Lectures are rubbish, right?

The key difference between lecturing and explicit instruction is that explicit instruction is highly interactive. I advocate for explicit instruction and I am prepared to accept that non-interactive lecturing is a bit rubbish. The reasons are intuitive enough. If you think you might be called upon to respond then you are more likely to pay attention.

This is such an important idea that it is one of the basics that I look for when observing lessons. I do not believe that lesson observation is valid for making many inferences, but I do think you can look for a few key conditions: students complete tasks that teachers set, students don’t talk while the teacher is talking and questioning of the students by the teacher is frequent and unpredictable from the students’ perspective. I don’t really mind how teachers achieve this but I do think it is a prerequisite for effective teaching.

I am therefore prepared to accept much of the evidence for ‘active learning’ that comes out of university departments. It frustrates me when this is presented as evidence for constructivist teaching methods because I consider it nothing of the sort. Typically, a straight, non-interactive lecture is compared with a lecture that requires students to participate in some way. The most basic of these designs is for students to use electronic voting buttons or ‘clickers’ to answer questions posed by the lecturer, but there are many other variations.

Interestingly, the active learning findings makes so much intuitive sense that I have never sought to question this research. I have been blinded by my own bias.

There are lots of potential problems with education research, some of which require quite a sophisticated understanding of statistics to grasp. However, a fairly basic problem known as the ‘file-drawer’ problem is pretty easy to understand: researchers are more likely to get their papers published if they find interesting results. If a researcher tests two learning conditions against each other and finds no effect – a null result – then it’s unlikely to be published.

The problem with this kind of selective publishing is that null results could be quite common and yet you won’t know this by looking at published papers. Meta-analyses which attempt to synthesise evidence from many studies just compound the problem. I am aware of the issue as a PhD student – if I find a null result then it can certainly go into my PhD dissertation but it’s not something that a journal is likely to pick up.

According to a recent paper by Phillip Dawson and Samantha Dawson, the evidence pitting lectures against active learning suffers from this file-drawer problem. The researchers re-analysed data from a recent meta-analysis by Freeman et. al. that showed benefits for active learning and found that there was evidence of missing, unreported studies:

“We re-examined Freeman et al.’s data according to dissemination type (published studies vs. dissertation studies) to evaluate the influence of reporting bias… When we considered all of the studies together we found no evidence of publication or reporting bias. However, when we considered each study by dissemination type, the strength of support for active learning differed. The published studies were far more supportive of active learning than dissertations. Our analysis of the published studies found statistical evidence of four missing studies, that is, studies which are statistically likely to have been conducted but were either not published or not captured by Freeman et al.’s search strategy or inclusion criteria. All of these studies would have reached the opposite conclusion to Freeman et al.; in addition, three of these four studies would not have reached statistical significance. Given that these studies would have gone against accepted learning and teaching wisdom, and they would have been mostly non-significant, their absence in the literature is unsurprising. However it is still problematic, as it represents bias.”

So should we all start lecturing? Not quite:

“It is important to note, however, that the effect of reporting bias would not have been strong enough to contradict Freeman et al.’s findings.”

The reporting bias just makes the findings a whole lot weaker. Let’s stick with asking questions, for now.

Marching kids through an aged-based curriculum 

It has become something of a truism in education that we should not seek to march students through an age-based curriculum. There is a wide range of ability within any year-group. As Geoff Masters notes in a recent piece for The Conversation, this could be anything up to six school years. So it seems obvious that we need to cater to these individual needs rather than deliver a standardised curriculum regardless. This reasoning has some merit although I do believe that many approaches to differentiation create significant practical problems.

Yet I also believe that there are positive arguments for exposing students of the same age to the same curriculum and I don’t think these are often aired.

1. Some concepts are not hierarchical and you gain coherence from studying the same things

Many areas of curriculum content do not necessarily build upon one another. There may be a good argument for sequencing the teaching of history chronologically but it would be eccentric to argue that the cognitive demands of studying the Middle Ages are greater than those of studying Ancient China or that understanding of the Middle Ages is somehow dependent upon understanding of Ancient China in the way that, say, understanding of multiplication and division depends on addition and subtraction.

Similarly, which should come first; reading informational texts about health and exercise or reading informational texts about the local town?

In practice, few schools would have some students in a year-group studying one area of history and others studying a different area and so it is implicitly recognised that marching all students through the same contexts is fine.

And there are advantages to such curricula coherence such as the way in which teachers and schools can build resources over time, plan yearly field trips and so on. Moreover, if this sequence is replicated at a state-wide level then students who move schools won’t risk studying the Romans three times while never encountering Mesoamerica.

