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.

 

 


Practical Work in Science Part 1: Three Reasons Why ISAs Must Die

Merry Christmas everyone! Christmas this year is extra special because, for Science teachers everywhere, it came two weeks early courtesy of Ofqual's move to consult on the way that practical laboratory work is assessed in GCSE Science – the entire report can be found here. This first in a series of blogposts focuses on controlled assessment and the impact it has on teachers and practical work. Ofqual have suggested that 'Individual Skills Assessments' (ISAs) are going to be replaced at GCSE level and it seems pertinent to discuss it given the hysterical press reaction to similar developments surrounding A level Science.

What is an ISA?

ISAs are how a student's scientific skills are assessed at GCSE, they are a form controlled assessment that constitutes 25% of a student's final GCSE grade. ISAs require students to carry out a practical investigation (one per award) from a small number set by the Awarding Organisation under controlled conditions supervised by teachers (the Gatsby Foundation and Wellcome Trust or GFWT, 2013).

Three reasons why ISAs must die

Reason 1: A bureaucratic nightmare

If Science is about observing the world systematically, by experiment, and thinking about those observations in an intellectual way then it makes absolute sense to try and expose students to laboratory work. Some critics of Ofqual's current thinking such as The Right Honorable Andrew Miller MP argue that removing controlled assessment 'could lead to schools neglecting experimental skills' (Sample, 2014). This sentiment demonstrates a misunderstanding of how ISAs and controlled assessment in Science work.

It takes about eight hours to get a class through one ISA (AQA or Edexcel), just one hour of this is devoted to laboratory work. Students devote the rest of the time to completing bureaucratic pro-formas or question booklets designed to assess what the GFWT describe as 'planning and analytical abilities' – actual laboratory skills are not and have not been assessed for years due to teacher malpractice (more on this later).

Once the work has been completed it needs to be marked by teachers, there is a lot of pressure to justify marking by annotating the work in the belief that annotated scripts are more likely to pass moderation. This is time consuming; it takes approximately 15 hours to mark a class set of ISAs. In other words a relatively small proportion of time spent on an ISA is devoted to laboratory work and even that isn't graded while the absurd amount of time it takes to assess the parts of the ISA that do count reduces the time available for teachers to plan effective laboratory experiences elsewhere. ISAs ultimately foster neglect of the very skills they supposedly measure – the extremity of this neglect brings me to my next point.

Reason 2: 'Slideshow Bob'

Because of ISAs a GCSE science student is effectively required to do just one hands on laboratory experiment per qualification. The purpose of this experiment is to gather data to analyse as part of the ISA and little else – most state secondaries do not have the resources for students to work alone so it is entirely possible for a student to let other kids in their group do all the work and not touch any scientific instruments at all!

Of course the majority of teachers run experiments with their classes that cover parts of the curriculum not addressed by the ISA. That said because things are as they are 'Slideshow Bob' style science teachers can get away with running two or three experiments a year with their GCSE groups. With this in mind it is quite amusing to hear the advocates of controlled assessment in Science talk as if it's presence is safeguarding practical laboratory work. This idea that specifications and targets equate to quality educational provision neatly brings me to my final point.

Reason 3: Predictability, gaming and cheating

The GFWT suggest that teachers 'under our high stakes system, are under enormous pressure to give students maximum marks'. Ofqual have noted that there is a huge discrepancy between the grades achieved by students in externally marked examinations and controlled assessments (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percentage of candidates achieving particular percentages of marks available in GCSE Science components (Ofqual 2014)

GFWT are actually quite diplomatic in their assessment of this situation because over-marking is picked up during the moderation of ISAs by examining bodies (hence the aforementioned pressure to annotate students work during assessment). The gap is there because a the majority of teachers are competent enough to exploit the repetitive nature of ISAs and because some teachers cheat.

