I have written before about Oak National Academy in the UK, a virtual school proposed by teachers as a response to COVID-19 and remote learning and then given government funding. In short, it has infuriated all the right people. Tin foil hats have been donned to ask why the government did not put this out to competitive tender – ignoring the fact that it wasn’t the government’s idea and that such a procurement process would have resulted in a product just in time for the next global pandemic. However, it is not hard to see what is at the root of this. Oak use the wrong kind of teaching methods, relying on lecture and quizzing.
While such methods are about as good as you can hope for in the absence of live teaching, they are the antithesis of progressivist educational ideology and the ideologues don’t like it.
The latest example of a broadside fired at Oak comes from a Dr Pam Jarvis, a UK academic. It follows predictable lines. Quizzing is apparently inappropriate and instead, students unable to attend school should be engaged in project-based learning because, “Children’s work would be more flexible and a topic could be continued at home with parental support.” I am aware of little evidence for the effectiveness of project-based learning in regular classrooms – it is likely to overload working memory – and the idea that parents will be on tap to support projects from home strikes me as unconstrained by the realities facing many families. Jarvis also criticises the lesson completion rate, even though the source she points to for this suggests the 60% completion rates are ‘seriously impressive’ compared to other online resources.
Perhaps the best evidence that there is an impulse to find fault with Oak comes from a section where Jarvis criticises one of the questions posed in an Oak quiz. I have had a look at the Oak site but cannot find the source and Jarvis provides no link, so it is hard to appreciate the context. The question presents students with four rulers of England and asks them to choose which was the earliest ruler of the four.
I am not a history teacher and so I will take the advice of those more expert than me on whether this is a good question or not. I am inclined favourably towards it because it seems to be assessing chronology, something largely absent from my own school history lessons in which we jumped around from one period to the next, ‘analysing sources’ and were left completely baffled as to how one series of events sat in relation to another. However, maybe there are better ways of assessing this. I don’t know.
An important point to note is that these questions are used by the Oak website as a form of interaction that can take place prior to, or after, a lesson. They are not weighty summative assessments, but a trigger to recall or engagement with prior knowledge. Nevertheless, Jarvis suggests this question demonstrates an issue with the ‘accuracy of the content’. Having consulted the authoritative GCSE BBC Bitesize website, Jarvis declares that Athelstan was the very first King of all England.
Well, that may be true, but it’s not what the question is asking. Athelstan was not on the list and the question is asking which of the people on the list was the earliest ruler of England. Of the four, William I was the earliest ruler. There is no accuracy problem here.
Let’s set aside the idea that it is impolite, to say the least, to pick on an individual teacher’s question in this way – we all make mistakes when writing curriculum material and I am no exception. If I had put hours into producing an online resource for use by students in lockdown and someone then ungraciously scoured my work to find and highlight one of my inevitable errors, I would feel somewhat indignant. Even so, there is no mistake here. In her eagerness to find a smoking gun, Jarvis has confused herself.
And confusion multiplied.
Tim Taylor, also keen to condemn the Oak enemy, issued his own critique of this single question, but he managed to criticise it for using the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. The question does not use the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. It is Jarvis who uses ‘whom’ incorrectly when discussing the question – something that has now been corrected in the original article.
So why am I bothering to highlight all of this absurdity?
Educationalists and academics have lately taken to denying there is any real divide in education. Everyone uses a range of teaching methods, they claim. We should avoid false dichotomies, they urge. Yet put together something that uses an explicit teaching approach and they will rush headlong to condemn you without pausing long enough to figure out if their criticisms are valid.