A plan for poor performance 

A have created a graphic. If anyone could point me to a good software package or app for creating infographics like this then I’d appreciate it.

The graphic may explain why student-centred education persists.


Smart

I was once sat next to an economist. He asked me what I did for a living and I told him.

“Education is all about signalling,” he explained. It turns out that ‘Signalling Theory’ was his specialist subject.

“Take art history degrees, for example,” He continued, “they are of no real use. What you are really saying by doing an art history degree is that you are smart otherwise you wouldn’t invest so much time and money in completing one. This is then what you are signalling to a future employer.”

I don’t know about art history degrees – maybe he’s onto something there – but as a general theory of education, signalling theory sucks.

This is because intelligence is two things and yet people invariably think of it as just one.

The first component of intelligence is raw processing power. This is how much you can manipulate in your working memory. We might call this ‘fluid intelligence’ and there is not much you can do about it. People have devised ‘brain training’ activities that attempt to improve fluid intelligence through exercise, as if it were a muscle. The evidence suggests that this kind of exercise makes you very good at the training task but that this doesn’t transfer to anything else.

When some people argue that intelligence being hereditary then it might be because of genes that determine fluid intelligence. If that’s the case then what is the point of all of this education? Our intelligence is preordained.

But there is another component to intelligence that we might call ‘crystallised intelligence’. Loosely, this is what you know. If you know your multiplication tables then you might be able to solve multiplication problems more quickly and accurately than someone who has greater fluid intelligence than you but who doesn’t know their tables.

Consider two plumbers. One is a smart trainee and the other is an old hand. Who will solve the plumbing problem first? Well the old hand will have plenty of previous plumbing problems to compare it to, a process that will happen without conscious effort. This is greater crystallised intelligence.

Education is the process of growing the crystallised intelligence of individuals. Unfortunately, we cannot predict the future either in general terms or the future for any particular individual. We do not know what mental resources they might want or need. So we make a best guess. We teach them that which has endured on the plausible assumption that knowledge that has proved useful or fulfilling in the past will do so in the future.

It is possible that crystallised intelligence has a genetic component. People might inherit personality traits that make them more inclined to stay indoors and read books. Yet I think that most of the time the nature versus nurture people are talking past each other.

Those who believe that intelligence is largely genetic conceive of it as the fluid component only and those who want to stress a growth mindset are actually conceiving of intelligence as the crystallised component. This latter group don’t seem to realise this and talk as if they are somehow growing the brain through exercise. They are not.

My economist had made the error of thinking of intelligence as only the fluid component and so had undervalued the role of knowledge. I tried to explain this to him but he seemed to struggle to grasp what I was taking about.

Perhaps he wasn’t very smart.


Swedish lessons – a warning

The story goes that Sweden was once a bastion of educational excellence. In the 1990s, it embarked upon a series of reforms which included the formation of ‘free schools’ – state funded independent schools, some of which were allowed to run at a profit. This neoliberal fragmentation of a once world-leading system led to a decline in standards and plummeting performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Except that this might not be the whole story. Even Sally Weale of the Guardian points to the fact that discipline is a major issue for Swedish schools and that, “Conservatives… say students have been given too much influence in the classroom, undermining the authority of teachers.” Who are these ‘conservatives’ and what is their case?

It appears that one of them is an academic embedded deep within the Swedish educational establishment. He is Jonas Linderoth, Professor of Education at the University of Gothenburg. He is clear where much of the blame lies – it lies with him and his colleagues and he would like to say sorry.*

He believes that since at least the 1990s, teacher educators, trades unions, academics and politicians have all held to a consensus that undermined the role of the teacher. Standing at the front of the class and explaining things became associated with abuse of power and iron discipline. Instead, teachers were encouraged to foster independent learning: classroom work would be based on a student’s natural motivation and boundaries between different subjects would be removed.

