Archive for May, 2018


Zen and the Art of Going to the Lavatory

May 30, 2018

There was a lot of controversy on Twitter this weekend after one troll who works at an expensive private school overseas boasted that they let their students “go to the bathroom” whenever they wanted. A teacher at a state secondary ended up in a Twitter storm for pointing out why this is not allowed in their school. A lot of what followed was just the usual teacher-bashing and trolling you get on edutwitter from people who would never work in a tough school. But some non-teachers genuinely didn’t understand what the issue is. I said I’d write a post explaining, only to remember I wrote this one ten years ago. I’ve added some updated remarks at the end.

Scenes From The Battleground

“How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you, the basis of an entire culture.”

Von Richthoven (Adrian Edmondson), Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989

Simple, insignificant things become complicated at tough schools. You are constantly supervising dozens of students who have no social or moral restraint when it comes to causing harm to others or thwarting the purposes of the school. Something as insignificant as allowing a student out of the classroom to go to the toilet becomes a potential threat to learning which has to be evaluated, dealt with and, more often than not, justified.

There are several reasons why teachers can’t just let students answer the call of nature:

  • There is often a problem of internal truancy. Students who should be in lessons stay in the corridors. Sometimes they play games or attempt to intimidate passers-by…

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The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour. Part 1

May 28, 2018

There are two basic reasons why schools need discipline.

The first is the practical point. Schools need to be safe and effective. If children and teachers live in fear, or if it becomes impractical to actually teach, then a school is not fit for purpose. Discipline is necessary to prevent disruption and danger. To deny this, is to deny human nature and declare children to be natural saints, who will behave perfectly without the need for boundaries and consequences.

The second is the moral point. We are responsible for our actions. While there must be exceptions to this principle, they are exceptional. Schools are not psychiatric hospitals; children are not insane and discipline is not therapy. Refusing to hold children responsible for their actions can only stunt their moral development. We all need to know we can make the right choices, and we all need the structures that encourage those right choices.

However, there is an alternative narrative that denies these points. This narrative can be identified with progressive education. It relies on the belief that children are natural saints, and we need only liberate them from adult authority and remove whatever obstacles are preventing them from behaving in a saintly way. In this post I will look at the first of these points: children liberated from adult authority.

John Dewey summed up his view of a non-coercive but orderly community in Experience and Education. He argued that just as children play games by cooperating, without the need for an external authority, there is a limited need for authority in education.

I do not mean by this that there are no occasions upon which the authority of, say, the parent does not have to intervene and exercise fairly direct control. But I do say that, in the first place, the number of these occasions is slight in comparison with the number of those in which the control is exercised by situations in which all take part. And what is even more important, the authority in question when exercised in a well-regulated household or other community group is not a manifestation of merely personal will; the parent or teacher exercises it as the representative and agent of the interests of the group as a whole. With respect to the first point, in a well ordered school the main reliance for control of this and that individual is upon the activities carried on and upon the situations in which these activities are maintained. The teacher reduces to a minimum the occasions in which he or she has to exercise authority in a personal way. When it is necessary, in the second place, to speak and act firmly, it is done in behalf of the interest of the group, not as an exhibition of personal power. This makes the difference between action, which is arbitrary, and that which is just and fair.

Moreover, it is not necessary that the difference should be formulated in words, by either teacher or the young, in order to be felt in experience. The number of children who do not feel the difference (even if they cannot articulate it and reduce it to an intellectual principle) between action that is motivated by personal power and desire to dictate and action that is fair, because in the interest of all, is small. I should even be willing to say that upon the whole children are more sensitive to the signs and symptoms of this difference than are adults. Children learn the difference when playing with one another. They are willing, often too willing if anything, to take suggestions from one child and let him be a leader if his conduct adds to the experienced value of what they are doing, while they resent the attempt at dictation. Then they often withdraw and when asked why, say that it is because so-and-so “is too bossy.”

