Archive for October, 2012


Weasel Words #2: Understand

October 30, 2012

Some concepts, like knowledge, are very useful in education. Others, like self-esteem, are invariably harmful and used to justify  failure to educate. However, there is another category of concepts. There are also ideas that frustrate debate through sheer ambiguity; that allow arguments to rest on equivocation. These are the Weasel Words.

I discussed previously how confused discussion of understanding was ,and how it was used to marginalise the teaching of knowledge

Here, I want to make it particularly clear how much people equivocate with the word “understand” in order to justify particular types of teaching. Here are the four senses of the word “understand” that we tend to see in education debate.

1) To know the meaning of (the word).

e.g. ‘multiply’ means ‘lots of’

2) To know, or appreciate, the significance of.

e.g. Multiplying is an important skill for doing other types of calculations, such as fractions.

3) To be able to discuss in the abstract.

e.g. She knows that a×b = b×a

4) To be able to apply to real-life contexts.

e.g. If there are 8 bottles  of beer in a crate, and I drink 4 crates, then I am going to be very ill in the morning.

In education debate these different senses are frequently combined so as to sideline the learning of knowledge. The first definition is oftem assumed in order to make an uncontroversial claim like “it’s no good just memorising facts, you must understand them”. Nobody is ever going to object to this. No matter how much you advocate learning facts, there is clearly something wrong if you learnt  statements that are just gibberish to you. Not only that, but it is very difficult to learn off by heart something you don’t understand. A lot of questions which appear to be testing recall, may actually be testing understanding of things that nobody could hope to recall if they didn’t understand them first. Memorising a passage in a foreign language, or the proof of a mathematical theorem, would be incredibly challenging without some understanding of the language or the maths.

However, once we have accepted “understanding” in this first sense, then the other senses are smuggled into the discussion as if they were more controversial. If we consider the second definition of “understanding” we might use phrases such as:

  • “There’s no point studying the text of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play and can only be truly understood if seen performed”.
  • “There’s no point learning that that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. You haven’t understood it unless you know why it is important”.

This is used as an excuse to ensure that teaching of knowledge is seen as inadequate without teaching some particular attitude to that knowledge. Now I am not claiming here that students shouldn’t know why things they learn are worth knowing, I am simply claiming that the above judgements go beyond claiming the inadequacy of rote. You can understand something without understanding its importance. If somebody has learnt something and still sees no reason for it, then there is an issue, but it might simply be they haven’t learnt enough context or related information. It might be they haven’t valued it for their own personal reasons, like not liking the teacher. It does not mean they never understood it, or that in order to truly teach it in the first place the teacher should have taught them to appreciate it.

As for the third definition, we might hear somebody say:

  • “Times tables emphasise that idea that maths is all about remembering. Research shows, however, that what children really need to work on is number sense.” (from here)
  • “History is about evaluating sources not knowing a list of events”.

The idea is that there are underlying principles more important than having detailed knowledge. This is true in as far as there is abstract knowledge as well as concrete knowledge. This should not be confused with the idea that there is something which transcends knowledge which can be taught instead. There is no reason to favour the abstract over the concrete in all cases. There is no reason to think that grasping an abstract theory necessarily shows a greater grasp of a topic than having a lot of knowledge about it. We learn best from the concrete to the abstract. Learning a lot of facts helps us develop a grasp of concepts. Learning concepts does not necessarily help us learn facts. There is often more than one abstract model which can be taught, and they can often be highly contentious. Many academic disciplines have many contradictory theories. A Marxist “understanding” of history might be entirely different to a liberal one. That’s not too say these different views shouldn’t be taught, but we should not declare a student to have “understood” history when they have grasped a particular theory. An “understanding” may be so wrong as to distort our grasp of the facts. Some people have such a strong belief in a theory of historical progress that they simply cannot accept that, say, the Reformation harmed education in England or that the theories behind the holocaust were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Countless scientific discoveries have been contested, not because of a lack of empirical evidence, but because they contradicted the theories of the day at a very fundamental level. I am far from being somebody who discounts theories or conceptual reasoning as worthless, but we should be weary of efforts to suggest that grasp of an abstract theory indicates true understanding of a topic.

Finally, we have the fourth sense. According to this, true understanding can only be demonstrated by application of learning to a supposedly practical or real-life situation. It is notable just how contrary this is to the third definition of understanding, despite both of them being strongly held ideas within the progressive tradition. It is always a shock when somebody manages to conflate these two different senses of the word “understanding” into one, despite being polar opposites.

