Education hashtag chats

What’s not to like about hashtag chats?

You probably aren’t surrounded by people at your school who share your enthusiasm for discussing educational issues and so the hashtag chat allows you to link up with people from all over the world who are just as geeky as you. The topics are also chosen by people like you and they range over hot-button issues.

Yet I’ve never found it easy to get into them. I certainly don’t want to be critical of the folk who run these chats because they are doing a valuable service to education. However, I’ve realised today why it is that I find it so hard to engage. I offer this view in case a chat moderator wants ideas on how to draw-in people like me.

My revelation came during this morning’s #satchatoc when I saw this tweet.

I immediately thought ‘there’s a few assumptions in there’. Why do we want to give students power? What is to be gained by doing this and how do we know?

I reckon there would be a large segment of the teaching community that would have at least some degree of scepticism about this topic, not because they believe that students should have no voice but because there are lots of kinds of power in school and they might question the desirability of generally giving more of it over to students.

Indeed, despite the framing of the discussion, one teacher made the point that teachers are subject area experts. Would we therefore want to give students power over curriculum content and teaching methods? This is a matter of genuine debate.

However, the way that the question was phrased did not really provide an entry point for such scepticism. The rightness of giving students power was assumed and the chat was framed around listing the ways of doing this.

Now I reflect upon it, I think that many education chats pan-out like this. How can we build more inquiry learning into the curriculum? How can we integrate more tech into lessons? And so on.

These might be highly valued by those who participate and are seeking such tips. Indeed, books of teaching tips seem quite popular.

However, educators like me are far more interested in discussing the assumptions that sit behind these initiatives. If you want a wider debate then consider how you might encourage us to join.

NEWSFLASH: Rather than just point this out, I thought I’d do something about it. So I’ve created a Twitter account, @CriticalThinkEd. It’s not a chat as such. My intention is to post questions that challenge common assumptions. People can then reply in a tweet or by linking to a blogpost that they’ve written on the subject. The account will then act as a resource to curate these opinions. It won’t be taking positions itself, other than through the selection of questions. Please follow and we’ll all see what happens. I’m happy to let in other admins if it gets off the ground.


Taking the p

I am just starting out on my PhD study and one of the things that I need to come to understand is the use of statistics for analysing experimental data. I am therefore bound to make mistakes in this post as I try to tease out some of the issues. I would be most grateful if those more expert than me could take the time point out these errors.

Also, probability more generally is famously fraught and counterintuitive so I won’t be offended if you point out any basic howlers, whether you know about p-values or not.


One of the things that I had intended to do once I had experimental results was to calculate a p-value. What I hadn’t been aware of is the controversy surrounding p-values and their validity. To understand this, we need to understand the ideas of the null and alternative hypotheses. If we were testing a drug, for instance, the null hypothesis would be that it has no effect. The alternative hypothesis might be that it has a positive effect.

If you have any familiarity with basic high-school science then you can probably see that there is an immediate problem. The value of any conclusion will depend on a well-designed experiment. In this instance, we would want to rule out the possibility of a placebo effect as another viable alternative hypothesis.

Setting this aside for now, imagine we run an experiment and get a set of data that perhaps shows a lower mean death rate or whatever for people who take the drug. The p-value tells us the probability of gaining such a data set if the null hypothesis were true i.e. if the drug really had no effect. Different samples will always have different means and so our results could have come about by chance. In the language of probability, we have calculated the probability of our data given the null hypothesis or Pr(data|null).


There are many and various reasons why people dislike p-values but the most fundamental is that they are based upon a misconception about probability. Critics say that what we actually want is the probability of the null hypothesis given the data i.e. Pr(null|data). This is not the same thing as the probability of the data given the null hypothesis, Pr(data|null).

In fact, I teach this notion to my high school maths students. The common textbook trope is to consider a diagnostic test that is not 100% accurate and a disease with a low prevalence in the population. It can be quite simply demonstrated that the probability of having the disease given a positive result on the test is not the same as the probability of a positive result on the test given the fact that somebody has the disease.

So this is something of a coup de grace for p-values.

How do people use p-values?

Or maybe not.

