The snide sniper

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I often find that people object to the tone of what I write. I am sometimes called ‘snide’ or something of that sort. This is revealing.

If you have never read it, may I point you towards Graham’s How to Disagree. It is a decade old this year but as relevant as ever, accurately describing many, if not most, of the disagreements that take place on Twitter and in the comment threads of blogs. For Graham, responding to the tone of an argument is only one step above launching a personal attack. As Graham explains:

“So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.”

This is a key point. I am not claiming that my writing has no tone. My blog does not pretend to be academic writing and so I often use hyperbole or strong metaphors to make my arguments. I even write satirical posts that I can well imagine are not to everybody’s taste.

However, if this is all that someone who disagrees with me can point at, then it means that they have nothing to throw at the actual argument I am making. If a critic is able to refute the idea that critical thinking is domain specific then I imagine that he or she would, rather than proceed on the far weaker premise of attacking my tone.

I do not doubt that such comments are a genuine reflection of how some people feel when they read my writing. Tone is heavily subjective and many of the ideas that I criticise have lacked criticism in the past. There are a lot of academics and consultants out there who are used to making unchallenged assertions and so to see me be dismissive of those same assertions must seem uncivil and even rude.

This is one of the ways that you know you are on to something. The established people in the field do not like your arguments, but all they can manage to criticise is the way that you make them.

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The Beatles and informal learning

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David Price, OBE, is probably best known in Australia for running courses for teachers and schools on Project-Based Learning. He recently caused a bit of a stir on Twitter with the following:

There followed a long exchange where various people pointed out that the Beatles amassed a huge amount of musical knowledge and that they practiced a great deal, not least through all the hours spent playing clubs in Hamburg (an issue I addressed here). Moreover, they were managed by Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts drop-out, Brian Epstein. Early Beatles material was derivative compared to the songs they are famous for now, and so amassing musical knowledge made a key difference.

However, to be fair to Price, he does have a point. The Beatles did indeed lack knowledge of musical theory. Later in the thread, Price points out that the musical knowledge they gained was through informal learning rather than formal lessons – they researched, discovered and created that knowledge for themselves – and I think this is an important point.

If you feel compelled to become a world expert on mushrooms then you are going to have to gain this knowledge informally. Even if you are lucky and your local university runs a course on mushrooms, it will only take you so far. At some point, you will have to take to the internet and start reading research papers. You will have to do it yourself.

Informal learning of this kind is not only possible, it is ubiquitous. We research and discover things all the time. Nobody needs to make a case for the idea that we can independently learn new information and concepts because it is an established fact.

However, by its very nature, informal learning involves an element of chance. If you are lucky, you will meet the right people and have access to the right resources to send you off in the best direction. If you are unlucky then you will not. It is clear that the more privileged a young person is, the more their access to the right people and resources and the better their odds in this particular game of chance.

For instance, The Dragon School in Oxfordshire, an independent prep school, seems to supply the world with a disproportionate number of successful actors. Acting tends to be a profession for those from wealthy backgrounds because a trust fund helps with irregular income. Even so, The Dragon School is still punching above its weight. I don’t know how they achieve this, but I suspect it is not as a result of lots of formal lessons. Teaching may indeed be a part of it but I suspect a lot of the success is about providing the right conditions for informal learning to take place for those with an interest.

The difference between formal learning and informal learning is that formal learning tends to be more effective for the greater number of students (which is why even highly privileged schools still utilise a lot of formal learning). If we look at whole language versus phonics instruction, for instance, it is clear that children can learn to read from both methods. The difference is that phonics leads to a greater proportion of students learning to read and appears not to harm those who would have learnt through whole language. Whole language, despite being used as a classroom approach, is far less formal and so it is affected more by chance and privilege. Phonics is a more formal approach, it reaches the greatest number of children and is therefore more equitable.

This is why we created mass education in the first place. We decided that the ability to read and write and do basic mathematics should not be left to chance and the vagaries of informal learning. Instead, we decided that we should at least attempt to bestow these gifts upon everyone in our society; an egalitarian, big government, left-wing aim.

Over time, we have become even more ambitious and decided, as a society, that science, history, literature and a range of other academic pursuits should also be open to children of any background and we therefore extended formal methods for teaching these subjects to all children. Yes, a child from an affluent middle class family may teach herself to code or to read Japanese but this does not falsify the need for systems of formal education. Children learnt to read long before the advent of formal education, they just tended to be the more privileged children.

