Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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What Would Make Me Join A College Of Teaching?

December 18, 2014

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In my last, but one, post I showed how a professional organisation had in the past ended up as an enforcer for progressive education. In my most recent post, I described how my preferred option for a College of Teaching would be that no one ideological tendency could dominate and why I didn’t think evidence or research could resolve disputes between different tendencies. However, I have yet to describe what can be done practically to ensure that no particular ideology or faction dominates. In order to achieve this I think there are three key principles that must be followed:

  1. The College Of Teaching must be based around classroom teachers. And, by that, I mean people who are employed to regularly teach a class in a classroom. Not to lectures in university halls. Not to give private tuition in people’s homes or online. Not to produce teaching resources. Not to tell teachers how to teach, or otherwise coach or train them. Not to run an educational charity. Not to write educational books. Not to inspect schools. Not working for a local authority. Not working full-time for a trade union. Even retired teachers should be out. It must be exclusively for those working as a teacher (or lecturer) in a school or college, for some part of the working week. The various categories of people who are in education but not actually teaching classes are, in my experience, far more likely to be progressive ideologues than actual teachers. They also don’t need more representation than they already have.
  2. It must be dependent on classroom teachers. The GTCE had no legitimacy because it was widely suspected that most of us would have rather have kept our money. If the College Of Teaching can attract only a handful of people, then it is not doing it’s job. Worse, if it has sources of income beyond membership fees then there will be an incentive to pursue objectives related to those sources of income, rather than to respond to what its members actually want.
  3. The College Of Teaching must not be dominated by senior managers, or even aspiring senior managers. I’m aware that (particularly in primary schools) SMT may have a full teaching load and even in secondary many will teach more than a part-timer like me, and this is not a claim that SMT are not teachers. But organisations and events dominated by SMT have a very different flavour and culture to those dominated by the rank and file because of different priorities and different freedoms to act.

The following describes what I would suggest needs to be done to implement these principles. Those parts in bold are what I currently think are the minimum requirements  for creating the sort of organisation that I would want to be part of.

To ensure that the College of Teaching is based around classroom teachers, it is necessary for the entire membership of The College Of Teaching to be currently employed as teachers. No associate members, no reduced rates for the retired. While drawing the line between FE and HE is not always easy, those who teach in HE cannot be allowed to joinIf people who are employed only in university education departments, other forms of teacher training, or as consultants, can join, it’s over before we have even begun. No classroom teacher can compete with their connections and ability to organise along party lines. Some (and of course I acknowledge it is only some) of the people in this category are people who can organise letters to newspapers pushing progressive education with hundreds of signatures. The networks are there and will be used to crowd out opposing views.

As well as the members, those running it must not be divorced from teaching. Those with governing responsibilities must all be current teachers. Those with executive responsibilities must be teachers on a (time-limited) sabbatical, not outsiders. If any non-teachers are employed it must be in administrative capacity, not an executive one. Ideally anyone employed as permanent staff would be paid less than a teacher would be, so as not to attract people to leave teaching to take such a position. Similarly the organisation must not be given formal responsibilities (like teacher licensing or oath-swearing) by government. The power structures must be built around reserving the greatest influence of those closest to the classroom, which brings me to the second point about dependence on members. An organisation with income from an endowment will be a prize to be captured by a faction. Working directly with other funding organisations will also compromise independence. The only significant ongoing source of income must be from membership fees. If any outside income is needed, perhaps to start the organisation up, it should be in the form of a subsidy for membership fees, i.e. a reduction in how much teachers pay for membership, not an alternative to membership income. This may make the organisation far more modest in scale than some would like, but we really don’t need glossy magazines, or conferences in hotels, or officers with large expense accounts.

Finally, and this may be the tricky one, the organisation must not be taken over by SMT or aspiring SMT. It is there to help and represent teachers not to help manage teachers or help anyone up the career ladder. There is too much education discourse as it is where heads are treated as the voice of teachers. A big role for those who are not SMT could be one of the most important distinguishing features of the College Of Teaching. Of course, it cannot exclude SMT either, most SMT do teach, but if it is organised around the needs of SMT it will be a very different organisation and the structures should reflect that. All meetings and events must, unless there are good reasons for exceptions, be held outside of the school day. Only teachers with more than ordinary amounts of power or influence in a school can get away during the week on a regular basis and there is little point in setting up an organisation to represent those who are already powerful. Distinction should be made between involvement of SMT and non-SMT in decision-making and representation. So ballots of members should record votes from SMT members and non-SMT members separately. Positions in the organisation should be elected on separate ballots for SMT and non-SMT. This is not a minor point, or SMT-bashing, it is just an observation that there are some SMT (obviously not all) who seem to have such flexible working arrangements and great connections, that no classroom teacher could ever compete fairly against them in an election. Ending up with domination, not just by SMT, but by headteachers, is a a very real possibility and the structures of the organisation should take this into account. I would also suggest, as a further way of establishing that the organisation is not about representing the already powerful, that anybody employed by the College Of Teaching in any kind of executive role, be paid a salary similar to that of an experienced teacher, but not a manager or AST.

