Five ways to damage a good school

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As teachers in the northern hemisphere reflect on the past school year and consider the new one to come, it falls to me to channel my inner Cassandra.

Imagine you are in charge of a good school; a school that is recognised as doing a decent job by the local community but also a school with aspirations to reach ever greater heights. This is a time of vulnerability; a time when bad ideas are as likely as good ideas to take hold of the imagination. Doing something is not always an improvement. Here are my top five howlers.

5. Focus on the furniture

Focusing on furniture and walls is a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. However, the effects are greater than simply those of wasting time and effort. The most efficient physical arrangement is to have individual classrooms with tables that are laid out, or at least can be laid out, in rows, yet you will struggle to find a consultant or architect who will recommend this.

Instead, the enthusiasm will be for knocking down walls and installing pods and break-out or open-plan spaces. Teachers will have to waste time and energy trying to mitigate the noise and distraction these arrangements cause before, three years down the track, someone finally decides to put up partition walls. Even then, those tables will still be arranged, immovably, in strange patterns that prevent students from seeing the board or the teacher.

4. Lock yourself into the latest novelty

It is almost impossible for schools to filter out all of the bad ideas. Often, senior managers will have a pet project or enthusiasm that seems pretty reasonable at the time. And this is where the idea of a pilot project comes in handy. My advice is to initially commit to something that is fully reversible. This way, you can cut your losses when the expected transformative gains fail to materialise.

About ten years ago, I remember discussing a ‘vertical tutoring’ notion that was all the rage at the time. This would have meant rearranging all of our students’ tutor groups so that they were a mix of ages. The idea was that sensible and mature older students would be a good influence on younger students. I asked what we expected the effect of silly and immature older students to be on younger students but this was never really answered. In the end, we dodged that one and it was probably for the best.

In a different school, we went all out for something called ‘Building Learning Power’. We had training and placed it on all of our materials, lesson plan templates and schemes of work. We wrote it into the criteria for performance management reviews. After a couple of years, nobody except for one assistant principal still believed in it but we all had to keep going through the motions.

3. Listen to the GOGS

Here is a fact about the OECD’s PISA programme: PISA define good teaching as having a student-oriented classroom climate and yet, using PISA’s own measures, a greater amount of student-orientation is associated with worse PISA maths results. Similarly, more ‘enquiry-based’ science teaching is associated with lower PISA science scores.

Yet you won’t hear this from PISA. Instead, they make odd claims about memorisation and seem determined to develop new measures of supposedly generic skills such as creativity or critical thinking or collaborative problem solving. It is as if they think that they might eventually find a measure that correlates positively with the kind of teaching they approve of.

This is a fool’s errand. These skills are not generic and any measures PISA develop are likely to end up testing cognitive skills very closely related to the academic ones already assessed by PISA. The same countries will dominate except that the tests will be less reliable and more gameable.

Yet this idea of generic skills is everywhere. Andreas Scheicher and his staff seem to have watched a Ken Robinson TED talk and become True Believers. Their conviction is so strong that no quantity of their own data will dislodge them from it. So with a passing nod to Pasi Sahlberg, let’s call this the Global Orthodoxy on Generic Skills (GOGS).

Schools that pursue this agenda of focusing on, and attempting to measure, these (non) generic skills will waste a lot of time and money.

2. Introduce project-based or inquiry learning

This is a specific case of a fashionable novelty that is highly likely to go wrong. First, there is little evidence that these forms of teaching are effective. Explicit teaching has a much stronger evidence base. Inquiry and project-based learning tend to be justified on the basis of delivering generic skills and yet there is little evidence that they succeed at doing this.

More importantly, introducing such teaching methods will involve months and years of asking teachers to focus on teaching and learning processes rather than the content of the curriculum. Maths teachers should be thinking about maths and how to make complex abstractions accessible to students. They should not be thinking about how to wring a bit of incidental maths out of a cross-curricular project or how to manufacture a group-based inquiry.

1. Start blaming teachers for poor behaviour

In my experience, schools that go downhill often start by gradually losing grip on student behaviour. This may be as a result of a general malaise or the adoption of a specific anti-authoritarian ideology. Whatever the cause, if the view starts to take hold among senior managers that teachers are to blame for poor behaviour then you enter something of a death spiral.

