Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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The Obligatory Michaela Post

January 18, 2017

I visited Michaela Community School today.

Traditionally, posts about visits to the school tend to say:

  1. It was like no other school;
  2. The behaviour is the best ever;
  3. There are routines for everything;
  4. The levels of achievement are unprecedented;
  5. The pedagogy was new and exciting.

In a way it didn’t really live up to that for me. And I don’t mean that as a criticism, I just think the great things about the school are not so exotic or different. I think that much of what they do can be seen in schools up and down the country; I just think that few of those schools are state comprehensives.

I worked for a couple of terms at a selective, independent school and also a term in a girls grammar school. The behaviour  at those schools was just as good and the achievement probably better (although given I’m talking about highly selective schools it is impressive that I have to say “probably”). The description of Michaela as a “state school with a private school ethos” is probably the most accurate (not that there aren’t private schools out there with a terrible ethos). The real tragedy is not that there are no children out there already experiencing a Michaela-style education, but that you normally have to have parents able to pay school fees or for a private tutor to get that sort of education. While I can understand that many teachers have never seen anything like this, what makes it exceptional is simply that education with such high expectations can be found in a state comprehensive in Brent.

I think my view of the pedagogy was somewhat shaped by my subject. The language lessons and RE lessons I saw did seem unlike anything I had seen elsewhere, because of their intense, interactive, didactic style. The maths lessons didn’t seem so unfamiliar. I think good maths teaching looks pretty much the same everywhere: explanation and practice. Where the maths lessons stood out was in the quality of the resources and the behaviour of the students. Similarly the routines that I had heard so much about were, at least in lessons, not that different to what I have seen elsewhere; what was different was the willingness with which students complied with them.

And so I guess it all comes down to behaviour and motivation. This school appears to have shown that it is possible to create a culture in a state comprehensive that is similar to the best of the private sector. Everything else seems to flow from that. It is not obvious from walking round how they have created that culture, although their book gives a lot of indicators. What is going to be interesting is how much of a boost to results that culture actually creates. It feels like they are on course for breaking records, but who can tell at this point?

So if Michaela is exceptional because of who the education is provided for, rather than the education itself, what does that mean?

Well, firstly, we can dismiss the abuse the school has received from those who see their high expectations as cruel. They are simply what parents pay thousands for elsewhere. If Michaela is cruel then so are dozens of the most successful schools in the country, and thousands of schools across the globe. So is any institution supporting sustained and successful learning.

Secondly, we need to accept that Michaela should not be that difficult to replicate. Almost every city already has schools like this, they just aren’t open to everybody. It should be an aim to create a state comprehensive with this sort of ethos in every local authority.

Thirdly, we need to stop accepting that working class kids cannot behave. It really isn’t true. They just need help and support. We need to acknowledge how many schools routinely excuse the unacceptable.

Finally, I hope I am not downplaying what has been achieved. What is truly exceptional about Michaela is the vision and strength of purpose of the staff. Almost any other school would have long since settled for the “good enough” standard. Their achievement is not that they have done the impossible; it is that they have done what teachers have been told was impossible and that’s pretty impressive in itself. However, it is time to challenge low expectations everywhere. I see no reason there couldn’t be a thousand Michaela Schools.

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A Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers

January 18, 2017

battlehymnI am writing this on my way to visit Michaela School, as I realised that this would be my last chance to review the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, written by teachers at the school, without having my perceptions shaped by seeing the reality of what they describe.

The book consists of a series of essays about life at the school and their educational philosophy written by a variety of staff members. As you’d expect, if you’ve read any of the furious debate about the school, a lot of what is discussed are educational ideas I am already predisposed to like, in particular, zero tolerance discipline and a pedagogy based around explicit instruction in knowledge. The book would make a handy introduction to anyone interested in those issues, and would be full of ideas for a school leader hoping to implement those ideas.

Where this book differs from previous books about these topics, is in the claim that the results of consistently implementing such ideas are particularly spectacular. Throughout the book the writers indicate that while they believed in these ideas all along, even they were amazed at how well they worked in practice. It would be fair to argue that the credibility of the book depends entirely on whether the school lives up to these claims. The authors claim that their strict discipline has created an incredibly positive culture in the school. While this may, in part, be considered a reaction to those who claim that firm discipline is cruel and will make students miserable, the authors all seem agreed that firm boundaries have not only enabled students to learn more effectively, but has also affected their characters in a positive way. They also claim, and samples of students’ work seem to support this, that the focus on knowledge has enabled greater academic performance in almost every respect, including those skills whose development is often seen as in competition in the classroom with the transmission of knowledge.