I do not wish to refer to the traditional school in ways which set up a caricature in lieu of a picture. But I think it is fair to say that one reason the personal commands of the teacher so often played an undue role and a season why the order which existed was so much a matter of sheer obedience to the will of an adult was because the situation almost forced it upon the teacher. The school was not a group or community held together by participation in common activities. Consequently, the normal, proper conditions of control were lacking. Their absence was made up for, and to a considerable extent had to be made up for, by the direct intervention of the teacher, who, as the saying went, “kept order.” He kept it because order was in the teacher’s keeping, instead of residing in the shared work being done.

The conclusion is that in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility. Most children are naturally “sociable.” Isolation is even more irksome to them than to adults. A genuine community life has its ground in this natural sociability.

The strongest argument against this is, of course, to watch actual children playing games and see how often they fail to regulate themselves. If you’ve ever had to supervise a boys’ PE cover in a tough school, with unfamiliar kids and you might have some inkling of just how much adult authority children can need just to play a game for fun. Even a teacher working with a more refined intake will not necessarily develop a rosy view of human nature from watching children play. William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, was a grammar school teacher, yet had no optimism about the benevolence of children deprived of adult authority.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about what actually happens when children are left unregulated in her essay “The Crisis of Education” which was published in this book. She described the progressive ideal:

… there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening. The real and normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are thus broken off. And so it is of the essence of this first basic assumption that it takes into account only the group and not the individual child.

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others. There are very few grown people who can endure such a situation, even when it is not supported by external means of compulsion; children are simply and utterly incapable of it.

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.

Who is right? Dewey or Arendt?

I don’t think there is much debate about this among classroom teachers. Certainly not in secondary schools. We know that the hierarchies formed among children are far less benevolent than the one that puts the teacher in charge. We know that unsupervised kids can cause a hell of a lot of trouble. Maybe not every time and not all the time, but often enough to know that adults must have authority over children for children to be safe and for children to learn effectively. We know that slogans like “positive behaviour management” or “restorative justice” mean little more than letting kids get away with it.

Possibly the only alternative model that might be supported by a classroom teacher is one where the teacher manipulates children, without the need for explicit authority, like the monstrous progressive teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who manipulates a group of girls in completely unethical ways. Ironically, refusing to exercise adult authority over children’s actions, can actually require greater adult control over their thoughts. If the rule of the mob is to be avoided, the methods of the cult leader, or the propagandist, are the most likely alternative to the natural authority of adults over children. But even these methods, seek only to direct the mob, not to limit its authority.

Next time I will look at the second part of the progressive narrative on behaviour: the denial of personal responsibility.


If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions

May 26, 2018

Back in 1997, Labour was elected on a manifesto which promised:

Teachers will be entitled to positive support from parents to promote good attendance and sound discipline. Schools suffer from unruly and disruptive pupils. Exclusion or suspension may sometimes be necessary. We will, however, pilot new pupil referral units so that schools are protected but these pupils are not lost to education or the country.

Unfortunately, once in government, ministers listened to the education establishment, and before long attitudes to discipline moved in the opposite direction. In particular, the policy of “inclusion”, which was meant to be about providing provision in mainstream schools for disabled students and students with SEN, started to be used to justify keeping badly behaved children in school and in lessons. I have a strong recollection from my second year of teaching, back in 2003, of a senior figure from the local authority coming to my school at the start of the year and explaining there would be no permanent exclusions in Coventry that year.

Without exclusions for the worst offences, all discipline was undermined. Things that should have resulted in a permanent exclusion, were dealt with by temporary exclusions or internal isolation. Things that should have resulted in a temporary exclusion or internal isolation resulted in a detention instead. Things that should have been resulted in a detention were ignored. School discipline became a national concern over the next few years, with the Tories using it as a campaign issue from 2005 onwards, a couple of television documentaries exposing what was happening, and the  government commissioning a report which sought to gloss over the problems. The opposition put forward a tougher line. In 2008 the Guardian described the Tories plans:

Under the Tories, parents would no longer have the right to an external appeal to challenge headteachers’ decision to exclude their child. They would only be able to appeal to school governors rather than local authority-run independent appeals panels, as under the present system.

The move is in response to fears that growing numbers of ill-disciplined children are being allowed back into school because parents know how to “play the system”.

The Tory leader, David Cameron, will say that teachers do not have the powers they need to keep order.