Yes, there are strategies that teachers can learn to prevent poor behaviour or to close it down quickly and with minimal fuss. And teachers should follow the school policy. However, I have seen teachers criticised for following the school policy. In these schools, poor behaviour is seen as a sign of poor teaching and so it is now in teachers’ interests to hide it away and not report it. From this point, the school will only ever lose.

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15 Comments on “Five ways to damage a good school”

  1. Brian says:

    “After a couple of years, nobody except for one assistant principal still believed in it but we all had to keep going through the motions.”

    THis is perhaps the difference between a professional educator and a teacher. A professional educator does not “go through the motions”. The fact that you did so is a reflection on you more than BLP I feel.

    The rest of this is just laboured and redundant. There is no unequivocal evidence “generic thinking skills” dont exist, in fact quite the opposite. I appreciate that Kirschner and/or Sweller may pop up every now and then with such a statement but that doesnt make it true.

    Open plan learning spaces can clearly a bit iffy, that’s a no brainer and doesn’t need an RCT, but the rows thing is simply your view. I arrange chairs differently in different situations and I hazard to guess that your results are generally not better than mine.

    • Mike says:

      Frankly I’d much rather be called a “teacher” than a “professional educator”.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      “There is no unequivocal evidence “generic thinking skills” dont exist”

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell's_teapot

    • Chester Draws says:

      I believe that generic thinking skills exist.

      I deny that they can be taught directly. They can only be taught via a medium in which the learner is already fairly expert. And even then only indirectly, via examples.

      Teaching “thinking skills” separately from a subject would be like a PE teacher teaching generic “game skills” separate from a particular game.

      Even then coaches rarely teach “game skills” either, except to very expert players. If you stopped coaching skills in Year 9 soccer and started trying to teach them how to analyse a game instead, because that’s what top players do, people would laugh at you.

  2. Tunya Audain says:

    Cassandra Speaks on Education . . .

    As a parent, now grandparent, activist in the traditionalist camp from the northern hemisphere (British Columbia, Canada) I can attest to the truth of these observations by Greg from Australia. But will his insights be heeded?

    Fads and defensiveness seem to be perennial features in the education industry.

    Fortunately, for future generations of kids, we are seeing a surge toward evidence-based practice. Organizers behind the researchEd programs currently spearhead this move. I know Greg has been active in helping this movement in Australia. Canada will soon see this event here.

    Tom Bennett from the UK has been the leader in this movement and in April I found myself comparing Tom’s work and articles with the leading lights of an earlier era. You might want to visit my short essay — Effective Schools Movement: 40 Years Ago http://www.parentsteachingparents.net/2017/04/effective-schools-movement-40-yrs-ago/

    I referred to the remarkably discerning work done by Ron Edmonds on Effective Schools and noted that #8 of his checklist was imperative: “Avoidance of Pitfalls — Up-to-date awareness of good educational practice plus retaining currency in the field concerning promising and discredited practices.”

    I applaud Greg for bringing forth his arguments again and again. What will it take for those in the education field to practice what they preach?

  3. […] are just some posts you have to read. Last week, I came upon this post by Greg Ashman, Five ways to damage a good school. As a former school principal, I am a sucker for lines like […]

  4. Great article – here is my response on the flexible seating point – http://bit.ly/2wWGvgN

  5. […] The second of Greg Ashman’s ‘howlers’ that have the potential to damage a school has to do with this ongoing trend in education – Lock yourself into the latest novelty […]

  6. John Perry says:

    Please, not the science teaching / inquiry teaching accusation again! The supposed correlation between the two is only based on assumptions. What about the argument that the correlation is due to inquiry being used more often with demotivated and disadvantaged students to get them interested in science?

  7. I disagree with the point about inquiry/PBL. I think that inquiry-based learning can be highly engaging and motivating for students and teachers with students learning concepts and content above and beyond the prescribed curriculum expectations. But inquiry does not mean that there is not still a place for explicit teaching. Not every concept can be taught through inquiry. Perhaps because my experience is as a kindergarten and primary teacher, responsible for teaching all content areas, it is ‘easier’ for me to teach in an inquiry-based, integrated approach.

  8. […] challenging, and (in my opinion) teachers weren’t supported to deal with it by SLT. I read this post by Greg Ashman recently and the part where he talked about leaders blaming teachers for behaviour […]

  9. […] be honest, I don’t know if we moved the discussion much beyond Greg Ashman’s original post. He is provocative and he comes up with excellent points to ponder on a regular basis. He has […]


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