Archive for November, 2013


Blogs for the Week Ending 29th November 2013

November 29, 2013

Has OFSTED Changed Since Last Month?

November 27, 2013

Last night I did my regular trawl through recent OFSTED reports. I had written about some reports from early October here, and some from September here. For both of those two previous blogposts I had easily found OFSTED reports which showed a clear bias towards particular types of teaching despite all the claims that there is no preferred OFSTED lesson style. This time, however, looking at late October and early November inspections, I found very few such reports. Most reports were bland, talking about marking and questioning and sometimes differentiation. A few even praised explanations or subject knowledge. The usual condemnations of teacher talk and the constant promotion of “independence” were the exception not the rule.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, some of those who replied to me mentioned recent OFSTED training, which suggested a surprising and dramatic change in approach (by which I mean: doing what Michael Wilshaw says they should do instead of completely ignoring him). I asked one of them to send me a longer description and they sent me this (thanks):

I recently attended some OFSTED inspection skills training run by one of the main OFSTED providers. A big part of the training was watching clips of lessons and grading them. One of the most controversial clips was a KS3 Maths lesson: it was like something out of the Victorian era!

Children sitting in complete silence in rows, all the sums written on the board prior to the lesson, no differentiation whatsoever. The teacher explained the formula, children practised on a mini whiteboard, one child came up to the board to write the answer to the proposed sum then the children had a time limit to complete 20 similar sums, then mark their own answers afterwards. After which the process began again with a slightly harder sum. And was repeated again and again and again. I thought it was a 3/4 borderline; a number of people gave it a 4. The majority of us were gobsmacked when the trainer revealed the lesson was given a ‘2’ because the children’s books demonstrated they were making progress and the teacher spoke to individual students who needed help! If anything, it has given me real confidence to be myself and deliver my normal lessons during an OFSTED inspection. As long as the students are making progress over time and make some in the 20/25 minutes, it apparently doesn’t matter how they do it.

I don’t know how representative this is of other inspection providers, and even when I’ve been cataloguing the worst ideological excesses of OFSTED there have always been those with a different experience. However, this is clearly the best indicator yet that OFSTED no longer see it is as their mission to root out traditional teaching and replace it with chatting in groups. Please feel free to comment if your own experiences confirm or contradict this.


How To Sabotage Your Own Policy

November 24, 2013

I will argue here the government has sabotaged its own policy on maths teaching through the power it has given to OFSTED and to the NCETM, but first I will review what the debate in maths education is about. As with history teaching, or phonics, the trouble with writing about maths is the long history of the debate about the subject. My usual method of providing an introductory summing up about what’s at issue is to quote the following from the American maths professor, W. Stephen Wilson description of the opposing side:

There will always be people who think that calculators work just fine and there is no need to teach much arithmetic, thus making career decisions for 4th graders that the students should make for themselves in college. Downplaying the development of pencil and paper number sense might work for future shoppers, but doesn’t work for students headed for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. There will always be the anti-memorization crowd who think that learning the multiplication facts to the point of instant recall is bad for a student, perhaps believing that it means students can no longer understand them. Of course this permanently slows students down, plus it requires students to think about 3rd-grade mathematics when they are trying to solve a college-level problem. There will always be the standard algorithm deniers, the first line of defense for those who are anti-standard algorithms being just deny they exist. Some seem to believe it is easier to teach “high-level critical thinking” than it is to teach the standard algorithms with understanding. The standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers are the only rich, powerful, beautiful theorems you can teach elementary school kids, and to deny kids these theorems is to leave kids unprepared. Avoiding hard mathematics with young students does not prepare them for hard mathematics when they are older. There will always be people who believe that you do not understand mathematics if you cannot write a coherent essay about how you solved a problem, thus driving future STEM students away from mathematics at an early age. A fairness doctrine would require English language arts (ELA) students to write essays about the standard algorithms, thus also driving students away from ELA at an early age. The ability to communicate is NOT essential to understanding mathematics. There will always be people who think that you must be able to solve problems in multiple ways. This is probably similar to thinking that it is important to teach creativity in mathematics in elementary school, as if such a thing were possible. Forget creativity; the truly rare student is the one who can solve straightforward problems in a straightforward way. There will always be people who think that statistics and probability are more important than arithmetic and algebra, despite the fact that you can’t do statistics and probability without arithmetic and algebra and that you will never see a question about statistics or probability on a college placement exam, thus making statistics and probability irrelevant for college preparation. There will always be people who think that teaching kids to “think like a mathematician,” whether they have met a mathematician or not, can be done independently of content. At present, it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core, which they sometimes think is the “real” mathematics, are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong. You learn Mathematical Practices just like the name implies; you practice mathematics with content. There will always be people who think that teaching kids about geometric slides, flips, and turns is just as important as teaching them arithmetic. It isn’t. Ask any college math teacher.