Teachers who were against this new approach and who wanted to teach in a more traditional way were demonised and yet Linderoth now believes that these were the teachers who did most to promote equity because they provided more support for the weakest students and those with the least cultural capital. Linderoth recalls with shame an early presentation that he gave where he claimed to have learnt more English through his interest in music than through school; a presentation accompanied – of course – by Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”. He now acknowledges that without excellent teachers – teachers you didn’t negotiate with – he might not have gone on to higher education.

I find it interesting that such similar arguments are playing out across the world. We can probably all recognise the demonisation of traditional methods – think “drill and kill” or equating testing to some form of abuse – and the unexamined assumption that student-centered, inquiry methods are superior almost by definition.

And this raises important questions for advocates of Free Schools or their U.S. equivalent, Charter Schools. I am still not convinced by this project. These schools are being sold as a way of freeing teachers from bureaucrats in order to enable them to try different approaches. Yet this didn’t happen in Sweden; the child-centered consensus prevailed. Presumably this was because people with a child-centered philosophy still held enormous power in the system through their roles in teacher education and accreditation. They held it in a python-like grip. There is no point in setting-up a more independent kind of state school if inspectors can close the ones they disapprove of or deregister the teachers who work in them.

This is why we should always be cautious about founding new bureaucracies such as the College of Teaching in England. Ask yourself: who are these people and why do they want this power?

*I have used a mix of Google Translate and Swedish speaking contacts to attempt to understand Linderoth’s argument. If I have lost any nuances as I paraphrase his writing then the fault is entirely mine


Why are some people so worried about The College of Teaching?

On the face of it, what’s not to love? England’s new College of Teaching offers an opportunity for the profession to find its own feet. Instead of being buffeted by political whims, the College can be a strong voice for teachers, offering stability. If it can wrangle some powers away from government – such as the power to sets teaching standards – then the profession can look forward to more stability.

I think that there are three reasons why this argument doesn’t quite work.

The educational establishment 

It looks like the College will become a part of the educational establishment. I would define this establishment as being made up of unelected officials with power over some aspect of education policy. I do not include politicians in this and I see fixed term appointments made by politicians – such as the head of OFSTED – as slightly different because they are potentially susceptible to political pressures.

The new College CEO is indicating on Twitter that the College will be a broad church that allows non-teachers to join. The past phrase has been ‘anyone with an interest in education’. We can be pretty certain from experience, and from the scheduling of College events during weekdays in term-time, that these non-teachers – CPD Providers, executive heads, university academics and so on – will end-up directing the organisation.

You might think it is good for power in the profession to be in the hands of such experts and not influenced by politics. Politics is bad for education, right? And isn’t this how other professions are run? Sadly, this does not bode well for teaching and this is because of the following points.

A highly contested space 

Teaching standards are not like engineering standards. This is a highly contested space. For instance, I am convinced by the evidence for explicit instruction but others are equally convinced that direct instruction is a form of child abuse. Some support zero-tolerance discipline policies but others think these are… a form of child abuse. What are the aims that teachers are trying to achieve? I think it is imperative that children learn to read in early primary school and that standardised tests or the phonics check provide some useful information about this. Others would prioritise happiness over reading and would see tests of any sort of young children as, er, a form of child abuse.

This post is not about who is right or wrong. I am merely pointing out that there are huge divisions in education and you can’t set these aside.

A tendency towards progressive education 

Members of the educational establishment have consistently shown that they favour positions that could be broadly described as ‘progressive‘. This is an international phenomenon. In Australia, for instance, our teaching standards emphasise differentiation yet you would struggle to define this as an evidence-based practice. The evidence is simply not there. Across the world, education schools prioritise projects such as ensuring teachers use ‘ambitious instruction‘ – another set of progressive education practices that appear to be pursued for mainly ideological reasons. And perhaps teachers in the UK have started to forget what happened when OFSTED was last run by the establishment. There was mandated group-work which your lesson observation grade depended upon. Progressive education does not shy away from coercion when it comes to teachers.