“The problem doesn’t lie with teachers – it lies with the rules and regulations which stop teachers imposing proper discipline,” he is expected to say.

“We will change this by giving teachers and heads the powers they need. We’ll make it easier to expel disruptive kids. We’ll stop forcing schools to take in violent pupils who have been kicked out of another school.”

Changes were made after the Conservatives entered government, and the rate of permanent exclusions did go up as planned and, in my experience, schools became safer.

But eventually political leadership in education became weaker than it was under Michael Gove, and the counter-revolution began just as it did under Labour. Educational commentators, politicians and most of all, education establishment figures, have started talking as if:

  1. The increase in permanent exclusions was a bad thing.
  2. Rather than being a result of deliberate government policy, it must be due to some other new development in schools.
  3. Schools needed to be told that permanent exclusion is a last resort.

And these assertions seem to go unchallenged repeatedly.

It is up to teachers to put the counter-arguments:

  1. Exclusion is a last resort. No school casually uses permanent exclusions. Nobody who doesn’t work in a school needs to tell us this is how it should be. This is not the same as it being a bad thing or showing a school doesn’t care.
  2. Permanent exclusions are necessary for the safety of children and teachers. The stories of what happens when schools don’t exclude are horrific. Anyone suggesting exclusions should be reduced, should explain exactly why more assaults, vandalism, dangerous behaviour and disruption should be tolerated. And if they are not willing to work in a dangerous environment themselves, or send their own kids into one, they should explain why they think it’s okay for teachers and okay for everyone else’s children to be put at risk.
  3. There is no mystery about increased exclusions. Schools were given more power to protect their staff and students and used it. Ideologues suggesting that the rise in exclusions is an accidental side effect of strict discipline policies, school league tables or a more academic curriculum should be called out for their transparent attempt to use this issue to advance their own preexisting ideological concerns.
  4. Attempts to reduce exclusions were a disaster here, and they have been a disaster in other countries too (e.g. Australia and the U.S.). Any attempt to limit exclusions will simply result in more tolerance for dangerous and violent behaviour.
  5. Exclusions are for the benefit of the victims, not the perpetrators. It is not meant to be therapy. Exclusions are needed because nobody should go into school wondering if they will be assaulted or abused today and knowing that the perpetrators will not be stopped.
  6. If permanent exclusions are not allowed to happen through the official channels, there is every reason to think they will happen unofficially, with schools forcing kids out in other ways, which will have fewer safeguards and be less open to scrutiny. And this is not a sign that some school leaders are morally depraved and corrupt and hate children. This is because some school leaders will do anything to protect their staff and students.

There are, of course, other issues around the fairness and appropriateness of permanent exclusions and I will return to some of those. But the basic principle that every school should be a safe school is one we should stand up for at a time when it’s under fire from those who care nothing about the victims of extreme behaviour in schools.


How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree Part 3

May 20, 2018

In my previous post about silencing educational traditionalists online I discussed the use of bogus legal threats to intimidate. Another common method of trying to silence people, is the use of abuse. I’ve blogged before about the Progressive Trolls who try to drive traditionalists off of social media. The last attempt to form a twitter mob against me, (somebody found an old post satirising the idea that the badly behaved all have SEN) resulted in the following :

I’ve talked a lot about “school shaming” where schools, particularly those with more traditionalists approaches, are subjected to campaigns of online intimidation and abuse, negative media coverage and vexatious FOI requests.

As well as bogus legal threats, online abuse and school shaming campaigns, I’ve also began to notice the use of spurious complaints to people’s schools and universities for expressing the wrong opinions. Unfortunately, most of the victims of such behaviour cannot go on the record for fear of the consequences. Bloggers who are generally uncontroversial have been told that they must stop blogging. At least one anonymous blogger was forced to quit their job after their identity was revealed to their employer. One teacher told me their headteacher had received letters of complaint, that were initially acted on, just for recommending my blog on Twitter.

A few people were able to talk about their experiences publicly.