Roughly speaking, the tensions are between those who emphasise the procedures (both written and mental) and those who emphasise applications in context and the ability to talk about maths. In the most recent versions of the debate that I have encountered  the former would claim that they are aiming for fluency and the latter would claim that they are aiming for conceptual understanding. Neither would claim not to be pursuing the other’s goal; those emphasising fluency would claim it leads to greater understanding and those emphasising conceptual understanding would claim it leads to greater fluency. Ultimately, both sides would say you have to teach both fluency and conceptual understanding, but the choice of which to emphasise will have a huge impact on teaching methods. The more you emphasise fluency, the more you will spend time on deliberate practice and relying on explanations, rather than “discovery” to result in understanding. The more you emphasise conceptual understanding, the more time you will spend using card sorts and cuisenare rods, having discussions, trying to learn maths from problem-solving and outsourcing calculations to calculators. It is best described as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, with only the most extreme of the advocates of conceptual understanding saying kids don’t need times tables and only the most extreme (or possibly those who don’t understand the word “rote”) saying kids should learn procedures without understanding them. Emphasis also changes depending on which key stage is being discussed, with fluency being the most obvious goal for very young children learning to count or add numbers under 10 and conceptual understanding being a clear priority at A-level.

This debate maps fairly closely to wider debates about knowledge and skills. However, maths, probably more than any subject, is probably the one that most easily lends itself to the traditional emphasis on knowledge and fluency. It is very easy to find maths teachers on the less fashionable end of the spectrum, particularly among those with maths degrees or those old enough to have lived through the National Numeracy Strategy, one of the rare times that the official pedagogy in any subject was traditional. It is common to find schools where setting in maths in every year groups reflects the need to address differences in knowledge. However, the conceptual understanding side have remarkable dominance over university departments of education and, unfortunately as this is where so much power lies, OFSTED.

Politically, there have been sudden changes in which side was dominant. The emphasis on fluency resulting from the National Numeracy Strategy in the late 90s was followed by a period of weak leadership that let the conceptual understanding side gain the upper hand. Things have changed since 2010. Ministers have advocated fluency and most importantly, the new National Curriculum in maths has emphasised it. However, the big question to me has been whether ministers and documentation backing fluency would make any difference. When the ideological difference is one of emphasis people can always play lip service to one idea while focussing on another. Nobody need say they are against fluency to sabotage this policy direction; they need only say that, while of course fluency is important and they assume people will be working on it, the really important good practice to be shared is that focussing on conceptual understanding. If those with power over education take that attitude then nothing will change. Ministers will change the documentation but not the education that is being delivered.