We need another way

Due to this history, teaching is not going to make progress in this way. The future instead belongs to grass-roots movements that allow teachers to discuss their ideas without holding official power over them. Facilitated by social media, these teacher-shaped movements have started to form and have opened up a world of new possibilities for teachers to reflect upon their work and represent themselves.

The question is: how far are teachers in England prepared to let themselves be led down the College cul de sac before they give it the boot?


Math in the Low Lands

The following is a guest post from Joost Hulshof, A Professor in the Department of Mathematics at VU University Amsterdam. You can read his bio here and he tweets under the handle @joost_hulshof. I have asked him to explain maths teaching reform in The Netherlands.

The Dutch word for mathematics is ‘wiskunde’. We owe the name to Simon Stevin. Wiskunde is what you get in Dutch secondary education. The supposedly highest level of Dutch secondary education is VWO, which loosely translates as PSE, Preparing for Scientific Education. Essentially VWO is the only form of secondary education (high school) that allows you to enter university in the Low Lands. VWO takes 6 years, after 6 years in primary education (following 2 years in Kindergarten). In primary education you don’t get wiskunde but ‘rekenen’, which I would translate as ‘arithmetic’, in accordance with the language switch in Wikipedia (here and here).

Many things have changed since I had arithmetic (rekenen) and mathematics (wiskunde) in school. A first omen of changes to come was when one of my high school teachers, having returned from Utrecht where Hans Freudenthal had delivered his farewell lecture, reported that Freudenthal had predicted that wiskunde as we knew it then was bound to disappear from high school. A worrying statement that I had happily forgotten when I enrolled for mathematics at Leiden University a year later.

Why did I choose mathematics after high school? Because I enjoyed it. What had really struck me in high school mathematics were complex numbers and the first steps in complex analysis from a book co-authored by Freudenthal. This was a special topic in Wiskunde II which was mainly linear algebra and 3D-geometry. There were only 8 pupils (all boys unfortunately) in that Wiskunde II class. Most of them later chose mathematics or physics at university.

The mainstream Wiskunde I was a combination of differential and integral calculus, probability, statistics, and some geometry, especially the study of functions and their graphical representations, I liked it a lot and the calculus required to sketch the graphs was also fun. I did not have a calculator in high school. You learned mathematical techniques and how to apply them. Nowadays we don’t have Wiskunde I and II, but Wiskunde A,B,C,D. It’s a long and complicated story to explain what those stand for.

I don’t remember a lot of applications to real life problems from the calculus part, but Wiskunde I gave you a solid basis for university study in any of the exact sciences, in the same way that rekenen (arithmetic) in elementary school had given you a solid basis for wiskunde (mathematics) in high school. This was thanks to a systematic treatment of calculating with numbers such as integers, fractions and decimal representations, and applications in which physical units were required.

Forty years have passed since I came to hear of Freudenthal’s prophecy. I now know that Freudenthal’s prophecies were plans, and that these plans were not restricted to wiskunde in high school, as rekenen in elementary school was in for a complete makeover as well. Since then rekenen and wiskunde have been redefined and merged into what I and others now call ‘Dutch Reform Math’, with devastating consequences that are systematically denied by the group of school of reformers who were founded and positioned at the center of educational power by Freudenthal. Why Freudenthal did so is for others to discuss. But he did.

Unlike Freudenthal himself, these reformers are mostly not mathematicians and therefore lack the capability of responding to critical observations on the lack of mathematics, be it rekenen or wiskunde, in Dutch Reform Math. What’s worse is that whereas Freudenthal, towards the end of his life, eventually came to face his educational failures, his school perceives a quite different reality, exemplified in a plenary lecture at one of these conferences by Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen titled ‘Reform under attack – Forty Years of Working on Better Mathematics Education thrown on the Scrapheap? No Way!‘ It’s still on the webpages of the Freudenthal Institute.