It is not unreasonable to claim that being able to apply knowledge is important. The problem is that people are often conceptually very shaky about how we gain this ability to apply knowledge and the concept of “understanding” can be unhelpful here. There are two main ways we learn to apply knowledge. Firstly, we learn about, or practise, that particular application. So if we want to apply our knowledge of the French language to buying a loaf of bread, we practise buying a loaf of bread. If we wish to use our knowledge of percentages to calculate compound interest, then we learn how to calculate compound interest and then practise that sort of calculation. It would seem odd, however, to view the mastery of either to show much additional understanding. It is far from clear how this differs from any other type of knowledge. The worst side-effect of this sort of approach has to be the “functional” exam question which is meant to assess understanding rather than knowledge, but actually assesses the rather useless knowledge of knowing how to answer a particular type of exam question.

The other type of application, the one which is believed more seriously to demonstrate understanding, is the application to problem-solving. In this situation students are presented with a novel problem, have to apply existing knowledge to it and, if they can, this is taken to demonstrate understanding. The conceptual difficulty here is that “understanding” then becomes taken to be some kind of general problem solving ability which must be practised in place of the acquisition of knowledge or fluency with knowledge. However, in practice, our ability to solve new problems depends on the extent of our background knowledge and our fluency with it (see Willingham 2009). While fluency with knowledge could be described as “understanding” it is clearly quite a different type of understanding to those mentioned earlier and teaching understanding in this sense is not clearly distinct from teaching knowledge.

Whenever anybody suggests that one teaching method is superior to another because it teaches “understanding” we need to identify immediately what is meant. Too often the claim is simply an attempt to sideline knowledge in favour of talking about the topic, or feeling a particular way about it.


Willingham, Daniel T, Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009


What OFSTED Say They Want

October 13, 2012

A lot of teachers have been told that OFSTED will require them to stop teaching their classes and, instead, make children sit in groups knitting their own yoghurts, pausing only to be lectured on the minutiae of how to distinguish a level 5c from a level 4a. The best antidote to this is to hear what Michael Wilshaw, the head of OFSTED, actually said to the RSA when asked to describe a good teacher.

Here is a transcript of his comments:

Perhaps I can start by mentioning two teachers to you that I remember from Mossbourne, my previous school. There are many good teachers there. I just want to mention two of them as a way of leading into this debate. One is an English teacher. She’s still teaching there. She’s in her  late twenties. She’s an absolutely outstanding Advanced Skills Teacher  and I remember observing lots of her lessons but I’ll mention just one of them. One of them was a lesson on the Merchant of Venice and she was teaching incredibly well. She had part of the class reciting Portia’s speech; you know, the quality of mercy. They were all doing that; this is a middle ability class. She had the Al Pacino film on the touchscreen behind her. She had a couple of youngsters dressed in Tudor garb and it was just one of those brilliant lessons that you see and it was full of energy; it was full of pace and she was moving around between the different groups doing different things.

That was one teacher; one lesson. The second lesson, or the second teacher I remember, was somebody in his late fifties. He was the head of maths. He was a very traditional teacher. He taught in a pretty didactic way, but the kids loved him across the ability range. He knew how to teach maths. You know what a great maths teacher does?  Builds block by block to ensure that youngsters don’t move on until they understand the ground rules. He would spend many, many hours in the evening every night preparing powerpoints for himself and for the staff in his department and he would disseminate good practice, in terms of how to use powerpoints, to other people in his department and beyond his department to other schools in Hackney and beyond. And he produced absolutely fantastic results although some people would say he was a very didactic teacher. So these two people were very different teachers but incredibly successful and the reason why they were successful was because they developed a style of teaching with which they were comfortable, not complacent, but with which they were comfortable and which they knew worked. It worked because children enjoyed their lessons; were engaged; were focused; learnt a great deal and made real progress.

For me a good lesson is about what works. A good lesson is about what works. So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching. I am reminded about Blair’s words in relation to that sterile debate on the academy programme and structural reform. He said: “what works is what’s good”.  What works is what’s good and I have the same view in terms of teaching. We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little. Both teachers I’ve mentioned to you understood this but also understood that there were other things they had to do.

Firstly, planning was everything for them. They planned their lessons so that they knew what they were going to do; knew what resources they were going to deploy, and knew roughly how long each activity would take. But they also understood that planning shouldn’t be too detailed. It was a framework to give them the necessary flexibility to adapt to a different way of teaching at key moments in the lesson when the mood of the class, as it inevitably does, changes. They recognised that the worst lessons are those where the teacher ploughs through the lesson plan irrespective of how well or badly the lesson is going. OFSTED won’t necessarily require a lesson plan when inspectors observe, but they will want to see a planned lesson and there is a difference.

Secondly, these two people I’ve mentioned were incredibly reflective teachers who would adapt their lesson plan when things didn’t go well; so at the end of the lesson, or the end of the day, they’d go back to the lesson plan and change it. Because they were reflective people, they knew that they didn’t have the answers to everything and were prepared to learn from others although they were acknowledged by the school to be outstanding teachers. This meant that they talked a lot about their teaching to others, were happy to go into other teachers’ classrooms and were only too willing for other teachers to go into their classrooms. They acknowledged that, no matter how experienced they were, teaching was a learning experience.

