Archive for February, 2014

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Blogs for the Week Ending 22nd February 2014

February 22, 2014
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A List of Blogs by the People I Met Up With Yesterday

February 22, 2014

The Echo Chamber

A few weeks ago I was passing through London (after attending the Teach Meet at BETT) and asked, via Twitter, if any other education bloggers were around to socialise. In the end, it was only Tim Worrall who was around and free, so we settled for having a couple of drinks but decided to try organising something a bit more planned in the holidays. The plan was to ask a few of our favourite bloggers, particularly those we knew to be in or near London, if they could come for drinks and/or a curry. It was neither advertised on Twitter, nor intended to be any more than a gathering of friends, but it quickly became clear that the response was going to be overwhelming. Limited numbers meant it became very ad hoc with many people only being invited as a place became free. Because of how it was organised, there…

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How the tide has turned…

February 17, 2014

I’ll admit before I begin that this is simply how it seems to me and I’m more than willing to accept the unreliability of my recollections before I begin.

For the first few years of blogging, up to at least 5 years ago, the most common complaint (aside from the accusation that I hate kids, of course) were that I was the only one with my opinions and what I said was utterly unacceptable. I should stop expressing it. The evidence was all against me. Sometimes people would even quote from the latest government or OFSTED approved documents to demonstrate that my values were incompatible with what we were supposed to be doing and I should leave the profession. There was a right way to do things and, as could be deduced from the word “old” in my username, I was a relic of a bygone era resisting the modern world and there was nothing to debate.

Perhaps about 3 years ago, it became accepted that other teachers, perhaps staffroom moaners, had my opinions, but that anything I described was rare and what was being said was unrepresentative of what was happening in schools. In particular I remember being taken to task at about that time for suggesting that teachers found INSETs boring and had little respect for consultants, something which, if you read teachers on Twitter last September, cannot now possibly be doubted. My views were a curiosity, but even if offensive they weren’t necessarily unprofessional and people did start referring to me. But I should realise that it is unhelpful to be negative about anything in teaching and show more respect for the true experts and do nothing to divide the profession. My arguments were interesting, but there was no need for a wider debate and certainly no need to criticise (except, of course, if the object of criticism were politicians, as they really didn’t understand anything).

About a year ago, and for many months afterwards, I became used to the accusation that I was leading a “gang”. That there were a small number of teachers who agreed with me, who were, nevertheless vocal on social media,  and we were teaming up too much to promote our views and argue our case. One complaint was that too many of “the gang” were youngsters who had less than five years teaching experience and didn’t really understand what was happening. We were being cocky and arrogant, and didn’t know our place in thinking we should try to persuade our betters that things could be changed for the better. Debate was, of course, to be welcomed, but we had to respect the authority and expertise of those we wished to challenge.

Now? What do I hear now? Well the most common complaint is that nobody really disagrees. The noise from me is all just straw men and being argumentative for the sake of it. Nobody really doubts the essential points in what I’ve been saying, I’m just failing to understand the nuances of other people’s positions. And partly this problem is because, from our position of great power on social media, people like me are oppressing and silencing opposition. We dictate how to teach and intimidate opposing views. We keep trying to push what the evidence says (presumably not the same evidence which 5 years ago proved I was wrong) rather than respecting the diversity of individual approaches. If anything, I need to be taken down a peg or two.

Now is this progress? Is this the tide turning? I like to think so, but the weight of opinion in social media is not the weight of opinion in the system. Apart from the influence of the same old progressive ideology in schools, universities and among the inspectorate, it also seems likely that whatever new institutions are set up, from new ways of training teachers, to a College of Teachers, will also be used to push that agenda given half a chance. Progressive teaching will not go away. As Hannah Arendt claimed about the apparent retreat of progressive education in the 1950s:

…a reversal will never bring us anywhere except to the same situation out of which the crisis has just arisen. The return would simply be a repeat performance–though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.