The first thing of MvdHP I read was an article in one of our quality newspapers, coauthored by Adri Treffers, one of the other Dutch professors of arithmetic.

Just like the conference paper it flatly denies the problems created by Dutch Reform Math, but it does offer an opening for a discussion in that it describes a realistic treatment of an exercise (not a problem) that we probably all agree young pupils should learn how to do. The bald problem is 62 − 57 = 5 and it is discussed in a so-called ‘realistic’ context deemed suitable by the professors: a guy stands on a weighing machine with his cat and reads off 62 kg, while without the cat he read off 57 kg (now that’s a realistic context these days). What’s the weight of the cat?

I understand this is an exercise for pupils in Year 5, in which 5 is 5 = 2 + 3, as we start counting the years from Kindergarten these days. So what would one expect from children of age 9 as far as simple subtractions are concerned? Hopefully something that goes beyond what you can do by counting upwards (from 57 in this case). The professors however had something else in their realistic minds and suggested a group discussion about the possibility of 6 or 4 kg as a possible outcome. I’m not joking.

At the time I did not know of the TAL project. I wrote about the books that resulted from this project in Dutch here, submitted to Euclides, the journal of and for the Dutch Society of high school teachers, but it was rejected because of the very topic. TAL is an acronym that refers to intermediate goals (Tussendoelen) and Leerlijnen (‘learning lines’, which translates as educational curricula). I read the TAL-books because I became interested in what had happened to elementary math school curricula, many of which now no longer contain standard topics like long division and calculating fractions with numerators and denominators. These books turned out to be part of the curricula at the academies for elementary schoolteachers. I started reading them under the false assumption that they were just using a different didactical method for teaching the same topics and I was curious to see how they did it. To make a long story short: I then found out they didn’t.


Who should we invite into our schools to speak to teachers?

Staff development is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Schools have limited time and money available and so there is a moral duty to try to ensure we don’t waste it. Even with the best of intentions, this can be tricky and so I offer a few factors that you might want to consider.

Who?

Does the speaker have a relevant academic qualification in the area that she intends to speak about? I wouldn’t suggest this is essential but it is worth considering. I am often critical of education academics but at least they generally recognise the complexity of schools and are less likely to make bold, unsupported pronouncements.

Does the speaker have teaching experience? This is not necessary if she is there to merely inform teachers about psychological principles or what the research shows in a particular area. But if the intention is to promote an initiative that impacts on teaching then it’s helpful to have someone with experience of classrooms.

I would be extremely cautious about a presenter who perhaps has a business background, lacks both teaching experience and research credentials and yet is prepared to make strong statements about teaching methods. The fact that she has worked with other schools in the past is, I’m afraid, no recommendation. Which brings me to my next point.

Where is the evidence?

You should always ask your speaker for the evidence that supports the ideas she intends to discuss. If you are referred to a list of testimonials – “We were delighted at the learning that took place when WhizzBang Solutions visited our school…” – then I would avoid.

Similarly, I would be wary of what we might call ‘argument from success’. Just because someone has run a successful school, it doesn’t mean that she knows why it was successful. Many factors vary from school to school and the ones that a successful leader might point to aren’t necessarily the ones that made the difference.

Ideally, you want evidence that is independent of the speaker but is directly related to the ideas being proposed. That’s a lot to ask for but it can be achieved. Think of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes. These have been thoroughly researched many times and so you can draw on supporting evidence from outside any particular program.

Why do I stress the need for a direct relation between the evidence and the ideas? Isn’t this need obvious?

Unfortunately, education is full of non-sequiturs. Advocates extrapolate conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence. For instance, research showing that children remember discussions of controversial issues in a social studies program does not support the idea that we need to promote more discussion of open ended maths problems. Instead, you would need studies of maths classrooms; studies that demonstrated improved outcomes for this approach. Even then, we should be cautious – any educational intervention tends to produce a positive outcome because it raises teachers’ and students’ expectations.