A competent teacher will soon spot that the same (Edexcel) or similar (AQA) questions/tasks appear in each ISA and they use published practice materials to make sure students approach questions in the right way. Cheating ranges from teachers discussing model answers specific to live ISAs with the students before they complete them (this isn't allowed) to ensuring that tailored practice sessions occur by looking at the high control sections of the ISA and associated marking guidance before the work is completed (AQA specifically warn against this). The very worst forms of cheating that I am aware of involve teachers letting students draft their ISA so it can be checked and altered before marking and teachers who write the marking guidance on the board while the students are completing their work (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Controlled assessment in Science is discussed on Twitter.
Conclusions
Education is an industry managed by specifications, benchmarks and compliance targets. The stakes are high and in high stakes systems ambitious charlatans, false prophets and desperate victims of circumstance will exploit loopholes or cheat in order to get money, power or to simply stay in the game. Science ISAs offer a lot of loopholes and a lot of shortcuts so it is great news, and about time, that Ofqual has moved to close them.

References

Ofqual (2014) Consultation on the Assessment of Practical Work in Science. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ofqual-consults-on-changes-to-gcse-science-practicals [Accessed on 27 December 2014]

Sample, I. (2014) Science A level practicals face axe despite barrage of criticism, says MP. Guardian, [online] (last updated 23 December 2014). Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/23/science-a-level-practicals-mp-andrew-miller [Accessed on 27 December 2014]

The Gatsby Foundation and the Wellcome Trust (2013) Policy note: Assessment of Practical work in Science April 2013. Available from: http://www.gatsby.org.uk/~/media/Files/Education/Practical%20Science%20Policy%20Note.ashx [Accessed on 21 December 2014]

 

 

 


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

 


Mixed Bag: The Paradoxical Tenure of Education Secretary Gove

Following his departure from the Department of Education a lot of bloggers were compelled to voice their opinions about his four year reign as Secretary of State for Education. In the name of originality I've decided to do exactly the same thing!

If nothing else no one can ever accuse Gove of not standing up for his beliefs regardless of their popularity with the electorate and within the teaching profession. Gove was contemptuous of the fashionable pedagogy that spawned things like learning styles and learning pyramids. He seemingly ignored the bureaucratic monoliths created by his ministerial predecessors: Every Child Matters and Assessing Pupil Progress. His focus on subject knowledge and academic rigour meant that, for the first time in years, 'traditional' teachers had a champion at the summit of the educational establishment – although the battle against child centred progressivism was only beginning Gove endorsed intelligent critiques of Ofsted and the rise of teacher led blogging and networking through conferences such as researchED. In terms of policy Gove's biggest impact was to change school accountability measures to tackle the scandalous rise of the equivalent qualification – this will probably do more to improve the educational lot of disadvantaged children, which was important to Gove, than anything else.

Despite the aforementioned changes Gove's departure from the Department for Education was generally well recieved by the downtrodden rank and file of the teaching profession. Gove seemingly had a monetarist view of management believing that most people are essentially lazy and self-interested and need to be pushed along by extrinsic forms of motivation; his very worst policies – psuedo competition between schools, using broad averages as benchmarks and performance related pay for teachers are the product of this thinking. The irony here is that Gove's ideas about people meant that he found idealogical kinship with the school managers responsible for the problems he identified in the first place.

All of this meant Gove was a paradoxical minister. For every collaborative effort (aka researchED) Gove admired there was an edu-brand like Harris to be praised. Every time Gove reminded us about standards he'd name check an educational 'hero' who'd benefited from lowering them. For every 'traditional' teacher blogger Gove praised in public power would be handed to a non-teaching monetarist behind closed doors. Gove introduced a pay system that relies on individual self interest then bemoaned the selfish nature of teachers taking industrial action. Gove admired Army style discipline yet turned a blind eye to the behaviour crisis. Gove never really articulated what he thought schools were for; sometimes it was all about experts providing a liberal education while at other times it was about free child care provided by, well, anyone the school managers feel like.

