Should Traditional Teachers Join the Revolution?

 

In my last post I expressed my reservations about the current state of traditionalist blogging and the clamour for a revolution among many of my contemporaries. Some subsequent exchanges about this topic have furthered my thinking and in light of these discussions this post asks should traditional teachers join the revolution?

My observation is that revolutionary traditionalists make the following arguments that justify a ‘call to arms’:

 

  • Progressive pedagogy is not effective
  • The educational establishment overwhelmingly favours progressive pedagogy
  • The educational establishment is organised and uses a range of methods to disseminate progressive pedagogy throughout the education system
  • The vast majority of teachers adhere to this progressive orthodoxy

 

In contrast to many revolutionary trads I view the educational establishment as a mix of vested interests (CEOs, consultants, gurus and bureaucrats) whose dysfunction is caused by a lack of coherence about pretty much everything. While I acknowledge the existence of innately progressive factions (e.g some Science subject associations) within the educational establishment I think it is unhelpful to portray the establishment as synoymous with ‘progressives’, ‘the Blob’ or conversely ‘Govians’ or ‘neotrads’. Ignoring the existence of entrenched groups that wield power over schools allows these groups to a) avoid criticism for the current state of affairs and b) define themselves as ‘anti-establishment’ and an alternative to, not part of, the status quo.

 

 

The only commonality I observe within the educational establishment is that its members operate at distance from teachers and the day to day goings on in schools. Prior to 2015 I might have agreed with the notion that progressives within the educational establishment were very effective at influencing teachers and schools through various conduits but my professional experience has changed: now there is no money which means no progressive consultants, Ofsted have crucially lost interest in pedagogy so far less attention is given to it by managers, only a few of my colleagues are exposed to any pedagogy via the educational press and even fewer are members of a subject association. Hardly anyone uses social media, which is broadly considered a waste of time, for professional development.

 

 

Progressivism would, of course, still cause difficulties for traditional teachers if one accepted the premise that progressivism is already orthodox within schools. However my experience is that very few of colleagues make pedagogical choices on the basis of ideology or efficacy, they do what they do to get through the day. Effectively each teacher presents a personal mishmash of entrenched pedagogical styles. It is immensely difficult to pursuade colleagues to break their particular pattern because the pattern is a coping strategy. Here in the South West some teacher training providers noticeably favour progressive pedagogy but, despite this training, I observe a short lived effect as NQTs quickly develop their own mishmash of teaching styles in order to cope with the demands of the job.

In summary my position is as follows:

  • Progressive pedagogy is not effective
  • The educational establishment has no coherent position on anything
  • Since 2015 reform and budget cuts have made it much harder for progressives within the educational establishment to disseminate their ideas to the teaching profession
  • The vast majority of teachers ignore both pedagogical ideology and efficacy, teaching methods are chosen on the basis of getting through the day without generating extra work or stress.

Should traditional teachers join the revolution?

Despite some differences I concur with revolutionary traditionals who consider the educational establishment to be damaging. However, the proposed revolution will not be a revolution when the only target is progressivism and not the educational establishment as a whole; that some traditionalists have actually embraced existing sections of the educational establishment that are keen on market based reform or command and control management is a cause for concern. Given that the majority of my earlier work criticises such groups I will be unequivocal about my opinions here: the reformers and the managers rose meteorically through the education system when the system actually endorsed progressivism and traditional teachers were hounded by Ofsted. Reformers and managers didn’t bang the drum for traditionalism then and only do so now because their methodology looks slightly more appealing with some token traditionalism sprinkled on top.

In conclusion if you’re the sort of traditionalist that thinks targets and compliance inspections aren’t going to benefit the traditionalist cause then avoid this revolution like the plague.

 

 


The Traditionalist Revolution: Apologia

When I started teaching in 2007 it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to be criticised by the then educational establishment for using traditional teaching methods. Teaching from the front was said to bore students causing them to switch off and not learn anything or inciting them to behave poorly in class. I’ve never bought into this reasoning and books like It’s your time you’re wasting by Frank Chalk or Andrew Old’s Scenes from the battleground blog provided reassurance to my younger self that other teachers felt the same way.