The worst kind of evidence that is routinely used to promote teaching methods is evidence relating to the job market of the future. Firstly, any such predictions are highly uncertain – nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, even if we could identify that a particular attribute will be more sought after in the future, we still need direct evidence that the teaching methods that the presenter proposes will improve our students’ acquisition of it.

Reimagining  

It is important that we get the right people into schools to talk to teachers. We probably need to reimagine the process a little. Rather than picturing the guru on the mountain passing wisdom to the masses, a better metaphor might be the senate committee hearing where experts are brought in to provide their evidence for us to consider.

[I suppose it’s worth preempting a possible criticism of this post. Yes, I have stated that we should look at a speaker’s background and yes, elsewhere, I have stated that ideas are more important than background. This is because making a decision on who to invite into your school is an entirely different question to deciding upon the best way to refute somebody’s argument]


How to avoid coming across as some kind of crackpot

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing on Twitter about think tanks, the funding of think tanks and whether this is transparent enough. Policy Exchange has come in for particular scrutiny.

I maintain my broad position that such discussions are largely pointless. It matters far more whether a position is right and can be supported with evidence than it matters who funded the research behind the idea. If you disagree with Policy Exchange’s views on Grammar schools, for instance, it is far better to explain why you disagree than it is to rave on about their sources of revenue.

Firstly, ad hominem attacks of this kind are highly polarising. If you are part of the leftish Twitter subculture that fills my timeline then it can seem extremely damning to suggest that a think tank might be funded by shadowy business people. But this is because you already have a prejudice against shadowy business people. It plays to the gallery. Suggest to an ordinary member of the public that a piece of research has been funded by big business and they are likely to declare, “So what?”

To imagine why, flip it around. Picture someone criticising a think tank for being funded by… the unions! You probably find this to be an unconvincing line of attack because, to you, unions are the good guys who stand up for workers’ rights. Their mission is entirely benign. Yet if you went to a conference full of right-wing political activists then the anti-union argument would play well. They see unions as bureaucracies that milk workers of their hard-earned cash in order to run pet projects or, worse, fund lavish perks for union officials.

And that same conference would probably look quite favorably on big business, with delegates viewing it as a creator of jobs and wealth. Nothing sinister at all.

It’s not that political positioning doesn’t matter. It clearly affects what think tanks choose to research and publicise. But if it leads them into error then it is far better to point out the error because that way you might just convince somebody who doesn’t already agree with you.

But perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps the issue is not that Policy Exchange is probably funded by wealthy business people who have an interest in education and politics. Perhaps the issue is transparency of funding. Can’t we all at least agree that think tanks should be transparent?

Not really, no.

People can donate money to whatever legal organisation they like. Think tanks have no actual power, only influence. If a politician decides to follow a policy formulated in a think tank then we can still vote that politician out of office. The politician is accountable. Yes, politicians are at risk of being corrupted and so we should know their financial interests. They have put themselves in the public space. But why should we know that a particular individual has contributed to funding a think tank? Wouldn’t this just result in the funds drying up as those individuals and companies are subjected to wide-scale tinfoil-hattery from their political opponents?

Sadly, there are a lot of crackpots out there. Even humble bloggers like me have been subjected to abuse – the worst dirt that could be found was that I work in an independent school; something I had already written about on this blog. But I digress.

And maybe that’s the point. By forcing everyone out into the public sphere we will shut down those think tanks funded by large donations from private individuals – the ones we don’t like – and that will leave only those funded by mass movements like the unions – the ones we do like.

I am not arguing that funding positions or lack of openness shouldn’t be mentioned. I’m not calling for censorship. A little context is useful and can help you orientate yourself to the debate. I just don’t think it makes a good basis for an argument. If all you can criticise about an organisation is that it doesn’t publish a list of donors on its website then you have a pretty thin case.

The ideas are far more interesting. And it is in discussion of these ideas that the future direction of education will be won or lost.