. Then it turned out that only about 6% of CAs were actually submitted in January.
  • It was claimed that moving the boundaries wouldn’t have been necessary to maintain standards. Then it turned out that without the move there would have been 67000 more Cs, i.e. a rise in passes of more than 10% since last year.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that after two decades of grade inflation schools would fail to adjust to the consequences of grade inflation and get it completely wrong. However, it is shocking that they seem to think it is a scandal that they couldn’t just hand out C grades to 75% of the cohort and seem to claim that their ability to manipulate results is more important than maintaining standards. No amount of incompetence on the part of the exam boards and Ofqual can actually distract from the fact that schools colluded in that incompetence, right up to the point where they stopped gaining grades from it.

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The Exam Hysteria Continues…

August 26, 2012

This has been written on my phone, so apologies for the lack of links etc. I may add a few bits and pieces in a few days time when I have internet access.

The backlash to the end of grade inflation has continued. Politicians; newspapers of all stripes, and many different types of teacher have labelled it a crisis. Most have obvious agendas. Politicians need to score points. The media needs stories. Teachers, particularly headteachers, need excuses now that grade inflation has ended and a bad year will look like a bad year. All want some excuse to say that there is a problem, without actually saying exams should get easier forever.

The desperate hunt for an anomaly in the exam results (beyond the mere fact that this year grades didn’t go up) has focused on AQA English language GCSE. As I explained last time, this exam was about as dodgy as it could get. Thanks to a new style of exam where 60% was “controlled assessment” English departments were in a situation where it seemed there were few obstacles to getting kids to grade C and they were only prevented by a last minute movement of boundaries. Now a moment’s reflection would make one think: “hang on, does anyone really believe that almost two thirds of school leavers have a good standard of reading and writing is an underestimate?” It should be a source of national shame that English GCSE had reached that point (and let’s not forget English exams this time round included studying subjects as complex as celebrity interviews and reality TV) . But we have become so used to lowering the bar in English that when this time the standard was raised to a level of difficulty beyond anything we have seen since 2010, it came as an enormous blow to schools, particularly those who had manipulated their scores only to discover they hadn’t manipulated them far enough.

The claims of unfairness I have seen have focused on the following:

1) Controlled assessment boundaries moved between January and June. These were small moves, in fact if I have got this correct they were within the “tolerance” levels for controlled assessments (i.e. the amount schools can overmark by without anyone caring). However, these do mean that the same performance would be worth more in January than in June. Of course, the ridiculous situation where you can do the same assessment at different times of the year is a problem. However, once it’s been accepted we have to admit that once some students have done it for January, and it’s been marked, it is going to be a lot easier to do it in June. If you think that exams should peg grades to particular performances rather than to level of difficulty you might object. But if you do think that, then you are arguing for something that will inevitably result in grade inflation. It’s also worth adding that AQA had warned schools that these boundaries could move in the early years of a new course, although they didn’t specify that it could change between the January and June submission.

2) Grade boundaries on the formal exam went up by 10 marks. This is apparently shocking. How could two different exams have different grade boundaries? Well the clue is in the word “different”. This is not unprecedented; the example I keep hearing about on twitter is A-level maths exams which have had boundaries move by this sort of amount between January and June. There is no real ground for complaint here but going on about it has confused a lot of people who have assumed that it was the controlled assessments where the boundaries changed by 10 marks, rather than the rather more understandable situation of different exams having different grade boundaries.

3) The change occurred between January and June. I have covered above the way this has happened and why it is not cause for concern. However, one conspiracy theory has it that for such changes to occur then it must be the case that lots and lots of students must have got grade C in January and the only way AQA could stop grade inflation was to mark really harshly in June so that every excess grade C from January was compensated for by taking a grade C from students in June. However, AQA have now said that 94% of controlled assessments were submitted in June. This is not the clearest statement about how many students submitted at different times (some could have submitted both times) but it would make it highly unlikely that there were so many grade Cs in January that students in June had to take a fall. It also means that even if there was insufficient rigour in the January exam, it would hardly justify replicating it in June to avoid disparity.

4) Politicisation. It is an inevitable fact that whenever anything changes in education, somebody complains that it is “political”. Nobody ever explains why that makes it wrong. Nobody ever explains why the status quo is politically neutral. Personally I want education to be political. I want people to argue about the principles involved; object to the injustices, and appeal to the public for support for their ideas. Removing politics from governance is an incoherent idea, and can only really be interpreted as removing democracy.