Now, it was always going to be the case that OFSTED would sabotage the policy in this way. Their latest maths report, Made To Measure in May 2012, emphasised conceptual understanding (the word “understanding” appears 97 times in the report including 11 mentions of “conceptual understanding) and relegated fluency (“fluent” appears 3 times in the report but every time is mentioned only alongside understanding; fluency is mentioned 6 times but in 4 of those cases it is alongside “understanding”). Examples of best practice in maths given by OFSTED have been at the extreme trendy end and I summarised them (and compared them with Michael Wilshaw’s views) here. Worse, OFSTED have claimed (for instance, in these course notes released under the Freedom of Information Act) in a truly Orwellian fashion that “The definition of fluency incorporates conceptual understanding”, an interpretation which would make arguing for one side impossible. Although they accept that students should be fluent (presumably with that definition of fluency), this is OFSTED’s description of what outstanding maths teaching looks like:

Teaching is rooted in the development of all pupils’ conceptual understanding of important concepts and progression within the lesson and over time. It enables pupils to make connections between topics and see the ‘big picture’. Teaching nurtures mathematical independence, allows time for thinking, and encourages discussion. Problem solving, discussion and investigation are seen as integral to learning mathematics. Constant assessment of each pupil’s understanding through questioning, listening and observing enables fine tuning of teaching. Barriers to learning and potential misconceptions are anticipated and overcome, with errors providing fruitful points for discussion. Teachers communicate high expectations, enthusiasm and passion about their subject to pupils. They have a high level of confidence and expertise both in terms of their specialist knowledge and their understanding of effective learning in the subject. As a result, they use a very wide range of teaching strategies to stimulate all pupils’ active participation in their learning together with innovative and imaginative resources, including practical activities and, where appropriate, the outdoor environment. Teachers exploit links between mathematics and other subjects and with mathematics beyond the classroom. Marking distinguishes well between simple errors and misunderstanding and tailors insightful feedback accordingly.

Of course, as far as I am concerned any government which tolerates the existence of OFSTED is already limiting their own power to make meaningful educational change and can expect to be overruled in this way by a body that has more power over teachers’ practice than government.

The other big factor will be how the new curriculum is explained to teachers, particularly primary teachers. Will fluency or conceptual understanding be emphasised? Will teachers be given advice on how to train kids in recalling number bonds and times tables and applying traditional algorithms or will they be encouraged to get kids talking and playing with pictures? I was shocked to hear that NCETM had been funded to “roll out” the policy. Subject associations are not known for their traditionalism and NCETM has in the past produced one of the most destructive explanations of what an OFSTED lesson should look like and a “consultation”  where:

Participants consistently reported that:

• too much time is spent developing “fluency in recalling facts and performing skills”to the detriment of other aspects;
• much greater emphasis should be placed on the remaining four learning outcomes, with particular emphasis being placed on “conceptual understanding and interpretations for representations” and “strategies for investigation and problem solving”.

In 2010, a submission to parliament from the NCETM claimed:

1.  There is substantial evidence of what constitutes effective mathematics teaching, which includes the Cockcroft reportMathematics Counts (1982), A Study Effective Teachers of Numeracy (1997), a review led by the NCETM Mathematics Matters (2008), Ofsted’s report Understanding the Score (2008).

Together these reports have identified the following characteristics of effective mathematics teaching:

  • Builds on the knowledge learners already have.
  • Exposes and discusses common misconceptions and other surprising phenomena.
  • Uses higher-order questions.
  • Makes appropriate use of whole class interactive teaching, individual work and cooperative small group work.
  • Encourages reasoning rather than “answer getting”.
  • Uses rich, collaborative tasks.
  • Creates connections between topics both within and beyond mathematics and with the real world, in particular drawing out connections between different representations of mathematics (eg graphical, numerical, algebraic).
  • Uses resources, including technology, in creative and appropriate ways.
  • Confronts difficulties rather than seeks to avoid or pre-empt them.
  • Develops mathematical language through communicative activities.
  • Sets high expectations for pupils in mathematical challenge, achievement and enjoyment.

2.  These principles of effective teaching are widely accepted by teachers who have specialised in mathematics teaching and learning in their ITT or later in their career.

Their director has a background in Key Stage 5 teaching and advocates “a way of thinking of teaching maths which involves understanding and enjoyment” and criticises “the idea of maths as just being a set of questions where your aim is to get the answer right to the question without any kind of meaning” although he admits this “has a place” in learning. Of course, what this means in practice is what matters. So far it doesn’t look promising. A blogger who went on their training course for those implementing the primary curriculum observed:

The NCETM approach is to emphasise that fluency can only be achieved, and should only be achieved by building on a foundation of good conceptual understanding.  Their training and the training that we in turn will be passing onto schools explores the key role that representation and the use of concrete apparatus has in building up this conceptual understanding.

This idea, that fluency will happen without teachers being trained to teach it well and, instead, teachers need to be trained to deliver conceptual understanding is also evident in the training videos NCETM have produced. These are the videos they have produced on times tables and advertised on their website as “Videos to support the new implementation of the new Primary Curriculum”. There are suggestions that students will also be practising recall of times tables, but look at what they think needs to be passed on to teachers:

Under the influence of OFSTED and the NCETM schools are going to continue to think “conceptual understanding” and the activities alleged to promote it, rather than deliberate practice, are the key to maths education. The government has created a curriculum which emphasises fluency in maths and then given all the power over maths education to people who have a completely different emphasis. This is not going to be half as good as the National Numeracy Strategy, this is a change in words at the top which won’t reach the ground. This is the government sabotaging its own policy.


How I think we should be held to account? (not by OFSTED)

November 23, 2013

Excellent stuff about OFSTED from Stuart Lock. Also worth promoting and on a similar theme is this post by Katie Ashford:

Mr Lock's Weblog

How would I like schools to be held to account?

I thought I’d write this today after a conversation on twitter. I’m aware it’s very secondary centred. By “very” I mean “completely”.

Tristram Hunt has said that OFSTED is essential. He counterposed the existence of OFSTED with low standards. This disappoints me as I am becoming persuaded that this particular form of accountability is substandard at best, and actively damaging at worst.

I retweeted a blog that criticised Hunt for this today and had a few responses, one of which suggested “being anti-OFSTED is not a credible position for a school leader”. Since I consider myself to be anti-OFSTED, I hold what at least one person considers to be a position that lacks credibility. So I want to explore why I’m anti-OFSTED and consider what level and form of accountability I would welcome.

One of the main reasons for having…

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Blogs for the Week Ending 22nd November 2013

November 22, 2013

The Echo Chamber

Please feel free to reblog this post on WordPress and to include @TheEchoChamber2 in your #ff’s on Twitter today.

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No OFSTED Hope From Tristram Hunt

November 22, 2013

I have been sent an audio file from  a meeting last night at Warwick University, where Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, was asked about OFSTED by a very perceptive first year undergraduate student. The full file can be found at the bottom of the post (apologies for poor sound quality) but here is a transcription of the key part:

Questioner: I know you mentioned a lot about teacher quality, but I was interested in how that kind of relates into the whole process of OFSTED and OFSTED inspections. For example, in my case I went to one of the worst schools in the country and one of the worst places to go to school in the country. The Isle of Wight is synonymous with just worry…

TH: Where did you go to school in the Isle of Wight?

Q: Sandown Bay Academy. It’s the one recently that our headteacher had been working in another school for two weeks and had not let anyone know, but our school’s in special measures and, towards the end of last year especially, we seemed to have OFSTED in every other week and I found especially with our teachers – and this was you know towards my A-level, A2, exams – our teachers would be more focused on making sure that – with the whole idea of OFSTED coming in – they would be more focused on making sure they looked good rather than actually focused on teaching and I found it to be quite obstructive for us, especially when we were learning, that teachers would get so worked up about OFSTED and so occupied by making sure they, you know, didn’t do really small, you know, ticking boxes sort of thing. How would you address OFSTED in special measures schools and would you make it more frequent? Would you allow schools not to have … [inaudible]?

TH: And did OFSTED fail the school?

Q: It’s in special measures. It’s like…

TH: So your teachers are getting ready for an OFSTED inspection by making sure they look good?

Q: The teachers would be, not so much that they looked good, but like they’d be making sure they had to tick boxes and stuff.