If we work backwards from unrepresentative outliers such as the Beatles and assume that we need to make school education less formal, we will unavoidably make it more of a lottery. As a young person, I never even considered the possibility of becoming an actor. My experience of drama at school did not change this as, from memory, we would largely create and perform our own plays about social issues such as bullying. It was a system of informal learning where nobody ever told me how to breathe or use my voice or any of those other things that I expect a formal drama education would contain but that I do not know about. Instead, drama was just a vehicle for addressing some issue that we would supposedly find more relevant than drama itself. I did not find it relevant, generally messed around and gave up drama as soon as I could.

That is what will happen if you replace formal lessons in history and science with project-based learning. Instead of the subject being seen as worthwhile in it’s own right, it will be diminished as just a tool for achieving some relatively mundane end or addressing some worthy issue. Students from backgrounds that are light on science will never really come to understand what it is and will never see themselves as potential scientists. They will never appreciate the beauty and power of scientific understanding. Students whose parents are science professors at the local university will complete projects about DNA and win the science prize.

Formal learning works because it leaves less to chance. It systematically teaches everything in an area of knowledge, wiping out the advantage of those students who happened to know some of it already. Informal learning is great, but its serendipitous nature makes it largely unfit for an education system.

The battle is over curriculum and assessment

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The education debate is not actually about teaching methods, even if it often looks like it is. Clearly, on one side we see the endless promotion of strategies where children find things out for themselves and on the other side there are those of us who argue for explicit teaching. Nothing highlights this divide better than Professor Guy Claxton’s recent comments:

“I think we are not teachers. Teacher still carries that strong sense of telling. ‘I taught them something’… I think we are learning designers now, because the kinds of things that develop those characteristics … those non-cognitive skills, 21st century skills … people are looking for ways in regular schools, with regular kids, that we can design that medium.”

Setting aside the oddness of Claxton’s use of the pronoun ‘we’ when he is not a teacher himself, I would like to state that I don’t want my job to be redefined as a ‘learning designer’. I am quite happy being a ‘teacher’ and teaching students something, even when that involves an element of ‘telling’. So, no thanks, Professor Claxton. There is a genuine divide in education. It has not been confected by people on Twitter and this is it.

However, if we discern the current underneath the waves, we can already notice a connection between teaching methods and curriculum. Claxton thinks we must move away from ‘telling’ because he wants us to focus different objectives. Instead of developing the ability to think and write about history, for instance, Claxton would like us to focus on ‘non-cognitive skills’.

This is understandable.

Claxton’s ideology, educational progressivism, is the ideology that, to a greater or lesser extent, motivates the majority of education academics and consultants. It favours implicit teaching methods because of how it views the child and the nature of learning. In short, the adult world is corrupt and the natural impulses of children should be privileged.

The huge problem for this ideology is that explicit teaching – where concepts are fully explained and procedures are fully demonstrated prior to the gradual and controlled release of responsibility to the student – is undoubtedly a more effective way of achieving any academic outcome. For evidence to support such a claim, we can look to process-product research on teacher effectiveness, controlled experiments and correlational evidence, and we can extrapolate current understandings from cognitive science.

In a sense, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem for progressivism if state education systems were less insistent on assessing academic content. Whatever the intended curriculum, national assessments will shape the actual curriculum. This can be a force for good, it can distort the curriculum or, as in most cases, it has an effect that is a complicated mixture of the two.

To further the progressivist case, it therefore makes sense to campaign against academic testing and to change the goals of the curriculum. Ideally, the new curriculum goals should be difficult to measure, just in case explicit instruction is found to be better at delivering on these too. This explains Claxton’s focus on ‘non-cognitive skills’. They are vague, poorly defined and despite Andreas Schleicher’s naive efforts, nobody has figured out a way of accurately assessing them. It is therefore possible to assert that implicit teaching methods are better at delivering non-cognitive skills without fear of being proved wrong.

It is clear that such an argument succeeded in capturing the recent ‘Gonski 2.0’ review of Australian education, with a group of researchers openly writing in the magazine of Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) that the review’s focus on ‘general capabilities’ (which are largely non-cognitive skills) would imply the need for more inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

This is why it is this aspect of the Gonski 2.0 report, coupled with the idea that these skills will be assessed by individual teachers using a rubric and without external exams, that is potentially the most damaging. Teachers who want to teach explicitly, will be forced into using inquiry learning by fiat because the criteria they will need to tick off will include inquiry learning activities such as ‘independently decides upon a topic to investigate’.

