How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree Part 3

May 20, 2018

In my previous post about silencing educational traditionalists online I discussed the use of bogus legal threats to intimidate. Another common method of trying to silence people, is the use of abuse. I’ve blogged before about the Progressive Trolls who try to drive traditionalists off of social media. The last attempt to form a twitter mob against me, (somebody found an old post satirising the idea that the badly behaved all have SEN) resulted in the following :

I’ve talked a lot about “school shaming” where schools, particularly those with more traditionalists approaches, are subjected to campaigns of online intimidation and abuse, negative media coverage and vexatious FOI requests.

As well as bogus legal threats, online abuse and school shaming campaigns, I’ve also began to notice the use of spurious complaints to people’s schools and universities for expressing the wrong opinions. Unfortunately, most of the victims of such behaviour cannot go on the record for fear of the consequences. Bloggers who are generally uncontroversial have been told that they must stop blogging. At least one anonymous blogger was forced to quit their job after their identity was revealed to their employer. One teacher told me their headteacher had received letters of complaint, that were initially acted on, just for recommending my blog on Twitter.

A few people were able to talk about their experiences publicly.

Tom Bennett, behaviour expert and researchED supremo told me:

When I was asked by the DfE to lead behaviour reviews, that’s when the Angry Brigade really got their engines started. Now I consider it a quiet day if someone isn’t firing off bitter, poorly spelled tweets that mysteriously include the handles of the DfE, Secretaries I’d State etc. I’ve even had venues I’m holding researchED in harassed because lonely keyboard warriors feel compelled to make their internal struggles with joy a public issue. It’s largely fine- when you become part of a lively and public discourse, you expect pushback. But the tactic of ‘I’ll tell your boss’ is rather weird if the reason is simply ‘I disagree with you.’ That’s simply an attempt to shut down debate through intimidation. Happily I’m self employed, so my boss is unlikely to sack me. My favourite incident was when someone emailed researchED (which is me) and told them to sack me.

Greg Ashman, blogger, author and PhD student described what happened following a blogpost:

…a number of Australian academics complained to my university. As I understand it, the complaint was about me making fun of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference. Specifically, I joked about how some of the paper titles sounded silly. The complaint was thrown out because I didn’t claim to be representing my university when making these comments and because I am allowed to have opinions about education.

Bodil Isaksen, blogged about education and worked at Michaela school which is known for its traditionalist leanings. When she moved to working for Unlocked Graduates, a charity who work with prison officers, she described what she was told by one of her new employers:

My boss told me that she got “warnings” not to employ me in my new role when I updated my Twitter with my new role. Along the lines of “do you know who you’ve just employed?” with links to lots of Michaela stuff. As it happened, my boss was on Twitter so understood the venom, and was herself at a highly criticised new school so she just found it funny and ignored it. Also, I had been at Unlocked for a while before I put it on Twitter. But I dread to think the effect it could have had if that wasn’t the case.

In this blogpost, a school governor who had praised some traditionalist bloggers described how one person familiar with things he’d said on Twitter, chose to:

… call the school office and headteacher on a weekly basis for two months, still threatening to call in the police and go to the media because of my supposedly disgraceful behaviour. Worst of all, this person knew the effect of they were doing, making references to wanting the principal to prioritise their complaint over improving the life chances of 350 “poor” children, and threatening to “drag the school through the mud”. This was not a dignified phone call asking for the headteacher to make up their own mind and be trusted to take appropriate action. This was the offline equivalent of endless Twitter hectoring. Ironically, our principal did also consider going to the police to make it stop.

I’ve no reason to think that there are more than a handful of people doing this sort of thing. There may be some overlap in those whose actions are described above, or some overlap with people whose actions were described in my other blogposts on silencing traditionalists. But what is clear is that, if you are unlucky, expressing educational traditionalist views can be enough in itself to lead to retaliation.


How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree. Part 2

May 19, 2018

This is a follow up to this post, and is the second of three posts about attempts to silence educational traditionalists online.

In the last year or two, I have seen an apparent rise in the use of legal threats against educational traditionalists. It’s probably worth bearing in mind when reading what follows that, legally, something can only be defamatory if it is untrue. Or at least that’s how I understand it, but obviously don’t take my legal advice, I’m not a lawyer. Opinions, even insults, are not defamation if they do not make false claims.