Thirdly, they were very perceptive people who understood the dynamics of the classroom. They quickly noticed when the pace of the lesson had dropped and when students had become disengaged and children’s attention has started to slacken. They were quick to notice when the classroom hubbub had reached an unacceptable level and Jack the lad was messing about at the back of the room. At the same time, they were quick to spot when a youngster found it difficult to understand the work and needed more help. In other words, they were highly interventionist teachers and knew how to dictate the pace of the lesson.

Fourthly, they understood the maxim that nothing is taught unless it’s learned. They measured their success, therefore, on whether children were learning and making progress and because they were hugely successful teachers this meant rapid progress. Whenever I observed them teach, they would stop the class at regular intervals and say “I just want to check that you’ve learnt this”. They were all great at picking out the inattentive child to ensure that he or she understood the importance of keeping up.

Finally, they were incredibly resilient people who withstood the slings and arrows and the occasional paper dart unflinchingly. They never let failure get the better of them; they learnt from it and came back stronger, tougher and better teachers. They were all in their different ways fierce characters; fierce, not in a repressive or bullying way, but tough on standards. They weren’t authoritarians but they were authoritative. In other words they made sure youngsters knew who was in charge and who was setting the boundaries for acceptable behaviour. Both took a lead in professionally developing others and supported the school’s training programme. Both of them would have said that the leadership of teaching was the most important quality in headship and, of course, I endorse that view. Headship is about leading teaching first and foremost. A good head understands this and is, therefore, more outside his or her office than inside, patrolling the corridor, entering classrooms and engaging teachers and children throughout the school day. Good management is always secondary to good leadership of teaching. I knew both of these teachers well because I did that as a head.

If you are going to be successful as a teacher, head of department or headteacher, you’ve got to be a high profile, highly visible person who has the physical and emotional energy to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Never believe that leadership of teaching can be done by remote control. OFSTED needs to endorse the school and the head who drives improvement in teaching. It is good that the new framework emphasises teaching more than anything else and that there is a clear correlation between the judgements on teaching and those on the overall effectiveness of the school. It is good that the inspectors will be asking questions about the robustness of performance management in relation to the quality of teaching and the salary levels of staff. It’s good that unannounced inspections will mean that inspectors see lessons as they normally are and – let me make this clear – if we see an extended piece of writing or reading, or the structured reinforcement of mathematical formula, where the children are engaged and learning then that’s fine. Let me also emphasise we do not want to see teaching simply designed to impress inspectors. We don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment and promoting the personality of the teacher than embedding children’s learning in a meaningful way. So let that message be proclaimed from the rooftops. OFSTED will judge the quality of teaching in relation to the quality of learning and whether children and young people across the age and ability range are making the progress they should be from the starting points. There will be no OFSTED template which compels teachers to do things they wouldn’t normally do. We need to celebrate diversity, ingenuity and imagination in the way that we teach. Surely this is common sense. When every child is different; every class is different, and every year group is different. One size rarely fits all. Surely this adage must apply to teaching as it does to most things in life.

An edited version can be viewed below.

Some of this is stuff teachers, labouring to fit their lessons to a particular structure or ideology imposed by their schools because OFSTED supposedly require it, will be delighted to hear. Just in case you think that Sir Michael is misrepresenting the official position of his organisation in calling for tolerance of different teaching styles, it is worth being aware of the following snippets from the latest OFSTED handbook:

Lesson observations

25. The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved…

…Quality of teaching in the school…

…111. Inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology…

…Not all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, will be seen in a single observation.


The GCSE English Farrago

October 3, 2012

I think it is about time I returned to the issue of the controversy around GCSE English exams, as it has never gone away. My last blogpost was originally the introduction to this one, so do read that first if you haven’t already.  Thanks to those who have informed my thinking on this issue, particularly one English teacher (you know who you are) who inspired both the title of this piece and a proportion of the analysis.

As I explained last time, in order for exams to work over time they need to be able to maintain a certain constant level of difficulty. Because this, not any other issue, is the key to functioning exams. I have been dismissive of most of the complaints about the GCSE English exam results (but not complaints about the exams themselves). Most arguments in favour of re-marking have either implied that exams should be allowed to become easier, or attempted to avoid the issue by dismissing the clear evidence that they have, or would do so if more grade Cs were granted. However, I think it is now worth returning to this topic and to consider what, if any, valid complaints do exist about the English GCSE grades.