I should probably acknowledge this as a provisional list. I can be talked around on issues, although I’m not going to receptive to the argument that teachers cannot manage to organise without help or that a College run by headteachers would be fine. I haven’t suggested a way forward on the issue of research and evidence, despite raising the problems with it earlier, as I think that might take another blogpost some time in the future.

Finally, can I encourage everybody to go to this meeting to express their views. It would be great to have an event full of teachers trying to influence the debate. I think that even those of us who have been as cynical about a College Of Teaching as I’ve been, should at least have a shot at making it work. At the very least, I don’t doubt the sincerity of those hoping to make this work.

 

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Why Evidence and Research Won’t Resolve Ideological Disputes Around The College of Teaching

December 17, 2014

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I wrote last time about how the GTCE, despite being intended to be a professional body, ended up being an arm of the education establishment promoting a very progressive view of the role of teachers and the methods that should be used. I also discussed why I feared The College of Teaching could end up being a very similar organisation and why, assuming I had the choice, I would be reluctant to join. However, it hasn’t been created yet, so the idea can still win me over, and there are certainly people I respect involved (although none of them are teachers) and so I had intended to immediately describe what needs to be done to make the prospect enticing to me. I now realise this is going to take more than one post.

While my starting point was that the College of Teaching cannot have the same ideological leanings as the GTCE had, there is a wider point that any strong ideological stance (including those beliefs whose adherents claim not to be ideological), would make it of limited appeal to some significant part of the teaching profession. I think this is a concern across the board. A lot of people’s main priority is that the College Of Teaching does not get captured by those they disagree with (whether they think that’s a matter of ideology or not). My next post should include some practical suggestions about how this can be ensured, however, I have realised that some people advocating a College of Teaching have assumed that making the ideas it promotes “evidence-based” will be enough to unite the profession.

In this post I simply want to point out that a commitment to evidence or research (I’ve not really distinguished between the two as I’m not sure that matters for this argument) will not be enough to make a body seem ideologically neutral. I’m perfectly capable of challenging what people present as research or evidence. I gave the example in my last post of the GTCE’s research summaries, and have in the past commented about the BERA Social Justice blog, both of which show how research can be anything but ideologically neutral. I would go further and agree with Michael Fordham and Howard Aldrich that even the way research is categorised is flawed.

Now it may be possible to design a rigorous research programme that would satisfy my concerns, but I think it would serve only to cause others to object. Here are some recent examples of people expressing views about evidence in the College of Teaching (and I have deliberately picked people who would not be happy if my views, or even my views about evidence, were dominant in the College Of Teaching):

 

…we are in danger of locking our work into a mechanistic and technical model, losing the creative and progressive power of the work we do.  We are NOT like doctors, or actuaries – there is no simple evidence-based relationship of intervention to outcome.

…More than the suggested representation of all unions, regions, etc – I believe the College of Teaching must also represent all pedagogies and have a formal place to access learning from  educational technology; eg – the success of project based learning in raising attainment, or new models of CPD using twitter.

From Eylan Ezekiel

 

 

According to the website ClaimYourCollege, the college of teaching “will also harness the experience of its members and draw on robust evidence that will speak truth to politicians and pundits – reducing ineffective interventions, policy and practice.”

Whilst I welcome the increasingly prominent role of “evidence-based” and “evidence-led” practices (though I prefer the term “evidence-informed practice”), I am concerned that the concept may be hijacked by those with a particular political stance who interpret evidence and research through the lens of their convictions.

[Then after an explanation of research that differs about the value of technology in teaching]

…So, whose evidence will the college of teaching base its recommendations for practice on? Who will decide what constitutes good evidence? Will we be encouraged to interpret this evidence as teaching professionals or will this evidence be interpreted for us? And would a college of teaching continue to eschew the application of technology to support teaching and learning as an “ineffective intervention”?