5) Won’t somebody please think of the children?

I have lost count of how many appeals there have been to the suffering of students who have had to endure the ordeal of an exam slightly tougher than last year’s. Some have even implied that actually looking at the statistics to see what happened, rather than being outraged at the fate of any child who failed, shows my heartlessness. I am afraid that I have yet to find a reply to this argument which isn’t rude and angry, so I’ll save it for the comments if anyone needs it.

A final point: it has now been claimed that thousands of (probably very able) students switched from English GCSE to English iGCSE this year. If true, and I have understood this correctly, then we are no longer talking about English exams that toughened enough to cause the 1.5% fall in GCSE English passes (before appeals). We are likely to be talking about an exam that, given the change in intake, was even closer to last year’s in terms of grades given than even the 1.5% figure suggests. Unless some new evidence turns up, this is still looking like a fuss about nothing; a complaint based on innumeracy, politics and a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for the scandal of dumbing-down. If you don’t support dumbing-down and grade inflation, and you don’t have some sensational new piee of evidence, then there really is no excuse to join in.

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Actually, It Was About Cheating

August 24, 2012

A bar chart summing up the debate on results day

As I said in my last post, English grades C and above were only down 1.5%, less than they normally go up by. Overall GCSE grades C and above were only down by 0.4%, and this was before the appeals have been processed. No major change and exactly what would be expected if there was to be no grade inflation.

However, the Twitterverse was still outraged yesterday and I couldn’t understand why. It was seen as utterly unfair that grade boundaries had moved between January and June. One maths teacher pointed out that this often happens to maths A-level, so why should English be any different? From January to June the context has changed, and the exam has changed, so why shouldn’t the boundaries change?

But I was eventually corrected. The exam hadn’t necessarily changed since January. People were reluctant to say it explicitly, but 60% of the English language GCSE from AQA (I haven’t had time to check the other exam boards but I assume it was similar) was controlled assessment. This meant that controlled assessment could be used as the final exam. Students were able to finish their GCSE with an exam that was released months in advance, for which they had time to prepare their answers, and for which the teachers had already seen the mark scheme. Also, as it was modular, the teachers also thought they knew exactly how many marks were necessary for a grade C.

This is what I hadn’t realised. English teachers were in a position to cheat, bend rules, or legitimately provide extra, helpful advice to get (almost) every student to grade C. This was thwarted at the last moment by a change in the boundaries that meant that what they thought was good enough for grade C (and had been good enough for grade C in January) no longer was. This is why they felt robbed. They had been given a chance to hand out grade Cs like they were prizes (that all must have). They thought that if they followed the right strategy then the grades were in the bag, but then they were told: “actually that’s not good enough”. Having set an exam that almost anyone could pass, the exam boards would have been on the verge of a national scandal and could only get out of it by stabbing everyone in the back at the last minute. No wonder some schools were down massively, the more you gamed the system the more kids you would have who were expecting grade C. No surprise some English teachers felt betrayed, they had done everything possible to get dozens of barely literate kids a grade C and it still didn’t work. So that’s what it was all about, not a 1.5% fall in passes since last year, but a massive drop from the expected situation where almost everybody could pass.

Of course, it is at this point that the outrage starts. How dare I suggest that controlled assessments aren’t fair?  Yes, they are exams for which the exam papers and the mark schemes were released long before they were sat, but they were only released to English teachers. Am I daring to suggest that English teachers would cheat, bend rules, or find technically permissible but ultimately unfair ways to get everyone up to what they thought was the required grade. What a terrible accusation. I should name names or shut up. No doubt I hate teachers if I think they aren’t scrupulously fair and honest with their assessments. I must provide conclusive evidence.

Of course, I cannot provide conclusive evidence. Sure I’ve heard the stories but I won’t grass up the teachers involved, they were put in an impossible position. Clearly this is just a smear on my part. But let’s review the details here:

1) The basic principle that final exams and their mark schemes are secret and not distributed to teachers beforehand is the norm for a reason. To ignore it for English seems to amount to a claim that English teachers are more honest than everyone else.