Firstly, it is probably worth noting that a lot of the debate is still in the realm of the absurd. Reports have appeared in the media that there will be a legal case challenging the exam results on the grounds of a breach of “the cardinal principle of good administration that all persons who are in a similar position should be treated similarly”; a principle that is so wonderfully vague and abstract that it must be breached continually in every walk of life. However, if that was not absurd enough, then the following contribution from Pat Glass MP in the House of Commons Education Committee needs to be noted for being even more ridiculous:

“There is substantial evidence of the difference in life chances between children who get 5 A to Cs and those who don’t, and those who get Cs and Ds. And it isn’t just about their academic qualifications; it is about children who get 5 A to Cs are less likely to get divorced; are less likely to get cancer, are less likely to end up in prison or homeless, and a whole range of other things, So this about what’s going to happen to these young people for the rest of their lives. Given that… are you not prepared to look again at the issue of rebanding, given the long-term impact on children’s lives?”

Yes, that’s right, by only giving out the second highest number of grade Cs and above in history, those heartless exam boards are giving people cancer, making them homeless and destroying their marriages. The bastards.

Secondly, I would like to point out that I am not a knee-jerk defender of OFQUAL or the examboards. I am quite prepared to entertain sensible complaints. Assuming the sort of nonsense I described above isn’t to be taken seriously, there is still the question of whether an injustice could, possibly, have been committed by holding the line on grade inflation. Hearing the ridiculous arguments from those who have been kicking up a fuss, then it would be hard to see how. But, I don’t actually want to rule this out. I do see one possibility for a genuine injustice to have taken place. If those who sat the written exam paper in January, and submitted in June, did get marked too generously in January, then the possibility exists that the higher boundaries in June did involve some kind of “clawback” to bring the results back into line with expectations. However, this involves a minority of the exams of a minority of students, and, depending on the degree of generosity in the January marks, there is no reason to assume that such a “clawback” did take place. If it did, then I would normally assume that the groups lobbying for regrading would have established this by now and it would be the centre of their case. However, perhaps this is assuming too much about the competence of those involved. One of the loudest voices about the GCSE English grades, Geoff Barton, had this to say about his understanding of the numbers:

“I’m merely a humble English teacher, and it took me five attempts to get my O-level Maths, so I can’t do the fancy statistical pyrotechnics that others can.”

With people like this leading the charge, it is entirely possible that there could be a genuine injustice, hidden in the bogus claims, which has been missed.  If so, I won’t have a problem criticising OFQUAL and the exam boards.

Finally, I wish to revisit the issue of the quality of the exams. I explained here that I thought their structure would have led to inevitable manipulation and even cheating. I had also explained in an earlier blogpost (before the results came out) that some of the content was extremely dubious. Since then I have come to appreciate just how badly designed the course was, and how some of the problems that have arisen over grades were inevitable.

The most noticeable feature of the new GCSE English “suite” of exams was the division of the exams to provide a choice of options for entry. Students could either do an English GCSE that was to be sat on its own, or an English language GCSE to be sat alongside English Literature GCSE. I talked last time about the need for maintaining the level of difficulty between tiers and between exam boards. By splitting the options even further, into a double or single course, there was no single type of qualification that was sat by everybody. It was almost certain that a different profile of students would take the different options (typically the less able taking the English exam, the more able taking the English language exam) and combined with the drastically different nature of the courses, maintaining consistency between the options would have become an incredible challenge, particularly for those taking the units early. It has now been confirmed from the communications between exam boards and OFQUAL (see pages 105-107 here) that taking account of the differences between the two types of exam was a problem for the exam boards in England.

However, these difficulties in England pale when compared with the problem of maintaining consistency between England and Wales. Wales rejected the new English exam, ensuring that the Welsh entrants for English language would have had a completely different ability profile to the English entrants. Additionally, as Key Stage 2 tests were abolished in Wales, it would have been impossible for exam boards to judge how different the Welsh cohort was by using Key Stage 2 results. The main Welsh exam board WJEC was left with very little to go on in making its judgements. When their English language results were high for England and low for Wales, they would have been completely trapped, with no choice but to produce results that were unacceptable to one country or another, and no good evidence to determine which had the better case. No wonder we ended up with the ludicrous situation of the Welsh government stepping in to reset results for WJEC, creating a different standard each side of the border. This is an astonishing mess, where there is simply no good evidence to determine whether any action taken, by the exam board, or by the Welsh government, was right or wrong.

My biggest question, and it is one I can’t answer, is: how often have exams been in this much of a mess? There have been controversies before. However, in the past exam boards always had the option of inflating the grades so that, even if there was unfairness, nobody much was actually dissatisfied by the resulting grades. With grade inflation ending, the shambolic nature of the examination system cannot be hidden. That is the real legacy here, and firm action taken to deal with the quality of the exams and the marking, will be the best possible conclusion to this situation.

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