It might be worth conducting a few little thought experiments here. I had never actually considered the p-value as an estimate of the probability of the null hypothesis given the data. I had tended to think of it as something that would inform my judgement about that, alongside other factors.

For instance, imagine a typical cognitive load type experiment. We take a sample of students and randomise them into two groups. The first group receives written instruction – perhaps a worked example or something – whilst the second group gets the same written instruction but also a simultaneous audio track of someone reading it out. The students subsequently complete some kind of post-test.

The null hypothesis here would be that there is no effect of being assigned to either condition. Which is pretty plausible. An alternative hypothesis might be that both reading and hearing simultaneously will overload the students in some way and so the performance of the second group will be worse than the first. Imagine that we do indeed find that this is the case and we calculate a p-value of 0.05.

This tells us that, in a world where the null hypothesis is true, the likelihood of getting a data set like our is 5%. If we replicated this experiment a number of times and got similar results then these results would not seem very consistent with such a world. Replication and simply conducting a larger experiment are mathematically the same and so we could, if we wished, normalise our data and try to estimate an overall p-value which would be shrinking in this case. This ‘increasingly inconsistent’ finding might affect our more qualitative view of the likelihood of the null hypothesis being true.

Of course, our original 5% value is not the probability of the null hypothesis being true. This would be committing the fallacy described above.

Learning what you teach them

Now let’s consider a stranger experiment. We randomise students who have never learnt about the ancient Egyptians into two groups. We teach one group about the ancient Egyptians whilst teaching the other group nothing at all. We then test them on knowledge of the ancient Egyptians.

The null hypothesis would be that teaching students about the ancient Egyptians has no effect on their knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. Imagine that we find that the students taught about the ancient Egyptians knew more about them with a p-value of 0.05. This means that in a world where teaching children about something does not effect what they know about it the chances of getting our data set is 5%. However, we might conclude that such a world is highly unlikely and so this 5% value doesn’t really tell us much at all.

The thing is, it would be an odd experiment to conduct because we already kind-of know the answer.

Philosophy for children

Finally, let’s consider a real experiment which has shaped my thinking on this. EEF conducted an RCT of a course known as ‘philosophy for children’. There has been much comment on this with some people claiming that it demonstrates regression to the mean. However, let’s set this aside and take the experiment at face value.

Children were randomised into two groups, one of which received a philosophy course. Students in the latter group saw greater gains on their mathematics performance (and other measures) than students in the control group.

No p-value was calculated because the lead researcher, Stephen Gorard, is a prominent critic of them.

The null hypothesis here would be that the philosophy course has no effect on children’s mathematics performance. To me, this seems highly plausible. It is hard enough to achieve transfer within educational domains let alone across them. Therefore, I think that a p-value would have added information here. If we knew, for instance, that in a world where philosophy courses do not affect mathematics achievement then the likelihood of getting this set of data is, say, 20% then I would be inclined to put it down to chance and ask for more replications.


Exam stress

I’m pretty willing to accept that exams are stressful. Here are a few other things that I reckon people find stressful;

  • driving tests
  • job interviews
  • giving a speech at a wedding
  • participating in a cup final
  • dental appointments (potentially)
  • going to court
  • playing a musical instrument for an audience
  • moving house
  • being burgled
  • travelling, particularly in a foreign country
  • meeting your boyfriend/girlfriend’s parents for the first time

The point is that there are lots of things that are stressful. Some are worthwhile and cannot be avoided. Others should be avoided if possible. Yet nobody is going to navigate the adult world without encountering stress.

I do not wish to suggest that stress is a trivial issue. It can be utterly debilitating and bad for your health. However, we primarily need strategies for managing and overcoming stress because we cannot eliminate it altogether.

I wonder why we sometimes think that schools should eliminate exam stress from students’ lives. This would not seem like good preparation for the adult world.

However, perhaps this is not such a surprise. In the adult world, wrongdoers are punished if they are caught. If I exceed the speed limit then I can expect a fine. However, any attempt to impose similar consequences in schools is likely to lead to criticism for being ‘punitive’.

And this often comes from the same quarters that tend to insist that learning should take place in real world contexts.


