Tuesday 15 January 2019

Clickbait, Misdirection and the Media: a Challenge to Schools

Headlines have not often been listed as an educational hazard, nor as a reason that school curricula need to adapt, but a recent example demonstrates education need to respond to new ways of consuming news, and the way media organisations are responding. 

On 13 January, the Sunday Times published an article based on an interview with Julian Thomas, the Master of Wellington College, in which he reflected on the reasons for his decision to stand down from his role at the end of the year, and his view of the health of the sector. The article contained some reasonable criticisms of the independent school sector in the past, and some strands of positive comment on the way the sector has developed away from exclusivism, rapid fee increases and a tendency to self-reference in the last decade or so. 

However, the piece was run under the headline Greedy public schools deserve a caningsays Head of Wellington College. The headline was, in all probability, chosen by an editor or sub-editor - not by the author of the article. It actively misled the reader as to what the content of the story was – so much so that the online version has subsequently been changed: ‘deserve’ has become ‘deserved’. 

One of my colleagues observed that this sort of headline – let’s call it as it is: clickbait – was once the preserve of tabloid or gossip press, and it’s a fairly new development to see it in a news outlet with the reputation of The Times (of London). This perhaps reflects the increasingly desperate scramble for readers that faces all journalism, even at the top end of the quality range. 

My concern, however, is different. Educators have, for some time, pointed out to the young that their consumption of news from Facebook (or other social media sites) intellectually impoverishes them by placing them inside an echo chamber of their own opinions, and the apps’ algorithms. We have encouraged students to consume news instead from more balanced curators of news – the BBC, Times, FT, Guardian etc. What do we do when these channels of information about the world given in to the temptation to run ‘echo-chamber’ clickbait headlines too, especially when busy lives incline more and more people to read little more than the headlines, trusting them to be an accurate summary of the news story? 

Headlines like the example above borrow from the play book of the populist politician. By placing an idea into the mind of the reader in a headline, the editor ensures that a large proportion of those who go on to read the whole story will retain the misleading impression of the headline. And, by placing misleading headlines as clickbait, news organisations lend credence to the populist’s go-to tactic when they hear something they disagree with - “fake news!” 

The industrialisation of the newspaper was a feature of the nineteenth century. At no point since then has it been more difficult for young people to gather a balanced picture of the world. Educators have a new and difficult role to play in society – teaching the young to curate their own newsfeeds in a way which steers between the populists of politics and the populists of the press. 

If we don’t, the difficulties news organisations have in monetising news will impoverish us intellectually and, over time, deprive society of balanced and nuanced views. That is not a happy prospect.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Why Wellbeing Needs a Revolution

 25 years ago, safeguarding was something which a few people in specialist roles thought about, and which had to fit in around everyone, and everything, else. Now, thankfully, safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and it comes first. The same revolution needs to take place in how we think about teenage wellbeing. 
In recent years, enlightened schools have employed people to look after teenagers – counsellors, psychiatrists, and other specialists. More recently, the schools at the forefront of thinking on wellbeing have begun to change the model: instead of specialists to whom wellbeing can be delegated so that everyone else can get on with the real work, the go-to-senior-wellbeing-person in school has a different role. 

A Deputy Head Wellbeing has a role which is to oversee the equipping, training, recruitment and ‘supervision’ of all staff in wellbeing roles, in a similar way to that in which a Deputy Head Academic does for academic staff, and a Deputy Head Pastoral does for pastoral staff. The difference is that all staff are ‘wellbeing staff’, because everyone has to be in position to catch if a teenager is about to fall. 

So far so good – in schools. What about the world around schools? It’s now commonly understood that everyone has a role in helping schools to do safeguarding, whether they work in a local planning department, police force, or library, or are parents, visitors or neighbours of a school. The media has played a role, investigating and unmasking those who posed a safeguarding threat. 

Contrast this with wellbeing: it’s exam result week, and so it’s easy to observe that Ofqual and awarding bodies have a role to play here, along with the DfE and those who design our curricula. I don’t think these groups are yet playing their part in this important area.  

The environment around teenagers also includes the print, broadcast and online mass-media, politicians, social media providers and ISPs. Recent articles which have demonstrated that there are many different routes through education, not one right or ‘better’ route, have made a positive contribution to ensuring that vulnerable young people are not vilified for failing to live up to stereotyped expectations. ‘Broadsheet’ newspapers (whatever they are, now that we all read our news online) have helped to mitigate the peculiarly British obsession with cognitive education, and its apparent superiority over technical education, and to provide balance. 

In the future, long after I have retired, I expect that a society which regards the wellbeing of the young (and old – but that’s another story) as a collective responsibility will allow that generation of young people to have fewer growing pains than this generation. 

Sunday 15 October 2017

What IS an All-Round Education?

I’m not often stopped in my tracks by a question, so when I was recently asked if an ‘all round’ education was a way of saying ‘not-very-ambitious’ in any one area, I recognised a healthy and helpful challenge.

The work that James Heckman has done (see here) to demonstrate that what you learn at school which really gives you an advantage from an economic perspective are not the skills that are tested in an exam hall. Of course performance in an exam hall is important - it helps students (who want to) to go on to selective further education courses where they will acquire a wide range of useful skills. But Heckman also found that ‘non-cognitive’ skills, some of which pay off in the exam hall, like perseverance, play a much bigger role in the post school experience, fulfilment and ‘success’ of students.

So what does this have to do with ‘all-round’. In an all-round education, excellence matters, but not only in academic pursuits. That doesn’t mean academic excellence isn’t important - it is. But it means students are encouraged to pursue excellence in all things - academic (ie cognitive), athletic, aesthetic, affiliative.

