What can Australia learn from Michaela Community School?

I never like to criticise individual schools and, in this case, I’m quite hesitant to offer praise. However, I think it is in the wider public interest to draw attention to Michaela Community School, not least because if Aussie teachers have heard of it at all, it is likely to be through one of the online witch hunts or feverish blog posts that hurl abuse at the school.

Why does Michaela provoke such a reaction? Under the headship of Katherine Birbalsingh, Michaela is an avowedly traditional school with high expectations for all of its students. It teaches a knowledge-based curriculum and eschews the silly gimmicks that many schools pursue. It also happens to be a Free School. Let’s face it, Michaela needs independence because local bureaucrats would never allow a school like that to exist.

The English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, have now visited Michaela and released their first report on the school. Ofsted used to be a student-centred inquisition, promoting progressive teaching methods. However, it has reformed in recent years and no longer enforces a particular teaching style. It also shows signs of taking behaviour much more seriously as an issue. 

Here are a few quotes from the Ofsted report:

“From their starting points, all groups of pupils make rapid progress in a wide range of subjects, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music.

Leaders promote equality of opportunity exceedingly well. Additional funding is used carefully. Leaders and teachers ensure that outcomes for eligible pupils, including disadvantaged pupils and those who have special educational needs and/or disabilities, are outstanding.

Pupils conduct themselves exceptionally well in lessons and around the school. They are polite, respectful and caring young people. Pupils know what steps to take to keep themselves safe from harm in a variety of contexts.”

I was particularly taken with the points about inclusion. I don’t believe that you make a school inclusive by offering alternative, dumbed-down versions of the curriculum to certain groups of students. I think this is the opposite of being inclusive. As I understand it, Michaela exemplifies the approach of making a rigorous, academic curriculum available to all:

“Pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities are encouraged and supported effectively. They make similar exceptional progress from their starting points at a similar rate to all pupils.”

Anyway, read the report for yourself and you will see that I haven’t just selected the best bits.

So why do I hesitate to highlight this praise? Because I assume that the online hate campaign are already sharpening their knives and this is just more fuel to the fire. But before you join in, pause and ask yourself one question: in pouring scorn on this school, are you really on the side of the righteous or are you actually one of the baddies?

Why put the ‘A’ in STEAM?

Despite an element of moral panic, there is well-founded concern in Anglophone countries about a decline in the science and mathematics skills of students. International studies such as TIMSS and PISA bear out some of this decline, none more starkly than the PISA mean scores for Scotland and Australia:

This has prompted discussion from politicians and policymakers focused on so-called on STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Such discussion betrays the instrumental view of education that many policymakers hold; a view that sees education purely as training for the workplace and meeting the demands of workplace skills shortages. Not only is this myopic, it doesn’t actually fix the problem that has been identified.

Many STEM initiatives are superficial and silly – like the Australian government’s notorious STEM apps. They operate under the assumption that provoking short-term situational interest by, for example, asking a scientist to speak about their work or showing a cool demonstration, will lead to a long-term personal interest in the subject. Such activities probably help, but they don’t really take into account the students’ self-efficacy; their feelings of competence in a subject area. Self-efficacy is associated with motivation in STEM subjects. Most people assume an ‘interest-first’ model where an interest in a particular subject provokes a desire to work hard in that subject which then develops self-efficacy. However, the reverse ‘competence-first’ process is also plausible, where increased feelings of competence lead to a greater level of motivation.

The interaction probably works both ways but there are some hints that competence-first is more important in early maths education. If true, we should focus more on effective teaching of maths and science and less on gimmickry.

In some ways, STEM is an odd basket of subjects. Engineering is barely taught in schools because the fundamentals rely on physics and mathematics. Traditionally, we teach students these fundamentals first before they develop specialisms at university. This is because we view these disciplines hierarchically. However, many initiatives seeks to involve students in solving ‘real world’ engineering problems as a way of promoting STEM. This is again based upon an interest-first view that if students see the relevance of STEM to everyday life then they will be motivated to study it.

There are many risks to adopting such an approach. Chief among these is the risk that students may not develop self-efficacy as a result and may become demotivated. We know, for instance, that problem-based teaching methods are not optimal for students learning new concepts so we either need to deliver explicit instruction prior to problem solving or reduce the complexity of the problem solving and run the risk of students concluding that this is not the real-world experience that they had been sold.