2) Teachers, particularly in core subjects, are under ridiculous pressure to get results. Schools have been told they will be forced to be academies if the number of students with GCSEs including maths and English falls below a certain threshold. Teachers are “performance managed” with pay and career progression dependent on getting certain grades from their students.

3) Teachers working for students from deprived backgrounds can view the extra help they give, even when against the rules, as simply providing the help middle class students could get from parents and private tutors. It is easy to view it as being fairer than not helping.

4) The fine line between cheating and not cheating is sometimes hard to draw. It is normal for kids to practise an exam before they do the real one. If the teacher knows what will be in the real one, it can be difficult to avoid making the practice one very similar.

5) Teachers, when they have the anonymity of an internet forum, openly admit that cheating occurs and is widespread. http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/p/565453/7374692.aspx#7374692 and http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/565479.aspx?PageIndex=1 are just a couple of examples.

6) There is a history of cheating in the system. Controlled assessment replaces coursework. Anyone who knows anything about teaching knows teachers cheat on coursework. I’m not the only blogger to point this out but you don’t need to rely on anecdote, it all came out in the press a few years back with official reports and exam boards conceding that it was going on.

The claim that teachers don’t cheat, bend rules or give technically legal but blatantly unfair help to target students is absurd. People will no doubt be outraged that I don’t believe the claim, but they are insisting that all personal experience, past history, knowledge of human nature and good practice in examining is irrelevant to the question. They are simply arguing that we must believe the absurd rather than believe something that could put their results, or teachers in general, in a bad light.

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A Note About The GCSEs

August 23, 2012

I really should be in bed, but there was a lot of fuss on Twitter, TES and the Guardian about English GCSE results. Lots of claims about results being down.

This may be correct, we simply don’t know yet. However, there seems to have been a distinct lack of serious thought about what schools should have expected from their results. It has been on the cards for a while that the number of grades given would stay roughly the same this year. This has been made clear to exam boards. However, it doesn’t seem to have sunk in with schools or teachers what this policy of 0% grade inflation would actually mean.

In particular:

1) Most schools cannot expect their results to improve. If targets were set based on continuing improvement in results then they are unlikely to be met.

2) If the average improvement in grades nationally is 0% then (assuming a symmetrical distribution) roughly half of schools will get worse grades this year than last year.

3) If too many schools target what they think is a “C”, then they won’t get it. It is no good looking at January mark schemes, or previous year’s mark schemes, and trying to replicate was a C grade then. Everyone else will be doing the same thing and they can’t all get Cs. Boundaries will shift upwards.

Furthermore the effects of these things I have described will be disproportionately felt by schools which have focused on improving their number of C grades. If you aimed for lots of low Cs then you are likely to be in trouble. If you relied on controlled assessments and coursework to get grade Cs (i.e. cheating), then it is almost certain the goalposts will have moved. The effects will also be felt more in subjects where marking is imprecise and arbitrary.

None of the fuss so far has indicated yet that there has been a real problem with English beyond the failure of schools to realise the above. The culture of continual “improvement” (that actually just meant gaming the system) is quite heavily ingrained. An end to grade inflation will be a shock to the system with a lot of consequences for schools. We will find out tomorrow whether there are actual grounds for all the hysteria tonight, or whether it is simply down to the inability of school leaders to understand the concept of a zero-sum game.

Update: The results are out. Apparently the change in English Language grades A*-C was a decrease of 1.5%. Dramatic in that one subject, but to be expected and nothing like the 10% drop the people in hysterics were claiming.

Feel free to thank me for being right.

Tweet from last Sunday

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Why Is Nationwide Funding A Campaign Against The Teaching Of Basic Numeracy?

August 15, 2012

I’ve heard it observed that any group with the word “truth” in the title is rarely interested in the truth. It’s not too hard to find examples, say, “9/11 Truth Movement” or “Holocaust Truth”. A similar phenomena occurs in education where organisations are often named after the very things they oppose in practice. So for instance, the “United Kingdom Literacy Association” campaigns against the most effective way of teaching reading. The “Campaign For Real Education” wants most kids to be in secondary moderns getting a second class education. The “National Association for the Teaching of English” opposes the explicit teaching of grammar. Even then it probably hasn’t got as bad as America where groups dedicated to worsening conditions for teachers have names like “StudentsFirst” or “The National Council on Teaching Quality”.