2. Teachers probably make incorrect predictions about what students can cope with

A deep problem with the idea of varying the curriculum to meet individual students’ needs is that someone has to make a decision about what that should look like. If a particular student is struggling with a particular concept then how do we extrapolate from that in order to figure out what other concepts we should and shouldn’t expose her to.

As a teacher, I am not confident in my ability to do this because, every day, students surprise me with what they can and cannot do. Given that we also know that teachers are all too prone to cognitive biases, we run the real risk of underestimating students and giving them an impoverished curriculum. Perhaps this is an issue of equity?

I often feel that I am at my best when I am teaching an examined course, a concept is on the syllabus and I have to try to find a way of getting a student to understand it, whether I personally think they are ready for it or not.

Instead of saying, “Don’t bother teaching these kids about quadratic functions,” perhaps we should say, “Figure out a way of teaching these kids about quadratic functions.”

The curious world of ‘productive pedagogies’

I have come across the literature on ‘productive pedagogies’ before and I have even referred to it as an example of the kinds of beliefs that are mainstream in education. For example, one productive pedagogies research paper contrasts ‘higher-order thinking’ with ‘lower-order thinking’ with the latter occurring when:

“…students were simply asked to receive or recite factual information or to employ rules and algorithms in repetitive routines. In such instances students were given pre-specified knowledge, ranging from simple facts and information to more complex concepts. Often this involves knowledge being conveyed to students through readings, worksheets, lectures or another direct teaching medium.”

I intended to leave the matter there but I found myself in discussion with an Australian teacher educator on Twitter who cited productive pedagogies as his framework for effective teaching. That’s serious. Stating that it is a framework for ‘effective’ teaching is a testable claim about cause-and-effect. So let’s examine the evidence to support this proposition.

Firstly, the origin of productive pedagogies is not Australian. According to the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS), it is based on work originating in the U.S and carried out by Newmann and associates:

“Productive pedagogies is a model of classroom teaching and learning practices developed by the QSRLS, as reported in earlier reports. In the first instance, the development of the concept of productive pedagogies was derived from Newmann’s construct of authentic pedagogy. Productive pedagogies also developed from a variety of other educational research literatures concerned with explaining student outcomes. These included sociology of school knowledge, school effectiveness, and ethnographies of classroom discourse.”

The QSRLS researchers then surveyed teachers to see how well they fitted the productive pedagogies model. You would think that they would then correlate these responses with the students’ performance on standardised assessments of some kind. But they didn’t do that. Instead, based upon their reading of constructivist learning theory, they decided that desirable intellectual outcomes could be characterised as ‘productive performances’:

“We claim that there is a set of what we call productive performances that demonstrate students’ achievement of academic and social outcomes from schooling. Within the conceptual framework that underpins the QSRLS, these outcomes are affected by the kinds of pedagogies and assessment tasks students’ experience.”

Funnily enough, these productive performances look a lot like the sorts of things that teachers who scored highly on the productive pedagogies scale would ask students to do. For instance, a productive pedagogies teacher might ask students to hypothesise. Yet hypothesising is also a productive performance. It therefore seems likely that use of productive pedagogies will correlate with productive performances. This is indeed what the researchers found.

I am quite prepared to accept that asking students to write an hypothesis is a more effective way of getting them to write an hypothesis than asking them to do something else. What I need to know is that practices like this lead to better learning of knowledge and skills.

Perhaps a randomised controlled trial (RCT) would sort this out. RCTs, after all, are supposed to be the gold-standard of causal research and therefore most likely to convince someone like me. I think this is why I was passed the findings of a trial from New South Wales. This trial doesn’t explicitly mention productive pedagogies but it uses a ‘Quality Teaching Framework’ which is again based upon the ‘authentic pedagogy’ work of Newmann.

‘Quality Teaching’ is defined as teaching that measured-up to this framework. The researchers found that teachers who participated in ‘Quality Teaching Rounds’ where they did readings and observed lessons were more likely to then be observed using ‘Quality Teaching’, which, again, does not seem surprising. What we don’t know is if this had any effect on what students in these classes learnt as a result.

We now know, from the MET project, that the correlation between lesson observation scores and student learning gains is very weak. In order to get any kind of relationship at all, MET project researchers had to organise multiple observations of each teacher by different observers. Crucially, the teachers did not know which framework they were being observed against. Even then, the observations were worse at predicting the future student gains of particular teachers than the same teacher’s previous student gains.