How to prepare students for the future

I read this article by Stewart Riddle in The Conversation and it reminded me of this old websofsubstance post:

The only thing that we know about the future is that it is unpredictable. When I was at school in the 1980s and 1990s it was inconceivable that humans would not have visited Mars by now and the greatest threat to humanity was a nuclear war. Instead, technology has turned inwards and transformed our personal access to information in a way not envisaged by even Star Trek, whereas climate change has displaced nuclear war as the most likely doomsday scenario.

At school, I used to have lessons in the Computer Room on BBC microcomputers; lessons in what ‘WYSIWYG’ means and how to name files so that they could be saved on floppy disks. Our teachers were, no doubt, attempting to prepare us for the future. However, anything of any use that I have ever learnt about computers has been through a process of discovery learning; partly because the tight feedback constraints of computers aid this process and partly because not one of my teachers ever predicted well enough the knowledge that I would need.

Those who claim to know what we need to teach students in order to prepare them for the future are deluded. Be wary of their sales-pitch. At best, such efforts lead to some wasted curriculum time and at worst they displace the teaching of stuff that has real value. Lazy ideas persist, such as that simply making children discuss things will prepare them for working collaboratively in the jobs of the future or that we should all give students an iPad to use just because.

So how can we identify the knowledge that we should transmit to the new generation? How can we know what they will want and need? Well, of course, we can’t know. It’s not possible. But we can play the odds.

The key principle should be: Expose students to that which has endured.

What does this mean? Well, firstly I am not interested in a purely utilitarian view of education. The aim is not simply to produce competent employees for capitalism to ruthlessly exploit in the decades to come. We should clearly equip our students for the world of work but I want them to also possess a hinterland; to go home at the end of the day and read James Joyce’s Ulysses if that’s what they choose to do.

And here’s the rub, of course. How will they be able to choose Ulysses? How will they know whether it’s the sort of thing that will turn them on? We can leave it to happenstance or we can systematically expose students to those ideas that people have found enriching in the past; that which has endured. The fact of endurance hints at cultural value. Can we make everyone love Ulysses? Of course not. I can’t stand the book myself. But enough people have found value in it for it to endure.

The exact canon to which children should be exposed should be a subject of vigorous, democratic debate. Even if we accept the principle of endurance then we will still have a lot to choose from. We don’t even have to teach Ulysses in order to set children on a path that may lead towards it by teaching other works of literature. We will never do this by closing down and limiting the scope of experience to only the stuff that we consider to be relevant; patronisingly choosing advertisements for iPods or newspaper articles about bands as worthy of our students’ analysis.

Will every individual interaction with poetry or mathematics or history or physics lead to a lifelong passion for the subject? No, but that is not the point. It will lead some into passion and others into an appreciation of what is out there and an appreciation of other people; the artist for the scientist and so on. A good education enables us to express our humanity in ways that we may never have known existed.

And we will still want to include some contemporary ideas, even if we are not sure that they will endure. Such ideas should form part of a logical progression; students must be able to apprehend them.

For instance, I used to teach about the possible eventual fates of the universe to my physics A-Level students. They couldn’t really grasp the detail but they had enough of a basic understanding of gravity to appreciate an impressionistic view. Interestingly, it turns out that I was wrong. We did not know at that time that the universe is accelerating its expansion. I don’t believe that this will have harmed my students – any of those who followed the issue through the years will have read the news and will see how the new knowledge fits with the old. But it does demonstrate why we should not place the contemporary at the centre of school education.

One argument against traditional education is that knowledge is superseded quickly these days; we might teach the students stuff that will turn out to be wrong in a few years time, like I did. The answer is not to teach them how to learn instead – to become ‘learning workers’ – but to teach them core principles and ideas that are unlikely to change. The fact is that it is the contemporary and relevant curriculum that is the one most likely to become outdated quickly; as those BBC microcomputers show.

And we don’t need to change the way that we teach, either. It is common to paint a caricature of traditional teaching as lecturing. This then enables tech developers to say, “Why don’t we just capture all of the lectures on video and then kids can work through at their own pace on a computer or phone or something like that. You can then focus on coaching them.” But traditional styles of teaching are not like that. Direct instruction is not lecturing; it is highly interactive and requires the involvement of the students. Personalised learning, on the other hand, enables students to exercise the wrong choices and can entrench low expectations.