Tom Bennett, behaviour expert and researchED supremo told me:

When I was asked by the DfE to lead behaviour reviews, that’s when the Angry Brigade really got their engines started. Now I consider it a quiet day if someone isn’t firing off bitter, poorly spelled tweets that mysteriously include the handles of the DfE, Secretaries I’d State etc. I’ve even had venues I’m holding researchED in harassed because lonely keyboard warriors feel compelled to make their internal struggles with joy a public issue. It’s largely fine- when you become part of a lively and public discourse, you expect pushback. But the tactic of ‘I’ll tell your boss’ is rather weird if the reason is simply ‘I disagree with you.’ That’s simply an attempt to shut down debate through intimidation. Happily I’m self employed, so my boss is unlikely to sack me. My favourite incident was when someone emailed researchED (which is me) and told them to sack me.

Greg Ashman, blogger, author and PhD student described what happened following a blogpost:

…a number of Australian academics complained to my university. As I understand it, the complaint was about me making fun of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference. Specifically, I joked about how some of the paper titles sounded silly. The complaint was thrown out because I didn’t claim to be representing my university when making these comments and because I am allowed to have opinions about education.

Bodil Isaksen, blogged about education and worked at Michaela school which is known for its traditionalist leanings. When she moved to working for Unlocked Graduates, a charity who work with prison officers, she described what she was told by one of her new employers:

My boss told me that she got “warnings” not to employ me in my new role when I updated my Twitter with my new role. Along the lines of “do you know who you’ve just employed?” with links to lots of Michaela stuff. As it happened, my boss was on Twitter so understood the venom, and was herself at a highly criticised new school so she just found it funny and ignored it. Also, I had been at Unlocked for a while before I put it on Twitter. But I dread to think the effect it could have had if that wasn’t the case.

In this blogpost, a school governor who had praised some traditionalist bloggers described how one person familiar with things he’d said on Twitter, chose to:

… call the school office and headteacher on a weekly basis for two months, still threatening to call in the police and go to the media because of my supposedly disgraceful behaviour. Worst of all, this person knew the effect of they were doing, making references to wanting the principal to prioritise their complaint over improving the life chances of 350 “poor” children, and threatening to “drag the school through the mud”. This was not a dignified phone call asking for the headteacher to make up their own mind and be trusted to take appropriate action. This was the offline equivalent of endless Twitter hectoring. Ironically, our principal did also consider going to the police to make it stop.

I’ve no reason to think that there are more than a handful of people doing this sort of thing. There may be some overlap in those whose actions are described above, or some overlap with people whose actions were described in my other blogposts on silencing traditionalists. But what is clear is that, if you are unlucky, expressing educational traditionalist views can be enough in itself to lead to retaliation.


How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree. Part 2

May 19, 2018

This is a follow up to this post, and is the second of three posts about attempts to silence educational traditionalists online.

In the last year or two, I have seen an apparent rise in the use of legal threats against educational traditionalists. It’s probably worth bearing in mind when reading what follows that, legally, something can only be defamatory if it is untrue. Or at least that’s how I understand it, but obviously don’t take my legal advice, I’m not a lawyer. Opinions, even insults, are not defamation if they do not make false claims.

When Greg Ashman wrote a blogpost observing that a consultant who claimed there was “no best way to teach” had been the leader on OFSTED inspections where traditional teaching was criticised, a blog comment made the following threats:

The blog is defamatory and posting libel via social media (The writer has linked to this blog post on Twitter), or anywhere else, can have consequences.

I have *never* in any of my many inspections transferred any bias (I have none, regarding teaching methods, have developed the hashtag #nobestwayoverall which supports that and I support ‘Trad’ teaching, in context. There is valuable methodology in ‘trad’.) into any inspection I ever led, or in which I was a team member. This is simply a personal attack to support the writer’s belief that Ofsted inspectors transfer anti-‘trad’ views to inspection and he’s picked on me to try to illustrate that, as I don’t believe ‘Trad’ is the best way overall.

I would like this blog to be removed. If the author would like to contact me by email, or by DM on Twitter, we can sort this amicably; or he can delete the blog.

Repeated requests to identify any actual falsehoods in the post did not get anywhere and no case was brought. Another progressive claimed “I’m investigating the potential for defamation in his actions” when Greg criticised project based learning. Again, no case was brought.