So, again, nothing has been proved.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to work out the effectiveness of productive pedagogies. Its’ the sort of experiment that the new Evidence for Learning group could conduct. My suggestion would be to randomise teachers into one of three conditions and give standardised English, maths or science tests to each teacher’s students at the start and end of the study. The first group of teachers would receive no intervention, the second group would receive a training intervention based upon productive pedagogies and the third group would receive an equivalent training intervention based upon, for example, teacher effectiveness research. The reason for having the third group would be to isolate the effect of teachers simply being involved in an intervention and spending more time thinking about teaching. If productive pedagogies is effective then it would produce the largest pre-test to post-test gain of the three groups.

The reasonable ones

I’ve only ever walked out of one interview. It was for the position of Deputy Headteacher at a school in the U.K. The school had arranged a number of tasks for candidates to complete. First, I was to spend an hour analysing some data from the Fischer Family Trust. Then I took part in what was billed as, “A discussion with the Headteacher on a topic of his choice.”

He wanted to talk about ability grouping. I was not as familiar with education research as I am now but I did know a little about this topic, having reviewed it for my school. Analyses of the effects of ability grouping show either zero effect or a pattern where highly able students do slightly better and less able students do slightly worse. However, there is a lot of detail sitting beneath this broad brush-stroke. For instance, I knew of schools where the head of department somehow ended-up with the high groups and new or temporary staff had the low groups. These kinds of practices could skew the results of reviews.

The headteacher said that he was against ability grouping and asked me how I would respond to a head of department who wanted to maintain the practice. So I tried unpacking the issue. I said I would talk to the head of department and ask exactly what they proposed: How would the groups be determined? Who would teach them? This was the wrong response. To this headteacher, ability groups were morally indefensible. If he were to write about his position on the matter then it would involve numerous exclamation marks.

After that session, I decided that continuing with the interview was a little pointless and so I went back to school to teach the rest of the day’s classes.

The incident made me realise that I am a pragmatist. I held no ideological views about ability groups and I was willing to be persuaded either way. I could weigh different opinions and appreciate the complexity.

This is why it surprises me when I find myself painted as a kind of extremist on social media. I am, apparently, right-wing for holding the views about education that I hold. I can see where this argument comes from because a certain brand of romantic, child-centered education has become associated with an affluent, latte-sipping, new-age, metropolitan incarnation of modern left-wing politics. But that’s just guilt by association. A reasoned look at the evidence suggests that social justice is best served by other methods. And it is these methods that I seek to publicise.

I’m not necessarily wrong just because I happen to be outside the mainstream of educational thinking. To assume so would be to accept that crowds are always correct; that sheep are right to follow. Sometimes it is the mob who have fallen to extremism and the dissidents who represent the voice of moderation.

So who are the ideologues? Is it those who question the orthodoxy or is it those who derive teaching methods from an amorphous ‘theory’ and who, when asked for evidence to support these methods, accuse their questioners of ‘positivism’?

Are the ideologues the ones who think that centrally managed detention systems are a fairly mainstream response to an administrative issue or are they the ones who call ‘fascist!’ and ‘nazi!’ at their very mention?

Are the ideologues the ones who see classroom management as a key problem that needs to be tackled by a number of means, including the use of behaviour management strategies, or are they the ones who believe in the magical notion that all classroom management problems would cease if only we all adopted ‘constructivist pedagogies’?

I’ll leave that for you to decide.

How to survive in teaching 

Teaching is a challenging job. we are accustomed to news stories about teachers leaving the profession and yet we don’t seem to have a clear idea of what to do about it. This is because in order to properly tackle these issues, we would need to change the fundamental ideas that underpin education and that’s hard.

These days, I am head of mathematics with a couple of whole-school roles that mean I no longer teach a full timetable. Go back a few years and I was head of science at a school in London that was officially labelled as, ‘facing challenging circumstances’. At one point, a colleague’s daughter was unwell and so I took over his class, teaching a 100% timetable for a term. I survived this and continued teaching so I have a few coping strategies to offer from a secondary school perspective.

1. Joint Planning

There is nothing more pointless than a teacher designing lessons and resources when the teacher in the classroom next door has already done this. We should work to improve materials already created and not to recreate them from scratch. In good schools, there are systems in place that require teachers to work collaboratively – there is a tight curriculum and an expectation that teachers follow it.

In bad schools, it’s every teacher for themselves. The bad idea that holds sway is that it’s somehow good for teachers to plan everything personally; that this will tailor the lesson to the specific needs of your individual students; that textbooks are bad. It clearly comes from a supposedly ‘child-centered’ outlook. Yet children actually have more in common in how they learn than you might think and it’s more efficient to teach to these commonalities. If a task works in the class next door then it’s likely to work in yours.

