Archive for June, 2013


Blogs for the Week Ending 28th June

June 28, 2013

A Few Points About the Teaching Unions

June 27, 2013

When there’s a teaching strike on, whether it affects me or not, I tend to tweet a link to this post “Scabs” from a strike day in April 2008. It argues that union members are morally obliged to go on strike when there union votes to go on strike.

Unions negotiate for their members. If they are perceived as weak then they have a weaker negotiating position. Union members who ignore their own unions are undermining their own unions. They certainly have forfeited the right to complain about their own working conditions. If you tell the bosses you won’t fight you deserve what you get.

I possibly could have also reblogged it today, but I think that perhaps this would have suggested that I still feel exactly the same way now as I did then. However, this is not quite the case. While I have the same opinions, I’m not sure I have the same feelings. My context has changed.

In 2008 I was in a school with dozens of NUT members. When the strike was called there were a grand total of two of us who went on strike with even our NUT rep going into work. This was absolutely shocking to me. Now I am somebody who is frequently accused by the “educational left” of being a Tory. My fellow striker was not simply somebody who would not merely be accused of being a Tory, if I remember this correctly, he was a fully paid up young member of the Conservative Party. This is something that sticks in my mind every time I hear how left-wing the teaching profession is or when I hear people appealing to some kind of left-wing solidarity as a grounds for opposing perfectly sensible policies in education. There are those who will, of course, paint refusal to co-operate with one’s own union as some kind of principled stand for the sake of the children.But the impression I got was of colleagues who cared more about their own pay and their own reputation with senior management. It was noticeable that a number of those schools I knew of which did shut down tended to have NUT members as heads. Even when it comes to being a trade unionist, the bosses tended to have the final word. I was given every reason to be cynical about those who wouldn’t strike and while I couldn’t express the opinion at work I was happy to blog about how I felt.

Why don’t I feel the same way now? Well, firstly, my school hasn’t been affected yet. It has one of the biggest and most active NUT branches I have encountered so I guess I would be disappointed if I saw the same thing happening again. (If you aren’t a teacher, you probably don’t understand how little that actually means when it comes to the day-to-day running of the school. It really just means people are more worried about being sacked than in other places I’ve worked.) So when I think of people not striking I’m not thinking of colleagues putting a day’s pay and their careers first. Now I am tending to think of people I know and respect who have become utterly disillusioned with the teaching unions and I share a lot of that disillusionment. I’m not going to write a rant about the teaching unions on the day of industrial action, but I do not have confidence in either their ability to protect their members or to represent them. This latter point is the one where I most sympathise with those who want nothing to do with the teaching unions. The unions need to make it clear what they have to offer to teachers who don’t mind teaching, testing, phonics, exams, discipline or making children smarter and a good start would be to remind their leaders and activists not to talk like they represent all teachers when they oppose those things.


Advice For Education Bloggers

June 25, 2013

Since I first started blogging 57 years ago I’ve picked up a few ideas about how best to go about it. Also, scouring the interweb for reblogging fodder for the Echo Chamber, I have learnt a fair bit about where some bloggers go wrong. What follows is my advice. However, be aware that I am not claiming I have been, or will be, great at following it myself.

1) Think carefully about anonymity. If you are not going to be anonymous be very, very careful about what you write. Don’t mention your current school, current pupils or anything that might have a bearing on your professional life at the moment – even discussion of theoretical matters that have consequences for anything you are currently doing. If in doubt make sure you are anonymous. If you aren’t you will have to accept that what you can say is highly limited in terms of information you can give out and who you can risk annoying.

2) If you are anonymous, be careful. Anonymous bloggers are always being found out and often quitting as a result. There are definitely people who know who I am who I wish didn’t (nobody from last weekend, don’t worry). Often it is simply because when people start blogging they don’t particularly think it matters who knows and this comes back to haunt them later. Think through a contingency plan for what to do if you were found out. Limit the number of people who know who you are even if it’s tempting to do otherwise. That said, people who meet you in real-life are probably not going to be the biggest problem, it’s people who only know you online and don’t like what you say. So the key thing is to make sure there is no connection between what is written about you on the internet under your real name and under your blogger identity. Don’t do anything to express your views in public under your real name at the same time as you express them under an assumed name. If you can be uncovered using Google then there is a problem. If a work colleague would recognise you if they read your blog then there is a problem. When writing about real-life incidents then a delay is often advised.