When Greg Ashman wrote a blogpost observing that a consultant who claimed there was “no best way to teach” had been the leader on OFSTED inspections where traditional teaching was criticised, a blog comment made the following threats:

The blog is defamatory and posting libel via social media (The writer has linked to this blog post on Twitter), or anywhere else, can have consequences.

I have *never* in any of my many inspections transferred any bias (I have none, regarding teaching methods, have developed the hashtag #nobestwayoverall which supports that and I support ‘Trad’ teaching, in context. There is valuable methodology in ‘trad’.) into any inspection I ever led, or in which I was a team member. This is simply a personal attack to support the writer’s belief that Ofsted inspectors transfer anti-‘trad’ views to inspection and he’s picked on me to try to illustrate that, as I don’t believe ‘Trad’ is the best way overall.

I would like this blog to be removed. If the author would like to contact me by email, or by DM on Twitter, we can sort this amicably; or he can delete the blog.

Repeated requests to identify any actual falsehoods in the post did not get anywhere and no case was brought. Another progressive claimed “I’m investigating the potential for defamation in his actions” when Greg criticised project based learning. Again, no case was brought.

A little over a year ago I blogged about the case of “Teaching Newbie”, a trainee teacher who blogged and tweeted about her experiences as a TA and as a trainee. After a visit to Michaela school in which she praised their behaviour system for being “no excuses”. She mentioned a couple of bloggers who had made comments critical of such systems. She mentioned one who had said

“there’s a thing called ‘no excuses’ is the wrong way to open up a discussion, in my opinion. Assumes the worst about kids”

and another who had said that such systems were:

“Entirely without compassion”

Teaching Newbie was then told in her blog comments by one of the bloggers and by a PGCE tutor (who she didn’t know personally) on Twitter that she could be sued for defamation. This threat was ridiculous, but the PGCE tutor was insistent telling Teaching Newbie she had put herself in “personal danger”. You cannot be sued for disagreeing with people, but she removed the name of these two bloggers, while refusing to remove her own opinions. When this failed to silence Teaching Newbie, the PGCE tutor then told Teaching Newbie that bloggers could be easily identified; that her context was “identifiable”, that her ” blog and identity can be easily traced”. Given the context of the conversation, this was intimidating enough for Teaching Newbie to delete her Twitter account and blog.

When I wrote about this incident, I was kind enough to avoid mentioning the PGCE tutor’s name, so as to avoid a Twitter witch hunt and as far as I can tell I stuck entirely to the facts. She wrote a number of comments on that blogpost, identifying herself and making comments such as:

All I can say is that fair minded people with a smallish number of followers will not be frightened by the Twitter big hitters and will seek recourse to legal procedures if necessary

If you had the slightest concern of in any way inciting or being privy to inciting a witch hunt surely you could have been laying yourself and others open to criminal charges. I have spent much time in the last days seeking legal/police advice.

If you continue to accuse me of bullying which is a highly serious accusation, without substantiated evidence I will contact my local police. I have no qualms about doing this. … So your accusations of bullying have no substance and I construe them as malicious in an attempt to damage me. As I say it is your choice if you truly and legally stand by your accusations. Otherwise I shall contact my local police shortly.

I am following professional advice here on dealing with on line attack. This is not bullying but my legal right to defend myself against unfounded allegations. We all know that the advice given to people in this situation is to inform the local police.

Again, where threats of legal action were mentioned, I asked for details of anything I had said that was factually wrong and got nowhere. While I understand that the writer of the intimidating comments claims they were just giving friendly advice, they were not interpreted as such by Teaching Newbie. Teaching Newbie had not asked for advice from somebody who had previously supported threats to sue her for defamation and had apparently taken the time to identify Teaching Newbie and work out what harm revealing her identity might do. I dismissed the legal threats and threats to contact the police and thought that would be the end of it. I even joked about it.

