Is your school a centrifuge?

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Ask yourself a series of questions:

You organise a revision class to help struggling students in the weeks before an exam: Who turns up? Who does not?

A university sets up a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): Who completes this course and who drops out?

You ‘flip’ your classroom by making videos of your teaching and ask students to watch them outside of class time: Which students watch the videos and which do not?

You assign a two week project to be completed in class and at home: Who is ready for presentation day and who has fallen behind?

All four scenarios have the potential to increase the achievement gap between those with resources – prior knowledge, academic self-concept, a supportive home environment – and those who lack resources, and the last two examples are the kinds of things that are recommended by non-teaching pundits when they talk to teachers and school leaders.

Such pundits usually neglect to address an issue that teachers come to implicitly understand. Motivation is not a single thing that you can fix quickly with technical whizzbangery, a stirring exhortation or an engaging topic. Motivation has many aspects and is a constant work in progress.

A student may be keen to study history but find a particular point on a certain day to be a little obtuse and start daydreaming or flicking through social media posts on her phone. For this student, a classroom with rules such as a mobile phone ban and an attentive teacher who is likely to ask a question at any time – particularly if anyone seems a little distracted – is going to be a far better environment for learning than a bedroom.

This is probably why, despite the witless hype, the promise of flipped learning has yet to be realised and why a new randomised controlled trial suggests it exacerbates the achievement gap between students.

This is also why ‘student centred’ approaches such as project-based learning fail to deliver and are likely to be less equitable than explicit teaching.

When I have made this point before, I have come under personal attack and that is probably because nobody wants to think they may be causing harm. In one case, a consultant who spends a lot of time working with independent schools, said he would not take lectures on equity from someone like me who works in an independent school. That’s obviously a fallacious point to make but it does provide a segue into an important observation.

Before I moved to Australia in 2010, I worked for 13 years in government schools in London. There are many differences between those schools and the independent school where I work now, but the most significant one is the difference in behaviour. The children in the London schools where I worked had to tolerate far more disruption to their classes.

It is so obvious that behaviour is a major equity issue that I cannot understand the sheer vitriol with which many left-leaning academics discuss attempts to improve behaviour in schools. Even though it no longer impacts upon my daily work in the way it did in London, I will always campaign for better behaviour and support those schools that seek to achieve it.

But perhaps there is a rationalisation. When the utter failure of your preferred approach becomes so manifest that it can no longer be ignored, you may challenge the need to teach children any of this stuff in the first place. Consider this 2014 piece I was recently reminded of in which an Australian academic raises the question of whether indigenous children really do need to learn to read and write.

The definition of a centrifuge is “a machine with a rapidly rotating container that applies centrifugal force to its contents, typically to separate fluids of different densities (e.g. cream from milk) or liquids from solids.”

Is your school an educational centrifuge or are you pursuing strategies that will help all students learn and achieve?

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5 thoughts on “Is your school a centrifuge?

  1. ‘When the utter failure of your preferred approach becomes so manifest that it can no longer be ignored, you may challenge the need to teach children any of this stuff in the first place.”

    Terrific point, in my opinion.

  2. Ian Anderson, aka Jethro Tull, nailed this one some 47 years ago: “Your wise men don’t know how it feels/ To be thick as a brick”. Appropriately enough, Anderson regard this work as a satire of prog rock.

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