Far from being the solution to our downward trend, the narrative around STEM might actually be contributing to it. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence embodies many trendy notions around real-world problem-solving and yet Scotland is seeing a decline in its STEM results.

To confound the issue further, some folks have decided to put an ‘A’ in ‘STEM’ to create ‘STEAM’. The ‘A’ stands for ‘Art’ or maybe ‘Arts’. Depending on your source, it could refer to the addition of a fairly contained set of notions around visual art and design or it could represent the arts more generally. In the case of the former, you often hear reference to ‘design thinking’ as some kind of desirable skill to develop, although I doubt it is anything like the generic skill that people imagine. In the latter case, there is very little in an academic curriculum that would not be covered by STEAM. Which takes the focus away from considering the selection curriculum content and much more towards teaching methods.

Because STEAM seems to prioritise certain styles of teaching such as Project-Based Learning. Project-based learning has been a central component of the progressive education agenda since at least as far back as William Heard Kilpatrick’s 1918 essay on The Project Method. Even so, there is little evidence for its effectiveness, despite the grandiose claims that are often made. A recent Education Endowment Foundation trial of Project-Based Learning found a potentially negative impact on literacy, although this finding was compromised by a high drop-out rate from the study. So it either doesn’t work or schools find it really hard to do. Either way, project-based learning is not promising.

STEAM’s old-fashioned progressivist agenda is only enhanced by its focus on collaboration, critical thinking and so on; the misnamed ’21st Century Skills’. Again, skills like critical thinking are not generic and there is little evidence that they can be developed through STEAM approaches. The claims made are ideological rather than based upon evidence.

So I think that STEAM is a cipher. It appeals to an anxiety about STEM education but then subverts it to call for old-fashioned progressive education. I suggest taking the ‘A’ back out of it, and maybe the ‘E’ and the ‘T’ too. That way, we may focus on the effective teaching of science and mathematics instead. This is the best way to arrest any decline.

Selection on the dependent variable 

Imagine you are striving to make a mark in the world of business. Now, let me sell you a book. In this book, I describe the visits that I have made to all the funkiest, most fashionable and most profitable companies on the planet. What’s more, as I’ve visited each of them, I’ve made a little list of their attributes. And I am prepared to share with you exactly what characteristics these companies have in common.

Are you sold?

You shouldn’t be because I’ve performed a sleight of hand. I have implied that the characteristics that I have identified are somehow related to the success of these companies but we have no way of knowing this.

Imagine, for instance, that I find my top companies splash out on lavish Christmas parties and I weave that into a narrative about how they make their staff feel valued. What we don’t know is whether less successful companies also do this and, if they do, whether they tend to do less or perhaps even more of it.

This is why a comparison group is so important. For my notional book, I should visit both successful and unsuccessful companies.

And even then, the best we can discover is a correlation. We might find that Christmas parties correlate with more successful companies but the parties might not cause the success. The correlation might be because successful companies can afford better parties. Or it might be that a greater number of creative people make companies more successful whilst at the same time agitating for better parties.

This is the crux of what any fool on the internet can tell you: correlation is not causation. However, I reckon correlation is a lot better than a mere description, and a description is all you can ever achieve without a comparison group.

In education, it would not be top performing companies that we would select for study but maybe some subgroup of students or teachers or schools. And we might not analyse their characteristics in a straightforward way. Perhaps we would grab a gauloise before completing a poststructuralist discourse analysis or something groovy like that. 

But the effect is the same. Without a comparison group, it is just an elaborate description. 

There is nothing wrong with teachers controlling the classroom

I am not an advocate of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies. I have never visited a zero tolerance school so I withhold judgement on what the atmosphere is like but, on paper, some of the rules read as a little eccentric. And I don’t like the name ‘zero tolerance’ because we all have to tolerate all sorts of indignities in everyday life. Like the similar term, ‘no-excuses’, I don’t think it can actually mean zero in practice because there are exceptions to any rule.

I also think these labels can be interpreted very darkly. Zero tolerance schools may be perceived as only seeking to reward and punish students rather than instruct them in how to behave. A student from a chaotic family background may simply not know what is expected. And so I think teachers have a role in teaching these conventions, and with good humour. In fact, it is the withholding of this knowledge that is exclusionary.