Ultimately, the fortunes of progressivism and its critics will not be decided by the popularity of teaching methods. Instead, the battle is over the curriculum and how it is assessed.

Fictional interview with a union leader

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What follows is a made-up interview with Trevor Perkins, leader of the fictional English teaching union, the National Teachers Association.

Welcome, Trevor, and thanks for being here.

A pleasure.

Tell us, in your role as a union head, what have you been up to lately?

I’ve just returned from the VDMA conference in Florida…

VDMA?

The Vertical Desk Manufacturers Association. Did you know, standing up has never been more important? It prevents short-sightedness.

Anyway, while I was there I drank a lot of dandelion tea. I didn’t realise how good it was at fighting toxins. The stall holder had a leaflet explaining the science.

Interesting. What was the education angle?

Well, we had lots of presentations on the future of vertical desks. They have ones now known as ‘true vertical’ that have no horizontal parts at all. And they have ones with wheels and bumpers so that students can move around the room and collaborate. It’s a compelling vision of the classroom of the future!

What do you think is the most important issue in education right now?

Last night I heard a keynote from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. I tend to assume that whatever I have most recently heard from an important educationalist is the most significant issue facing education, and he was talking about the fact that rote memorisation is bad.

Do you think that is the most compelling issue for teachers? What about classroom behaviour?

I think it was Socrates, the famous Brazilian footballer, who said, “Children are not buckets to be filled – we need to set them on fire!” Teachers are the spark and we need to provide them with the petrol.

You see, we really must set the kids free. Rather than attempting to habituate them into adult social norms, if you give young people free reign to run around then they will learn to make the right choices and become responsible citizens through experience.

When I briefly taught for a few years in the 1990s, I had this one lad who would climb out of the sash window, run around the classroom and back in the door. He did that as many times as he needed in order to settle.

You see, we don’t make enough use of the school grounds. Take the kids outside! Imagine it: You could have one class sketching wild flowers and another doing the science of tennis balls or something. Imagine the school is built on the site of an old asylum: You could have a history class reenact being doctors and inmates or you could have an R.E. class attempt to contact the restless souls of the dead patients.

Sean Harford of OFSTED, the schools inspectorate, recently complained on Twitter about ‘restorative’ approaches to school behaviour where a teacher has to justify his or her actions to a child who has misbehaved. What’s your view on that?

I think what Sean is really trying to say there is that we should seek to identify the cause of any behaviour issue and treat that restoratively rather than with an old-fashioned punitive approach. We know that all behaviour is communication.

Right, so what about pay? What’s your position on that?

It’s pretty good actually, particularly when you take into account what I can claim on expenses.

I mean teacher pay. Do you think that improved pay is a way to tackle the current recruitment and retention crisis? Are you pressing government on this?

I think we all believe that teachers deserve to be paid a little bit more but I don’t think the government are likely to listen to us so it’s hardly worth me banging on about it.

And you think they will listen to you on the other stuff?

You’re missing the point.

What’s that? Are you not there to represent your members’ interests?

No, we are not. We are here to represent the issues that our activists are interested in.

What we need to remember under any new model of teacher education

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I’m not going to fool myself: Teacher education is pretty much the same as it ever was. Knowing people who have gone through the process recently, if anything, theirs has been more of a Progressive Education experience than mine was 21 years ago.

However, I also know of people who are either involved in teacher education already, or who are making moves into that area, who take a more evidence-informed approach (if that’s you then why not order a free review copy of my new book?).  I have a word of warning for anyone looking to run an evidence-informed model – when discussing competing educational philosophies, you must present the best possible version of progressivism.

Why?

One enduring motif in experienced teachers’ complaints about their own teacher education is the pejorative way in which explicit forms of teaching were dismissed. If explicit teaching was not rejected outright then it was only considered useful for basic memorisation tasks. Once this idea was established, ‘rote’ memorisation of facts was then questioned as a legitimate educational goal.

When these teachers started to read what the evidence actually says about explicit teaching, either by being exposed to the cognitive science argument or teacher effectiveness research, they realised that they were misled. And this called into question other aspects of their training.

Any new approach should avoid making a similar mistake. It is important to acknowledge that many of the motivations of educational progressivism are legitimate and the practices progressivism implies are often appropriate. If we do not do this then teachers trained under a new model of teacher education may also feel misled when they later discover this for themselves.

Progressivism, for instance, focuses on intrinsic motivation. I believe that we have the best chance of developing long-term motivation for a subject by teaching it well so that students sense their own increasing mastery, and that explicit approaches are the most effective method for achieving this. However, the goal of intrinsic motivation is sound. There is no doubt that children benefit from a range of experiences and that variety should form part of any school programme. It may be true, for instance, that students will learn more about rivers from an explicit geography lesson than by visiting a river, but there should always be a place for the latter provided that such trips and events don’t start taking over the curriculum. Not only does experiential learning add to the warp and weft of the school year, it can act as a memorable anchor point that may be referred to in later teaching. The problem arises when we erroneously assume that students will learn more from such an experience than from explicit teaching, when the likelihood is that they will learn less.

It is also true that as students progress from novices to relative experts in any particular area of learning, we should gradually reduce the level of guidance and require them to generate more strategies for themselves. At the extreme end of this pathway, this will be indistinguishable the kind of open-ended problem-solving that progressivism promotes. So it is not a case of the evidence being for or against such a strategy in absolute terms, it is more that the evidence provides us with an understanding of when such a strategy is appropriate.

Similarly, the goals of movements such as critical pedagogy have validity. Just as it is wrong to argue there is no objective truth and everything is socially constructed, it is also wrong to imply that the truth is easy to establish and that the facts in the curriculum are beyond doubt. The contents of the school curriculum should be a source of ongoing debate and teachers need to model scepticism as they teach it. This is the dispositional aspect of critical thinking – we have to give students overt permission to question sources, authorities, selections, ideas and concepts, whether that involves challenging the foundations of capitalism or the foundations of identity politics.

A rounded teacher education, just like a rounded education more generally, allows for the exploration of different perspectives without necessarily requiring students to commit to one or another. There is a difference between learning about something and being indoctrinated into that something. And there are plenty of ideas out there that are worth learning about.

Where is the heart?

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Back in London in the Noughties, I worked at a challenging school that managed to turn itself around. I’ve just read two pieces that resonate with me on the basis of that experience and I wanted to point you to them.

The first piece is by Tom Bennett and is about exclusions. He makes a good point that we would all like to see fewer exclusions, but simply mandating fewer exclusions does not tackle the issues that lead to them in the first place. However, it’s Tom’s metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube that hit home: Complex systems such as schools are like Rubik’s Cube in that it is relatively easy to get the same colour on one side, but when you try and do this for other sides of the cube, you end up disrupting the first side. Ultimately, however, the Rubik’s Cube has an algorithm that you can follow in order to solve it. Improving schools is a far more artful process with no set of steps you can take that will fix everything.

This last point is why academics and other onlookers can adhere to absolutist principles whereas school leaders have to deal with a much messier and complex reality.

Nothing illustrates this divide more than the reaction to Great Yarmouth Charter Academy (GYCA) in the U.K. when it introduced a new behaviour policy under a new headteacher, Barry Smith. There were press reports and an overwrought and condemnatory Twitter storm when a copy of a behaviour briefing to parents emerged that suggested students who feel sick should vomit in a bucket rather than leave class.

To many, this line proved the evil nature of so-called ‘no excuses’ schools. One Australian researcher even quoted it in a peer-reviewed, academic paper, with the comment:

“The neo-traditional teacher favours teacher-centred instruction, deplores inclusion and differentiation, and promotes strict whole-school ‘no excuses’ discipline policies modelled on an extreme interpretation of behaviourism.” [sic]

A tongue-in-cheek comment intended to highlight the importance of staying in class was seized upon by the humourless in order to condemn a model of school improvement that they are ideologically opposed to.

This episode is explored in a Guardian article in which Peter Wilby interviews Dame Rachel de Souza, the head of the academy chain that GYCA is a part of. After the uproar, the wording of the behaviour guide was changed and yet, commendably, all involved at GYCA appear to have otherwise stood firm amidst the barrage; a credit to the leadership of Smith and de Souza.

The Guardian article also offers other insights for those wishing to turn around challenging schools. I was particularly taken with the all-or-nothing approach that de Souza took as a head in Luton. The messy reality there was that an entire cohort of students had never been taught maths by a qualified maths teacher, and the messy solution was to place them all in the school hall with only maths specialist de Souza could find. There is no manual for this stuff and high principle doesn’t always help to solve such problems.