That said, even I was shocked when yesterday I learned of a relatively new organisation in the maths world, National Numeracy. The organisation responded yesterday to the plans for a new national curriculum which emphasises basic numeracy, by complaining about “early instrumental methods and rote processes”.   In the past  they have also attacked an emphasis on “procedural tools like times table [sic]” Their website  complains about “Boring ‘classroom maths’” which “for too many.. means merely ‘doing sums’ in a classroom” and indicates their approval for questioning “why 80% of ‘classroom maths’ concentrates on computation – which is the one area that those using maths in the real world ‘outsource’ to computers”.

But what shocked me wasn’t the fact that anybody could look at the innumerate children schools turn out every year and think there was too much emphasis on calculation, rote or procedure. Don’t get me wrong, at a time when two thirds of the maths GCSE exam is done with a calculator and the average child can’t tell you 7 times 8 without counting through their tables, I do think this is a ludicrous opinion, but it’s common enough among progressive types who think maths is about sitting around in groups and talking about problem-solving. I am fully aware of the people who the American maths professor, W. Stephen Wilson described in the following way:

There will always be people who think that calculators work just fine and there is no need to teach much arithmetic, thus making career decisions for 4th graders that the students should make for themselves in college. Downplaying the development of pencil and paper number sense might work for future shoppers, but doesn’t work for students headed for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

There will always be the anti-memorization crowd who think that learning the multiplication facts to the point of instant recall is bad for a student, perhaps believing that it means students can no longer understand them. Of course this permanently slows students down, plus it requires students to think about 3rd-grade mathematics when they are trying to solve a college-level problem.

There will always be the standard algorithm deniers, the first line of defense for those who are anti-standard algorithms being just deny they exist. Some seem to believe it is easier to teach “high-level critical thinking” than it is to teach the standard algorithms with understanding. The standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers are the only rich, powerful, beautiful theorems you can teach elementary school kids, and to deny kids these theorems is to leave kids unprepared. Avoiding hard mathematics with young students does not prepare them for hard mathematics when they are older.

There will always be people who believe that you do not understand mathematics if you cannot write a coherent essay about how you solved a problem, thus driving future STEM students away from mathematics at an early age. A fairness doctrine would require English language arts (ELA) students to write essays about the standard algorithms, thus also driving students away from ELA at an early age. The ability to communicate is NOT essential to understanding mathematics.

There will always be people who think that you must be able to solve problems in multiple ways. This is probably similar to thinking that it is important to teach creativity in mathematics in elementary school, as if such a thing were possible. Forget creativity; the truly rare student is the one who can solve straightforward problems in a straightforward way.

There will always be people who think that statistics and probability are more important than arithmetic and algebra, despite the fact that you can’t do statistics and probability without arithmetic and algebra and that you will never see a question about statistics or probability on a college placement exam, thus making statistics and probability irrelevant for college preparation.

There will always be people who think that teaching kids to “think like a mathematician,” whether they have met a mathematician or not, can be done independently of content. At present, it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core, which they sometimes think is the “real” mathematics, are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong. You learn Mathematical Practices just like the name implies; you practice mathematics with content.

There will always be people who think that teaching kids about geometric slides, flips, and turns is just as important as teaching them arithmetic. It isn’t. Ask any college math teacher.

What actually shocked me was two things. Firstly, the sheer nerve they show in calling their organisation “National Numeracy”. In ordinary English “numeracy” tends to refer precisely to the ability to do basic numerical calculations. In fact it is very often used so as to distinguish it from the more abstract understandings and creative methods associated with mathematics. What’s more, the “National Numeracy Strategy” was a government initiative in the late 90s which emphasised mental calculation and rejected the use of calculators. How on earth can they possibly justify calling their anti-numeracy campaign “National Numeracy”?

Further investigation of their website found a discussion of what numeracy is which concluded:

For our master-definition, we choose the international description of mathematical literacy:

“Mathematical literacy is an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”. (PISA)

So to get their definition of numeracy they decided it meant “mathematical literacy” and then managed to look up a definition of “mathematical literacy” which completely fails to mention numeracy. The first part of the definition about having “to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world” is, to me, most reminiscent of the episode of the Simpsons “Girls Just Want to Have Sums”. In that episode Lisa is forced to attend a maths class especially aimed at empowering girls where they have to discuss how numbers make them feel rather than actually having to work anything out. This is also reflected in their full response to the draft primary curriculum, which repeatedly mentions the teaching of “attitudes”. With this dodgy definition of “numeracy”, it is no wonder National Numeracy actually campaigns to minimise the teaching of basic number skills. However, with the name “National Numeracy” they will continue to be reported in the media as if they were in favour, rather than against, numeracy.