A few weeks later I received (as an email attachment) a letter from somebody working for a firm of solicitors quoting various comments (one of which was not even about their client) telling me that:

Whilst you have attempted to justify the publications you have made, we do not consider that you would have any defence under the Defamation Act 2013…. our client would like this matter to be resolved We therefore request that you remove your comments in relation to our client from your blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts and provide our client with an apology by 4.00 pm on Wednesday 21 June 2017

It seemed to me the main claim in the letter, that “It is clear from your comments that you were not just accusing our client of engaging in bullying behaviour but you also accused our client of being a bully” was false. As a teacher, I’m very familiar with phrasing things so as to describe a child’s bad behaviour rather than labelling the child as bad. But I’m not a lawyer, and believing something is false and proving it in court is not the same thing. So I contacted a solicitor recommended by somebody I knew from Twitter, and paid for them to respond on my behalf. I’m not saying the reply my solicitor sent was dismissive, but it began by describing the original complaint as “bemusing” and ended by suggesting that if she really wanted the consequences of bringing an unfounded claim “your client should issue proceedings forthwith”.

The only response received through official channels claimed “our client is ….currently considering her further options in respect of this matter” and that was the end of the involvement by lawyers. Some pretty strange stuff appeared on social media afterwards. Really strange. Some of it was still threatening. A lot of it was just silly. Narratives appeared in which sending me legal threats was an act of great heroism. My favourite version of the story was the conspiracy theory in which my lawyers acted for free (they didn’t) because of their mysterious connections to an online publication.

All I know is that one edutwitter progressive thought it a great idea to tell a part-time teacher earning £21 grand a year that, unless they deleted their opinions, they could face legal action which could cost tens or hundreds of thousands to defend against. They also thought it okay not to withdraw the threat or apologise but instead leave the teacher with the worry that it could be carried out at any time. And they did so because they were so offended at the suggestion they were the sort of person who made threats to silence teachers. If I hadn’t thought and said that before, I can certainly say that now.


Does this data show a primary school cheating in KS2 exams?

May 13, 2018

If you have worked in secondary schools, particularly in maths and English, you have probably heard gossip about that feeder school, the one whose kids come through with KS2 results that seem too high and this kid who went there told a TA who told a teacher, who told another teacher, who told you that there was some kind of cheating going on.

I’m inclined to be sceptical about these stories. I’ve heard the same story exactly about too many very different schools. More importantly, while there are definitely kids whose KS2 results massively overstate their abilities, there are also kids whose results are massively understated too, and we tend not to remember those kids quite so clearly as the kid we put in top set maths who does all their working out on their fingers. Inaccuracy alone is not evidence of cheating.

That said, high stakes tests do create incentives to bend or break the rules, and certainly an incentive to ignore mistakes in the wrong direction. And I have seen a couple of posts recently about this issue written by bloggers who work in primary schools:

A few weeks ago, Education Datalab wrote a post about Difficult questions about some schools’ Key Stage 2 results which you should probably read before continuing.

But just in case you don’t, it looks at results like this for students in one school with several different feeder primary schools:

Students who arrived from school H are making far less progress that their Key Stage 2 results would suggest they should. The post notes that children in school H achieved far higher results at Key Stage 2 than expected, compared with the other schools, and asks:

This is a real example. The secondary school is in an Ofsted category, criticised in its latest inspection for the progress of its most able pupils.

School H is rated outstanding.

We need to ask difficult questions about the Key Stage 2 results of School H.

Was it really the case that pupils performed at such a level at School H that they simply could not maintain their progress at secondary school?

Could they have received additional assistance when taking their KS2 tests?

Does test security need to be improved?

I think the blogposts I linked to earlier make a good, if anecdotal case, for improving test security, regardless of this set of data. However, the question that fascinates me here is whether the data does suggest children at school H have received additional assistance, or show any other kind of rule bending or cheating has taken place.

And I’m going to answer “no”, at least not without further data.

I think that if a school is very effective, doing all the right things and not cheating, children will achieve better than expected. However, I’m not sure we should expect them to continue to progress well. Academic achievement is a mix of what a child brings to a school (and I’m not going near the issue of the extent to which that comes from nature or nurture) and the teaching and support in the school; both “in school” and “out of school” factors. A highly effective school will get good results from kids whose “out of school” factors would normally lower their achievement. But the negative “out of school” factors will still exist, and yet their results will see them compared with students who will achieved those same results with only positive “out of school” factors. You would expect them to do less well than other students with the same Key Stage 2 results because you would expect those “out of school” factors to affect their achievement in their secondary school. There’s also room here for some kind of regression to the mean as well, although I’m not going to suggest how that would work.

It is well known in education research that the effect of educational interventions “wash out” (i.e. the relative educational gains will be far less the longer you wait before measuring them). I think the effects of great primary schools will also “wash out” over time. I think there is a general problem here with controlling by results from a previous school that needs to be addressed. We should expect some degree of “washing out” for the effects of highly effective education whenever we control for prior results, and we need a way to predict it.

And by the way, this is not the first time I’ve seen this problem. I’ve also seen people use A-level results as a control when considering how students from different types of school do at university and conclude that comprehensive students do better at university than students from grammars or independent schools. Again, a “wash out” effect for the advantages of selective or private schooling, could explain such data. Controlling for previous results is not straightforward if the same results can have different causes for different children.

And so to conclude, interpreting education data is complicated and we probably know less than we thought we did.

Damn it.


Learning Styles – The fad which will not die

May 5, 2018

Teacher Tapp is an app that surveys teachers every day. While those who answer are self-selecting so it is probably not completely reflective of all teachers, it’s probably going to be biased towards the more informed teacher, rather than the less informed. This makes the following result (reported here last week) somewhat concerning.

That’s an overwhelming vote in favour of learning styles. This is a shock.

I’ve written about learning styles in the past:

A rough summary of the situation is that there is no good research evidence for any learning styles, the most famous types of learning styles are known to be based on pseudo science, and there is still a significant unclaimed reward available to anyone who can demonstrate that learning styles work (details here).

In recent years, although there have remained a handful of true believers on edutwitter, it’s been almost a given that nobody believes in learning styles. I’ve seen traditionalists attacked for daring to point out something so outdated or irrelevant. It’s been described as an easy target and a non-issue that people only raise to signal their own virtue, not a live issue in teaching. And now we see this.

Of course, as was the case with my last blogpost, people who have turned out to be wrong, and people arguing for something that’s without evidence, will always declare unambiguous statements to be ambiguous or find ways to dismiss or attack those who are interested in the truth.

Here are the main excuses given for why this result about learning styles isn’t an embarrassment to the profession.

  1. There’s good and bad learning styles. Like most pseudo-science, the first line of defence is to suggest that’s what has been discredited is completely different to what’s actually still being promoted. And so, there’s been a lot of claims that while the bad, old VAK learning styles may have been discredited, there’s no problem accepting that there may be some new theory of learning styles out there that it’s okay to believe. In the same way one might argue that newspaper horoscopes might not work, but there are still expert astrologers out there who can tell you your future. Of course, nobody can prove that a theory too new or obscure to be tested has been shown not to work, but the burden of argument is on those who put forward new theories of learning. If they haven’t, even with a prize available, then there is an obvious explanation: the theory is not true.
  2. They didn’t actually mean “styles”. For those who really like learning styles, but know they’ve been discredited, there has been a tendency to say one is talking about “learning preferences” instead before saying all the same things again. This is the same trick use by anti-semites, who replace the word “Jew” with “Zionists” before expressing all the same prejudices. Of course, people probably do have learning preferences. They might prefer to learn one way and not another. But this is pretty much an irrelevance if you want somebody to learn effectively. In fact, indulging those who want to learn in an ineffective way might be actively harmful to them; it might develop bad habits that prevent learning in the future. We all know kids often have preferences that damage learning. Think of the kids who revise by covering their book in highlighter pen rather than by self-quizzing. Think of the child who “cannot write” unless their book and their entire body is turned to face their friends (and it is always to face their friends, they never have the same need to face the wall).
  3. It just means children are different. If one is caught making an indefensible statement, it is best to redefine it as a truism. Of course children are different. They different in knowledge, behaviour, personality, and working memory capacity. But, all theses things can be used to some degree, and under some circumstances, to make reliable predictions about learning. The point is that nobody can make reliable predictions about learning based on learning styles theories. If we want teachers to look at differences that matter to learning rather than those that don’t, we can’t simply redefine the latter to be the former.
  4. But what about…? I guess this is down to the fact that a politician shared the results above and said they were “concerning”, but loads of people suddenly found a strong desire to discuss every possible educational issue other than learning styles. This is a bit of a test of what people think the education system is for. If it’s about getting kids to learn, then widespread false beliefs about how we learn should be very concerning. If it turned out doctors were trying to treat cancer by finding the correct balance of the four humours, nobody would say “Who cares? The real issue is NHS funding”. It is only because many of those involved in education, don’t see learning as central to the purpose of schools, that people will can dismiss this as an unimportant issue. If it doesn’t matter what teachers believe about teaching and learning, then we aren’t teachers. If people are to be paid as professionals, we expect professional expertise.