Teachers were also sent by de Souza to get kids out of bed in the morning. I can imagine the reaction on Twitter if GYCA announced they were doing that. Well-meaning commentators would wonder if some students needed extra sleep because they were unwell or because they had a late night looking after their disabled parents. Is it not heartless to impose a one-size-fits all approach to waking children up? The assumption, as is always the assumption in these discussions, is that such policies would be pursued in an unbending and uncaring way.

According to The Guardian, exam results in the Luton school ‘soared’. We can only imagine what that meant for the life chances of the children involved. There’s the caring. There’s the heart.

All behaviour is caused by circumstance

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I do not believe that all behaviour is caused by circumstance. To make such a claim would be a crude over-generalisation. Clearly, individuals have individual traits that predispose them to certain behaviours more than others.

However, I do think we systematically overemphasise the role of individual traits and largely ignore the role of circumstance. We do this in conventionally good and bad ways. The bad way of overemphasising individual traits is when we deem a child to be naughty or spoilt or lazy. However, there is a good, socially acceptable way to overemphasise the role of individual traits and that is to ascribe all or most of an individual’s behaviour to an underlying disorder.

This is not to deny the existence of disorders. The landscape for diagnosing many disorders is complicated and often circular, but most will agree that they describe actual conditions. What we are unclear about is exactly what inferences we should make from such a diagnosis. At the basic level, should we attempt to treat a disorder or accommodate it? If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, for instance, should we give her intensive reading instruction or should we give her a pen that reads text aloud for her? Should we do a mixture of both, alternating between accommodating in history lessons and treating in literacy? Similar questions may be asked of many such disorders.

Ascribing most or all of an individual’s behaviour to an individual trait is to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. When someone cuts in front of us in traffic, we assume they must be a rude and selfish person – we ascribe their behaviour to individual traits – whereas when we cut in front of someone else in traffic it is because we are in a rush or did not realise we had done so because we have a lot on our minds – we ascribe our own behaviour to circumstance. We tend to overemphasise the role of individual traits in the behaviour of others.

One profound way in which the behaviour of students is affected by circumstance is the effect of a student being in a group as opposed to being on their own. Every teacher will tell of a deeply challenging student who is surprisingly mature and reasonable in a one-on-one situation (which is why you should avoid admonishing students in front of their peers). It is not hard to understand – other students bring social hierarchies, histories, temptations and a whole range of other factors into the mix, changing the individual student’s behaviour.

I propose that this leads to something we might describe as ‘the counsellor effect’. Imagine Jack is causing trouble in a number of lessons and is therefore referred to a school counsellor. The counsellor sees Jack on his own and is impressed with how mature and reasonable he seems. Rather than ascribing this difference to Jack’s varying circumstances, it is tempting to ascribe it to an interaction between the internal traits of Jack – his disorder – and the internal traits of the counsellor and the teachers. Jack is mature and reasonable for the counsellor because the counsellor recognises and understands his specific needs. He misbehaves for the teachers because they do not recognise and understand his needs.

The counsellor effect is tempting because it plays to a heroic personal narrative and so I think it is a bias that could mislead anyone who tends to work with children on an individual basis.

Under the influence of the counsellor effect, we would try to ensure that teachers recognise and understand Jack’s needs. We would assume teachers lack knowledge, empathy or some other trait that the counsellor possesses and so the solution is to build this trait in teachers. The counsellor effect will therefore manifest as appeals to understanding students rather than as a set of practical strategies to apply. Yet, in a classroom of 25+ students, it is impossible for a teacher to interact with Jack in the way that the counsellor does and so this approach will not work. However, it would not be considered inclusive to propose that Jack be removed for individual attention. The teacher is in a bind.

Instead, a much more fruitful approach, supported by decades of behaviourist research, is to manipulate the circumstances surrounding Jack. This might involve setting-up a classroom seating plan, for instance. It might involve other physical arrangements – early on in my career, I learnt to spread science equipment around the room so there wasn’t an ill-tempered crush at the trolley. It might involve a rewards system or a ‘response cost’. In a recent blog post, Pam Snow suggested that children with developmental language disorder often do not understand sarcasm or indirect requests. So a couple of key practical strategies would be to avoid sarcasm and be as explicit as possible when giving instructions.

However, as I have suggested in my new book, such strategies tend to be good for all students, not just those with recognised disorders. So we really don’t have to single out these students and treat them in qualitatively different ways to their peers. You might even describe that as an ‘inclusive’ approach. Unfortunately, you can’t implement many of these strategies without the backing of a strong school policy and such a policy will be missing if the school leadership does not recognise the role of circumstance in behaviour.