3) Expect to get better with time. I won’t spend a lot of time on this point as I don’t really want to go on about how bad I was when I started, but blogging is something people tend to grow into and while the best often had something great about them from the start, they do still tend to improve with time.

4) Avoid cliches (like the plague). The three worst phrases I see in education writing are:

  • “regurgitation of facts”
  • “[education is] used as a political football”
  • “the factory model of schooling”

Metaphors and similes should, as far as possible, be original and at the very least they should not be familiar. This is not just about style, but also about the amount of thought put into an argument. As Orwell pointed out “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” and the worst arguments are invariably those expressed in stock phrases. It’s almost guaranteed that if you use one of the above then you haven’t thought through what you are saying.

5) Use Twitter (and other social media) to support your blogging.

Twitter is where you can expect to get most hits. Tweet 3 or 4 links to every blogpost, varying the time of day if possible. Encourage the readers of your blog to follow you on Twitter. It really works. Other ways to get people to see your work are:

  • Link to it in the comments of other blogs (where it’s justified);
  • Share it on facebook;
  • Let me know about your blog so I can put it on the Echo Chamber blogroll.

Be careful to ensure that you don’t overdo it and become seen as a spammer. Also, blog titles which give a clear indication of the content of a blogpost will also encourage people to follow links on social media.

6) Don’t use your blog to support your Twitter account.

Twitter is great as a source of inspiration, and a discussion on Twitter will often provide the basis for a good blogpost exploring an issue or an idea in more depth. However, you should not be assuming that your blog readers will have read your Twitter feed. Try to avoid in-jokes from Twitter, or assuming prior knowledge of a Twitter discussion. If you do continue a debate from Twitter then try to represent the Twitter argument first. Some of the worst blogs I have read recently have been written apparently as direct responses to something on Twitter that was not clearly identified.

7) Give credit where it’s due.

If you are answering or criticising something, please provide a link. Only in the most extreme cases should you respond at length to anything you haven’t clearly identified. Firstly, it’s very rude to talk about people behind their back. Secondly, it suggests that you have a problem with people hearing the other side of the argument. Thirdly, it may cause people to wonder if you are getting at them when you are not. Even if you are being critical of an idea, at least giving credit (particularly with a link) gives somebody a chance to respond and demonstrates that you are not responding to straw man.

Any time you are referring to someone else’s ideas, whether positively or negatively, identify them. We tend to remember ideas better than people (or at least I do) so we are always likely to repeat without credit the ideas of others accidentally, so it is important not to do it deliberately as well. People like to be credited with good ideas.

8) Use a popular platform and make your work easy to share.

This is something that might not have occurred to me before I started the Echo Chamber, but your work is more likely to be shared if there are other bloggers using the same platform. I would recommend WordPress (the actual site rather than using WordPress software on another site) as it is particularly easy to reblog. Blogger/blogspot is probably the next best option but pick a theme with the button for posting links. The “orange cogs of death” on blogspot are difficult to share even on blogspot (and difficult to read on some devices). Also, an established blogging site is less likely to be suddenly shut down. Early on I lost almost my entire blog when the hosting site was shut down without warning.

9) Be careful when repeating what you have heard elsewhere. Don’t blog what you read in the Guardian this morning. It’s good to share ideas but if the ideas were originally written in a national newspaper (especially one with an easily accessible website) they probably don’t need sharing in much detail. It is also worth checking facts before repeating them. False information seems to spread at incredible speed. Never use a quotation if it is not from a reliable or familiar source. “Inspirational” or “wise” quotations are routinely misattributed (See the Quote Investigator website for multiple examples). Also sometimes a quotation may turn out to mean something other than what you thought. As well as there being far too many education writers who quote the wisdom of Jean Brodie approvingly, I recently heard of a technology company using the slogan “A Brave New World”. Don’t make a literary reference if you don’t know the book; those who have may be shocked and appalled.

10) Don’t quit. As far as I know the only UK based education blogger who regularly gets more hits than me is Tom Bennett and a lot of his hits might be people desperately trying to find a way to navigate past the orange cogs of death. However, I haven’t become (possibly, I admit I don’t really know) the second most read education blogger in the UK by doing anything as difficult as being the (second) best. I have got here because all the people who were better than me when I started have quit and all the people who are better than me now haven’t had as long to find readers. Longevity seems to be the key to success as an education blogger. That and writing posts with “OFSTED” in the title.

As an additional point about not giving up, don’t get disheartened because of criticism. Expect it. The best of it will help you improve. The worst of it will only bring attention to your blog. Some of the worst blogs are written by SMT members who delete every comment disagreeing with them and block anyone who disagrees with them on Twitter. Blogging is essentially a public performance, so you should expect critics, and it’s better than being ignored.


A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

June 23, 2013

I reblogged this here by accident, it was meant for The Echo Chamber but I was on my phone. However, it’s an interesting read so I won’t remove it.

The Long Walk

The aim of this series of posts is to review and respond to Sugata Mitra's vision for education as outlined in his article published in the 16th June 2013 edition of the Observer. Although I have quoted liberally from the article I would urge interested parties to read it in its entirety before progressing any further here.

This second selection of quotes are related to classroom pedagogy:

“A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: “We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to.””

“Beating children into submission will not solve the problem of educational disengagement”

“One of the teachers who works with me said to her class of nine-year-olds: “There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?” The children huddle around a few computers, talking, running around and looking…

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Blogs for the Week Ending 21st June

June 21, 2013

The superior nature of understanding

June 21, 2013

Statistical data and the Education Debate Part 3: Errors and Gold Standards

June 18, 2013

I talked last time about how personal experience, or anecdote, cannot simply be dismissed as unreliable. Of course, there are exceptions. There are things where lay observation is very unreliable, for instance the effectiveness of a particular medicine, or assessment of the intelligence of one’s own children. But if something is easy to see, and you see it a lot, then it is not somehow unscientific to think it happens or even that it is common.

The misconception that we should dismiss people’s personal experiences is a common one. I have frequently heard politicians who listen to voters condemned for peddling “anecdotes” rather than listening to “evidence”. Sometimes it seems like the opinion of one academic about what people should have experienced, would be worth the unanimous testimony of 100 randomly selected members of the public about what they have experienced. If a politician is criticised for “ignoring the evidence” (or worse “ignoring the lack of evidence”) about an issue it is always worth wondering if they may have knocked on 100 doors recently and got a fair idea of what real people say they are experiencing.

One of the habits of mind that makes it so easy to dismiss real people’s experiences is that of believing in a gold standard. This is where it is imagined that evidence is either reliable (it meets the gold standard) or completely unreliable (it doesn’t) without actually looking into the probabilities that are involved. The dismissal of anecdotal or personal experience, without any consideration of likelihood, that I mentioned last time is one example of this. There are others though. Sometimes it is based on authority: the opinion of an education professor meets the gold standard, the opinion of a teacher doesn’t. Sometimes it is based on where research appears: a peer-reviewed journal (no matter how partisan) meets the gold standard, a think tank report or a newspaper article doesn’t. But often it is based on methodology, which brings us to RCTs – Randomised Control Trials.

After my last effort to address this subject a few people have directed me to brief descriptions of RCTs in education, and while I haven’t got those links to hand, I did notice a disturbing tendency for the “controls” to consist of nothing. A “control” in an experiment testing an intervention is an alternative intervention which is thought unlikely to have the relevant advantages of the intervention being tested. In medicine it is often a placebo, i.e. a medical procedure that it thought to be of no clinical advantage in itself. It could, alternatively, be the most effective intervention that currently exists, thereby providing a useful direct comparison.

So what exactly is the problem here? Well if an intervention is to be considered effective it should not be the case that almost any alternative intervention of similar cost would be equally, or more, effective. It should not be the case that an intervention which has no direct effect beyond making the subjects aware they are part of an experiment would have the same effect as the intervention being tested. Of course, it could be argued that as long as we use the same control in a lot of experiments, then we can use it as a baseline for similar interventions and account for any bias that way by only making comparisons between interventions. Or we could follow Hattie’s approach and assume that as education research overwhelmingly finds positive effects, we can ignore effects below a certain size. Results of these RCTs might be biased, but they do not necessarily invalidate the research. However, part of the argument for RCTs is that they are a gold standard. If some RCTs have a systematic inaccuracy then while it does not make them worthless, it does make it possible that a non-RCT which avoided the error in these RCTs might be superior in quality. Randomisation improves the accuracy of research, but so does an appropriate choice of control. I would argue, that we should attempt to measure the likely level of error caused by failing to randomise, or failing to choose an appropriate control, in order to evaluate research. Otherwise, consideration of RCTs as a gold standard might cause us to accept research because it happened to be an RCT even if it was of a lower quality than non-RCT research on the same topic. There is a strong argument that this is what happened here. If education research is to be considered reliable we need to start measuring errors, not simply classifying research as acceptable and unacceptable according to “gold standard” which accepts some shortcomings but not others.


Should Language Students Learn to Translate?

June 16, 2013

As you may be aware, as well as blogging here, I also run (with not inconsiderable help from others) another website – The Echo Chamber – which provides links to other education blogs. Although part of the ethos of the site is to publicise blogs from teachers whose opinions are not widely represented in education debate outside of the blogosphere (i.e. people like me) the criteria for inclusion in the site are fairly broad and I frequently share blogs that I do not necessarily agree with.

One interesting blogpost that I shared yesterday, although I didn’t particularly agree with the conclusion, was about translation in language teaching. It has always surprised me when reading about the school days of people who were educated in the first half of the 20th century that language teaching (both ancient and modern) often seemed to include translation of passages of English into another language. Frequently this was with the intention of preserving the style and genre of the original, so poems were to remain poetic even after translation. This always surprised me because the level of fluency required for such a task is far, far beyond anything I was ever taught at school, despite getting a grade “B” in my particular language qualification.

I should have realised that this is another example of dumbing down and that translation (in either direction), the most obvious test of mastery of the written form of a language is out of educational fashion. The post I shared describes the debate in these terms:

Here are reasons usually mentioned for not using translation:

  • It is radically different from the four skills which define language competence; listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • It takes up valuable time which could be used for the four skills and comprehensible input in the target language
  • It discourages students from thinking in the foreign language
  • It is a bad test of language skills
  • It produces interference from the mother tongue
  • It tends to be text-bound, focusing only on reading and writing
  • It only focuses on form and accuracy
  • It is too hard and boring for many learners
  • It encourages lazy teaching, with teachers being able to practice without fluency
  • It is really only appropriate for training translators

Of these, I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language. In saying this, I am assuming that learning takes place primarily by natural acquisition processes.

On the other hand, some theoreticians argue that translation has a valuable role to play. Some reasons they put forward are as follows:

  • Translation helps expand a learner’s vocabulary
  • It helps students understand how the language works
  • It consolidates structures which can then lead to greater comprehension and fluency
  • It takes advantage of students’ knowledge of their own language; why not profit from this advantage which very young children do not enjoy?
  • It is the most efficient way to improve grammatical accuracy
  • Many students enjoy it
  • It helps students to monitor their accuracy
  • When done orally it provides opportunities for listening and speaking practice

Needless to say, attempts have been made to provide evidence for and against translation. Some of these can be found by doing an online search. There is, for example, evidence that when parallel groups of students are taught with or without translation into the target language, those who practice translation show improved accuracy.

The following is a response to the post which I received from a reader of this blog who works in education, but isn’t a teacher, which I found mirrored a lot of my own thoughts. (Before anyone asks: no, it isn’t from Michael Gove.)

I read French Teacher’s blog with great interest and not a little surprise, as I am not a foreign language teacher and had not realised that translation was in general so frowned upon. However there were two points in his post that particularly scratched at the edges of my brain.

First, one of the reasons he says is often advanced against translation: “It is radically different from the four skills which define language competence; listening, speaking, reading and writing”

And secondly, in his summing up of these reasons: “Of these, I would argue that the prime reason for limiting translation is that it takes away valuable time from communication in the target language. In saying this, I am assuming that learning takes place primarily by natural acquisition processes.”

When I started to think about these in the context of everything I know about language acquisition and learning to read (thank you Diane McGuinness and many others) I became very uncomfortable. First of all, how can rendering a French text into English be seen as something different from listening or reading, or an English text into French as something different from speaking or writing? And try as I may, I cannot understand how learning to translate into a foreign language can be said to take time away from communication in the target language, especially in writing. Is this not where the understanding of differences in idiom and ways of structuring thought should be developed, especially as the child moves from literal beginner renderings to more sophisticated expression?

And then I went further. What if there is a parallel between teaching children to read and write in their own language and teaching them to understand and communicate in foreign languages? Think about it.

For years we trained teachers in the mistaken belief that children could learn to read and ‘make meaning’ without going through the apparently tedious business of learning to decode efficiently. Now we know that fluent readers do decode: they simply do it so efficiently that it has become an automatic process of which they are completely unaware. What many teachers thought was a distraction that got in the way of ‘making meaning’ was in fact the essential pathway to highly skilled reading.

In the same way, are we deluding ourselves in thinking that children can simply be trained to think directly in a foreign language? Perhaps there is a parallel with decoding and encoding in learning to read and spell: perhaps what skilled second language speakers actually do is to translate their thoughts from their first language (ie encode) so rapidly and efficiently that they don’t even know they are doing it. If this is in fact the case, then by attempting to limit or avoid translation we could be doing our utmost to prevent children from developing the automatic processes they most need. Could this be why we find it so hard to turn out truly fluent speakers of other languages?