Where the book has generated controversy it has been over the picture painted of other schools. As somebody who has worked in many secondary schools, in 4 different local authorities, and visited many more schools, and who knows teachers from all over the country, I see nothing that was not entirely truthful about what is normal in this country’s secondary schools. As ever, in the education debate, speaking the truth will generate more hostility than simply arguing for a controversial position. There has been little response to some of the more contentious parts of the book, like the chapter arguing against the need for qualified teachers.

Although I knew before I began reading that I would be sympathetic to the central ideas of the book, I was surprised how little I disagreed with. The school’s curriculum and pedagogy seem very carefully prescribed, and I expected to find myself disappointed at the lack of teacher autonomy. However, I actually found myself questioning my own assumptions about teachers planning lessons collaboratively. Perhaps my own experiences of this not being a good idea stem entirely from working with teachers with drastically different views of what works in the classroom. Perhaps an agreed approach to pedagogy makes all the difference in this respect. In which case, could it be that all schools should proclaim their philosophy as loudly as Michaela does?

As I said earlier, the credibility of this book will really depend on whether the school lives up to the claims in the book. I’m looking forward to visiting. In the longer term, I doubt many schools’ results will be scrutinised as closely as those of Michaela’s first cohort. One way or another, a lot of people will have to eat their words when those results are published.

 

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Behaviour Consultants

January 14, 2017

A few years ago, I think it may have been around 2010, I worked at a school where a behaviour consultant came in for our INSET. He explained to us that if we were just nicer to the kids then they would behave better. Back in 2012, I wrote about observing a behaviour panel at an education conference where a well established behaviour consultant argued that we could improve behaviour by avoiding punishment and being nicer to the kids, perhaps just having “a quiet word” where necessary. Another post back in 2008 quoted multiple behaviour consultants who thought that teachers who were angered by poor behaviour were the problem, and if we didn’t react negatively to the disruption and abuse everything would be much better. More recently, I read this blogpost by another behaviour consultant, who claimed:

Behaviour, good or bad, is not an entity in itself. It is a dynamic construct created by environment and interaction. Have high expectations by all means, but if the required behaviour is not immediately there, it is a core function of a teachers role to create it. It is the adults responsibility to set the emotional tone of the classroom, to instruct, model, coach, adapt, seek help and support until it is established.

A philosophy which meant they could then claim that it was wrong to use disciplinary procedures to protect one’s self or one’s class from bad behaviour:

Excluding by sending out of the classroom, passing the problem on to someone else, suggesting another placement is rarely a solution. Understanding the core problem and applying individual solutions with care and consistency usually is.

Understanding the core problem and applying individual solutions with care and consistency usually is. I absolutely support the concept of ‘tough love’ and would never advocate ‘turning a blind eye’. Noticing, understanding, offering solutions to problems rather than passing the buck are infinitely preferable. My starting point is usually what would I want for my own child in this situation? It is more difficult for those who are not parents, have very young children or children who find learning easy to walk in others’ shoes. If a child close to you was struggling and expressing their despair in challenging ways what would you want for them? Apply this standard to the situation, behaviour is a form of communication – what are they telling you? (After the surface F**K Off that is).

So there you go, if a teenager tells you to “fuck off” in front of a class of 31 other teenagers when you ask them to do some work, it would be really nasty to actually have them removed from the classroom, rather than solving their personal problems.

Now you may think I have cherry picked cranks here, but all of these people are reasonably prominent. There are, no doubt, plenty of more sensible people giving behaviour advice. I seem to recall Tom Bennett doing some behaviour consultancy, and I’ve also had excellent INSET on physical restraint from Team Teach. However, there is a significant industry out there of people who managers hire to come into schools to tell teachers that behaviour, rather than being primarily a product of the systems and expectations school leaders put in place, is a result of whether teachers are nice/nasty. You can imagine why such a message appeals to incompetent managers, but morally, this form of consultancy is a way of financially exploiting both teachers and students in need of genuine help not lectures on why teachers are to be blamed.

I expressed this view on Twitter a few weeks back and also asked people what bad advice they have had from behaviour consultants. Here are some of the responses.

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Nobody’s actually against knowledge are they?