I mentioned earlier that Gove stood up for his beliefs – this would have been a good thing if those beliefs, when taken together, actually made sense.

Other articles about Gove that I really liked:

Goodbye Mr Gove

Michael Gove and the bitter pills of education reform

Micheal Gove: loved by the media loathed by the public

Other articles about Gove that I really didn't like:

How will I remember Mr Gove


 

 


On the Gove Rogue Meme

According to the Sunday Times (behind paywall) education secretary Michael Gove is behind a move to exorcise foreign literature from English Literature GCSE specifications in favour of his preferred tomes by pre 20th century British writers:
'”Of Mice and Men, which Michael Gove really dislikes, will not be included. It was studied by 90% of teenagers taking English literature GCSE in the past,” said OCR, one of Britain's biggest exam boards. “Michael Gove said that was a really disappointing statistic.”
OCR added: “In the new syllabus 70-80% of the books are from the English canon.”'

As with all things Gove it didn't take long for the more vocifourous members of the 'blob' to froth prematurely this time accusing him of imperialism or philistinism in the name of academic ambition, all for daring to suggest kids read something that isn't Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. However the open hostility towards Gove's favourite authors (all teenagers find Dickens boring apparently) suggests that this argument is more about the blob's collective prejudices and antipathy towards British culture than challenging kids intellectually.

As ever the riposte to this Twitter mob was led by some of the more sensible education bloggers and writers. Michael Merrick was in particularly good form:

'The real root of the issue – that kids should be given the opportunity in school to read a broader range of texts, and most don’t get the opportunity to do so – has been crushed by the weight of a thousand slurs about the moral and intellectual deficiencies of He Who Rocked The Boat. If this really were about the kids, and not Gove, they might find some sympathy with his remarks. After all, if most children leave our schools never having read a classic novel from the 19th century, why is that to be celebrated? If few children have had the opportunity to engage with the literary fruits of the culture in which they are being formed, then why not question how that should be? I once wrote that it is a tragedy that too often we deny our children access to high culture because of the hang-ups of their teachers. One or two folk pulled me up on that. I feel increased resolve to insist on it today.'

Yet amongst the insults, froth and rebuttals two problems associated with what has been suggested in the Times article have been missed. Firstly there are pragmatic issues – a lot of English Literature students study Of Mice and Men and the resources associated with it will, presumably, have to be mothballed and replaced costing time and money. Secondly if Gove really has influenced an exam board (and he denies it) then it would represent yet more centralisation of power on the part of the Secretary of State. I can think of few things more likely to discourage teachers from exposing children to a broader canon of classic literature than a specification imposed by central government and reinforced via high stakes examinations. Interestingly Gove's own rebuttal references an academy that is yet to put a student through a GCSE English Literature exam.

I think that many of the educators leaping to the defence of Gove over the rogue meme were as uncritical about it as the detractors were petulant. Specifications and compliance targets are a massive cause of dumbing down although the finger of blame is often pointed, by those writing the specifications, at 'incompetent' and 'lazy' teachers. The solution is always more specifications and compliance targets. If we are aiming to broaden children's horizons by exposing them to a larger spectrum of classic literature then we'd do well to look at method and not just sentiment – what was described in the Sunday Times was a represented a terrible method and it is to Gove's credit that he has distanced himself from it:

'Gove was widely criticised for stripping English literature out of the core GCSE exam but according to his argument, when Shakespeare was on the national curriculum, children actually had less opportunity to experience whole plays. He blames poorly designed league tables, pressure on teachers and the unscrupulous behaviour of some exam boards. Then, children only read extracts, whereas now, thanks to initiatives by such organisations as the RSC and the Shakespeare Schools Fund — both of which he supports — the opposite is true.'

 


The Long Walk 1st Anniversary Scrapbook

My name is Leonard James, I am a secondary Science teacher at a comprehensive school in England. I have been teaching for eight years and have been promoted to middle leadership during this time. The Long Walk is an outlet for my personal concerns and frustrations about British education. Here I outline said concerns and provide links to the archive of blogposts.