When you strip it back, nothing endures more than the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic (in that order of importance). The real scandal about preparing students for the future is the fact that we allow so many children to fall behind in these basic skills. We knowingly and wilfully use strategies that are not the best ones; whole-language reading instruction dressed-up as ‘mixed methods’ or ‘balanced literacy’ and discovery learning approaches to mathematics.

No matter how much you play on an iPad, you are not prepared for the future if you can’t read.


Ability grouping

Those folks who use flowery verbiage to raise questions of ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ do, at least, have a kernel of a point. Education is a complex and messy process.

You only have to consider the large number of educational trials that are confounded in some way. I have written of gold-standard randomised control trials that fail to isolate the relevant factors. And this means that some questions do not have a simple answer.

When I was in primary school, the whole year group took ‘games’ at the same time. During football season we were grouped into two ability groups. The P.E. teachers never made this explicit but it was pretty obvious. I was in the lower ability group. I knew this because both teachers spent their time with the other group. My group just played a game and refereed it ourselves. It was the lads on the other half of the playing field who ended-up on the school football team.

I could be wrong but I suspect that a study of the effectiveness of this approach would have shown a positive effect for some of the boys in the upper group which was outweighed by a negative effect for those in my group. After all, nobody actually taught us how to play football. We were experiential learners.

When educators talk of the need for professional autonomy so that they can get on with the job of teaching without outside interference, I tend to think of this model. After all, my teachers obviously believed that it was fine.

Compare the ability grouping of my football lessons with the sort that’s used in Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. In this case, children are given placement tests to determine their starting level and group. A great deal of planning goes in to structuring the instruction to meet this level – Engelmann has written a famously dense book about how this is done. I don’t know, but I suspect that different group levels are generally assigned to similarly experienced and committed teachers.

The point is that ability grouping is not a single thing with a single effect. And this is why a meta-analysis of the effects of ability grouping is not likely to tell us a great deal.


Wasting time in English lessons

Time is limited. We all know that. And awareness of the limits of our own time is often what drives us to make meaning in our lives. It is therefore immoral, in my view, to knowingly waste the time of others. And this moral imperative is even more pronounced when we are referring to the time that children spend in school. We tell them that school is good for them and we make them go.

This is why I am so keen to examine the evidence, flawed as it is, for the effectiveness of different educational approaches. If we know that some methods lead to more learning, more quickly then I think this trumps whatever particular tastes and fancies we have.

The simple view of reading is well supported by evidence. Although it is not universally accepted, it provides a pretty strong model. It’s simplicity is also a strength. Scientists often employ the heuristic of Occam’s razor: If there are two possible explanations for a phenomenon then the simplest is likely to be the best.

In short, the simple view of reading is that reading consists of two components; decoding ability and linguistic comprehension. We have to be careful here. Many teachers will read the word ‘comprehension’ and think of all sorts of things but its meaning is reasonably straightforward in this case. If you can understand a phrase when someone says it to you then you have linguistic comprehension of that phrase. If you can translate that phrase from written words into real or imagined sounds then you can decode. If you can put these together then you can read.

The obvious way to build linguistic comprehension is to build a child’s verbal vocabulary. A child may be able to decode the word “discrete” from letters on a page into sounds, real or imagined, but if she doesn’t know what “discrete” means then she will not comprehend. However, there is more to it than that. “Discrete” has a number of meanings and she will need to know these in order to work out which meaning is likely to be intended. Sometimes we know what a word means but we know little about the context. As we read we build up a mental picture of what we are reading about but if the area is unfamiliar then this is going to be hard to do.

Consider this. I tell you that a quickly promoted colleague has ‘wings held together by wax’. Do you comprehend the allusion? If so, is it important that children should learn enough to be able to grasp it? What would we need to teach them in order to increase their chances of comprehending such a phrase?

The solution is to make sure that children know about a lot of stuff so that they will have large vocabularies and can build myriad mental pictures. This has to be a key aim of elementary schooling, not because the stuff itself is always particularly useful but because knowing stuff allows access to more stuff; a virtuous circle. It has been estimated, for instance, that you need to know 90-95% of the vocabulary in a passage in order to learn new things from it.

But comprehension takes on a very different nature in today’s classrooms. Sometimes we talk of ‘guided reading’. At other times we hear about ‘critical literacy’. The idea is that we don’t need children to learn lots of stuff at all. There are techniques that can be deployed so that even if children lack background knowledge or only have a very sketchy understanding then they can still comprehend passages that they are presented with.

If true, this represents efficiency. We can cut-back on all the content – children can learn about it as and when they need to by using these comprehension strategies. And some of the signs are encouraging. Research demonstrates that explicit teaching of these strategies leads to better reading comprehension.

So how come we haven’t seen a massive improvement in reading scores? Indeed, I understand that under ‘No Child Left Behind’, some U.S. schools abandoned large parts of the elementary curriculum – history, science, music – in order to focus on reading comprehension and yet to largely no avail. Why is this?

It seems that reading comprehension boils down to just a couple of strategies and that these are not skills in the sense that they improve with training. Yes, teaching kids these strategies – such as asking yourself questions while reading – improves comprehension but practising it over and over again leads to no further gains. Why? Because children are still limited by background knowledge.

If this is true then we are wasting children’s time. A lot of it.

After pausing to reflect upon that, it is also worth considering that some of the discourse around comprehension comes from a very strange place indeed. If we chase ‘critical literacy’ back down its rabbit-hole then we arrive at Karl Marx via Paolo Freire. Freire is the educationalist who admired Chairman Mao’s attempts to forge a more democratic kind of education in the crucible of the cultural revolution. Why would we be basing our ideas on this rarefied kind of thing rather than a more prosaic analysis of basic research on reading instruction? It makes you wonder.

Here is Allan Luke on critical literacy:

“What happens when a ‘radical’ educational idea moves from the political outlands to become a key concept in state curriculum? Postcolonial, feminist and sociological theory of the last two decades proposes a critical educational project as a key step in challenging and transforming dominant discourses and ideologies in postindustrial economies. “

He’s right. This stuff has been integrated into state curricula. It doesn’t really sound like it’s about reading though, does it?

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


How to teach critical thinking

My grandparents on my father’s side were communists. My granddad was a bricklayer and a chain-maker and they admired the Soviet Union and thought that Western criticisms of Stalin were plain propaganda. They were staunch republicans and they had a point; why should power be passed down through a family? How can that be right?

My grandparents on my mother’s side were Tories. My grandfather owned a small joinery business and identified with the aspirations associated with The Conservative Party. Interestingly, both of my grandfathers had played football together as boys, years before my parents met. In addition to having the highest ratio of butchers shops to people in the known world, The Black Country has always been a ferment of ideas; a feisty, raucous mix of a street-fights, Methodism, the Labour party and temperance. The one thing that all of my grandparents had in common was that they were joyously disputatious. Arguments were welcome.

I think that both of my parents voted for Thatcher in 1979. My mum was and always will be loyal to a party that she was raised to support; a party with which her values align. My dad is more of a floating voter. He had lived through the economic malaise and blackouts of the 1970s and he had witnessed the worst of the union movement at close hand. So he resolved that something must be done. Yet he never reconciled to the Tories selling off the family silver on the cheap.

So I could have gone in any direction, really. Certainly, the household that I was born into was right-of-centre and at a time when the Conservative Party could command the support of many lower middle-class families like mine. We had a car and a telephone and were thinking about buying a video recorder. And this was in an era of Star Wars optimism where the future looked like Sinclair Spectrum computers and monorails.

Culture has a hold. The culture that you are raised in has a powerful, nostalgic draw. You catch yourself thinking things and not knowing why you think them. Ideas and attitudes are transmitted like viruses or absorbed as if by osmosis from the content of TV shows and conversations. We had a new shopping centre – The Merry Hill Centre. Where once ten thousand men laboured at a steel works, we now had a legion of part-time teenagers selling paisley shirts and Nike trainers.

It was at school where I worked out what I thought. I took history GCSE and was taught by Mrs Pullen. I had missed out on a history of kings and queens in the younger years. The view of history teaching back then was woolly – we had to flit about from period to period answering supposedly engaging questions rather than learning something of the chronology of Britain.