Teacher professionalism has become a bit of an issue lately. A lot has been written about whether teachers need new organisations, more training, or a different career structure in order for teaching to be more professional. Here’s my suggestion: How about we actually train teachers in the facts about learning, not the myths, and don’t let them qualify without passing a test about this? When I trained to teach, I had to sit a skills test assessing that I knew how a spreadsheet works, but nobody ever checked I knew how learning worked.


I told you so: Evidence and the Chartered College of Teaching

April 21, 2018

I wasn’t planning to write about the Chartered College Of Teaching again. Nobody involved seems to care about my criticisms, so I’m sure that when I write about it the only effect is that I publicise them and probably get them a few more members.

But no blogger can resist the chance to say “I told you so”, so I have to comment on the bizarre saga of Greg Ashman’s article on metacognition which has been all over his blog and Twitter lately.

Back in 2014 I wrote about plans for a new professional body for teachers. I discussed at length what it would take for it to be something other than a new version of the despised GTC(E) and the potential problems if it tried to represent too many interest groups, or particular ideologies rather than the profession. Some supporters of the plans suggested that if the College focused on disseminating research and evidence then that could avoid ensure that it wasn’t seen as a partisan interest group. I wrote this blogpost explaining how debates around the use of evidence were actually highly contentious and partisan. I gave examples of views of other people involved in education about education research and concluded:

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.

The last few weeks have served to illustrate this. The Chartered College of Teaching has a publication called Impact. According to their website:

 [Impact] supports the teaching community by promoting discussion around evidence in the classroom, and enabling teachers to share and reflect on their use of research.

Some great people are involved with it, and although I haven’t read it, I’ve heard wonderful things about the first issue. The second issue was to be edited by Jonathon Sharples of the EEF (the organisation I blogged about here). Among the topics they requested articles on was “Metacognition, self-regulation” which is one of those broad educational ideas (see “thinking skills”, “oracy” and “creativity” for other examples) which people build all sorts of teaching ideas around, without any teacher ever being clear precisely what it covers. The EEF has been promoting metacognition, for reasons that are somewhat mystifying, for a while now. Teacher, Greg Ashman, pointed out the problems with the EEF’s allegiance to this idea in a blogpost in January entitled Is ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ an actual thing? 

Greg, without hiding his cynicism, suggested that this might end up being the main focus of the issue of Impact and was told “submit an abstract”.

He did so, and the abstract made clear that his view was:

… the category of meta-cognition and self-regulation seems to have been stitched together from a range of different beasts, much like the mythical chimera… Practitioners should therefore be wary of any simplistic claims made for this category of intervention…

(The abstract can be found here). The abstract was accepted, and he was asked to write the article. He wrote it. It then went to peer review. It is at this point things got a little odd. One reviewer, Dylan Wiliam, claims to have said:

“The article is provocative, but essentially well-argued, and worth including as a prompt for debate. It would be great if someone from EEF could respond in a subsequent issue, because then it would mark out Impact as a forum for debate.”

The first sentence of this was sent to Greg. Another reviewer, in another brief comment claimed Greg’s argument was not clear. Another of the three peer reviewers, however, sent two pages largely arguing against Greg’s position on the grounds that a review of the wider literature would find that the approach the EEF had used was well-established, and therefore Greg was wrong to think that what the EEF had done was “astonishing”.

Reading these three reviews (you can find them with 4 other reviews here) you can’t hope but noticing that a lot of the problems are about a lack of clarity about what Impact is for. One reviewer recommended Greg’s article as a provocation for debate. One was scathing that it did not address the wider ideas of education researchers, but addressed only something that had been aimed at teachers. I can see both points of view, it all comes down to whether Impact is for teachers to debate ideas that affect them, or for education researchers to discuss research. I think this reflects the lack of clarity about what the Chartered College of Teaching is for; is it for teachers or for educationalists? Additionally, reviewers do not seem to have been clearly asked whether the article should be rejected, amended or accepted. Had it done so, it would have been 2 to 1 against, and perfectly legitimate to reject it outright.