From José Picardo

 

…research shows time and again, that the early and primary years set the tone for the future. They can shape minds, strengthen hearts and build learners with the tenacity to succeed. It is my belief that this research, gathered and disseminated by a professional body free from political ideology and vote chasing, would give us the knowledge and autonomy to create the learning experiences that these children need. And for this reason alone, I whole heartedly support the idea of a College of Teaching.

From Debra Kidd

 

With the drivers of markets, managerialism and high-stakes testing in place, it becomes possible for government to step back, safe in the knowledge that a complex web of mechanisms – league tables, performance-related pay and Ofsted – can be relied on to do the work.

The danger is that a College of Teaching simply becomes another element in this web of control that frames how teachers are expected to do their work. It provides the appearance of autonomy and independence, but in reality it serves to reinforce the culture of compliance that bedevils English state education.

This is because what will be valued will be what the College has decided is “what works”. Asking teachers to focus on what works, and privileging the research methods often associated with such questions, runs the risk of creating new orthodoxies. Through this, career advancement remains contingent on implementing what others have decided is “good”, or what constitutes “best practice”….

…The focus on “what works” deflects attention from a wider set of questions about “what matters?” or “what’s wrong?”. For example, teachers are encouraged to ask what works to close achievement gaps in their classroom. But they are not encouraged to ask wider questions on how to close these gaps when governments preside over ever-widening inequalities…

…If teachers are confined to asking “what works?” while only the policy elites get to decide “what matters” then teachers remain shut out of the debates about the really big questions: what is education for and how should young people be helped to understand and engage with the world they are growing up in?

From Howard Stevenson

 

Now if you know anything about my views, and what I consider to be the evidence that underpins them, I find it impossible to imagine that my disagreements with any of the above can be resolved by reference to evidence. I am not arguing here that I cannot be part of a College of Teaching which includes people with views like those above, but I am certain that no amount of evidence or research is going to allow us all to support a single College of Teaching that claims to be promoting “what the research shows”. Research and evidence are divisive, not unifying, forces in education.

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Why I’m Deeply Sceptical About A College Of Teaching

December 14, 2014

I’m planning several posts related to ideas around the creation of a College of Teaching. This is probably the most negative one, the next one will describe how I can be won over.

Likely composition of the College Of Teaching

Likely composition of the College Of Teaching

When the suggestion appeared some time ago that there should be a new professional body for teachers in England, I had my doubts. The GTCE disaster was still fresh in teachers’ minds. This was an organisation that had taken money out of our pay packets to pay for a group of progressive education advocates to tell us they were right. According to the Code Of Conduct the GTCE had put together then (other than some comments about progress and understanding diversity) our responsibility to educate our students could be summed up as follows:

Help children and young people to become confident and successful learners.

Registered teachers:

  • uphold children and young people’s rights and help them to understand their responsibilities
  • listen to children and young people, consider their views and preferences, and involve them in decisions that affect them, including those related to their own learning
  • have high expectations of all children and young people, whatever their background or aptitudes, and find activities that will challenge and support them all
  • promote children and young people’s confidence and self-awareness by clarifying how assessment will be used to support improvement, providing clear and specific feedback, and celebrating their success
  • communicate clear expectations about pupil behaviour to ensure disruption to learning is minimised and children and young people feel safe and secure
  • help children and young people prepare for the future by engaging them with the implications of changes in society and technology and offering them impartial advice and guidance about their future options.

Yes, that’s right. The GTCE had a code of conduct for teachers that didn’t actually mention that we should teach in order for our students to learn, nor for that matter does it mention that it matters what it was our students would learn. And just in case the principles of the GTCE didn’t make it clear that all good teachers were progressives, they also produced “Research for Teachers” summaries which claimed that “research shows” progressive methods were best. For instance this one for maths teachers, which asked us:

Why adopt a pupil-centred approach?

A number of Research for Teachers summaries show how pupil participation varies according to whether the teaching environment is pupil- or teacher-focused. For example, the RfT summary of a study of collaborative learning in mathematics noted that teachers who adopted more didactic, ‘transmission’ styles of teaching, in which knowledge was ‘passed’ from teacher to pupil, lowered the
self-esteem of pupils who were re-sitting GCSE Mathematics.

In contrast, activities designed to promote collaborative discussion were found to raise the pupils’ self-esteem. The pupils also attained higher marks on an algebra test. Analysis of the number of questions answered by pupils in the before and after tests indicated that the improved marks were mainly due to the pupils making fewer errors, not simply because they felt more motivated to attempt more of the
questions.

As many teachers know through their own experience, a problem with teacher-focused learning environments is that they put pupils in the role of consumers of information with the teacher as ‘font of all knowledge’. At the extreme, pupils sit and listen to their teachers talking, engaging in little classroom talk themselves. They tend to work mostly individually on tasks provided by the teacher, such as worksheets and text book exercises. In pupil-focused learning environments, pupils are producers of ideas. Pupils are encouraged to participate and become engaged with learning through collaborative learning activities, peer teaching, projects and classroom talk that require multiple levels of thinking. They create new ideas and materials through projects, usually talk aloud about the way they derived an answer and take the initiative to interact with teachers and peers.

The RfT summaries highlight how it’s not simply a case of doing one or the other; rather it is about creating a classroom environment where all participants – teachers as well as pupils – are co-learners in the educational journey. Teachers who have changed their approach to pupil-centred have found that their pupils are more motivated and engaged. They also have to spend less time than usual managing their pupils’ behaviour.

Now, you must remember this was not from some deliberate grouping of progressive teachers. This was from an organisation that was set up to support us; that we had to pay for  out of our own money. The GTCE was created by David Blunkett as Education secretary and his major political influence on pedagogy was the creation of the National Strategies which emphasised whole class teaching, so it’s probably fair to say the GTCE was not founded to promote progressive teaching, it was just taken over by the education establishment and then used that way. This is the first reason to be wary of any new education body advising us on what to do. It is not enough to talk about a college of teaching that is politically independent; it’s not the politicians who are the ideologues in education. It has to be immune from education establishment take-over. That’s the issue and that’s what will put me off joining.

So far, discussions around a College of Teaching (major developments seem to have centred around The Prince’s Teaching Institute) have done nothing to suggest it would be any different to the GTCE in terms of the influence of the existing education establishment. The biggest red flag, the one that turned me from sceptical to hostile, was that a major meeting to launch it was held on a school day in term time, effectively excluding most teachers who might have been interested from involvement. The next item to have a dramatic effect on me was reading about who was being asked to get involved. The Prince’s Teaching Institute actually wrote the following without irony:

In keeping with the Minister for Schools’ argument in the report that “a new College of Teaching would need to come from within the profession”, the workshop brought together stakeholders from across the education spectrum, including Headteachers of secondary and primary schools, representatives from Unions, Higher Education, Subject Associations, the existing College of Teachers and school employers.

Yes, that’s right. The interpretation of “within the profession” that won the day appears to include everyone except classroom teachers. No wonder they didn’t want to hold their meetings at weekends. This is not a movement of teachers, this is a new education establishment body. And, of course, it would be. If teachers organised a College of Teaching, they’d do it online and mainly in the holidays. This isn’t yet the GTCE Mark 2 because it is still being designed as a body with voluntary membership (although some of the things Tristram Hunt has been suggesting could be overseen by such a body are scary). It is likely to join the succession of other charities that claim to represent teachers of one sort or another while doing their own thing, with its strength likely to be largely dependent on who it can leech money out of.

But, of course, this is early days. Those who think something good can be made out of this largely respond to criticism by asking people to put forward their own suggestions. So in a future post, I will try to set out the minimum requirements necessary for me to consider joining such an organisation. That way, even though nothing I’ve seen so far fills me with any optimism, I can at least have described what sort of organisation might be worth while.

Update (17/12/1014): The words “in my next post” have been replaced with “in a future post” in the last paragraph as I realise there is another preliminary issue to take care of).

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Workload

December 11, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote a blogpost entitled “The job that never ends” which attempted to calculate how many hours it would take to do every part of a full-time secondary teacher’s job according to the letter. I tried to avoid exaggerating, but I assumed no short-cuts and based it on what my managers told me they wanted to see. So I assumed lessons wouldn’t involve using one textbook for 60 minutes and would actually take time to plan, and that homework would have written feedback. I found that this added up to 60 hours of work a week, not including any time for eating, recovering from stress, extra-curricular activities or work that went beyond the normal legal requirements of the job. This seemed excessive, more than people could cope with for a career that might last several decades, and not something that seemed appropriate for those who needed to be in a suitable state of physical and mental health to make difficult decisions affecting dozens of young people at a time.