Inspired by Andrew, Winston Smith, Inspector Gadget and others I began to interact online anonymously describing my experiences and thoughts about the education system. Online I was free to blog and debate with those who weren’t used to being debated with about the cultural orthodoxy they sought to impose on teachers. This juxtaposed with day to day things like being asked to attend mentoring meetings with a behaviour consultant for following school policy on detentions; blogging was a form of catharsis.

The educational landscape has changed a lot since 2007. Blogging and online teacher activism has been an important driver for some really positive developments e.g Ofsted ceasing to grade individual lessons or advocate a particular pedagogy. Most of the traditional bloggers from a decade ago are no longer anonymous, some have published books, some have opened schools, some are quoted favourably by education ministers. Thanks to those ministers there is now less money available for schools which, in my experience, means less funding channelled towards progressive education consultants. My point is that traditionalism and it’s advocates are in the ascendancy.

I am older and hopefully wiser. Having learnt through personal experience and observation of some brilliant colleagues here are five principle bits of advice I’d offer to my younger self when entering the profession:

  • Never say, or imply, to anyone that you (or your school!) are better than your colleagues, doing so makes people think you are an arse. Most people don’t want anything to do with an arse.
  • There are no magic bullets in education. I’ve noticed that when someone (usually an arse) claims to have found a quick fix careful analysis of the facts reveals gaming, selection or unsustainable practice. Genuine school improvement takes years.
  • Some people are unreasonable and/or incredibly nasty. If you have to interact with them do so professionally and for no longer than absolutely necessary. Trying to change unreasonable or incredibly nasty people is a waste of your precious energy and time.
  • Teaching will not give your life meaning. I still struggle with this a lot, I am still easily provoked by certain individuals and I find it difficult to switch off compromising my relationships with the people who genuinely add meaning to life.
  • If you get into management don’t be a shit funnel.

It is with these five principles in mind that I turn to the burgeoning ‘traditional revolution’ led by some well known colleagues on social media. Most of what I’ve read contains some intriguing ideas and methods that, as a traditional teacher, ought to be of interest yet something grates and has done for some time. I’ve tried very hard to look beyond it but I find the majority of current, traditionalist blogging communicates ideas in a manner that is provocative, self-aggrandising and singularly unwilling to consider English schooling as a system comprised of many parts that all effect each other.

So in order to avoid betraying the principles of behaviour I’ve found most useful I will not be joining the ‘revolution’ or whatever it is my traditionalist contemporaries think they are doing. I very much doubt this will bother anyone, at worst I imagine this blog will be ‘one for a file’ or I’ll be labelled an ‘enemy of promise’ or ‘prog’ – if that is the case so be it.


On the October Twitterstorm: “No Excuses” Charters

Update: Two of the videos referenced in this blog have been set to private viewing only since the time of writing – I have left them on here anyway. One video showed a teacher talking about how children should put their hands up (this was likened to a Nazi salute by some people on Twitter) and the other showed some general classroom routines and management.

Last weekend my Twitter feed was abuzz with two sustained 'Twitterstorms' involving 'no excuses' charter schools (in particular Uncommon Schools) and the ongoing allegations against Inspiration East CEO Rachel de Souza. This blogpost focuses on 'no excuses'.

Uncommon schools have stirred progressive educators (for want of a better term) everywhere by posting a series of behaviour management videos on the Vimeo website. Here is a selection of some of the most cited:

It is clear that Uncommon Schools have paid particular attention to the details of ensuring that children focus on their teacher properly, they are relentless about this and uncomplient children are corrected in a brusque, yet efficient, manner. Three particular arguments appeared in response to the videos:

The methods of behaviour management in the videos are cruel

This was the most common objection and, I too, experienced some initial apprehension during my first viewing. However such scruples seem counterintuitive if one buys into Willingham's third cognitive principle that 'memory is the residue of thought'. If we accept that you won't learn anything unless you are thinking about it and that the purpose of school is to learn then a rigourous classroom seems less cruel than a classroom that tolerates glazed over students slumped on desks not learning. Similarly a short, sharp correction from a teacher seems less cruel than an extended monologue about poor behaviour that wastes everyone's time – time that could be spent learning.

The teachers in the videos are behaving like the Third Riech

This line of argument was peddled by the most viciferous foghorns who accused the teachers in the videos of behaving like Nazis or 'insensitively' doing something that, in the vaguest way imaginable, made them look like one. This is a fallacious argument and there is little to be said of those who continuously trot out this cliched appeal to emotion.

The methods of behaviour management in the videos are a pre-requisite of an oppressive curriculum

According to Sondel and Bolelovik (2014) the curriculum on offer at some 'no excuses' charters are 'characterized by a 'narrow interpretation of state standards at the expense of all other material'. I'm all for what ARK schools might call depth over breadth but the assertion that charters are stripping science of practical work and relegating it, along with social sciences 'to ancillary classes' isn't the liberal education that I think schools should be aspiring to provide. So I am in agreement with those who consider the stereotypical data driven, target driven, stripped down curriculum on offer at 'no excuses' charters unsatisfactory.

That said I have noticed that the progressives at the centre of the Twitterstorm argue the emphasis on behaviour in 'no excuses' charters like Uncommon Schools is needed only to facilitate the limited curriculum they 'impose' on the children. I disagree with this; compliant children are a pre-requisite for any pedagogical model as any Science teacher with no choice but to do let children do practical work in groups will tell you.

References

Sondel, B & Bolelovik, J.L. (2014) “No Excuses” in New Orleans. Available from: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/07/no-excuses-in-new-orleans/ Last accessed: 31/10/2015

 


Mandatory Optimism

Over the last 30 years education has been subject to a barrage of reform from the government and the educational establishment. Opposition is limited to token disquiet about any reform from the teaching unions while certain reforms are met with little more than cynicism from experienced frontline teachers who have seen it all before. One of the ways the teaching profession has been controlled and opposition to reform diluted on the ground has been to reward compliance through improved conditions and pay; the TLR payments introduced in the eighties (see Lowe 2007) and the current governments obsession with performance related pay are examples of this. Although TLRs and PRP are essentially government inventions it is worth saying that they are/will be used to encourage compliance with other agendas that may even be contrary to government policy at the time.

To illustrate this systematic entrenchment of command and control thinking I have reproduced the following quote from a teacher training source on Joe Kirby's blog:

“The system in these schools encourages conformity to the prevailing orthodoxy. SLT, very often, have risen up the ranks by being conformist. The system doesn’t encourage divergent thinking, it rewards conformity. Teachers gain promotion, not because of their phenomenal teaching prowess, but because of their ability to parrot the prevailing fashion. The promotion system is actually built upon teachers never, ever thinking for themselves. In the main, they’re follow-the-fashion, jump-on-the-bandwagon, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else’s-drum teachers. Energy is focussed upon gaining Ofsted approval. For too many the purpose is to receive inspectorate approval; to build up inspector-pleasing evidence. Fast track career development? Above all else – do not rock the boat! Do not break the mould! Do not question the status quo! Do not question the actions of the people above you who’ve been the architects of the current, prevailing, failing school culture! Convergent thinking wins out over genuine reflection or principles – any day! The whole aim is to please Ofsted.”

Depressingly there is little to disagree with here but, if one observes the rhetoric of the educational establishment, Kirby's souce has missed the establishments expecations about the attitude teachers have towards fashionable ideas and policies. I first encountered this expectation when arguing with progressive behaviour gurus on the internet who sought to blame the predictable failure of their own methods on the attitudes of teachers.

“Jen, please, take the advice of the experienced people at your school who are trying to help you. The reason why hardly anyone with moderate, sensible views bothers to post on this forum is that it is dominated by a handful of negative right-wing zealots who live in the past and whose advice will take you precisely nowhere in future. Likewise the “blog” of “Old Andrew” – eccentric garbage that no-one with any self-respect would read, let alone bother to engage in conversation there”.

Over the past couple of years I have increasingly heard about members of SLT chastising staff who have the temerity to question the value of, say learning walks, for having the 'wrong attitude' and Ofsted teams describing inspections as something that should be 'treated as a positive experience' by teaching staff. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw seems to be complaining about head teachers who don't realise 'what a privileged position they are in' and that they 'should roll their sleeves up and get on with improving their schools, even in the most difficult circumstances' (see Richardson 2012). What was once seemingly confined to self righteous gurus has spread through the system – this is hardly surprising given the increasingly large pool of smiley, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else's-drum managers promoting people just like them.

So the over riding message here is, if you want to get on in teaching, comply with everything and make damn sure you project an image of positivity while you do it. The worst thing a teacher can do is to be labelled negative by a positive thinking member of their SLT. The consequence for such a teacher is that they are shut up or blacklisted or passed over for promotion in favour of someone who put on a smiley face and didn't complain no matter how preposterous the circumstances. This culture seems identical to what Barbara Ehrenreich observed about the American leadership during the second Gulf war and the American financial sector before the financial crash of 2007.

“Every few years I began to encounter the same ideology of positive thinking being applied to people who were downsized from the corporate world – white collar, middle level people being sent to support groups or networking groups – there are all kinds of names for these things – where the message was it's not bad to be laid off, it's actually a good thing, it's actually an opportunity, it's a growth opportunity, and you'll come out of it much better. And if you want to come out of it at all, of course, you'd better work on your attitude because the key to getting a job in today's corporate world is not knowing things or having skills or experience but having a positive attitude. Somebody who's in an absolute low point in their lives, and certainly losing a job can be that, and just tell them, “There's nothing wrong, just put on a smiley face and get on with it and don't complain, whatever you do.”

There are, Ehrenreich points out, two arguments against the culture of positive thinking and these arguments apply to positive thinking in schools as well as business. Firstly positive thinking (and negative thinking) is delusional; how much time and money is wasted and how much damage is done in schools because new policy is not thought about realistically in the planning stage? The second argument is that it is cruel to tell teachers who are having a tough time, and working in schools failed by Ofsted is tough, that a big part the problem is their attitude.

The solution to these problems is to promote people because they are talented as opposed to compliant and uncritical, this doesn't happen because the entrenched style of management in education is 'command and control' and the voices that claim to represent the front line are as delusional about the current state of education as the policy makers are about their methods for improving it. Sadly such change could never happen overnight because the people with the authority to make it happen are the people causing the problems in the first place.

References

Lowe, R. (2007) The Death of Progressive Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Richardsom, H. (2012) Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw: Teachers not Stressed. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18025202 (accessed 20.07.2013).

 

 


A Response to Mitra Part 3: The Past

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

In Part 1 of this series of blogposts I concluded that Sugata Mitra considers employability to be the main purpose of education and is erroneously in favour of a progressive curriculum that overwhelmingly focuses on skills rather than knowledge. In Part 2 I discussed how Mitra's beliefs have, unsurprisingly, manifested into an extreme form of progressive pedagogy that is of questionable value.

This penultimate selection of quotes are related to perceptions about the value of technological advances:

“Any standard room in a Holiday Inn is better than the best facilities in an emperor's room in the 15th century. Air conditioning, hot and cold running water, toilets that flush, TV and the internet. The middle class lives better today than any emperor ever did. Going back to horse-drawn vehicles is not the solution to our traffic problems and pollution.”

“We don't need to improve schools. We need to reinvent them for our times, our requirements and our future. We don't need efficient clerks to fuel an administrative machine that is no longer needed. Machines will do that for us.”

“Longhand multiplication of numbers using paper and pencil is considered a worthy intellectual achievement. Using a mobile phone to multiply is not.”

Most progressive educators seem to have little time for the past, they are preoccupied with the notion that we live in an era of perpetual and profound change that devalues knowledge and the authority of experts (Furedi 2009). Given this orthodoxy it is hardly surprising that a curriculum consisting of 'skills for the 21st century' and 'child centered' pedagogy are favoured by the progressive movement. Mitra differs from the majority of progressives in that he chooses to subtely devalue knowledge through the exclusion of experts and explicitly devalues certain 'skills' on the basis that they are rendered obsolete by technology.

The problem with Mitra's argument, particularly the analogy about the hotel room, is that he is confusing skills with tools – critics of progressivisn are not objecting to the introduction the flushing toilet and running water; the objection is that we should expect little more of people than the ability to use them. Mitra frequently makes no distinction between the value of using tools and the value of having more than a superficial knowledge of the jobs tools do, in British secondary schools it isn't uncommon to encounter people who input data incorrectly into a calculator and believe the result, no matter how absurd, is the answer they are looking for. If we want to avoid situations like this then we ought to get children doing multiplication the 'old fashioned' way first so they have at least some idea when tools get it wrong. If one accepts this idea then it is easy to see why longhand multiplication is considered more intellectually worthy than using a calculator because it is a skill that requires more knowledge about how multiplication works.

This final selection of quotes are related to perceptions of the past:

We have a romantic attachment to skills from the past.”

“But to the people who invented it, longhand multiplication was just a convenient technology. I don't think they attached any other emotions to it. We do, and it is still taught as a celebration of the human intellect.”

“The brain remembers good things from the past and creates a pleasant memory of the “good old days”. It forgets the rest. It is dangerous to build a present using vague memories of the good old days.”

Mitra's response to those who value knowledge of work more highly than the ability to use convenient tools is to dismiss said values as romanticism towards the past. His suggestion that people forget all the bad things that happen to them is ridiculous; is Mitra seriously suggesting that people who describe traumatic experiences from their past consider thier memories to represent the 'good old days'? Even in education circles Mitra's point doesn't stand up to scrutiny as evidenced by parts of this fascinating exchange about a knowledge based curriculum (see Webb 2013):

“The teaching of grammar went out of fashion in English schools in the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s. Consequently, I was never taught grammar at school; at all. Punctuation was almost as de-emphasised. What have I lost? I cannot use commas or colons very well. As soon as someone takes about ‘subject-object agreement’ my eyes glaze over. Every so often, I try looking some of these things up on the internet but I just can’t access what is written; I know too little to even get started.”

Presumably, if I lost something then I must have gained elsewhere. What else did I do in English lessons if I wasn’t studying grammar? I remember making a video guide to the school grounds – this time Daz pretended to urinate against a tree. Videos were all the rage at the time – a bit like ipads now. I also remember a series of lessons where we had to bring in pop songs with people’s names in the lyrics – can’t remember what for. On balance, I would rather have had the grammar.”

“I left school with 4 A grade GCSEs (in Art, English Literature, French and RE) and a handful of Bs Cs and Ds. I have a handful of lacklustre A levels, including A grade General Studies (which nobody ever cares about and I forget to put on stuff unless it’s arguments about knowledge-based curriculum ideas) I went to a polytechnic and I did well because for the first time, I began to see I could learn myself if I wanted to. It was the first time I was supposed to apply my knowledge, which is why it went well.”

The first quote was from Harry Webb (author of the thouroughly recommended blog Webs of Substance) who is in favour of a knowledge based curriculum while the second is from a commentator on the blog who attended what sounds like a traditional grammar school and, as a result of this, seems in favour of more progressive pedagogy. What is interesting is that, contrary to Mitra's point, neither seems to have particularly pleasant memories of their own school days. On this note it is interesting that some of the most vocal progressive educators including Ken Robinson (Liverpool Collegiate School & Wade Deacon Grammar School) and Mitra (St. Xavier's School, Delhi) himself did alright for themselves having attended schools that, at first glance, appear to have been nothing like the type of school they are proposing. Contrary to this there appears to be a vacuum of influential people demanding more progressive schools on the basis of their own educational experiences.

References

Furedi, F. (2009) Wasted: Why education isn't educating. Continuum: London.

Mitra, S. (2013) Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education. Available from:http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/15/schools-teaching-curriculum-education-google#start-of-comments (accessed 18.06.13)

Webb, H. (2013) Plutarch and the Empty Vessels. Available from: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/plutarch-and-the-empty-vessels/ (accessed 29.06.13)

 

 


A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

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

This second selection of quotes are related to classroom pedagogy:

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

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

“One of the teachers who works with me said to her class of nine-year-olds: “There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?” The children huddle around a few computers, talking, running around and looking for clues. In about 40 minutes, they figure out the basics of electromagnetism and start relating it to mobile signals. This is called a self-organised learning environment, a Sole. In a Sole, children work in self-organised groups of four or five clustered around an internet connected computer. They can talk, change group, move around, look at other groups' work and so on.”

“We need people who can think like children.”

In my last post I concluded that Sugata Mitra considers employability to be the main purpose of education and is in favour of a curriculum that overwhelmingly focuses on skills rather than knowledge. Mitra's considerations seen driven by his faith in technology and over optimism about how the modern workplace is organised. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Mitra's preferred classroom pedagogy is similar to the child centered methods favoured by progressive educators. This pedagogy is partly based on the suggestion that student disengagement is caused by teachers explaining thier subject to a class and we really ought to stop doing it. The reasoning here seems to be that children a) find teachers boring and group work fun and b) learn more efficiently using technology in groups. This reasoning seems contradictory to Willingham's (2009) conclusions about learning, pleasure and effort:

“People's minds are not especially suited to thinking; thinking is slow, effortful and uncertain”

“If they (students) lack the appropriate background knowledge, the question you pose will quickly be judged as “boring”.”

Far from advocating the removal of teachers as a solution to boredom Willingham suggests that teachers merely respect their students cognitive limits:

“If students lack the background knowledge to engage with a problem, save it for another time when they have that knowledge”

“The solution to working memory overloads is straightforward: slow the pace, and use memory aids such as writing on the blackboard that save students from keeping too much information in working memory.”

If we accept Willingham's suggestions then it seems premature to avoid exposing children to traditional pedagogy on the basis of whether they like it or not; learning can be hard work and who actually likes hard work? It also seems doubtful that children acquire knowledge efficiently by working in groups, in my experience children prefer group work because it allows more opportunity for avoiding work than when they are asked to listen to the teacher. Personal anecdotes aside Andrew Old (2008) has provided a number of reasons why group work should be rejected in most subjects. Old's comments about using group work to instill the virtues of collaboration in school children seem particularly poignant given Mitra's aims of education:

“If you want to learn how to cooperate effectively with others, then the last place you’d start is in a group of teenagers being made to do school work. This is like saying the best way to learn how to make pork sausages is by being imprisoned in a pig farm with a half-dozen rabbis. Putting together people who are neither experienced at doing something, or particularly inclined to want to do it, is not how you learn to do that something. Of course, it would be useful for a surly teenager to practice teamwork skills. Letting him or her join a team of adults who already know how to work in a team would be a great educational experience. Forcing them into a group of other surly teenagers and letting them fight it out amongst themselves over who is to blame for getting nothing done is less constructive.”

Opposition to Mitra's pedagogical vision isn't confined to some teachers. The well respected educational researcher John Hattie (2009) concluded that Direct Instruction had a far higher effect size on learning (d = 0.59) than Inquiry-based teaching (d = 0.31) and Problem-based learning (d = 0.15). Web-based learning fares little better (d = 0.18) meaning that three teaching methods advocated by Mitra fall well outside Hattie's 'zone of desired effects' in the classroom (d = >0.4).

Finally I am bewildered that Mitra has chosen to advocate a child centered and skills heavy pedagogy using examples that highlight individuals who overwhelmingly lack for subject knowledge. The teacher who said “There is something called electromagnetic radiation that we can't see, can you figure out what it is?” passed on an obvious misconception about electromagnetic radiation while the child who claimed that they could find out about the history of the Vikings in England in 'five minutes' is merely demonstrating their ignorance of approximately 250 years of history. I contend that less misconceptions would be passed on and that children would be more aware of just how much they have to learn if they listened to an expert explaining thier subject instead of joining their equally ignorant peers to find out about it on the Internet.

References

Hattie, J.A.C. (2009) Visible Learning. Routledge: London.

Mitra, S. (2013) Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education. Available from:http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/15/schools-teaching-curriculum-education-google#start-of-comments (accessed 18.06.13)

Old, A. (2008) Group work. Available from: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/group-work/ (accessed 23.06.13)

Willingham, D. (2009) Why don't students like school. Jossey-Bass: San-Fransisco.

 


A Response to Mitra Part 1: Education and Employability

The aim of this series of blogs is to review and respond to Sugata Mitra's vision for education as outlined in his article published in the 16th June 2013 edition of the Observer. Although I have quoted liberally from the article I would urge interested parties to read it in its entirety before progressing any further here. The article is clearly divisive and recieved a mixed response from the online educational community; described as 'toxic' by one teacher it is by contrast hailed as a 'A vision of education for the current century' by some progressive commentators. I think it is a disappointing argument for progressive education that actually reinforces the campaign for more traditional pedagogy in schools.

This first selection of quotes are related to the purpose of education and employability:

“Would a person with good handwriting, spelling and grammar and instant recall of multiplication tables be considered a better candidate for a job than, say, one who knows how to configure a peer-to-peer network of devices, set up an organisation-wide Google calendar and find out where the most reliable sources of venture capital are, I wonder? The former set of skills are taught in schools, the latter are not.”

“In school examinations, learners must reproduce facts from memory, solve problems using their minds and paper alone. They must not talk to anyone or look at anyone else's work. They must not use any educational resources, certainly not the internet. When they complete their schooling and start a job, they are told to solve problems in groups, through meetings, using every resource they can think of. They are rewarded for solving problems this way – for not using the methods they were taught in school.”

“The curriculum lists things that children must learn. There is no list stating why these things are important.”

The belief that education should be about providing children with the skills needed for gainful employment and that progress renders knowledge and 'old fashioned' skills obsolete is a counter intuitive position taken by the majority of progressive educators. It is counter intuitive because believing that an ignorant but technologically competant individual is a strong candidate for any job involves a rejection of plausible cognitive principles, for example 'Factual knowledge must precede skill' (see Willingham 2009). Surely being a better candidate is about expediency? Surely somebody with expertise (knowledge) in venture capitalism and technological prowess can search the web for reliable sources of venture capitalism more quickly and reliably than someone who can merely search the web?

On a related note one is tempted to ask where are all the employers Mitra says are overwhelmingly asking entry level workers to 'solve problems in groups'? Today my bus driver was driving a bus, the barista was serving coffee, the teachers in my department quickly retired to their classrooms and taught alone. Mitra's article paints a barely recognisable picture of how modern work is organised, one only needs to look at the contrast between Seddon's (2010) far more familiar descriptions of the modern 'command and control' workplace and Mitra's 'Sole' (see below) to see this.

“Command-and-control thinking sees organisations as top-down hierarchies, where work is designed in functions, managers make decisions and workers do the work. Managers make decisions using budgets, targets, standards; they seek to control the workers with a variety of management practices – procedures, rules, specifications, inspection and the like. The management ethic is to manage budgets and manage people.”

“The children huddle around a few computers, talking, running around and looking for clues. In about 40 minutes, they figure out the basics of electromagnetism and start relating it to mobile signals. This is called a self-organised learning environment, a Sole. In a Sole, children work in self-organised groups of four or five clustered around an internet connected computer. They can talk, change group, move around, look at other groups' work and so on.”

Finally it is quite clear in the quotes mentioned so far that Mitra disaproves of traditional methods of assessment and even goes to the trouble of outlining an alternative form of assessment based on his beliefs about what employers want:

“If examinations challenge learners to solve problems the way they are solved in real life today, the educational system will change for ever. It is a small policy change that is required. Allow the use of the internet and collaboration during an examination.”

“Teaching in an environment where the internet and discussion are allowed in exams would be different. The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems would be critical. AThat's a skill that future employers would admire immensely.”

There are two issues here – firstly the ability to discriminate between alternatives and put facts together to solve problems is dependent on, and aided by, good subject knowledge (see Willingham 2009) but if Mitra's preferred pedagogy is anything to go by knowledge is not a priority in the classroom. Secondly Mitra refers to prospective job candidates who possess individual skills yet proposes examinations that essentially assess group work. It will be immensely difficult to identify an individual who has genuinely mastered the skills he thinks people need from an individual who is adept at copying – is this lack of discrimination what employers want from an examination system?

Personally I object to the idea that the explicit purpose of education should be preparing children for the workplace. However if such thing is to be suggested then it is vital that the virtues of the modern workplace are identified accurately. If we accept that the knowledgeable and skilled are more likely to be successful job candidates than people with skill alone then Mitra's knowledge lite curriculum makes little sense. Likewise if we accept Seddon's observations about the modern workplace (although these observations are hardly desirable) then Mitra's suggestion that children work and complete examinations in groups would only lead to an education that isn't fit for purpose by preparing children for a workplace that rarely manifests itself.

References

Mitra, S. (2013) Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/15/schools-teaching-curriculum-education-google#start-of-comments (accessed 18.06.13)

Seddon, J. (2010) Systems thinking in the public sector. Triarchy Press. Axminster.

Willingham, D. (2009) Why don't students like school. Jossey-Bass. San-Fransisco.