Instead, Greg was asked to amend his article. He did so. It was then sent out to 4 more reviewers. I don’t know why. Worse, these additional reviewers did not seem to address the issues raised by the first reviewers, but commented on the tone of the piece and raised new issues about accuracy, which Greg didn’t have time to respond to (although he is now of the view that none of the points about accuracy were correct).

As a result, Greg could not address the further peer reviews and the article could not be published. A confused peer review process, and apparent confusion about the purpose of the journal, had served to exclude an interesting article, and a perspective relevant to teachers, from the journal, although not from the website. Greg, who I think had been sceptical from the beginning about whether the journal would ever accept his work, described on Twitter and in blogs what had happened.

Then two further odd things happened.

Firstly, supporters of the College began criticising Greg. It was assumed that he was bitter about rejection, rather than concerned about the process (which seemed to have wasted his time). People implied that Greg was so desperate to be published, that he was a bad loser seeking revenge for a personal blow to himself and his credibility. Given that Greg’s latest book is available for pre-order here; given the number of other people willing to publish Greg’s views, and given the praise from Dylan Wiliam and others for that article, such a line of attack seems implausible as well as unpleasant.

Secondly, the Chartered College of Teaching Twitter account commented on the matter in a long thread. In the thread they falsely claimed “At no point did reviewers take issue with the opinions”.

Since then, Greg has released the peer reviews and proved that this was false, and been attacked for that. Numerous supporters of the College have argued that a publicly funded professional body making a false statement about a teacher is not as unethical as a teacher releasing the evidence that the statement is false.  More bizarrely, others have, apparently sincerely, claimed that the arguments the reviewer made against Greg’s views was not “taking issue with his opinons”.

Yes, really. Highlights of that discussion include people claiming that Greg’s opinions were not opinions but assertions, conclusions or claims and that arguing against his opinions was not taking issue with them, but challenging them, objecting to them or discussing the words used to express them. At times, those who defended the false statement could not even remember which bit of sophistry they were currently using:

These tweets, highlighted by Greg, are by a professor of education

I’m left amazed at the cult-like devotion to the Chartered College Of Teaching that exists among a small minority (many of whom aren’t teachers) who are willing to make themselves look silly rather than admit the College’s mistakes. I’m left appalled that the College has still not apologised to Greg for the false statement. I’m left grateful to Michael Fordham for this Twitter thread discussing the rights and wrongs of peer review in professional publications. But mainly I’m left smugly saying “I told you so”. Interpretations of evidence cannot unite the teaching profession. A professional association for teachers needs something else to underpin it other than research. I would suggest a belief in teacher professionalism would be a far better basis for building a professional association for teachers.


Behaviour change and justice

April 14, 2018

There are two contrasting elements to the way schools respond to bad behaviour and to responses to wrongdoing in society generally.

One is that of justice. Those who cause direct harm to others, undermine legitimate authority, or deliberately violate rules for their own ends, deserve negative consequences for themselves. Criminals deserve to go to prison, or pay a fine or whatever. Those who mistreat or betray those around them, whether that’s their colleagues, friends or family, deserve a diminished relationship with those around them (either temporarily, or in the worst cases permanently). Badly behaved children deserve a detention, or to lose a treat, or whatever.

The other element is behaviour change. We want undesirable behaviour to stop. We want criminals to stop committing crime. We want friends who let us down to become more reliable. We want an inconsiderate spouse to become considerate. We want a badly behaved child to become well-behaved. We also want others, who see the results of undesired behaviour, to be deterred from that same behaviour.

Both these elements are essential.