But the history GCSE that I took was a little more traditional. Not in one sense; it was largely social history rather than personality-driven political history. It was traditional in the sense that we had to write vast amounts. In order to do this we had to develop a clarity and robustness of ideas and we had to know our facts.

We studied the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The facts of these two periods hit me hard. The injustice of enclosures ensured that I would hold a lifelong suspicion of the benevolence of the wealthy and of market-based solutions. The poor were simply dispossessed in the name of profit and reform. Similarly, the industrial revolution exploited people as a resource. It is a shame that we never looked in detail at political movements of the time such as the chartists because I was ready for that.

When you have knowledge, you have something to measure things against. When someone stands on a soap-box and vomits out three word slogans, you know if it’s been done before and how it turned out. You can take a view on whether it seems plausible. You can judge for yourself whether a claim is pseudo-scientific.

When middle-class intellectuals pontificate on the wrongs of trying to teach world knowledge and suggest, instead, that children should discover it for themselves or should focus on the local and parochial then I find it imperative to say that without Mrs Pullen and the agricultural revolution then I wouldn’t be quite who I am today.


Teachers have lost their mojo

It used to be accepted that learning academic subjects was hard work, but there were rich rewards for those prepared to put in the effort. Teachers were proud to make this case and thunder at those who weighed it differently – that was their role as advocates. If a child succeeded, it was a demonstration of hard work and talent. If a child failed, at least some of the blame lay with that child’s lack of application.

Continues at Spiked


The five year lesson plan

Tim Oates maintains that one feature of successful education systems is their curriculum coherence. Nothing much changes over time and this enables everyone in the system – teachers, publishers, students – to focus on learning rather than constant adjustments to the content.

I have never worked in a system with such a long-term view and it’s a difficult thing to judge. Should we welcome changes to curricula if they are improvements or should we hold steady? I’m not sure that English education would be in a better place now if it had held on to the deeply flawed 2007 National curriculum. However, I do see the advantages in holding steady; it allows you to plan for the long term.

I suggest that we should take the long view and approach lesson planning as a ratchet rather than a constantly spinning wheel. If you have a strong set of curriculum resources, planned well in advance and shared, then you have efficiency. When a new teacher joins a team then she can start with what is already there rather than a blank sheet of paper. Good minds can be put to use in making refinements and tweaks rather than constructing the basics of each lesson from scratch, a thousand, million times.

Some see such a long term plan – laying out in December what will be taught in May – as inimical to formative assessment: How can you plan lesson three until you’ve taught lesson two and collected evidence of what the students know? This is a false choice. You can plan your lesson well in advance and you can adjust it on the basis of any assessment evidence that arises. Moreover, children are not vastly different from year to year. They will still have the same difficulties and misconceptions. Planning tomorrow’s lesson under pressure on a dark winter’s night is unlikely to result in optimal work.

Many schools and departments don’t operate like this. Teachers hold their own resources which they largely keep to themselves and it is easy to see why. Imagine you are in a team with Jane who happily takes everything that you pass on to her but who never gives anything back. Or imagine you work with Bill who tries hard but produces resources that you simply cannot use. These are the centrifugal forces that militate against good, shared planning.

Which is why this is an issue that really does need a bit of leadership. Common agreements must be made around curriculum documentation and teachers need to be held to account for their contribution. Instead of hiring an outside speaker for the PD day to come in and talk a load of old nonsense, leaders should consider using this as an opportunity for subject teams to work together.

Clearly, there is not enough time for every resource to be produced within a team meeting. Teachers will still need to go away and work on their individual contributions. But teams can discuss key issues and set agendas. Teams can review assessment data and suggest improvements that need to be made for next year. In fact, I’m not sure that there are many other reasons for bringing teams of teachers together.

In the last two school years, I have had the privilege of teaching two different Year 12 subjects for the first time. My strategy has been to get alongside the experienced teachers of the subject from the outset and try as much as I can to start where they have left off. I don’t want to make my own mistakes. I don’t want to make poor decisions just so that I can feel autonomous. I want to succeed. We should share our planning knowledge across teachers and through time so that people don’t have to figure everything out for themselves.

Forget the gimmicky, fast food, Sunday night, compliance driven approach to planning. Instead, plan a lesson that will last.

The Five Year Lesson Plan