The educational establishment

The educational establishment sits at the summit of the British education systems managemental hierarchy. It is a toxic mix of empire building CEOs, consultants, gurus, bureaucrats and politicians. They are divorced from, and therefore ignorant about, the everyday business of schools. They manage from afar via endless specifications, targets and compliance checking. The following series of blogs highlight some of the unintended consequences of this management style:

Educational Platitudes #1: 'Kayliegh wants to do well'

What do Ofsted have to say about Science curriculums?

Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference

Methods for Attaining League Table Altitude

%5 A*-C inc EM

Mandatory Optimism

ERSC Miss the Elephant in the Room

Minions of Ofsted Part 1: High Stakes Lesson Observations

Minions of Ofsted Part 2: Learning Walks

Minions of Ofsted Part 3: The Consultants

The New Ofsted Data Dashboards Reward Science Departments who Game the Examination System

School choice, competition and the Free Market

The problems described above are exacerbated by personalities within the educational establishment who can't get along. Some members of the educational establishment are monetarists (mainly CEOs and some politicians) pushing for an education system based on free market principles. The following posts describe how teachers and their work are or might be affected by this sort of thinking:

On the Staffroom Debate

Educational Platitudes #2: 'I'm passionate about…'

Injecting Competition: A response to Gabriel Sahlgren and Julian Le Grand

Teaching is a McJob Part 1: Low Pay

Teaching is a McJob Part 2: Low Prestige

Teaching is a McJob Part 3: No Training

Progressive education

Many of those within the educational establishment (who are described by Michael Gove as 'the blob') reject liberal education in favour of child centered 'progressive' pedagogy. This pedagogy undermines the authority of adults, has contributed to a national behaviour crisis and is detrimental to learning:

A Response to Mitra Part 1: Education and Employability

A Response to Mitra Part 2: Classroom Pedagogy

A Response to Mitra Part 3: The Past

 


Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference

 

In an earlier post I criticised the then recently introduced Ofsted Data Dashboard for punishing Science departments who hold high ambitions for thier students:

 

'The issues raised here have been put to Ofsted and this blog is aware of their response. Ofsted chose not to clarify how the Science percentages published on the dashboard were calculated so it is still not entirely clear whether they are reporting on outcomes for every unique GCSE entry or every student entered for GCSE Science. Ofsted confirmed that only e-bacc qualifications were included in their calculations for Science and explained that it would be ‘misleading’ to publish Science outcomes based on entire school cohorts instead of exam entries because ‘pupils don’t have to take Science’. It clearly hasn’t occurred to Ofsted that it is also misleading to publish inflated Science GCSE outcomes by effectively discounting large numbers of lower ability students who are taking GCSE equivalent Science from the data.

In closing the Ofsted dashboard is a missed opportunity. If Sir Micheal Wilshaw wants to help parents make informed choices and governors improve the Science provision in their schools it would help if the dashboard looked at the types of courses on offer to students and the amount of curriculum time and resources a school allocates to Science teaching. Instead Ofsted have produced yet another simplistic, target based accountability tool that will do nothing except encourage faculty heads to do the wrong thing: Biology, Chemistry and Physics will only be offered to the most able children while everyone else will have to be content with an equivalent qualification like BTEC.'

Therefore it is heartening that Ofsted have made some changes to the way Science results are presented on the dashboard:

Before

After

Although I think that Ofsted need to provide more information if they want parents to make an informed choice about Science provision (for example curriculum time which varies massively) this is a step in the right direction as it is now harder to present sky high examination results to savvy parents without anyone discovering the extent to which those results were achieved by entering lower ability students for BTEC; in other words 100% pass rates in Biology, Chemistry and Physics are actually not particularly impressive when 60% of the cohort are not entered for EBacc Science in the first place: