Archive for March, 2012


Why Students Aren’t Given More of a Say in Education

March 17, 2012

I don’t normally use my blog to reply to other blogs, but sometimes a blogpost is so wrong in so many ways that a comment isn’t enough. The latest post on Liberal Conspiracy entitled “Why aren’t students given more of a say in education?” is such a blogpost. Debatable assumptions seem to be woven into almost every line, and so I will quote and attempt to respond to most of those lines.

Imagine a system whose entire purpose is to serve a group of people.

I actually find that fairly difficult to do. What institutions do exist only to serve a particular group of people? We may say the police exist to serve the public, but they also exist to serve the law. We may think a supermarket chain exists to serve its shareholders, but it also serves its customers. We may think the NHS exists to serve patients, but it also serves the public as a whole. The concept of “stakeholders” is often used in very woolly ways, but it is often relevant to the purpose of organisations, particularly public services. Another concept is that of a “practice”. Institutions often exist to carry out a particular practice, rather than to serve a particular group. Do you think a doctor “serves” his patients? Or does she or he practice medicine? (If you do think doctors exist to serve their patients, I’d recommend watching a few episodes of House).

Imagine that this same system excludes that group of people from holding any power.

If an organisation exists to serve people, do they actually need more power over it? Do patients need more power over hospitals? Do motorists need more power over the Highways Agency? Your answer might well be “yes” but it should be easy to see that this is a highly debatable answer. Accountability in public services is always a controversial issue and nobody would give blind approval to all forms of accountability. Plenty of political debate (for instance over elected police commissioners or the running of schools) consists of arguments over how things should be accountable.

Such is the relationship between the British Education System and its students.

Is it? Do schools exists to serve their students? I thought schools existed to educate them. This is not the same thing at all. I am not the servant of my classes. I’m a teacher, not a butler.  I do not exist simply to do what they want, I am there to see that they learn. To that end they often have to do what I want. It is certainly not clear that they should have power over me. I have responsibilities to their interests, to their parents and to my managers. If I don’t have the power to make the decisions, how can I be held responsible for them? If my classes leave my lessons ignorant, it would only occasionally be an acceptable excuse to say “they didn’t want to learn”.

No school in the UK has any obligation to listen to its students.

The rules may now have changed, but until recently OFSTED expected schools to do almost exactly that and in practice this meant  meant schools councils and intiatives like “Student Voice”. The Guardian had a good article on this the other day. This is looking like one of those articles that argues for more of the same by denying what is already happening.

The representative bodies which exist are rarely more than symbolic.

A moment ago, it seemed to be implied that there were no such bodies, now we have the completely different complaint that they are inadequate.

A very small number of students are allowed to express their feelings on the running of the school but there is no process for using their feedback.

Now we have yet another distinct complaint, that there is insufficient “process”? Well, this is no doubt true; this is one area where there isn’t a standard bureaucratic model to be imposed on schools. However, a call for such a model needs to be based on more than the overblown rhetoric we have heard before. This is now about bureaucracy, not democracy.

It is inconceivable that any other public service or business would entirely ignore the views of their key stakeholders. This failure to listen is to waste countless opportunities to improve.

Hang on, at the start of this article they were the masters. Now they are a “key stakeholder”? That’s not the same thing at all. And depending on how you define that term it is not inconceivable at all. Some “key stakeholders” in public services probably should be ignored to a significant degree. The police should not be consulting criminals. Prison officers should not be overly willing to consult prisoners. You can have a stake in an organisation without having any right to be listened to. (And before anybody raises it, criminals and prisoners were counter-examples not analogies. I’m not saying schools are kiddie-gaols.)

It is also entirely at odds with the way our society has come to recognize and respect the rights of children.

There’s a lot of ideological claims out there about the rights of children, it is a highly controversial area. Please don’t attribute one viewpoint to society.

Students should have the chance to feedback on the teaching they receive.

If a student went to see a teacher, out of lessons and with an opinion, would they be turned away? Legitimate concerns are not banned. That does not mean we have to spend resources trying to force opinions out of kids.

While they may not have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy, they have a knowledge that no expert has; they know what works for them.

Actually, there is a mountain of psychological evidence that we are very bad judges of how well we know or understand something. It is also highly disputed that “what works” differs that much between students.

At the end of each week, students could rate the activities that they had undertaken in class. Teachers would then be able to look through the responses and get a clear idea of the actual experience of those they teach.

All teachers assess learning. Why do we need to assess their opinions as well? If children are learning successfully, what opinion would justify changing the method? That it is only liked by those who want to learn? That it is not fun? That it requires effort? That kids don’t like it?

Some students would not take the process seriously or might base ratings on their personal opinions of that teacher rather than the merits of the activities. Yet the vast majority would respect this opportunity to have a say. Some teachers would be sceptical but most would find the information fascinating and useful.