And the reality is this: a teacher who has to start with a blank sheet of paper is likely to latch on to something – anything – that they can quickly find on the internet in order to produce a lesson rather than constructing a well thought-out, optimal plan.

If you work in a school where teachers don’t share then you need to find some people to collaborate with. You need to ensure that you give as much as you get because teachers will soon tire of giving you stuff and not receiving anything back.

2. Avoid marking

Marking books is largely a waste of time. People somehow equate marking with feedback but there are far more efficient ways of providing feedback than writing it in the students’ books. In making the case for formative assessment, Dylan Wiliam asks:

“Does the teacher get the class’s learning back on track with the class in front of him, in one go, and when the meanings of students’ responses and the teacher’s questions can be negotiated, or does the teacher do it one student at a time, after they have gone away, and in writing?”

Consider the act of marking a student’s homework. You don’t even know the conditions under which it was produced. Did the student gain help from a friend or relative? Did they take more or less time than was intended? Effective feedback would need to take this into account.

And remember, the most important aspect of any kind of feedback is that the student takes it on board. If they ignore or don’t understand your beautifully crafted paragraph of points then it’s not actually feedback. It seems highly unlikely that a student will be able to handle anything more that two quite specific points (see Daisy Christodoulou’s new book on why many of the comments we tend to write are useless).

Instead, try simply reading what your students have written, noting some of the common mistakes and misconceptions and then address these in your next lesson. Wiliam’s ‘exit pass’ routine is good for this. Tell students that this is what you intend to do and, in my experience, you will have no complaints. If something is simple to mark – like a maths quiz – then ask students to do this themselves in class. They will gain feedback at a point when they can still remember the task and you can then collect their papers in order to perhaps check some of the marking and record the scores.

There is an emotional component to marking. Students need to feel their work is valued and reading through and marking books is one way of doing this – this is Phil Beadle’s marking as ‘an act of love’. You might also be under pressure from your school to do far too much marking. And it will be far too much. So bear that in mind and think of ways that you can reduce the amount that you are required to complete without falling foul of the rules. I absolve you of any guilt.

3. Centralised detentions

This is the most ideologically difficult strategy to enact. Many school leaders and academics are openly hostile to the idea of detentions, even in schools where they are notionally part of the system. And yet all teachers working in tough schools will need them as a fallback if they intend to maintain high standards. Often, issuing detentions is seen as a sign that your teaching is dull and uninspired whereas it’s probably a sign that you have high expectations of work and behaviour.

There are lots of steps you can take to avoid detentions. Ironically, one of these is to ensure that students know that you will follow through with detentions; something you can only prove by doing. And there will be pinch-points such as when you take a new class and they are sussing you out.

The problem with issuing detentions is that they rapidly become unworkable. You have a duty at lunch or an after school club and so the detention cannot be enacted straight away. You can lose a lot of lunches and break times to detentions. Many secondary school teachers struggle to make it across to the staffroom.

Ideally, your school will have a centralised detention system. This is increasingly mainstream in the U.K. but I’m not sure it’s caught-on elsewhere. If not, you can again try collaborating with colleagues. This is what I did as a head of science by organising a science department detention. Apart from when I had that 100% timetable, I use to schedule my detention slots so that I wasn’t teaching on the period before the detention. This meant that I could visit the classes of some of the students and collect them, minimising the need to chase absentees. I also rang home and asked parents to bring the students back if they did manage to escape.

Talk of detentions becomes emotive. People note that some kids are frequently in detention and use this to suggest that detentions don’t work. Clearly, repeat attendees need a higher level of intervention and schools should be able to provide this – many can’t or won’t. However, to claim this shows that detentions don’t work ignores the vast majority of students who never made it into detention in the first place because it acted as an effective deterrent.

You can also be ‘restorative’ while using detentions. I used to have students write about why they were in detention and then complete a worksheet about a fictional incident. They didn’t enjoy the task much but, in my view, the worksheets helped students think more objectively about behaviour (see these examples I found in my archive: thinking-about-behaviour-1thinking-about-behaviour-2, michael-and-mr-peters)

4. Don’t complain to non-teachers

I have come to realise that the only people who understand how hard teachers work are other teachers and people who live with teachers. If your family are not teachers then they will listen to your complaints and, at best, assume your exaggerating or, at worst, tell you off for whingeing: “But you have all those holidays!”

People who have moved into teaching from other professions are always particularly keen to talk about the workload, as if they are surprised by it. Non-teachers simply can’t grasp that there is more to the job than turning up and teaching your classes. So you won’t win. Instead, embrace it. Go somewhere lovely on a Wednesday during the school holidays and post photos of it all over Facebook.