The same old battles will still have to be fought. But, in relatively few years, the advocates of progressive education on social media have gone from proclaiming the obvious unacceptability of the opposing view, to fretting that they are being marginalised by the “pedagogy police“. It would be great to see a similar shift in the arguments in schools where, in too many cases, the same old certainties still hold sway.

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Blogs for the Week Ending 15th February 2014

February 15, 2014
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That Gove/Wilshaw Spat

February 13, 2014

Yesterday, Michael Wilshaw was quizzed by the House of Commons Education Committee. You can find the full footage here.

One of the issues which came up was the report in the Sunday Times, from a couple of weeks ago, based around an interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw where he had apparently complained of attacks by those with some connection to Michael Gove. This split lead to a lot of confusion among those who were unaware of the issues around OFSTED. Wilshaw’s explanation, was reported by the BBC as follows:

Sir Michael told the committee he had been furious when, in a response in the Sunday Times, he had blamed Mr Gove’s aides for briefing on it.

Asked by Education Select Committee chairman Graham Stuart if he had made a mistake in not checking whether the allegations in the Times were true, Sir Michael said: “In retrospect I probably did, but nonetheless, it was a spontaneous act of fury.”

Sir Michael added: “The Secretary of State saw me and said that no briefing had taken place, there was no dirty tricks campaign, or anything like that and that he would take action with anyone who was involved in that.

“He is an honourable man and I accepted his word.”

The two think tanks have both since confirmed they were working on reports on Ofsted, but denied that their work was being done with encouragement from the Department for Education.

Sir Michael told MPs he had been “absolutely outraged” at the suggestion that Ofsted was “mired” in 1960s ideology, adding he was old enough to remember teaching in those days and how low expectations of pupils had been.

“I was very angry that the authority of Ofsted had been damaged and undermined.”

He said many children taught in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before the introduction of Ofsted inspections, had been failed.

Firstly, the details of the main complaint seems strange. From the original report:

In an exclusive interview, Sir Michael Wilshaw told The Sunday Times he was “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” at attacks by rightwingers on the integrity of the inspectorate, whose job is to rate the quality of schools.

“I am spitting blood over this and I want it to stop,” he said. Asked whether he wanted Gove to call off the attack dogs, he replied: “Absolutely”, adding “it does nothing for his drive or our drive to raise standards in schools. I was never intimidated as a headteacher and I do not intend to be intimidated as a chief inspector.”

The row signals a growing rift between the Tories and Wilshaw, who heads the inspectorate Ofsted, which has slated several of the party’s flagship free schools and academies. Think tanks close to Gove are said to be demanding Ofsted be scrapped, claiming it is trapped by its adherence to progressive theories from the 1960s.

Wilshaw seemed to have fully accepted the narrative (mentioned here) that think tanks who criticise OFSTED are right-wingers acting on Gove’s behalf. While it may be significant that think tanks seen as being on the right are criticising OFSTED, to interpret it as a right/left issue, or as being about personalities is to miss completely what is actually going on. Think tanks are, on the whole, not keen to be labelled as right or left-wing, and are not exclusively committed to a simple ideological stance. Although they are keen to forge links with politicians and they aren’t keen to get involved with pointless arguments (like this one) over where they should be placed on the political spectrum, they tend to do more than follow the bidding of politicians. Both think tanks include people who specialise in education policy, including people who follow me on Twitter. Why shouldn’t they be raising questions about OFSTED?

The political agenda narrative is particularly easy to cast doubt on when looking at Civitas. They have had strong links with Tristram Hunt prior to him becoming Labour’s shadow education secretary and a long history of looking at OFSTED. Their Deputy Director  who had written extensively about OFSTED in the past, was identified as a member of the Labour Party in an apology in the Guardian after they implied she advised Gove.

Of course, if the think tanks are a red herring here, it is possible that Gove (or his advisors) are known by Wilshaw to have issues with OFSTED. However, the opinion, attributed to Wilshaw, that this is over the inspection of free schools or academies is a convenient one for putting the blame completely on Gove. For those with more familiarity with the OFSTED issue and Gove’s attitude to it, there’s another explanation. Back in September, Gove had vouched for Wilshaw’s ability to change OFSTED, telling an audience at a Policy Exchange event the following:

…there have been occasions – in the past – when inspection has not achieved what it should.

Too few inspectors had recent – or current – experience of teaching.

The framework, prior to 2010, required schools to be judged against more than 27 different criteria – putting ‘quality of teaching’ on a par with ‘whether pupils adopted healthy lifestyles’ and ‘the extent to which pupils contribute to the school and wider community’.

And Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.

As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.

The good news is that Ofsted – under its inspirational new leadership – is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud.

For OFSTED to still be writing much the same things (as shown here), almost 5 months after Gove vouched for them, seems to give those in the DfE every right to be critical of OFSTED. They must be aware, that if Gove’s opposite number hadn’t turned out to be even more in the thrall of OFSTED than the government had been, then Wilshaw’s failure to deliver what Gove promised, could have been used to make political capital against the government. We can ask if Wilshaw’s efforts to reform OFSTED are a heroic failure by the best person for the job, or a sign that he was never up to it, but it is hard to miss that so far he has failed in his efforts to reform OFSTED and, as the minister responsible for this, Gove has failed too. In that light, then it is hard to avoid seeing Wilshaw’s comments as the defensive reaction of somebody who, having failed to deliver what they promised, wishes to blame those who were foolish enough to think he would deliver.

There has been plenty more debate OFSTED since, and all sorts of political narratives to explain it, but the core of this issue is the way in which OFSTED is both harmful to education and, so far, extremely resistant to reform. Where the blame for this lies is hard to tell because it is a bureaucracy, but the starting point of the discussion has to be the failures of OFSTED and those who have sought to reform it.

I will be taking part in a live chat on OFSTED on the Guardian website this evening here.

Update 14/2/2014: A Radio 4 programme about OFSTED, in which I feature, can be found here.

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Blogs for the Week Ending 8th February 2014

February 12, 2014
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A Question (and a Straw Man) About Lying to Children

February 3, 2014

I have a question about something that I’m not terribly familiar with. I have a question about lying to small children. But first, let me deal with the straw man this question seems to have created in the minds of some of the more excitable people in the education blogging world.

From When Lies are Lovely on Debra Kidd’s blog yesterday evening:

Some weeks ago, there was a spat on twitter about role play in which it was described as lying to children. Having just spent several weeks telling my youngest that the red light on our alarm censor was Santa’s CCTV camera, I was pulled up very much as a liar. But I justified it because for a few weeks, he went to bed when asked and brushed his scummy teeth. Ends justified the means. But is it ok to lie to children in school?

Well, if you’re skilled at using role play, your really don’t have to. Starting sentences with ‘can we agree that this represents’ or ‘we’re building a story today…’ or ‘if’ mitigates the possibility that children might be conned. There was once an awful example of a school in Blackburn where children were taken into a room while staff let off fireworks outside. The head told the children that WW3 had broken out. And unsurprisingly, the children were very upset. That’s pretty stupid in my book. But to use fiction to entice, to stimulate, to (shock, horror) engage children in learning? That’s just a good thing to do. So….

Not exactly sure of the educational benefits of the roleplaying she describes in the rest of the post, but it’s not my area, so fair enough. Whoever these people are who think all role-playing is a form of lying, they can’t be very sensible. And this is not the first blog touching on this topic. From “Make-believe is not the same as lying” on the Imagine Inquiry blog:

…lying involves an intention to deceive for unscrupulous reasons. For me, the motivation is all-important when we are talking about adults ‘lying’ to children. If adults lie to children to deceive them for unscrupulous reasons, then this is reprehensible and has no place in a classroom (or anywhere else). However, if adults create an imaginary scenario or context for or with the children, with the primary intention of developing their learning, then the motivation is principled and it should not be called lying. I prefer the term make-believe.

A serious allegation

The accusation that adults lie to children every time they tell them an untruth is one lacking nuance and sophistication. It implies teachers who use imaginary situations in their classrooms are acting in an unprincipled way, deceiving their students, without their agreement or understanding and against their best interests.

Well good on you Tim. Whoever these people are going on about lying, they are clearly wrong. I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, and this is the earliest of our three blogs on this topic, there is something going on here beyond me quoting from blogs I happen to agree with by people who spend a lot of their online life bitching about me. Here, from Primary Ramblings, is “WHY DO PRIMARY TEACHERS “LIE” TO THEIR PUPILS?“,  the story of the origin of these terrible accusations. This section follows a description of an activity where students pretended to be taking a trip to Australia:

At no point did I say, “We’re only pretending to fly to Australia”. There was a tacit understanding that what we were doing was ‘make-believe’ and the children bought into it fully, immersing themselves in the excitement of going on holiday to a foreign country. At 3.15 many of the children came and told me that this had been one of the best days ever; that they had loved flying to Australia and that they wanted to learn more about the country. The next day they came in with photos, books, souvenirs and a thirst for knowledge about all things Australian. They were hooked and wanted to learn more.

So why, I wonder, do some teachers regard such activities as dishonest and duplicitous? Last night @oldandrewuk tweeted (about another blogpost):

“This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?”

I couldn’t help but reply, and an interesting “debate” ensued, where @oldandrewuk tied my words in knots and tripped me up over semantics.

However hard he tried to make me look foolish and question my ideology, @oldandrewuk cannot convince me that we are “lying” to children in any sort of sinister way and that immersing children in their learning through drama or simply through setting up scenarios that encourage them to suspend their disbelief is a practice that needs “justifying”.

Good grief, what a bastard. Objecting to an activity which seems to have been both fun and informative on the basis of such a silly accusation. Who is this malevolent Tweeter? The name rings a bell…

Oh, crap it’s me.

What?

Yes, I am apparently the guilty man. I am the one who objects to role-playing on grounds of honesty. Taking a position that seems to be half-way between Plato and Sheldon Cooper I have declared war on play, role-playing and, no doubt, Santa Claus. And just in case anyone is under any doubt that it’s all my fault, here is Debra Kidd’s facetious comment from the second of our 3 blogs:

Very clever analysis Tim and you put to shame some of the sloppy thinking of those we shall not name (ironically those who choose to remain nameless and are thereby lying about their identity!)

I had intended to let this drop. I was annoyed at reading comments like this (and other in a similar vein):

How sad that we have someone like Andrew old teaching our children who obviously fundamentally fails to understand the learning and thought processes of human beings. I find it incredible that someone of his supposed erudition can have such ignorance.

However, I assumed it would all blow over. But no we are getting close to a month later and people are still writing blogs about the terrible accusations I’ve made. So I figure I might as well point out what I actually commented on, what I actually said, so that at least if this continues people have a fair idea of who’s being straight here.

Some time back, I read this blogpost about a literacy day in a primary school.

Several staff and SLT meetings into term, the idea of a whole-school writing day had been mentioned, without particular conviction, numerous times; vague ideas had been put forward and then quickly dismissed as the weeks passed. On one  miserable morning though, waiting for the very last Year Six latecomers to arrive, I noticed that the patch of unused wasteland adjacent to our field had been occupied by builders who, in a matter of days, already had the shells of new housing erected, with construction continuing apace.

Buoyed by the idea that slowly unveiled itself to me over the next few days, I asked at the end of the next staff meeting to talk about the by-now maligned topic of a writing day: what if we could secure the loan of  builders’ tools, machinery and apparel, spread them over our grounds before the start of school one day and tell the children that, unless they could prevent them from doing so, our neighbouring builders would be turning the  field into houses too?

As luck had it, an ex-parent was the proprietor of a local construction company and, after a surprsingly simple phone call, an agreement had been reached whereby he would provide us with diggers, skips, a lorry, cement mixers and less glamorous but equally authentic hard hats and high-vis vests.