If we ignore justice, then we undermine the extent to which we are responsible for our own actions. We are not treating people as if they have chosen their actions, if we do not think that they deserve to lose out for deliberate wrong actions. We can temper justice with mercy, but we cannot reward wrongdoing, or punish virtuous acts. Without justice we would also lose all sense of proportionality in our responses. If the only thing that will deter people from dropping litter is the death penalty, then if all we cared about was changing behaviour, execution would be legitimate. Or if the only action that would change a litter bug’s behaviour is chopping off a hand, then amputation would be legitimate. Justice, however, requires some correspondence between the harm (or potential harm) of behaviour and the sanction that it warrants. Justice accepts that it would be better for somebody to continue doing small wrong, and continue to suffer small, but deserved, punishments for it, than for them to be sanctioned so severely that they would be traumatised into the right behaviour, but with a large increase in the overall level of human suffering. Equally, it is justice that tells us that we should not attempt to change behaviour by appeasing or bribing wrongdoers. Perhaps a burglar would change his ways if given a million pounds; perhaps a rapist would stop their crimes if they could be provided an unending supply of consenting sexual partners, but justice demands that those who would harm others should not be “bought off”. There should not be rewards for a willingness to do wrong. Finally, it is through desert – through the notion that some things are deserved – that moral judgements are most clearly communicated. To say somebody can do wrong with impunity is to say the authorities, or the community, does not really believe those actions to be wrong, that either the rules and interests of the community don’t matter, or that violation of them is not a moral matter.

Equally, if we ignore behaviour change then we commit ourselves to writing-off those who once do something wrong. We would not be recognising that to fall short is normal for human beings and accepting that we can all do better. We would be failing to help support those who want to change, despite the common sense notion that our behaviour often becomes a habit and we often need help and encouragement to break free of our bad habits. We would also be ignoring the possibility of reducing the amount of wrongdoing. This would be both irrational (if actions are genuinely wrong, we would want fewer of them) and harmful to the community.

I believe that virtuous, rational, individuals designing a system of criminal justice, or rules for a club, or the behaviour system for a school, would attend closely to both these considerations. We would ask what sanctions are deserved and what systems communicate a clear moral judgement. But we would also ask what is likely to change an individual’s behaviour and deter similar behaviour on the part of others. However, we are not virtuous, rational individuals. We cannot easily separate moral judgements from what they say about ourselves. We are not content simply to aspire to be virtuous, we also seek to demonstrate our virtue to others. We like to show that we are kinder, more merciful, more just, than others and a situation like the above, where we have two aims, gives us that opportunity. When arguing over a system or an action, we can pick whichever of the two aims of justice and behaviour change best justifies our favoured course of action, and ignore the other. In fact, we can go further than ignoring the aim that weakens our position, we can deliberately misinterpret it.

Educated middle class people like ourselves, can easily imagine what it means to be only concerned with justice, but not changing people. We can easily picture somebody with no concept of mercy, no element of forgiveness, no belief in the improvement of the human condition. The political demagogue who has no positive vision of society, and is only interested in settling scores with those they consider to be the villains of the piece, is an archetype liberals can immediately bring to mind. Their “justice” actually causes harm and resentment, all the more so if we think those they target are actually just scapegoats.

However, we are far less adept at challenging those who would ignore justice. Those who would never hold somebody responsible for their actions. Those who would be outraged at continuing to punish somebody when it was clear that their behaviour was not changing. Those who would appease and excuse even the worst among us, rather than denounce them. And most of all, those who would see any notion of desert as indistinguishable from revenge. So pronounced is this tendency, that words such as “retribution” or “punitive” that originally referred to deserved punishment, are now widely understood to refer to revenge.

In schools, this is where a lot of problems lie. It is not universally accepted that children are responsible for their actions. It is not universally accepted that an important part of what needs to be done about wrong actions is moral judgement and punishment. And so, we often try to talk about behaviour without using the appropriate moral terms. Like the rest of society, we no longer know that “retribution” ever meant something different from revenge. Some are so confused about the word “punitive”, a word that literally refers to punishment, that they talk about non-punitive punishments. Some will avoid the word “punishment” or “sanction”, when “consequence” is a far less loaded term. Some will avoid the word “discipline”; why else would the phrase “behaviour management” ever have been coined? The word “sin”, one that so perfectly described the normal moral failings of humanity,  is now seen as a relic of a superstitious part. “Moral” itself is often seen as an inappropriate and emotive term. One prominent progressive does not even approve of rewards, despite rewards being the more positive side of desert. Almost any term can be rejected as “unhelpful” or worse as “a label”, when people are signalling their virtue. And where words are not banned, they can be redefined, with “restorative justice” being one of the concepts most popular with those who oppose justice. And don’t get me started on those who seem to think the whole concept of reward and punishment was invented by behaviourists in the 1950s.