Bad ideas

It is bad ideas that prevent us tackling the entrenched problems that lead to teacher recruitment and retention problems. If you want to know more about these bad ideas then you’ll find them critiqued on my blog. All schools subscribe to these bad ideas to a certain extent and you’ll have to decide whether any particular school is one you want to continue working in.

And if you want to know how hard it is to challenge the bad ideas then take a look Michaela Community School in London and the abuse that it has suffered mainly for putting points 1 to 3 into action.

Resilient at what?

Chester Draws, a regular contributor to the comments on this blog, made a point about ‘resilience’ that really had me thinking:

“We have plenty of what amount to infinite problems out there. They are called computer games.

The thing is that the kids who supposedly have to learn “resilience” are extremely resilient at playing them. They don’t, generally, lack resilience as such. What kids lack, but many develop as they get older, is resilience at tasks they don’t like.”

I think this cuts to the heart of two key issues in the debate about education. Firstly, generic skills such as ‘collaboration’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘creativity’, ‘resilience’ and so on are highly context-dependent. A kid can be a great collaborator in his football team but very poor at collaborating over housework. Beyond a few social skills that children will generally pick-up in early childhood – ones they were learning long before schools existed – there doesn’t really exist a general set of collaborative skills that can be taught.

‘Resilience’, seems highly dependent on personality. But the way Chester defined it is interesting. It would be almost impossible for a progressive educator to work on such a skill because they shrink from tasks that students don’t like doing.

This extends right the way from the unthinking progressivism of cool activities where teachers call on technology and popular culture in an attempt to ingratiate their subject towards the students, all the way through to the high Rousseauian romanticism that underpins educational convention: children are in a more natural state than adults and we should follow their interests so that they may learn in school as effortlessly as they learn to walk or speak.

A good test of where you fall on this is Shakespeare. Few children love Shakespeare from the outset because the words are difficult and the plays are set in a different time. Should they be allowed to refuse to study Shakespeare and be given other literature instead? Perhaps something more ‘relevant’? Or should the adults assert their authority and coerce students into studying The Bard?

To many professional educationalists, coercion is basically wrong. Yet most teachers are masters at it. Despite the rows that erupt on Twitter, very little of it is done with overt sticks and carrots. Much more is about expecting students to conform and a refusal to accept that matters may take any course other than the one the teacher has planned.

I think this places most ordinary teachers practically at odds with our philosopher kings. Yes, many of us will pay lip-service to progressive slogans but we fundamentally operate on a different level. There is a vast literature where academics bemoan the failure of teachers to properly implement the academic’s preferred reform. Perhaps this is why. There is a mismatch.

It also gives us another way of looking at the world. I suspect that most teachers will, at some point, have been told that a student misbehaved in their class because the content wasn’t interesting or engaging enough. But if everything is engaging – if all lessons follow the children’s interests – then how will they ever learn to be resilient at tasks they don’t like?

Followed to the extreme, we would end up with a generation of snowflakes who can’t bear anything out of their comfort zone and who give up easily. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in the 21st century.

“I learnt to read by standing in custard”

Earlier, I read an articulate and reasoned piece in The Conversation by Lorraine Hammond of Edith Cowan University. In the article, she argues for the introduction of an Australian phonics check, setting out some of the supporting evidence.

I should have known better, but I found myself looking at the comments. I was reminded that people tend to argue against synthetic phonics from an ideological stance rather than a scientific one. And I was reminded of some of the arguments that are made to support this view.

I think some people struggle with the nuance of the phonics debate. For instance, there are different kinds of phonics teaching. Analytic phonics is less effective that synthetic phonics as Pamela Snow explains in her excellent recent post on phonics fallacies. Therefore, simply doing a bit of phonics is insufficient. 

The other complication is that you certainly can learn to read via whole language approaches. The main problem with these methods is that fewer children will manage to learn to read in this way. The large volume of research from different English speaking countries demonstrates this quite clearly. Conversely, there is no evidence that any students are harmed by learning through phonics. In fact, it may well help them with things like spelling.

So simply claiming that you, or someone you know, learnt to read without phonics proves nothing. Plenty of people do. It’s just that these alternative methods leave lots of reading casualties in their wake.

Similarly, arguments about just how regular the English language is also miss the mark. It’s certainly an interesting topic of conversation, but if English were so irregular that phonics didn’t work then… er… phonics wouldn’t work. Yet we have lots of evidence that it does work and better than the alternatives.