So, with props acquired and a rough idea of what we wanted to achieve formualted, the (enjoyable, as it turned out) process of planning a writing day began. We decided to abandon yeaching by year goups and opted instead to group children by similar levels of attainment; we agreed on a series of progressively more challenging tasks which began with writing protest slogans and banners and stretched to writing and delivering persuasive speeches.

With planning and preparation complete, one final flourish was added: a local actor agreed to join us for the project, playing the role of the high-ranking council official who would have the final say in whether or not the proposed building would be allowed to proceed…

I found the whole thing fascinating. I reblogged it on the Echo Chamber. It all seemed exciting and genuinely educational. However, there didn’t seem to be any indication that the kids would understand that events were staged and I did wonder about that. Then, last month I read this blogpost about activities based around a teacher claiming to have lost a pencil case. Again, there seemed to be no indication that the children would consider events to be anything other than real. It struck me then how casually lying to the class was presented as a stimulus for activity, and so, on Twitter, I asked the question:

This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?

There was nothing in either blog to suggest that the children were party to the role-playing. It was not about role-playing. And it was not intended to indicate that I had decided it was all wrong, just that I was wondering whether it was wrong. That’s all. There was a post on Mumsnet on a similar topic:

Today ds1 went abck [sic] to school and was really looking forward to it.

I went to get him at 3.15 and he was absolutely busting to tell me about the ‘thing’ that had landed in the woodland bit of the playground.

I followed him and a large crowd of grown ups and children was standing around this thing, which looked to me very much like a huge air conditioning unit half buried in the ground, with a slightly blackened tree next to it.

I have to admit I immediately thought it was a kind of set up, for fun – there was stripey tape all round it and nobody allowed to touch.

Ds told me that it had apparently ‘crashed’ last night, and was from a satellite or spaceship or similar and it even had the voltage written on it!

He loves this kind of thing so was utterly serious and really quite blown away by the idea. They had spent all day finding out about it and someone from the BBC had apparently come and interviewed a witness, with a microphone but no camera.

There is nothing on the BBC website. The newsletter just arrived and there is a large paragraph about it – ‘We hope the children enjoyed the ‘space mystery’ today, our project this term is all about space’ etc etc…

I didn’t know what to do, so stupidly, probably, I told ds it wasn’t actually from a spaceship, and he started to cry sad

I mean is this just like the Father Christmas thing we do with them, or is it actually rather cruel of them to lie about something so potentially thrilling – I have probably done the wrong thing but he would have found out later anyway no doubt and been MORE upset.

He is insisting the newsletter is wrong and is very cross and fed up.

Can anyone talk me down, I really don’t need another confrontation with the HT…I am just so sad for him.

It’s got me thinking, but I don’t deal with small children. I’ve never even had to think about things like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Not my area at all. But I can think of lies that I thought were justified, and lies that weren’t, in a school context, and I did wonder about these three scenarios. I think part of my concern is a wider issue about manipulating students and their feelings. A lot of talk about “engagement” is about making students feel the way that suits us, regardless of whether we should be trying to manipulate their feelings. So I am curious, just curious, about this issue and would like to hear from teachers of young children as to what they think.

But will people please stop writing blogs arguing with this ridiculous straw man about all role-playing being lying? It’s almost like some people just want an excuse to have a go.

Update 22/7/2014: I can’t resist adding this story from the BBC to the examples.

A head teacher has apologised after a 3ft (90cm) fake egg designed to aid learning ended up scaring pupils. The egg was part of a project which aimed to encourage group discussion at Holy Trinity Primary School, Halstead. Headmaster Jon Smith told parents there had been an “amazing discovery” and the egg had been “cordoned off”. But an apology was issued after it emerged some had been “worried by it” and one parent posted on Twitter that their children had been “in tears”.

Update 20/5/2017: Here is another story of this type.

Teachers have been accused of traumatising pupils with a crime scene investigation of a fake crime scene.

Children as young as five arrived to see their classroom had been sealed off with police tape surrounding a chalk outline of a body.

Teachers, dressed in white forensic coats, told pupils the classroom was a ‘crime scene’.

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