December 25, 2016

I’ve written many times about those who wish to deny the debate in education. Sometimes the debate denial is so ridiculous it can be safely ignored, for instance when people express their disagreement with traditionalists and simultaneously claim that it’s all a false dichotomy and nobody really disagrees. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to disassociate one’s self from the history of one’s own ideas; for instance, when people complain about labels like “progressive” and “traditionalist” being recently introduced to the debate, even when those terms are over 100 years old. But occasionally, it is a sincere belief that what traditionalists are saying about something, particularly if it is something hard to argue against, is what everyone really believed all along.

The most recent outbreak of this seems to have been about knowledge. Traditionalists have recently been describing their position as being in favour of “knowledge based” education. I don’t really object to this term, but it has led to some progressives pretending to be mystified about the boundaries of the debate. So for instance:

Or (from this blogpost):

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

Of course, some of this is about a straw man, that those calling for more knowledge are simply opposing a position of teaching no knowledge and, therefore, their position is of no significance if you admit to occasionally passing on some information to your students. But it also seems to be an attempt to air brush out of the debate the anti-knowledge stance that was pretty mainstream among progressives until this sudden bout of denial. The same day I read the blogpost I quoted above, I also read another blogpost, that was advice for teachers in a school in England from a few weeks ago:

Skills Over Content

Whether or not we agree, there is a paradigm shift happening around us in education as knowledge becomes increasingly available and accessible. So our role as teachers must change to accommodate this. We need to start thinking of ourselves as developers of skills rather than deliverers of content.

In practice, this means starting our lesson planning by considering the skills which need to be developed rather than the content that’s next in the syllabus.

I think this sort of thing has been fairly common in recent years. I heard it very many times. I think it may have gone out of fashion now – I see it more often from overseas sources than English ones – but it is still in the culture. I find it hard to believe that this could have been missed completely by anybody. I gave this example because it was recent, not because there weren’t hundreds of other examples out there. If one really wanted to find multiple examples of people denying the importance of knowledge then I’d recommend buying Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou, as the vast majority of the myths she addresses are about the lack of importance of knowledge, and she gives multiple examples of each one, usually from influential and important sources.

If I could only pick one source to establish that a hostile attitude to the teaching of knowledge was the orthodoxy in recent years, I don’t think there’s a better example than the letter signed by 100 educationalists when Michael Gove tried to increase the amount of knowledge in the GCSE curriculum. Here are just some of the ways they described the teaching of knowledge.

…The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity…

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity…

…The mountains of detail for English, maths and science leave little space for other learning…

…A recent CBI report argued that “we need to end the culture of micro-management”, and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) that “memorisation and recall are being valued over understanding and inquiry”…

…Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning…

This is what I, and most traditionalists, are opposing when we say we favour the teaching of knowledge. We support the teaching of actual specified knowledge over the teaching of vague generic qualities like “creativity” or “cognitive development”. We don’t think teaching more knowledge means understanding is not passed on. We don’t fear facts, detail, recall or memorisation. If you don’t disagree with us, then good, but let’s not pretend that there were not people fighting against these things. Let nobody pretend there weren’t those who were appalled by the idea of teaching more knowledge in the curriculum. We cannot forget all those comments about Gradgrind, regurgitating facts, or rote-learning out of the debate. Don’t pretend to be for knowledge if the moment anyone celebrates teaching it, or recommends testing it, you will be the first to complain.

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Is criticising learning styles an attack on the poor?

December 4, 2016

No.

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Revisiting the Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education

December 4, 2016

Back in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments of “it’s what the government/OFSTED tell us to do” and “it’s what the research supports” had passed their sell-by-date. The arguments were the following:

  1. The argument from mental health;
  2. Debate denialism;
  3. The argument from political correctness;
  4. The free market conspiracy.

I thought it would be worth doing an update about how these arguments have developed over the last 18 months