I would love to hear more on this from those who know more about language teaching than I do.

(And by way of an aside: my 12 year old, whose school French is clearly being taught in the prevailing mode, has just discovered Duolingo and can hardly be dragged away from the structured translation practice it provides – her comments are along the lines of ‘why didn’t anyone tell me this was how it all worked’.)

I would also be interested to hear from any language teachers about this, particularly if you do spend class time on translating and, even more so, if you encourage students to translate from English into another language.


A Maths Teacher writes…

June 15, 2013

This comment appeared below the line on my reblog of Joe Kirby’s review of Daisy Christodoulou’s book “Seven Myths about Education”. It refers to that book and the analogy of educational methods as a “cargo cult”. I liked it so much I thought it worth giving you a chance to see it above the line.

This looks like a very interesting book and one which I’m sure will confirm all my prejudices concerning the pedagogical model now being pushed by OFSTED. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and have encountered some fairly incoherent and damaging ideas from ‘experts’, yet it’s only over the last couple of years that I find myself literally stunned by some of the words coming from the mouths of inspectors and ‘consultants’; to the point where in the last week alone I’ve had to ask them three times to repeat what they’ve said just to make sure I heard them properly. I simply can’t accept that rational human beings can believe in a non-conflicted manner that good teacher explanation hinders learning and progress if it strays past ‘the 5 minute limit’, which was a phrase that was thrown at me six times while being given feedback.

I’d been observed introducing vectors to a year 10 class of relatively able students. It’s not an easy school by any objective measure. I was given a 3. Apparently it would have been a 2 with outstanding elements except that my introduction, all told, with modelling, questioning and mopping up a couple of misconceptions lasted 8 minutes and 34 seconds! (Seriously) This means I require improvement. Short of recording my introduction and playing it back at double speed, I fail to see what I do. The consultant, who was Maths specialist, told me how he’d have done it. His explanation lasted 25 minutes. In fact, he eventually conceded that he couldn’t actually have done it himself any faster, so suggested maybe I should have broken it up over two lessons, despite having commented that all the class had grasped the concepts and made good progress. When I pointed out that his idea would halve the rate of progress he sort of smiled apologetically and gave a little shrug.

This man was not unintelligent. I think the shrug was a tacit acknowledgement that he was giving me inconsistent and contradictory advice. It was by way of an apology, but, in the name of consistency, he had to come out with this bullshit. He’s helping implement our new teaching and learning strategy.

Now, other than the fact that all this stands in direct opposition to everything Wilshaw has said about no fixed teaching models and the acceptability of a didactic approach, it is the sheer lunacy that sticks in my craw. I could not believe what I was hearing. I nearly grabbed him and shook him just to see if he was actually real and that I was not temporarily delusional. It’s just not acceptable that I should be forced to suffer such blatant assaults to my intelligence. Wilshaw makes all the right noises, but he seems to be spending too much time composing sound bites and none at all in ensuring his message is reaching the ‘frontline’.

The book looks great, but I can’t see its message ever getting through. OFSTED is now precisely the problem in education. I’m not entirely sure the cargo cult analogy is apt. Certainly, it’s a cult now; a cult whose dogma and ideology is far from fixed. It shifts according to whims of fashion and the subjective interpretation of the local priesthood. But it seems that even when its catechisms demand the impossible, the self-defeating or the contradictory, it’s very much a case of extra Ecclesiam nulla sulus.


Which ideas are damaging education?

June 15, 2013

Just in case you weren’t aware, there’s a book out that I would recommend highly.

Best bets


“Education must resolve the teacher-student contradiction, exchanging the role of depositor, prescriber, domesticator, for the role of student among students.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968


Education still hasn’t learned that poorly designed curricula generate poor performance in both teacher and students.”

Siegfried Engelmann, Academic Child Abuse, 1992



Confused cargo cult ideas are damaging education


In their early encounters with Westerners, Pacific islanders saw cargo being delivered to islands from the sky. What seemed to them to draw in cargo were headphones, handsignals and landing strips. To attract deliveries of goods, they set up ‘cargo cults’ to build crude imitation landing strips and mimic the handsignals they observed of the people operating them, using coconut shells as headphones. They were then puzzled when the goods failed to materialise.

Some time in the late 20th and turn of…

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