If anything, demands seem to have got worse since then. I didn’t include time for preparing for observations. Although complying with excessively rigorous marking policies were a major contributor to the 60 hour total, this was before the days when senior leaders would demand that work be marked in ways that would enable students and teachers to engage in an ongoing written dialogue. It didn’t assume that preparation would include learning new material to be taught as a result of curriculum changes. It didn’t include the, increasingly common, pressure to provide extra lessons after school for key exam groups. I’m now part-time and, as I get very close to 40, I cannot imagine having the energy to even try keeping up with the demands on full-time teachers, in some schools for a term, let alone two decades or more.

These demands take their toll on teachers in terms of stress at work, and as an obstacle to living a healthy and fulfilling life. A recent NUT survey found teachers reporting the following difficulties:

92% Negative impact on quality of my family or my personal life

81% No time for adequate exercise/physical activity

40% Often miss important personal commitments or family activities

59% Causing stress in my relationship

It makes teaching a less attractive career, and the same survey found that 87% of teachers knew a teacher who had left teaching in the last two years because of workload.

It also undermines us as autonomous professionals. If the workload is such that it is unlikely that any normal person can consistently do all the work to the letter, and that any extra task given to a teacher by their managers may prevent them from being able to cope with their job, then teachers have very little protection in the workplace. An unsupportive manager, who increases workload on those they manage, can cause almost any full-time teacher to be unable to do their job, removing any real job security for much of the profession. Moreover, where we have to struggle to complete our work at all, there is often very little opportunity to do it well. Getting the job done becomes the enemy of doing the job well and it is the children who lose out if their teachers are too stressed and overburdened to do their job as well as they’d like.

Workload is now becoming a political issue, with politicians promising to look into the problem. A DfE survey recently gave teachers a chance to describe their situation. However, identifying the problem and doing anything about it are very different. Reducing class sizes or hours spent teaching will cost money, money which politicians have seemed reluctant to pledge. Much of the workload is caused by the need to provide evidence about one’s teaching for the purpose of inspection or performance management. Without more sensible systems of accountability, again something that politicians have shown little interest in, workload will not be reduced. Even if politicians were to provide some of the resources and freedom needed to change the situation, it would still need to be monitored closely to ensure that the gains reach the frontline in the form of a workload reduction.

While I would encourage politicians to act, that cannot be all that we do to confront the problem. We also need to face it as a profession. That means a willingness to avoid overburdening our colleagues, particularly on the part of those with management responsibilities. It also requires a willingness to challenge excessive demands in the workplace, and the best way to do this will always be through effective work on the part of our trade unions in providing a voice for teachers in their places of work, supported by their members.

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On Just Teaching

December 6, 2014

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Since going part-time there are now some days in the week where I have discovered the pleasure of afternoons. One thing that is fairly pointless in the afternoon is education twittering as most teachers won’t be looking at Twitter until the evening. As a result I was a bit surprised to get dozens of retweets and favourites for this tweet last Friday afternoon:

Clearly, it hit a chord with some teachers. Interestingly though, some people just didn’t get it, so I thought I’d spell it out here.

To get it you have to know what “teach” means. There is a belief that “teaching” means nothing more than what a teacher does, even if that might be activities such as writing reports, supervising the lunch queue or managing other teachers, that are in themselves not the act of teaching. There’s another misconception, this one very common where people are lukewarm about teaching for ideological reasons, that anything which causes a student to learning, even (for the sake of example) locking them in a cupboard with an encyclopedia, is teaching. However, there is more to teaching. In the early 70s, the educational philosopher Paul H. Hirst wrote a wonderful essay exploring this entitled “What is teaching?”, which can be found in The Philosophy of Education (Readings in Philosophy) or Knowledge and the Curriculum: A Collection of Philosophical Papers (International Library of Philosophy of Education). He argued that teaching could only be identified as such when it was intentional; where there was some object, X, to be learnt, and where the specific teaching activity must be “indicative” of X. He explained:

By this I mean that the activity must, either implicitly or explicitly, express or embody the X to be learnt, so that this X is clearly indicated to the pupil as what he is to learn. In this way the teacher makes plain in his activity what he intends to be learnt. It is not I think at all the case that what is to be learnt must necessarily be explicitly discernible in the activity, yet it must be so available in some the sense that the pupil’s learning activity can be directed to this as its object. It is because activities like demonstrating, telling and proving can provide such excellent means for indicating an X that it is intended the pupil will learn, that they play such a central part in teaching… specific teaching activities must be indicative of what is to be learnt and it is for this reason that the opening of windows and the sharpening of pencils could never be themselves the teaching of historical facts or of Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Hirst was not attempting to condemn progressive education in this essay, although he acknowledged that this “indicative” quality of teaching was more strongly emphasised in traditional teaching, and argued that it should be considered carefully be all teachers. However, I would argue that the dominance of progressive education in recent decades has led to a certain lack of clarity about the nature of teaching. For instance, where educational aims are replaced by vaguer, non-educational aims, such as building self-esteem, ensuring well-being or encouraging self-expression it can be hard to determine what the precise purpose of a “teaching” activity is. Where our objectives have ceased to be about the learning of clearly defined skills or knowledge, but are instead about the development of more generic facilities such as “creativity” or “independence” actual learning can be hard to pin down. Where discovery learning, or open-ended activities are used, the indicative property of teaching can be undermined.