A little over a year ago I blogged about the case of “Teaching Newbie”, a trainee teacher who blogged and tweeted about her experiences as a TA and as a trainee. After a visit to Michaela school in which she praised their behaviour system for being “no excuses”. She mentioned a couple of bloggers who had made comments critical of such systems. She mentioned one who had said

“there’s a thing called ‘no excuses’ is the wrong way to open up a discussion, in my opinion. Assumes the worst about kids”

and another who had said that such systems were:

“Entirely without compassion”

Teaching Newbie was then told in her blog comments by one of the bloggers and by a PGCE tutor (who she didn’t know personally) on Twitter that she could be sued for defamation. This threat was ridiculous, but the PGCE tutor was insistent telling Teaching Newbie she had put herself in “personal danger”. You cannot be sued for disagreeing with people, but she removed the name of these two bloggers, while refusing to remove her own opinions. When this failed to silence Teaching Newbie, the PGCE tutor then told Teaching Newbie that bloggers could be easily identified; that her context was “identifiable”, that her ” blog and identity can be easily traced”. Given the context of the conversation, this was intimidating enough for Teaching Newbie to delete her Twitter account and blog.

When I wrote about this incident, I was kind enough to avoid mentioning the PGCE tutor’s name, so as to avoid a Twitter witch hunt and as far as I can tell I stuck entirely to the facts. She wrote a number of comments on that blogpost, identifying herself and making comments such as:

All I can say is that fair minded people with a smallish number of followers will not be frightened by the Twitter big hitters and will seek recourse to legal procedures if necessary

If you had the slightest concern of in any way inciting or being privy to inciting a witch hunt surely you could have been laying yourself and others open to criminal charges. I have spent much time in the last days seeking legal/police advice.

If you continue to accuse me of bullying which is a highly serious accusation, without substantiated evidence I will contact my local police. I have no qualms about doing this. … So your accusations of bullying have no substance and I construe them as malicious in an attempt to damage me. As I say it is your choice if you truly and legally stand by your accusations. Otherwise I shall contact my local police shortly.

I am following professional advice here on dealing with on line attack. This is not bullying but my legal right to defend myself against unfounded allegations. We all know that the advice given to people in this situation is to inform the local police.

Again, where threats of legal action were mentioned, I asked for details of anything I had said that was factually wrong and got nowhere. While I understand that the writer of the intimidating comments claims they were just giving friendly advice, they were not interpreted as such by Teaching Newbie. Teaching Newbie had not asked for advice from somebody who had previously supported threats to sue her for defamation and had apparently taken the time to identify Teaching Newbie and work out what harm revealing her identity might do. I dismissed the legal threats and threats to contact the police and thought that would be the end of it. I even joked about it.

A few weeks later I received (as an email attachment) a letter from somebody working for a firm of solicitors quoting various comments (one of which was not even about their client) telling me that:

Whilst you have attempted to justify the publications you have made, we do not consider that you would have any defence under the Defamation Act 2013…. our client would like this matter to be resolved We therefore request that you remove your comments in relation to our client from your blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts and provide our client with an apology by 4.00 pm on Wednesday 21 June 2017

It seemed to me the main claim in the letter, that “It is clear from your comments that you were not just accusing our client of engaging in bullying behaviour but you also accused our client of being a bully” was false. As a teacher, I’m very familiar with phrasing things so as to describe a child’s bad behaviour rather than labelling the child as bad. But I’m not a lawyer, and believing something is false and proving it in court is not the same thing. So I contacted a solicitor recommended by somebody I knew from Twitter, and paid for them to respond on my behalf. I’m not saying the reply my solicitor sent was dismissive, but it began by describing the original complaint as “bemusing” and ended by suggesting that if she really wanted the consequences of bringing an unfounded claim “your client should issue proceedings forthwith”.

The only response received through official channels claimed “our client is ….currently considering her further options in respect of this matter” and that was the end of the involvement by lawyers. Some pretty strange stuff appeared on social media afterwards. Really strange. Some of it was still threatening. A lot of it was just silly. Narratives appeared in which sending me legal threats was an act of great heroism. My favourite version of the story was the conspiracy theory in which my lawyers acted for free (they didn’t) because of their mysterious connections to an online publication.