I have experienced countless such exercises. Teachers respect it to the extent to which it matches what they want to hear. The methods are used because they cause learning, not because they are what kids want. If a child really cares about learning then they are worth listening to. If they don’t want to learn, then they aren’t. And teachers tend to judge this by how much they appreciate what is already being done to bring about learning.

Students should have input into what they study.

“Input” here is a weasel word, but it is immediately clear that there are strict limits to the value of such input. Children aren’t in school to study what they want, but to study the best of what has been thought and known. Education is meant to broaden horizons, not limit them to what students already appreciate.

Clearly there are core skills which students need to acquire, whether they wish to or not.

Yes there are, however, we should be very careful about limiting what is the “core”. If the core is too limited we are simply lowering the expectations we have for all students. Most importantly, why are there core “skills”, not core knowledge? Are there not things they should know?

Yet they could decide on how they gained these skills.

Or it could be decided by somebody with professional training and years of experience. We don’t let patients decide what medicine they should be treated with. That would be to insult doctors. Let’s not insult teachers in the same way.

In History, students could select the period they study.

They could. Hard to see why though.

The fact that they made the decision is likely to boost their engagement with the subject.

As ever, “engage” is the ultimate weasel word in education. In the above argument it appears to mean little more than “entertain”.

Students should contribute to the code of discipline that they have to abide by.

Are children only worth protecting if they have expressed the desire to be protected? If a 13 year old wants the school set up in a way that makes it easier for them to have sex with adults, would that be okay?

To many this notion seems irresponsible. Surely, if given the opportunity, students would seek to dismantle the rules that restrict them?

Some, and often the most vocal and influential, would.

It is well-established, however, that most students are content in a calm and well-structured environment. They dislike chaos and recognize that a clear system of well-enforced rules is the best way to achieve this. Students also have a very well-developed sense of fairness; even well-behaved students respond very badly to perceived injustice.

True, but that sense is often based on the expectations of the peer group and the expectations already in place.

By opening up a dialogue, school authorities would be able to gain an understanding about what is seen as unfair and then judge these concerns.

And show themselves to be more concerned about perceptions than reality.

More than anything else, it is inconsistency that undermines discipline. When one teacher enforces a rule and another doesn’t, students are left confused and frustrated. Listening to students would give a precise picture of the consistency with which rules were being applied.

The biggest issue over consistency is pressure from above not to enforce rules from managers who consider teachers who apply the rules to be at fault for having bad behaviour in their class in the first place.

Such a transferral of power would improve the service that schools provide.

Assertion without argument. I have been in schools where students had enormous power over teachers. It didn’t improve services.

As significantly, school would cease to be only a place students attend and become an institution that they own.

Another fuzzy concept. Should students “own” schools? One of the main features of ownership is that it can be dissolved or transferred. Should children really have that power? If the purpose of schooling is to educate, not entertain or serve, then the answer to this question, like so many of the other questions raised, is a clear “no”. Adults should not be ceding authority to children. This is inherent in the very notion of childhood. Professionals should not be handing their judgements over to amateurs. This is inherent in the very notion of professionalism. Schools should not abandon their educational purpose in order to cater to the whims of children. This is inherent in the notion of education.


Technology and Another Myth for Teachers

March 14, 2012

There’s another teacher with a classroom opposite my classroom. Same subject. Different levels of experience.

One of us plans every lesson on a PC, often downloading resources. One of us uses an interactive whiteboard every lesson. One of us always has a Kindle at hand in the classroom. One of us is planning to buy a Raspberry Pi at the first opportunity, and really wishes he had a Visualiser in his classroom.

One of us refused to have an interactive whiteboard when they were first introduced to the school, (or even a projector). One of us believes that using Powerpoint slides or moving images in the lesson is pandering to the kids and on a par with just showing cartoons.

Can you guess where this is going?

I’m the first of these two teachers. I like technology. I am sometimes wary of its capacity to go wrong when you most need it, but on the whole I find it useful. I mention this because of a few recent discussions on Twitter. At the start of the year someone called me a “neophobe”. More recently, I was on the receiving end of remarks about being a dinosaur, and believing in a flat earth when discussing technology in education.

Now the attitude that provokes this sort of comment is obviously not one of hostility to technology, or rejection of new teaching tools. I am not even as sceptical as Tom Bennett who recently wrote this blogpost about the dispensability of the interactive whiteboard:  What I have done to provoke the reaction is simply to deny that technology has changed the nature of teaching, and to doubt that it will do so imminently. Technology helps me to do the same thing teachers have always done: teach. It has not transformed the classroom; it has simply reduced some types of effort.

For pity's sake.