So when I suggest “just teaching” as a method, I am implicitly making a stand for the use (but not necessarily the sole use) of the methods of the traditional teacher. I am valuing teacher talk and explanations. I am recommending that there is nothing wrong with telling kids exactly what they need to know and making it clear that they need to know it. That we have been through a prolonged period where this was unfashionable is often denied by today’s progressives, (who presumably are completely unrelated to the progressives of a few years ago who acquiesced in and often enforced Ofsted’s demands for less teacher talk and more development of “independence”). That is why “just teach” is advice that means something to many teachers, and one we are happy to hear.

As for practice, this has perhaps not been condemned quite so explicitly in recent years as the other tools of the traditional teacher, except when described as “drill” or where it refers explicitly to practising the recall of knowledge. In fact, in some cases it has seemed like extensive practice in exam techniques was mandatory. But prolonged practice. particularly in the most basic and essential parts of a discipline, has been squeezed out by a couple of trends. Firstly, the ever present calls for learning to be engaging or entertaining has made prolonged, effortful practice unwelcome. Requiring kids to do the same thing for an entire lesson of fifty or sixty minutes has been seen as a form of torture, and a reason to excuse student non-compliance, particularly if what is being practised is the use of a mathematical procedure or some dry type of written work. Secondly, the (thankfully now dying) idea that in a good lesson students will be showing progress in twenty minutes, had made it hard to argue for the kind of practice in which improvement, no matter how necessary, may be shown only after hours of effort. A superficial engagement with something new is far easier to show in twenty minutes, than a gradual improvement towards mastery in something students could already do to some extent at the start of the lesson. Again, this has been a significant enough part of the culture in recent years that many teachers will welcome the encouragement to get their students practising.

As ever, no doubt many will deny this picture of the education climate of the last few years. They, unlike myself, have never been condemned by an inspector for getting students to work on their own, or told by a senior manager that requiring a student to practising their times tables for fifteen minutes a week was a cause of poor behaviour. They have never been told that any part of mathematics can be learnt by doing five questions, or that students will learn better if they are not told directly what it is they need to know. But for a lot of us, we want to hear that it is okay to just teach and that it is okay to get students to practice, and that everything else is not nearly so important.

And , of course, there are still those putting forward the opposing view as if there was no need to provide evidence for the effectiveness of not actually teaching. Just this week I have read a blogpost (on the website of the SHP, a group that has been very influential in history teaching) where a history teacher advocated the following plan:

I’m going to lay the room out in groups of tables, and upon each table I’m going to provide knowledge in different forms. So one group might have a set of laptops and different films of the topic playing for the children to watch. Another table will have chapters or extracts from historical novels. Another will have contemporary sources, and another historians’ works or text books. I’m not even going to ask them to answer questions, instead I’m going to ask them to work in the way I have been for my novel. That means I just want them to explore the story, and in so doing begin to formulate their own questions about the topic.

Also, the Teacher Support Network, a charity I was very sympathetic to until recently, published the following advice on their blog:

While the basics of science can be taught through a coaching method, it is certainly one of those subjects where you can’t find the answer at the back of a textbook. Experiential learning – taking a hands-on approach – encourages creativity and helps to build a greater understanding.

Children could be encouraged to act as a scientist during a field trip to the local park, during a trip out into the playground, or as an after school activity. Armed with pen and paper, they could be challenged to write down different animals they see, including descriptions and notes relating to perceived movement and behaviours. This type of innovative thinking encourages focus and develops observational skills – something that can’t be taught through management learning – while also being fun and a healthy alternative to desk-based activities.

For so many of those who work in education, the idea that such activities are not the best form of teaching, let alone the idea that they are likely to be less effective than traditional methods, is unthinkable. So those of us who believe in “just teaching” should take every opportunity to endorse it.