TH: And the response of OFSTED was to put them into special measures?

Q: No, OFSTED would, for example, we’d have have our teachers logging lesson plans for example. They’d be making sure they ticked boxes…

TH: It seems to me OFSTED called it right. If you’ve got teachers not focused on teaching and worrying about boxticking OFSTED actually goes…

Q: Our school went up. After the inspection our school went up because they ticked the boxes.

TH: That’s not good, I won’t pursue that line of analysis. OFSTED is very, very valuable and no one likes being inspected by OFSTED but if you are a school and you are inspected by OFSTED and you’re outstanding you put a big, bloody flag outside your school saying outstanding by OFSTED and suddenly Ofsted is good. So we need OFSTED.  I think Michael Wilshaw was a great headmaster and I think he doesn’t accept the excuses and he certainly shouldn’t accept any excuses in the Isle of Wight which, you know, has a lot more advantages than other parts of the country about the terrible schools and as a challenging school system. So, what OFSTED needs to do, and it is doing more of, is not only just going in to tell a school it is doing badly but begin to work out how it gets out of doing badly and how it works for its students and to have that more sort of collaborative process. It needs to be more regional. It needs to have more understanding of regional sensibilities. There’s an argument for the time at which it goes into schools. Should it do two days? Should it do three days? All of that I think can be discussed, but we need OFSTED and, you know, we cannot be on the side of poor standards. We just cannot be on the side of low standards because the truth of the matter is, and I don’t know your background, but if you are from a nice middle class household, a household with books in or from a learning environment, and you’ve got a bad teacher, you know, it’s going to be bad for you but it’s going to be an awful lot worse for a kid from a disadvantaged household. This is their chance. So we cannot be on the side of poor teaching and we cannot be on the side of bad teachers because it impacts far more upon the pupils we and our party work to support and the people who I represent. You lose more as a kid from a disadvantaged background with a bad teacher than you do from a well supported background and if OFSTED is rooting out those levels of poor attainment and poor teaching then we have to be on their side.

So it looks like Labour’s education spokesman is convinced OFSTED support high standards despite being directly told, by somebody who has experienced them, that they actually promote mindless box-ticking . Even Gove has been more critical of OFSTED’s behaviour than this. Labour urgently needs to stop accepting parts of the education establishment at face value and ask if OFSTED really is fit for purpose.


Arguing over the Ridiculous: Brain Gym and Mantle of the Expert

November 16, 2013

One thing that came out of the ResearchED conference, perhaps inevitably with Ben Goldacre among the speakers, was the general acceptance that Brain Gym was pretty much the gold standard for nonsense in education. Both Robert Coe and Tom Bennett raised the question of what might be the next Brain Gym. If you aren’t familiar with it, it was a branded series of strange exercises that were meant to improve learning. Take a look at this or this for more information or watch this:

Why it has become so infamous is, in my view, due to the sheer implausibility of the claims. Instead of becoming incredibly fashionable and being endorsed by people in the highest levels of the education establishment, it should have just been laughed at for being utterly ridiculous from the start. The teaching profession was undermined by its willingness to engage with such obvious nonsense. However, it is for this reason, that I have tended to be sceptical about talk of “the next Brain Gym”. While baseless, bad ideas are pretty common in education they are not necessarily ridiculous. Ideas like SOLO taxonomy or Kagan Structures at least have a surface level of plausibility about them and can only really be objected to from a position of knowing how we actually learn. Things which are widespread but can safely be dismissed immediately as absurd are far rarer. The learning bicycle certainly qualifies as absurd but is far too obscure.