All I know is that one edutwitter progressive thought it a great idea to tell a part-time teacher earning £21 grand a year that, unless they deleted their opinions, they could face legal action which could cost tens or hundreds of thousands to defend against. They also thought it okay not to withdraw the threat or apologise but instead leave the teacher with the worry that it could be carried out at any time. And they did so because they were so offended at the suggestion they were the sort of person who made threats to silence teachers. If I hadn’t thought and said that before, I can certainly say that now.


Does this data show a primary school cheating in KS2 exams?

May 13, 2018

If you have worked in secondary schools, particularly in maths and English, you have probably heard gossip about that feeder school, the one whose kids come through with KS2 results that seem too high and this kid who went there told a TA who told a teacher, who told another teacher, who told you that there was some kind of cheating going on.

I’m inclined to be sceptical about these stories. I’ve heard the same story exactly about too many very different schools. More importantly, while there are definitely kids whose KS2 results massively overstate their abilities, there are also kids whose results are massively understated too, and we tend not to remember those kids quite so clearly as the kid we put in top set maths who does all their working out on their fingers. Inaccuracy alone is not evidence of cheating.

That said, high stakes tests do create incentives to bend or break the rules, and certainly an incentive to ignore mistakes in the wrong direction. And I have seen a couple of posts recently about this issue written by bloggers who work in primary schools:

A few weeks ago, Education Datalab wrote a post about Difficult questions about some schools’ Key Stage 2 results which you should probably read before continuing.

But just in case you don’t, it looks at results like this for students in one school with several different feeder primary schools:

Students who arrived from school H are making far less progress that their Key Stage 2 results would suggest they should. The post notes that children in school H achieved far higher results at Key Stage 2 than expected, compared with the other schools, and asks:

This is a real example. The secondary school is in an Ofsted category, criticised in its latest inspection for the progress of its most able pupils.

School H is rated outstanding.

We need to ask difficult questions about the Key Stage 2 results of School H.

Was it really the case that pupils performed at such a level at School H that they simply could not maintain their progress at secondary school?

Could they have received additional assistance when taking their KS2 tests?

Does test security need to be improved?

I think the blogposts I linked to earlier make a good, if anecdotal case, for improving test security, regardless of this set of data. However, the question that fascinates me here is whether the data does suggest children at school H have received additional assistance, or show any other kind of rule bending or cheating has taken place.

And I’m going to answer “no”, at least not without further data.

I think that if a school is very effective, doing all the right things and not cheating, children will achieve better than expected. However, I’m not sure we should expect them to continue to progress well. Academic achievement is a mix of what a child brings to a school (and I’m not going near the issue of the extent to which that comes from nature or nurture) and the teaching and support in the school; both “in school” and “out of school” factors. A highly effective school will get good results from kids whose “out of school” factors would normally lower their achievement. But the negative “out of school” factors will still exist, and yet their results will see them compared with students who will achieved those same results with only positive “out of school” factors. You would expect them to do less well than other students with the same Key Stage 2 results because you would expect those “out of school” factors to affect their achievement in their secondary school. There’s also room here for some kind of regression to the mean as well, although I’m not going to suggest how that would work.

It is well known in education research that the effect of educational interventions “wash out” (i.e. the relative educational gains will be far less the longer you wait before measuring them). I think the effects of great primary schools will also “wash out” over time. I think there is a general problem here with controlling by results from a previous school that needs to be addressed. We should expect some degree of “washing out” for the effects of highly effective education whenever we control for prior results, and we need a way to predict it.

And by the way, this is not the first time I’ve seen this problem. I’ve also seen people use A-level results as a control when considering how students from different types of school do at university and conclude that comprehensive students do better at university than students from grammars or independent schools. Again, a “wash out” effect for the advantages of selective or private schooling, could explain such data. Controlling for previous results is not straightforward if the same results can have different causes for different children.

And so to conclude, interpreting education data is complicated and we probably know less than we thought we did.

Damn it.