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In Praise of Explanations

December 3, 2014

Having seen it recommended by a couple of bloggers (Thanks, Larry and Stephen) I’ve just watched this video:

It’s an argument that there are good reasons why technology has repeatedly failed to transform education and seems likely to fail again. A similar message can also be found in much of Larry Cuban’s writings (and I can recommend his blog and Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920) and initially I thought it might make a good postscript to my recently completed series of posts about the future.

However, while I agree with so much of this video I think there is a real problem with the explanation of what it is about teaching that technology has been unable to change and, in particular, the reason why Youtube videos will not replace teachers. The explanation given is:

Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they are obsolete. I mean you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half and too slow for the rest.  Luckily the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information, it is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire; to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also do explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point.  The most important thing a teacher does is make every student feel like they are important; to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning.

Part of this is correct. Teachers can guide a class and hold students accountable for their work in a way that a Youtube video can’t. Teachers do more than teach and even if we were to delegate explanations to videos (which is something even I do occasionally) then they are still needed to select the videos and compel the students to watch them and to do any work resulting from them. However, too much of this restates an old caricature of the process of imparting knowledge.

According to many progressive educators (countless examples can be found in the comments here) there is something deficient about giving children information to learn. Knowledge is mere “facts”. The process of transmitting it is one way; here it is described as “spewing”, which fits well with the cliché of students “regurgitating facts”. Such transmission can be replaced by technology. It is also less important than how students feel about the learning, i.e. whether they are inspired or feel important.

What this fails to appreciate is the art of explanation. This is what makes a good teacher: the ability to explain something so that the entire class can learn it. This ability can be exercised remotely, educational videos may involve well-crafted explanations. However, a teacher in the classroom who knows the students can craft those explanations so much better. They have an idea of their prior knowledge and their levels of concentration. They can relate what is being taught to what they have taught previously, what students have been assessed to know and their general knowledge. They can adjust for the vocabulary and the attention span of the students. They can anticipate precisely where students will go wrong and, often, even which students will go wrong. They can even begin explanations with guidance as to how to get the most out of them (e.g. saying things like “you will be stuck if you don’t realise this point”, or “if you try to figure it out from what’s been written down without listening, you will make this mistake”) based on their knowledge of the class. They can decide whether a particular “hook” will work for these particular students.

Perhaps though, a teacher who knew the students, could design their own video to deliver the explanation, or pick the correct video for the class? Even that wouldn’t be as good as what they can do by explaining live. A teacher can interact with their students while they are explaining something to them. They can make eye contact and correct those not paying attention. They can ask students what they already know; what they understand, and what they find confusing. This, not provoking “higher levels of thought”, is what questioning is all about. A teacher can monitor the effect their explanation has on the students. They can identify which bits they might have to repeat three times, or which parts are so important that they will not move on unless every child in the room has acknowledged that they have heard it and will remember it. This is why it is so important to get students in the habit of listening and responding to teacher talk. Perhaps most importantly of all, particularly for helping the most able students, teachers can anticipate and answer students’ questions. I am not a fan of arbitrary divisions of knowledge into “facts” and “understanding” but it is this sort of dialogue that is the quickest way to ensure students do have more than a superficial grasp of what has been explained.

With regard to the section on the “affective” side of teaching, I’d observe that, few things are the cause of more rubbish to be talked in education than student motivation and so we should tread carefully. Every bad idea is sold as being engaging or being something the kids will love. It is right to be dismissive of the entertainment value of teaching resources or even teaching. No matter how good the kids are, and how entertaining the teaching is, they would still (as one experienced teacher told me) “like it even more if you just showed them cartoons”. I do object to being told that our job is to inspire students as if nobody ever learned as a result of anything but the most passionate enthusiasm. As for the idea we have to make students “feel important”, this is not a teacher’s job. Despite the claims of the cult of self-esteem in education, the right attitude to learning is as often about humility as it is about confidence. It is about appreciating what you don’t know and that you will need to work hard in order to know it. There is still a motivational side to teaching. It’s just less about inspiration and building self-esteem and more about authority, trust and expectations. Teachers can, of course, provide these things better than a video could, but it won’t look like Dead Poet’s Society. It will simply look like a teacher in charge of the classroom with students expecting to learn and that’s perfectly compatible with a teacher planning to impart knowledge directly.

The video is exactly right to identify why teachers cannot be replaced and are unlikely to be replaced in any upcoming revolution. It’s just unfortunate that the image given of what is indispensable about teachers is such a romantic one, appealing to inspiration and children’s feelings, rather than the more practical aspects of running a classroom in a way that ensures learning takes place.