There’s little obvious to be done here, but next time you hear somebody say something along the lines of:

“I don’t believe in X, but I do use Y”

where both X and Y refer to deliberately inflicted undesirable consequences for breaking a rule, challenge it for the pious waffle it really is. Nobody really rejects “punishments” in favour of “consequences”; we just call it a consequence when we do it, and a punishment when somebody else does it. Nobody really eschews “discipline” in favour of “behaviour management”.  Nobody actually replaces “detentions” with “time for reflection”. You either punish, or you let kids get away with it.


OFSTED and triple-marking

April 11, 2018

I’ve written a couple of posts recently about OFSTED (What OFSTED still needs to do and OFSTED and Workload) which brought up the issue of workload. I identified two problems in particular that relate to marking. Firstly, OFSTED look to see if school policies are being followed consistently, even if those policies add to workload. Secondly, OFSTED inspectors look for evidence of students responding to feedback. As a result schools are introducing marking policies that involve teachers having to elicit responses from students when they mark books, then mark those responses. This is often referred to as “triple marking” (as the same piece of work may be visited three times).

While “triple-marking” is not necessarily a bad thing – teachers will legitimately want to help students draft and redraft work on some occasions – having to mark this way consistently has workload implications. Also, for such marking to happen consistently, teachers will have to carry out this process even where they see no benefit for their students. I have seen this happen in multiple schools, and, unlike some fads, it is not simply being done by the worst managers. Even managers who really care about workload and are doing everything they can to make the process easier, are still feeling obliged to introduce such policies because they expect inspectors to be looking for responses to feedback.

According to the blogpost about triple-marking I linked to above (and partially confirmed by the photo caption on this article) at one point OFSTED had clarified this matter and said:

Ofsted does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. Ofsted recognises that the amount of work in books will often depend on the age and ability of the pupils.

Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders. Ofsted recognises the importance of different forms of feedback and inspectors will look at how these are used to promote learning. [My emphasis]

However, more recent versions of the mythbusting guidance just say:

Ofsted does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. Ofsted recognises that the amount of work in books and folders will depend on the subject being studied and the age and ability of the pupils.

Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning.

This redraft seems to have replaced a clear statement that triple marking is not necessary with one that emphasises consistency with a policy, and scrutiny of the effectiveness of feedback, which would explain why schools seem to have gone backwards on this issue.

I raised the issue of marking recently on Twitter after I read that education secretary Damian Hinds had called for an end to triple marking. This began a dialogue with Sean Harford OFSTED’s national director of education, which I will reproduce below:

Andrew Old: As long as OFSTED look for evidence of a consistent marking policy *and* students responding to feedback it will continue.

Sean Harford: It’s up to schools to have a sensible assessment policy: inspectors inspect against the policy Andrew. If schools carry on with triple marking policies then that’s what inspectors will look at. Nobody at Ofsted looking for triple marking.

Andrew Old: But you look for evidence of students responding to feedback don’t you?

Sean Harford: Not necessarily written feedback – see para 163 of the handbook, fifth bullet point. That could be ascertained by talking to pupils and teachers.

Andrew Old: But inspectors will be looking for it in books too, won’t they?

Sean Harford: Not necessarily; that depends on the school’s assessment policy.

Andrew Old: So inspectors won’t be looking in books for kids responding to feedback *unless* the policy implies that’s where it is to be found? And there should be no disadvantage in not making that part of the policy?

Sean Harford: Absolutely.

The bullet point Sean referred to is in a section that begins:

Inspectors will make a judgement on the effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment in schools by evaluating the extent to which:

And then lists a number of bullet points, including the one Sean pointed out:

assessment information is used to plan appropriate teaching and learning strategies, including to identify pupils who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support, enabling pupils to make good progress and achieve well

I think the problem lies in the very next bullet point:

except in the case of the very young, pupils understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback, written or oral, from teachers

When I had the Twitter conversation, I was delighted; the agreement that “there should be no disadvantage” to schools that are not triple-marking was particularly welcome. That said, it is still going to be down to schools to come up with and enforce marking and feedback policies that fit what OFSTED want when they judge the extent to which “pupils understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback”. While I can be happy that this doesn’t have to be “triple-marking”, I don’t think I know what that would look like.

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