The second thing that shocked me was a source of their funding. It was not surprising to see they were funded by some charities and a textbook publisher; dumbing-down often is. However, the first “funder” listed on their website was the building society Nationwide. Now it is very common for banks and building societies to be involved in backing organisations which support either numeracy or something like “financial literacy” and I don’t criticise them for doing so. But why, other than because they believed the name, should they fund an organisation which campaigns against the teaching of basic number skills? I’m not a member of Nationwide; it should be remembered it is a building society and is still owned by its members. If I was I’d be asking them why they backing this campaign. In particular I’d be asking:

  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that too much time is spent teaching children how to carry out calculations?
  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that there is a danger of an over-emphasis on “procedural tools” like times tables?
  • Do Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that it is a potential problem that the new national curriculum focuses on “early instrumental methods and rote processes” or that children “do sums in classrooms”?
  • Does Nationwide agree with National Numeracy that, rather than emphasising the ability to carry out calculations with numbers, numeracy should be about such things as “identify[ing] and understand[ing] the role that mathematics plays in the world … and engag[ing] with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen”?
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A Note About The Future

August 13, 2012

I described here the argument that we are now in an era of unprecedented technological change, which means it is no longer worth learning knowledge rather than skills.

Here is a really good example of that argument:

“…we find ourselves in a rapidly changing and unpredictable culture. It seems almost impossible to foresee the particular ways in which it will change in the near future or the particular problems which will be paramount in five or ten years. Under these conditions, much emphasis must be placed in the schools on the development of generalized ways of attacking problems and on knowledge which can be applied to a wide range of new situations. That is, we have the task of preparing individuals for problems that cannot be foreseen in advance, and about all that can be done under such conditions is to help the student acquire generalized intellectual abilities and skills which will serve him well in many new situations…”

Want to guess where it comes from? “Shift Happens”, maybe? Guy Claxton? A speech by Stephen Twigg?

You might have a better chance of guessing if I show you the complete version of the first sentence:

“Whatever the case in the past, it is very clear that in the middle of the 20th century we find ourselves in a rapidly changing and unpredictable culture.” [my italics]

It actually comes from the original 1956 edition of Bloom’s “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives”.

Next time somebody justifies dumbing-down by appealing to technological change as a feature of the 21st century, remember that they are using an argument that has been around since (at least) about the time of the invention of Tipp-ex.

Of course, the difference between then and now is that then culture was indeed changing rapidly and unpredictably for the majority.

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How to Destroy NQTs

August 2, 2012

A lot of NQTs don’t qualify. A lot of NQTs who do manage to qualify do so only after changing schools. The supply teacher circuit is full of people still trapped in their NQT year who, having left their first position, are hoping to get a long-term supply contract or a permanent job where they can qualify. Behaviour is the usual reason. The first year of teaching is tough, and some schools make it impossible. Too often those running schools would prefer to see a teacher go under than admit there is a problem with behaviour in the school, or that there are too many challenging classes on that teacher’s timetable.

However, some go under because they’ve taken bad advice. Advice that means they will not be able to cope for as long as they believe it. I thought of this recently when I read this blogpost. If you are an NQT have a good look. If you believe this is true, and you are going anywhere that is remotely challenging, and you plan to actually teach your classes rather than just entertain them, then this will probably destroy you.

If you haven’t worked out what’s wrong, then I will begin by referring to the key error. A description is given of a class who go from lesson to lesson sometimes behaving and sometimes misbehaving. In the ones where they misbehave the teacher is in a bad mood. He’s the one who shouts most often. This is not the case in the lessons where the children behave. There the teachers calmly ensure that the class know the rules. In one, where the class are greeted with a smile, they are given lots of freedom to work independently, and yet are still able to behave well. There you go, evidence if any were needed, that if you are nice your classes will behave and if you are nasty then they won’t. Bad behaviour is the result of the poor temperament of their teachers. Smile and it will all go well.