Learning Styles – The fad which will not die

May 5, 2018

Teacher Tapp is an app that surveys teachers every day. While those who answer are self-selecting so it is probably not completely reflective of all teachers, it’s probably going to be biased towards the more informed teacher, rather than the less informed. This makes the following result (reported here last week) somewhat concerning.

That’s an overwhelming vote in favour of learning styles. This is a shock.

I’ve written about learning styles in the past:

A rough summary of the situation is that there is no good research evidence for any learning styles, the most famous types of learning styles are known to be based on pseudo science, and there is still a significant unclaimed reward available to anyone who can demonstrate that learning styles work (details here).

In recent years, although there have remained a handful of true believers on edutwitter, it’s been almost a given that nobody believes in learning styles. I’ve seen traditionalists attacked for daring to point out something so outdated or irrelevant. It’s been described as an easy target and a non-issue that people only raise to signal their own virtue, not a live issue in teaching. And now we see this.

Of course, as was the case with my last blogpost, people who have turned out to be wrong, and people arguing for something that’s without evidence, will always declare unambiguous statements to be ambiguous or find ways to dismiss or attack those who are interested in the truth.

Here are the main excuses given for why this result about learning styles isn’t an embarrassment to the profession.

  1. There’s good and bad learning styles. Like most pseudo-science, the first line of defence is to suggest that’s what has been discredited is completely different to what’s actually still being promoted. And so, there’s been a lot of claims that while the bad, old VAK learning styles may have been discredited, there’s no problem accepting that there may be some new theory of learning styles out there that it’s okay to believe. In the same way one might argue that newspaper horoscopes might not work, but there are still expert astrologers out there who can tell you your future. Of course, nobody can prove that a theory too new or obscure to be tested has been shown not to work, but the burden of argument is on those who put forward new theories of learning. If they haven’t, even with a prize available, then there is an obvious explanation: the theory is not true.
  2. They didn’t actually mean “styles”. For those who really like learning styles, but know they’ve been discredited, there has been a tendency to say one is talking about “learning preferences” instead before saying all the same things again. This is the same trick use by anti-semites, who replace the word “Jew” with “Zionists” before expressing all the same prejudices. Of course, people probably do have learning preferences. They might prefer to learn one way and not another. But this is pretty much an irrelevance if you want somebody to learn effectively. In fact, indulging those who want to learn in an ineffective way might be actively harmful to them; it might develop bad habits that prevent learning in the future. We all know kids often have preferences that damage learning. Think of the kids who revise by covering their book in highlighter pen rather than by self-quizzing. Think of the child who “cannot write” unless their book and their entire body is turned to face their friends (and it is always to face their friends, they never have the same need to face the wall).
  3. It just means children are different. If one is caught making an indefensible statement, it is best to redefine it as a truism. Of course children are different. They different in knowledge, behaviour, personality, and working memory capacity. But, all theses things can be used to some degree, and under some circumstances, to make reliable predictions about learning. The point is that nobody can make reliable predictions about learning based on learning styles theories. If we want teachers to look at differences that matter to learning rather than those that don’t, we can’t simply redefine the latter to be the former.
  4. But what about…? I guess this is down to the fact that a politician shared the results above and said they were “concerning”, but loads of people suddenly found a strong desire to discuss every possible educational issue other than learning styles. This is a bit of a test of what people think the education system is for. If it’s about getting kids to learn, then widespread false beliefs about how we learn should be very concerning. If it turned out doctors were trying to treat cancer by finding the correct balance of the four humours, nobody would say “Who cares? The real issue is NHS funding”. It is only because many of those involved in education, don’t see learning as central to the purpose of schools, that people will can dismiss this as an unimportant issue. If it doesn’t matter what teachers believe about teaching and learning, then we aren’t teachers. If people are to be paid as professionals, we expect professional expertise.

Teacher professionalism has become a bit of an issue lately. A lot has been written about whether teachers need new organisations, more training, or a different career structure in order for teaching to be more professional. Here’s my suggestion: How about we actually train teachers in the facts about learning, not the myths, and don’t let them qualify without passing a test about this? When I trained to teach, I had to sit a skills test assessing that I knew how a spreadsheet works, but nobody ever checked I knew how learning worked.

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