1) The argument from mental health. Out of the 4 arguments I identified as trending, this is the one that took off most. At the time it had mainly took the form of the false (and somewhat racist) claim that south east Asian countries with very academic education systems had sky high youth suicide rates and, therefore, we shouldn’t learn from their example. However, a few weeks after that post, Natasha Devon was appointed as the government’s “mental health champion” and the new version of the argument appeared. It was claimed that there was a youth mental health crisis, and that exams were responsible. There were virtually no statistics to suggest there was a mental health crisis other than a rise in reported cases of self-harm that might well have resulted from better reporting of cases of self-harm. Youth suicide rates weren’t rising; children were self-reporting that they were quite happy; drug and alcohol misuse and other irresponsible behaviour among teenagers were actually declining. Even if there is an undetected youth mental health crisis going on, there was even less reason to think exams were responsible. Successive governments had been attempting to reduce the number of exams over many years now, with the abolition of KS2 science SATs, abolition of KS3 SATs, decoupling of AS-levels, abolition of modular GCSEs and A-levels and an end to rewarding schools for multiple re-entries. But the unproven crisis has gone viral, with even quite sensible schools inviting speakers to come in and warn teachers about the danger of making an effort to succeed academically and to encourage schools to introduce more meditation and lessons on happiness. Utter hatred can be thrown at anyone who challenges this narrative on social media on the basis that if you stop and ask for facts before worrying about the mental health crisis, then you clearly don’t care enough about children’s mental health.

2) Debate Denialism. This was the attempt to claim that there is no debate to be had about educational philosophy or methods, or more specifically that it is not a debate between educational progressives and traditionalists. I think this has also taken off, but mainly on social media. It has now become very hard to get any supporter of progressive education to admit that they are a progressive. They are more likely to suggest that:

  1. They are not interested in debate (even while they disagree with a traditionalist).
  2. That labels are unhelpful (presumably because not being able to refer to ideas is helpful, at least to those who don’t want the ideas criticised).
  3. That the debate doesn’t happen in schools.
  4. That there is a middle position or a mixed position between traditionalism and progressivism, which they and “most teachers” hold, that just so happens to look exactly like progressivism.
  5. That there is no single “best method” of teaching and, therefore, progressive methods cannot be criticised.
  6. That traditionalists are attacking teacher autonomy by supporting particular teaching methods.
  7. That there is actually some other debate going on, usually about political ideology, and if we frame the debate that way, then traditionalists can be rejected without reference to their actual beliefs and arguments.

Fortunately, none of these arguments hold up for very long when challenged, except perhaps the favour cop-out of supporting point 4 by claiming that the debate is entirely over methods and, therefore, that methods can be mixed. However, there does seem to be an increasing trend among Twitter progressives to block those who disagree, so you can often find whole communities of Twitter progressives agreeing with each other that they are not progressives and that everyone agrees except for these beastly traditionalists on social media trying to create conflict.

3) The argument from political correctness. I don’t think this argument has taken off as much as I expected. There are a few Social Justice Warriors on education Twitter, but people tend to block them once they cross the line into defamation, and there don’t seem to be too many of them in your average school. Despite the rise in political correctness in society, and particularly in universities, in the last few years, the only type of PC that entered the educational debate in the last few years on any scale has been of the feminist variety, with some organised attempts to suggest that women are horribly under-represented by the 66% of headteachers who are female. While some have attempted to use this message to push progressive education, this has not really taken off, and it is mainly being used to promote people’s career advancement rather than their pedagogy. That said, some progressives will resort to PC pearl clutching when challenged in an argument. A number of people in the last 18 months have suggested that everyone disagreeing with progressivism is a man (usually after they’ve done their best to intimidate women traditionalists into shutting up). And there’s always one person who sees telling the truth as an act of ideological sabotage:

4) The free market conspiracy. This was the claim that those arguing against progressive education are deliberately or accidentally promoting “neo-liberalism” and/or private commercial interests. This claim hasn’t gone away, even though the obvious splits in the Conservative Party over grammar schools, and the large numbers of traditionalists attacking the Tories over the issue, have made it far less plausible that all traditionalists are part of some right-wing cabal following a single, hidden, agenda (although some have attempted to rewrite history so that selection was either part of the agenda all along or the inevitable result of existing policies). Given the rise of political extremism on both right and left in recent months, it’s amazing that the conspiracy theories haven’t grown more. It might be the case that there have been so many people throwing around the word “neo-liberalism” on social media outside of the education context, that we’ve just all started to ignore people who do it even if they are doing it in the context of education. Or it might be the fact that issues like Brexit and grammar schools have revealed that most educational traditionalists are middle class liberals, not right-wing attack dogs personally dedicated to Michael Gove (no disrespect intended to any who are).

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10 Years A Blogger

December 3, 2016

I haven’t been blogging lately. This has been partly down to workload, and partly down to political despair as the Tories return to the status quo of the nineties, and Labour to the eighties, it seems likely all progress in education policy has stopped. As a result I missed the 10th anniversary of my blog a few weeks ago. So, I thought I’d write my belated anniversary post now, reflecting on how things have changed in ten years.