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The Future Part 7c: Whose silly idea was this Digital Natives thing anyway?

November 30, 2014

This post is the final part of a series of posts about Digital Natives which are in turn part of a series of posts about The Future.

Last time I mentioned that the endorsement of educational games in the Digital Natives essays made them seem like they were written to promote educational gaming. This possibility should, perhaps , not be a surprise. The essays are written by Mark Prensky who was, indeed, running a company which made educational games. In order to get some further perspective on the idea of the digital native, it is worth exploring his thought in more detail. Here he is in action:

 

He’s an interesting character whose Twitter bio describes him as a “thought leader” and he tweets stuff like this:

Screenshot 2013-02-20 at 21.33.05 - EditedScreenshot 2013-02-20 at 21.31.30 - Edited

Other articles he has written have indicated what, other than selling games, provides the background to these ideas. Most are the familiar doctrines of the progressive educator. In an article entitled “The 21st-Century Digital Learner” he argues that it is wrong to treat children like children:

One of the strangest things in this age of young people’s empowerment is how little input our students have into their own education and its future. Kids who out of school control large sums of money and have huge choices on how they spend it have almost no choices at all about how they are educated — they are, for the most part, just herded into classrooms and told what to do and when to do it. Unlike in the corporate world, where businesses spend tens of millions researching what their consumers really want, when it comes to how we structure and organize our kids’ education, we generally don’t make the slightest attempt to listen to, or even care, what students think about how they are taught.

This is unacceptable and untenable. It’s also dangerous. We treat our students the way we treated women before suffrage — their opinions have no weight. But just as we now insist that women have an equal voice in politics, work, and other domains, we will, I predict, begin accepting and insisting that students have an equal voice in their own education. Or else our students will drop out (as they are doing), shoot at us (ditto), sue us, riot, or worse.

In an article entitle “Engage me or enrage me” Prensky claims that some students must be “engaged” in lessons because today:

All the students we teach have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. Some may download songs; some may rap, lipsync, or sing karaoke; some may play video games; some may mix songs; some may make movies; and some may do the extreme sports that are possible with twenty-first-century equipment and materials. But they all do something engaging.

By contrast school is boring. The technology is actually just a new twist on the old argument that teachers must entertain rather than educate their students and that if they become uncooperative faced with something other than constant indulgence then they are “sending a message”. Far from being a new development, this is actually the same argument against hard work that progressive educators have used for more than a century of student empowerment and the removal of adult authority.

At times, some of his utterances have been so extreme as to be almost laughable. I wonder how many would agree with the claims here that:

 … the “best methods” to [do] the basics change over time…

….Math “basics” are the meaning and proper use of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, not the methods (i.e. algorithms) we use to perform those functions. Currently our best method for math is a calculator that we always have easy access to (perhaps strapped to our wrists as well).

Communication, too, is a basic skill, with reading and writing merely the best methods of the moment. Now both reading and writing are both very useful methods of communicating, which, to be clear, I think we need to teach until better ways emerge for getting the same information. But once all books are recorded, the Web reads itself, and every child and adult has a text scanner in his or her cell phone that can read any printed text aloud, should we still spend all those years teaching our kids phonics?

 Writing is merely a method for recording thoughts. Not long ago neat cursive penmanship was the best method we had for this, because it was faster than printing and universally legible. Now we have better methods, such as phones, recording machines, IM, and keyboarding. As our kids all get their own phones and laptops, do we really need to teach them the old ways?

This extreme progressive position is combined with a belief in “powerful uses of technology” which seems to contradict the digital natives hypothesis by assuming children need to be encouraged to use technology in “powerful” ways. As ever, as with almost all theorists of progressive education, Prensky provides justifications for entertaining children while teaching what they already know.

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And this concludes the series of posts about the future. I hope I have helped establish that rhetoric about how the world will change can be dangerous to education. Of course, the world will change. That is inevitable. But it is not new and it is not something the young have to be prepared for. The thing about the young is that they are young. They are “new” themselves. We don’t teach them to be young; we teach them to be human. Schools do not give children the future, they are the future. We can only give them the past. We give them the best of what is already known, it is up to them to sort out the rest. The future is built on the past; it is not the absence of the past. Attempts to prepare children for a world that doesn’t yet exist can only leave them trapped unable to cope with the world that does exist. As a teacher I dread every curriculum that is promoted as preparing students for “jobs that don’t yet exist” or “technology that hasn’t been invented”. This is just code for “learning that isn’t going to happen”.

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