The conventions of the school do not, as many seem to believe, originate on the noisy floors of satanic mills. Western academia finds its origins in monasticism and this is where the traditions of academic life began. And they have a function. We sit quietly so that we may listen to what is being said or so that we may think clearly. We work at desks because this is the best arrangement for reading and writing. As long as we value academic goals then these conventions are valid and worth passing on to students. Of course, it is possible to argue that some students are, by nature, not suited to such conditions, but to do so is an exclusionary form of essentialism.

As a student, I used to sit with my friends and pass judgement on my teachers. The worst criticism we could mount was that a teacher, ‘cannot control the class’. We did not revel in the freedom that this created because there was no freedom. As soon as an adult loses authority then the students are at the mercy of the hierarchies that have evolved among themselves. These are often chaotic, capricious and less benign and inclusive than teacher authority.

And so I have some sympathy with the argument on the AARE blog that we should teach students to take responsibility for their learning. But I have to reject the overall thrust of the piece because it seeks to argue against zero-tolerance policies by arguing against teacher control.

We read that, “control and quick fixes more often exacerbate behaviour problems in schools.” Teacher control and student compliance are mentioned throughout the piece in a negative light. Well-researched strategies are dismissed on the grounds that they view classroom behaviour management only through a teacher-centred lens.

Historians of education will be able to point to where these anti-compliance, anti-control ideas come from. They are present in early 20th century progressivism that viewed learning as a natural process or form of ‘development’. Teacher coercion was theorised to be a bad thing because it disrupts the kind of learning that is driven by a child’s natural curiosity. Not only have such ideas been found thoroughly wanting in the hundred-or-so years since they became mainstream in educational research, we now understand why they are fatally flawed. Progressivism assumes that unnatural acts such as reading and writing will be picked-up implicitly in the same way that children learn to talk and to walk.

Australia is currently in the grip of a behaviour crisis in our schools. Arguments against teachers taking control only make matters worse, particularly when the kinds of strategies that might address the issue are demonised on ideological grounds.

“You know what your problem is,” says the researcher to the teacher with the out-of-control class, “You are too focused on student compliance.”

[Exit the teacher stage left]

It’s not helpful. It’s not helpful at all.

Should teachers just buzz off?

Australian researcher, Dr. Linda Graham, has written a piece for the Times Educational Supplement in the U.K. It represents an interesting argument; an attempt to put the teachers-on-social-media genie back in its bottle.

In a familiar refrain, Graham argues that politicians and Tweeting teachers alike don’t really understand research. They look for quick fixes and “what works” when, in reality, education is far too complex for that.

Graham is particularly affronted by non-researchers asking academics for evidence to support their opinions. Researchers should be respected and evidence is a complicated business:

“This merry-go-round is affecting the nature of the dialogue between education researchers and some teachers – most commonly on social media, where demands are now being made for “a link to the research evidence” to justify an academic’s own views. However, these demands reflect poor understanding of how the research process works and what evidence is.”

This seems pertinent to a discussion that I have had with Graham on social media. Graham is a tireless promoter of the notion of differentiation and has referenced the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson and drawn attention to a differentiation approach known as ‘Universal Design for Learning‘ or UDL.

I am sceptical of the kind of differentiation represented by Tomlinson and by UDL. This is partly a logical argument: I find these forms of differentiation impractical and potentially counterproductive. However, I can also point to empirical evidence. A large U.S. study involving Tomlinson found no evidence to support differentiation and a recent review of UDL found no evidence of a positive effect on educational outcomes.

I have therefore suggested that advocates for these approaches need to provide some supporting evidence. I have not asked for ‘one definitive piece of evidence’; I have simply asked for evidence. And that’s reasonable.

You would think that Graham might welcome my critical questions, given her view of the importance of researching what doesn’t work. But no. Instead, I have repeatedly been told that differentiation is required by regulations and the law. Even if this were true, and I don’t think it is for the kinds of differentiation in question, this is a poor argument. It is fallacious; an argument from authority. As I have written before, it is the equivalent of stating that marriage equality is wrong because it is against the law in Australia.

The authority of researchers is of primary concern for Graham. She uses the rhetorical device of comparing those who question education research with climate change deniers. And yet she must realise that the weight of evidence on climate change is vastly different to that for UDL. 

I’m just not convinced that teachers should uncritically accept the views of education researchers. If nothing else, it provides a poor model to our students who we encourage to think critically. And after all, a lot of education research is far removed from teachers’ concerns. Take a look at some of the papers presented at last year’s Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference. 

It is clear that many researchers take an ideological stance, assuming certain starting points from the various theories they subscribe to. Francis Bacon understood this:

“Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”

Education research is full of cobwebs. Teachers want to be more bee. Tough luck if some people are irritated by the buzzing.

Which school systems keep improving?

I was alerted to the following tweet by @thingsbehindsun

The slide in question by Andy Buck suggests that Canada and Finland “keep improving” while the U.K. and the U.S. “don’t improve much”:

Let’s have a look at the PISA data for Canada and Finland:

They are not improving. 

If we look at the U.K. and the U.S., things seem pretty static apart from a fairly obvious decline in U.S. maths performance which is, no doubt, related to the increasing influence of constructivist maths approaches:

These graphs also hide an important amount of regional variation. Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. all have multiple education systems. For instance, the comments in the slide would better describe the approach in England than Scotland, and Scotland’s results are in decline.

Tuition fees and U.K. politics 

The U.K election result defied expectations. I did not predict how well the Labour Party would do. I thought there would be a Conservative landslide and, instead, they lost seats.

Conventional wisdom holds that elections are won from the centre. But when you have a fox-hunting, grammar school opening, hard Brexit Conservative Party up against the most socialist incarnation of the Labour Party seen in forty years, the centre exists only in minor parties. And they took a drubbing for a variety of reasons unique to each of them.

Jeremy Corbyn is not a great Labour leader. Any competent, moderate alternative would have won the election. On the other hand, Teresa May would not have called an election against a competent, moderate Labour leader so the point is moot. Corbyn’s is a massive achievement; a political earthquake that we should all pay attention to.

And I agree with a number of the policies in the Labour manifesto. One of those policies – the abolition of university tuition fees – is a key part of the story of British politics over the last 20 years and this is worth examining more closely.

I believe in free university education. I always have. This is not a conventional view in centrist circles but I have my reasons.

Firstly, once you charge people for something, you create a market. Markets and standards don’t go well together. Universities have an incentive to deliver courses that are appealing to students rather than those that represent the highest level of achievement in a discipline. We’ve seen this conflict before when Exam boards in England in the 2000s competed for custom, leading to the dumbing down of standards. Instead, university should be regulated and students should earn the right to go there rather than pay for it.

The conventional argument against my position is to ask why people who don’t go to university should pay for those who do. After all, a university degree tends to confer the advantage of increased earnings. 

If that’s the case, people who attend university are already paying more through taxation, particularly if they tip into the higher rate of tax. If you increased the higher rate to pay for tuition then only wealthier people would pay. If you still think it’s unfair for a self-made businesswoman to pay for others to attend university then consider this: she might not have gone to university herself but she still benefits every time she gets sick or has someone do her accounts or employs a graduate.

If you are absolutely determined that graduates must pay then introduce a graduate tax levied on all graduates, including the baby boomers who went to university when it was free. Because another message of the U.K. election is that young people are sick of a system where older people with expensive houses receive benefits, while all young people receive are cuts and charges, with little or no hope of ever buying a home.

Interestingly, tuition fees were a non-issue in Scotland where students don’t have to pay them. Why is that? The short answer is that the U.K. government spends £10,374 per person in Scotland and only £8,638 per person in England (2014-15 figures). 

The longer answer exposes a festering sore in U.K. democracy. The current fee regime was imposed on English students in 2004. It was passed by a narrow vote in the U.K. parliament with the help of Scottish MPs. The constituents of these Scottish MPs would not be required to pay the fees that they were voting for.

In addition, Scottish universities received an increase in funding as a result of the vote. The new tuition fees were counted as additional public spending in England and the way the U.K. is funded does not allow an increase in English public spending without an equivalent increase in public spending in Scotland. So Scotland received all of the benefits of tuition fees with none of the costs.

This system is wrong. When I criticise it I am either dismissed as a crank or some kind of English nationalist. I am neither. I just think it’s not fair. The U.K. is supposed to be a democracy and so it should fix this democratic defecit.

I think people dismiss me rather than argue against my position on this because there is no good argument to support the current arrangement. And that’s a worry. At some point, this issue is going to explode into public consciousness. Working class communities in the North of England will start to question why they are exposed to harsh school cuts, for example, when other parts of the U.K. are unaffected. And when they look under that rock…

Imagine the rise of an English demagogue who exploits the issue. In the current, volatile political climate, this is not so far-fetched. Responsible politicians need to fix the U.K.’s democratic defecit while it is still the concern of a few cranks like me.