When I started blogging the biggest ideological faultline in education was over inclusion. This policy consisted of two, equally appalling aspects. Firstly, there was a deliberate policy decision to run down special schools and force vulnerable students into mainstream schools, regardless of their best interests and what their parents wanted. Secondly, badly behaved students were to be “included” in the classroom at all costs, with schools doing everything to avoid permanent exclusions and teachers being blamed for what their students did.

Even as I started blogging the tide was turning. Inclusion was abandoned and from 2007 onwards the number of places in special schools increased and while the rules over exclusions tend to change frequently, I have never seen anything like the ludicrous pressure to avoid excluding the badly behaved that existed in the early years of my teaching career. That said, there are still headteachers out there exhibiting “inclusion machismo” where they boast of not having excluded students as if that, in itself, was something to be proud of and not likely to be a result of a willingness to tolerate disruption and bullying in their school.

The other big issue that was just emerging then, was the shift towards progressive education that was taking place. When I started teaching it was a given that progressive education would dominate teacher training, but Chris Woodhead’s OFSTED was far more traditional, as were most secondary schools, and at least some parts of the curriculum. The national strategies had, in the early years of New Labour, pushed whole class teaching, particularly in maths. However, after David Blunkett finished as education minister in 2001 the progressive fightback had taken hold. Group work and other fads replaced whole class teaching in the national strategies. A new national curriculum with mainly non-academic aims was introduced, influenced by the curriculum in Scotland. OFSTED was reformed so that its main purpose seemed to be to ensure that schools were enforcing progressive methods. Management structures were overturned so that over 40% of teachers became line managers, with enforcement of teaching methods an explicit part of their job. The GTCE struck off teachers who revealed that schools had descended into anarchy. The word “education” was dropped from the name of the government department in charge of schools. There was a serious attempt to merge education institutions into social services, with the “Every Child Matters” framework being applied to both and councils being pushed to merge their education and children’s services arms into one single bureaucracy. Schools were sent masses of paperwork from government promoting fads, like learning styles. The schools themselves became desperate to predict the next fad, with nonsense like Building Learning Power being implemented with the promise that it would be the next thing OFSTED wanted. Also, serious efforts were being made to replace GCSEs with vocational qualifications that consisted mainly of cut and pasted coursework and KS2 SATs with “Assessing Pupil Progress” a system of teacher assessment with thousands of tick boxes.

Teachers often resisted and attempted to maintain academic standards in their classrooms but they were largely excluded from the debate. Only in anonymous forums, like those on the TES website, could they declare their true opinions, where they would be routinely dismissed as “unrepresentative” of the profession. In my early years of blogging it really seemed hopeless. Just expressing my views seemed like an act of rebellion, and I would be routinely told I was unfit to teach because I actually wanted to teach kids knowledge.

Things changed after 2010. Partly, this was political, Michael Gove set about abolishing or weakening the various arms of the progressive establishment. However, social media also changed things. Although initially dominated by progressives, education Twitter moved from being the playground of consultants and ambitious senior managers, to somewhere that you could find ordinary teachers expressing their opinions. Suddenly the old debates were back, and they were being listened to in government. In the last six years on social media, we have seen a situation where progressive ideology has gone from being something that is simply assumed to be true and supported by research, to something so constantly under challenge that even its strongest supporters will deny actually supporting. Progressives now are more likely to say they are simply “asking questions” or fighting against the power of traditionalists (often caricatured as authoritarians or neo-liberals) or arguing for teacher autonomy. They are ashamed to admit to being a partisan in the 100 year old debate between progressivism and traditionalism in teaching.

I’m optimistic about continuing change. Progressive teachers exposed to the arguments of traditionalists on social media are still converting to traditionalism. Some change their minds almost immediately once they realise there is a debate to be had. Some take years, but eventually they realise where the best arguments point. Also, there are now schools proudly proclaiming a traditionalist ethos and calling out to traditional teachers to join them, something that could never have happened 10 years ago. This has not yet filtered down into every school, perhaps not even most schools. It has certainly not reached every part of the education system (there are large numbers of progressives still in positions of great power, actively trying to turn the clock back). This has been made worse by government losing the plot, wasting time with character education, the College Of Teaching and, now, grammar schools. But, for all their power, the terms of the debate have now changed and are continuing to change.

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