Now this is anathema to the progressive ideology of the high priests of educational technology. To them, progress is inevitable (an idea I touched on here) and new technology, by virtue of being new, must be progress. Technological innovation is a natural force wiping away all tradition.To doubt its effectiveness is to doubt the forward march of progress and that is to doubt their entire belief-system.  To expect technology to be proven to be effective is blasphemy. To question the need for change is heresy. As one enthusiast claimed “…innovation is crucial to pedagogy and therefore can be done just for the sake of it!”. Everything can and will change, and sooner rather than later. One blogger wrote a list of “21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020” which included such things as desks, paperback books and paper.

To observe that the faith in the inevitability and immediacy of change is groundless is to point out the obvious.  What I wish to address here is the fanciful narrative that often appears behind it. To believe that new educational technology must always be good and critics and sceptics will always be proven wrong, then it is also necessary to believe that educational technology has always been good in the past and sceptics and critics have always been proved wrong in the past. This leads to a conviction that educational technology has consistently progressed and has always been resisted by educational Luddites (a belief that often merges with the equally spurious myth of traditional and modern teaching techniques described here). A good example can be found here in a blogpost where “elearninglaura” speculates about the introduction of paper and pen to the classroom:

It must have been the most tremendous shift: students could accumulate a bank of their own written work and it no longer had to be carried entirely in their memories. Rote learning and the ability to recall facts was the backbone of a traditional education.  Can you imagine being a fly on the wall in the staff room of the day, when Masters would bemoan the flagrant waste of valuable paper, the new plague of inkstains and the erosion of standards?

The following, more developed version of this myth can be found in many, many places on the internet:

The More Things Change…

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when their slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!” Teachers Conference, 1703

“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”

Principals Association, 1815 “Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil!” National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.”

The Rural American Teacher, 1929

“Students today depend upon these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib (not to mention sharpening their own quills). We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world, which is not so extravagant.”

PTA Gazette, 1941

“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away. The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Business and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teacher, 1950

“Students today depend too much on hand-held calculators.” ?????????, 1985

Obviously the quotations are fake; if the similarities and style didn’t give this away, then none of the references can actually be found. The earliest version I can find of any of them comes from The College Mathematics Journal (1988). The desire to substantiate the fantasy of irrestible and infallible progress has resulted in a widely distributed forgery.

Update (27/4/2011): The excellent Quote Investigator blog has now researched this and traced it back a further 10 years to a 1978 publication where they were apparently intended as a joke and concluded:

In addition, QI has searched several massive full-text databases for evidence of these words before 1978, and QI was unable to locate any previous citations in the time periods indicated.

Yeah, someone really said it.

The reality of the history of educational technology is almost the exact opposite of this picture of consistent and irresistible progress. An excellent review of teaching technology can be found here. The list is open to interpretation, but it does not imply a process of continual revolution, more a mix of gimmicks that lasted no time at all, and more successful inventions that lasted decades but without changing the basic nature of teaching. Ultimately, some things work, and some things don’t. Some innovations are pointless; others are not really innovations at all. It is easy to find current innovations that are doing something that has been done before. The best commentator on educational technology, Larry Cuban, wrote a blogpost describing how the same basic tool (a control that allows students to answer questions by pressing buttons) 50 years apart. Dylan Willam, the unrelenting advocate of mini-whiteboards was quite willing to describe his apparently new educational tool in this way:

It’s the return of the slate. Two hundred years ago, the best teachers were getting every child to write their answers on slates.

But if history does not support the techno-zealot’s case, does it support the sceptic? Have there been predictions in the past that technology would transform education beyond all recognition that turned out to be overblown? Are the claims made now likely to be true simply because they have never been made before? I leave this question open to contributions from the floor, and will perhaps return to it after I have done further research. However, one outstanding example exists of an overblown claim about the transformative power of educational technology. Back in 1913 Thomas Edison reacted to the development of the motion picture in a newspaper interview:

“What is your estimation of the future educational value of pictures ?” I asked.

“Books.” declared the inventor with decision, ” will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.  It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

“We have been working for some time on the school pictures.  We have been studying and reproducing the life of the fly. mosquito, silk weaving moth, brown moth, gypsy moth, butterflies, scale and various other  insects,  as well  as chemical crystallization. It proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in chemistry, physics and other branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from text books, plain and clear to children”.

Smith (1913)

It is not scepticism about the transformative power of educational technology that has been wrong in the past, but unquestioning faith in it.

Thanks to two tweeters @Arsinhy and @Sdfahey for their help with some of the background research for this post.


Smith, Frederick James, (1913) The New York Dramatic Mirror, The Evolution of the Motion Picture: VI – Looking into the Future with Thomas A. Edison July 9, Page 24, Column 3, New York.

The College Mathematics Journal (1988),“The More Things Change”,  The College Mathematics Journal Vol. 19, No. 3, May, 1988, p222

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