Building Learning Power is not obscure and is almost there on the absurdity front, but the only really obvious example I can think of something popular, that is as ridiculous as Brain Gym is “Thinking Hats”. David Didau wrote about it here and quickly discovered that few things get more of an angry reaction than pointing out the obvious. Those who have been suckered are going to read anything that says “this is obvious nonsense” as “you are an idiot”. If something is absurd, but people haven’t noticed, then they don’t take well to having it pointed out. Moreover, they can complain that by pointing out absurdity then you are not actually engaging with constructive criticism of the ideas. In fact they can even claim that you haven’t understood the idea. After all, you probably won’t have become deeply engaged in studying something if it is obviously crazy. Even Ben Goldacre, who is probably the most high profile advocate of greater use of RCTs in education has, to my knowledge, never once suggested that we need any RCTs on whether rubbing brain buttons actually works.

So there’s the dilemma. I want teachers to be able to say “Are you having a laugh?” when confronted with the very silly, but I also know that those who are unashamedly doing those very silly things will get very angry and accuse those teachers of not engaging in proper debate. After all, what is the rational evidence that something is very silly? Everyone pointing and laughing is a pretty good indicator, and sometimes it is enough to point something out and wait for the audience reaction in order to establish that, yes, what looked absurd to you also looks absurd to others. However, true believers are as likely to claim they are being misrepresented or bullied than realising that they have behaved in a way which provoked the reaction. So where do we go with ideas at the extreme ends of implausibility?

Well, the key thing has to be the strength of the argument. There are some things which seem to be implausible which hold up when you look at the evidence. For instance, have a look at this post by Laura McInerney which mentions that negative emotions appear to be better than a happy state for certain types of thinking (particularly deep analytical thought). I know from experience that saying this on Twitter without evidence will cause a storm of derision but this hasn’t happened here. Laura phrased it in such a way as to make it clear that this is what the evidence says, and followed up with links to research when people challenged her about it on Twitter. If something is apparently ridiculous but backed up by a solid argument there isn’t a problem. And it is very easy to forgive someone who ridiculed you if they come back and say, having looked at the evidence (or the argument) I realise you are right. While the existence (or not) of evidence or sound argument does not determine whether something is ridiculous – something can be wrong but seem plausible – it is an unlikely claim with nothing solid behind it that deserves to be considered ludicrous.

Of course people will still argue. They will say:

  • It works for me.
  • It’s insulting to criticise it.
  • You have to see it to understand it.
  • You just don’t understand it/haven’t researched it enough.
  • Kids like it.
  • The idea is only X (where X is a related but far less extreme idea, e.g. in the case of Brain Gym: “The idea is only that kids should take breaks between learning”).

The only real response is to ask the following question: Which of these arguments cannot also be applied, with equal validity, to Brain Gym? This won’t work on everyone. Some people will simply claim “but this is different” as if a bad argument is only bad when applied to particular claims. Some, and this was a shock to see, will even deny that anyone ever defended Brain Gym. However, if an idea is immediately implausible, and these are the best sort of arguments we have for it, then I do think we can safely dismiss it as nonsense.

With all that in mind, I would like to suggest, as I did a couple of days ago, that The Mantle of The Expert is just such a ridiculous idea. It is an attempt to teach a significant proportion of the curriculum through role-play, which is something I find absurd. The claims made for it add to the absurdity. Have a look at Wikipedia or The Mantle of the Expert website. My favourites are “Mantle of the expert has very strong elements of naturalism, as well as Brechtian theatre”; “Mantle of the expert has roots in sociology and anthropology”; and “Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on some of the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists, scientists and librarians might do in the real world”. It is easy to find many other claims that are, on the face of it, laughable.

Of course, there might be a serious case behind it. It may just be a coincidence that nobody has really been able to defend it with anything that goes beyond the arguments listed above (with the X in the last one being “the idea is only that role play be used occasionally in lessons”). Perhaps there are answers to the obvious objections. Perhaps someone will care to answer some of these:

  1. Why should students, particularly those who don’t like it, have to do lots of extra drama?
  2. How do you respond to the general discrediting of inquiry/discovery learning from empirical and psychological evidence in the last few years?
  3. Is the role-playing not likely to be a distraction from the learning?
  4. Where is the evidence for effectiveness which should have been accumulated in the last 30 years?

Further Reading (Added 17/11/2013)

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