Or not.

A common logical error has been made. If you can’t spot it, have a listen to this:

Got it now? If not, let’s rewind a bit and consider the evidence. Where the class behaves well, the teachers don’t shout. Where the class behaves well, their teacher is happy to see them. Where the class behaves well, they are trusted to work independently. Where they behave badly, the teacher dreads seeing them. Where they behave badly, the teacher is angry. Where they behave badly, the teacher is known to shout at them.

Is it clear now? There is a strong possibility – one might even think a staggering obvious inevitability – that behaving badly for a teacher has an effect on that teacher’s mood and disposition. To believe that causation is acting the other way (a mistake I have previously discussed here) is fatal. When you believe that behaviour results from your negative disposition you can create a cycle of personal destruction. A class will be unpleasant to you. You will become upset. You will blame yourself for becoming upset. You will focus on changing your behaviour not the class’s. They will see that you will not stand up for yourself, and your attempts to but a brave face on being mistreated will be seen as weakness. They will behave worse. Lesson by lesson it will get worse, and no matter how positive you are they will behave worse and hate you more. You will end up seeing how much punishment you can endure and blaming yourself when it gets to you. They will see how far they can take it, i.e. see how much harm they can do to you without you fighting back. And psychologically there is an equally destructive cycle going on. If you are unhappy and you blame yourself for being unhappy, rather than doing anything about the cause of the unhappiness, it will simply get worse.

Don’t believe me? Have a read through this thread on the TES forum from an NQT on the death spiral. Started by someone in the February of her NQT year, she begins by talking about the approach she’s been told to take:

I make my lessons as interesting and interactive as I can – they take ages to plan – but nothing seems to work. My marking is always up to date, I always praise good behaviour and try to make them feel positive about themselves. I make sure I don’t do whole class explanations talking for more than 2 minutes as advised.

She describes how she’s not surviving. Despite objections from the management and consultant class, she is advised by a lot of the TES behaviour regulars to concentrate on their behaviour, not her attitude (while members of the SMT/consultant class posting on the thread throw abuse at anyone who tells her this) and begins to improve but is still at the point where she is taking punishment and blaming herself for her feelings when it happens. In particular:

I had a weak moment when I saw a note a student had left in my bag. I thought we had a good lesson, the students were starting to appreciate me but it said they wished I got raped and killed! No idea who it’s from and I know it’s not personal but it hurt my feelings.

When your reaction to extreme abuse becomes a matter of blaming yourself for being upset by it, you are doomed as a teacher, as this NQT was, because trying to put on a brave face will not stop it; it will encourage it. Teachers who get upset about little things will struggle, but in the long term most effective teachers do care about the little things. Teachers who try not to get upset by the big things, and that example is a very big thing, give a clear signal that it will be a fascinating experiment to see how much it takes to upset them in front of the class. The story in that TES thread is the story of 100s, maybe 1000s of NQTs each year.

Now, returning to that original blogpost, apart from encouraging a teacher-destroying mindset, not all the advice in that blogpost is bad. Some certainly has the wrong focus. While it is true that planning and organisation is key to survival, it is not because they will behave if you have ensure “they will enjoy what you have planned or that they have been shown the purpose of their learning beyond the classroom”. It is because you will teach better, and be less stressed, if you already know exactly what you are going to be doing, particularly what you are going to do about behaviour. Consistency and using the behaviour system are very important (but watch out for the two discipline systems and make sure your record-keeping is very good so that when you use sanctions that you can justify every decision). The “reprimand in private” advice would be perfect if you were teaching a class of 5, or if misbehaviour was virtually unknown in your school, but virtually impossible to implement in most schools and should be considered an ideal rather than a practical suggestion.  “Praise in public” should be okay, but can backfire with some children in some classes.

I did write a blogpost aimed at NQTs previously which includes advice on where to seek further help and advice.  Remember that it does usually get better after Christmas and the ones who put on a brave face and claim to be coping are often the ones who drop out, and those who find it challenging at first are often the ones with the high standards who will persevere in the long term. Most of all, work out early on who are the liars and the charlatans in the behaviour field, and what level of mistreatment by mentors and SMT you are prepared to tolerate, so that in a worst case scenario you will know when to say “enough” and stand up for yourself.

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