The key here is that many of these pursuits are explicitly collaborative - and interdependent activity (rare, and not approved of, in the exam hall!) - prepares us for most of what we will do after school which will provide us with our fulfilment, success, and the other things our education is preparing us for.

Education which is all-round is no less ambitious - but it’s an ambition that manages the trade-offs between time spent in many different areas without simply allowing students to prioritise one simplistically above all others. It’s ambitious for outcome, and for process. And it’s ambitious for team, and not just for one’s own outcomes.

So, while the monocular judgement of schools’ success is merely the academic outcome, it fails to pick up so many important aspects of a school’s work, in developing confidence, a secure sense of identity, a breadth of thought, a capacity for leadership and teamwork, and an ability to be more thoughtful than a merely reflexive achievement-junkie.  The all-round education prepares young people not just to get into university, but to use their place, not just for their first job offer, but their first promotion, and not just for their economic effectiveness but also their personal fulfilment.

Term Dates: Time to Start Again

“I wouldn’t start from here if I were you” - the classic cliche of unhelpful advice often seems applicable where a system has been built up in degrees from a historic model which is no longer applicable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our term dates.

The term dates of any modern school in the British educational system borrow heavily on a Victorian model of full boarding - long terms; long holidays. The two reasons for this were the relatively large (and initially, pre-railway, slow) journeys required to get to (mainly rural) boarding schools in the early nineteenth century, and the need for young people to be able to join the harvest back at home. Neither of these factors apply any more, but they remain the reason we work our young people, and our teachers, so hard for so few weeks of the year.

Maintained sector schools work 38 5-day weeks - or 190 days - give or take the odd inset day. One of the results of this is that newly qualified teachers, fresh out of university find that for 38 weeks a year, they are working too hard to maintain a social life with their (non teaching) friends. And then, when they get a holiday, they get lots of it, unlike their friends, who probably want to take their holiday when travel is cheaper anyway. This social pressure, arising from teachers’ need to spend term-time evenings and weekends poring over their marking, their preparation and their reporting, is driving young teachers out of the profession - another weekend, another anecdote to this effect.

The alternative - simples, as the meerkat marketer would say. How about 45 weeks of four days per week. We might have to work out what to do with Bank Holiday Mondays, but this would allow teachers 7 weeks holiday (more than the average - but with a very few preparation or inset days thrown in). And it would allow a whole day a week for preparation, planning and assessment, perhaps Wednesdays. Bringing teachers’ weekly workload down, by increasing the number of weeks per year would go a long way to solving the retention crisis in our schools.

A 20% reduction in teachers’ weekly working hours might have other effects too. By reducing stress among teachers, it might help reduce stress levels among teenagers. In giving teachers real-time quality time to prepare their teaching, it could increase the quality of teaching they are able to deliver. By giving children learning spread out over the year, it would help those children most likely to lose ground against their peers during the holidays.

45 4-day weeks is actually 10 fewer days per year in school. I’m willing to bet that it would raise educational attainment, though. Smarter - not harder - working, from which everyone gains.

Finally, many European countries stagger when holidays take place so that the effect of school holidays on road traffic, the cost of travel, and leaving some workplaces deserted while parents are looking after their children are all evened out. If we have a fresh look at term dates, let’s also stagger them in a sensible way.

Footnote: there are other things we can do about workload. Where I work, an email curfew from 7pm to 7am (including 7pm Friday to 7am Monday) encourages staff not to be permanently ‘on call’. Regular social events promote belonging.  Teacher wellbeing should be a priority for schools - and there are easy ways of making a start on it.

Friday 18 August 2017

Ofqual: 7/10. Could do better.

Last week, we read that Ofqual  intervened with the exam boards to ensure grade boundaries tkept roughly the same proportion of pupils get the top grades this year at A level as in previous years. As a result, they were lambasted by representatives of the educational establishment. But this time, Ofqual was right.

Whatever one thinks of the Govian changes to A levels, this year promised to be a difficult year for exam comparability: some subjects are 'reformed', new, harder A levels, and some aren't. If Ofqual had allowed these new reformed courses to be significantly harder in terms of their grading than a last round of unreformed courses in subjects whose courses took longer to be approved by the regulator, this year's results would have been influenced significantly by the roulette wheel of A level subject choice, rather than by ability as we might hope. Identical candidates who chose three unreformed courses might get AAA, where those who chose three reformed courses might get BBB. (And this ignores potential variations arising from markers not being given extra time to get up to speed on the demands of the new exams). The difference might not have been one grade in each subject; it could have been even wider. Thankfully, this particular roulette wheel has been stopped before the ball came to rest on black or red, favouring half the subjects' candidates with an easier high grade than the other half. Pupils deserve better than this level of randomness. As it is, we read that while over 30% of  unreformed exams were graded A* or A, only 24.3% of reformed exams were.

The news isn't entirely good however. As I pointed out in a blog in 2013 (http://athinkinghead.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/grade-deflation-is-as-pointless-as.html), grade deflation is as pernicious as grade inflation. Are employers in the future going to understand that an A grade in A level English Literature differs in value depending on the year in which the exam was taken? 2017 = relatively easy, but 2018 = much harder? Of course not. 

Interestingly, when I last wrote about grade deflation, pointing out that the switch to numbered for GCSE obviated this confusion, the chief regulator at Ofqual got in touch directly to thank me (and to make a minor factual amendment to my blog - amounting to my homework being returned with "7/10. Could do better" scrawled on it in red ink). I was flattered by the attention.

I don't think Ofqual will get in touch with me this time, even if this time  I am effectively marking their homework.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Remembrance Recast

The recent furore over the potential for the England football team to wear a shirt with a red poppy symbol on it for an international match illustrates all that, in my view, is wrong with Remembrance. If I am completely honest, there has always been something about the way Remembrance Day is 'celebrated' that I have always found difficult. If I had paid more attention to the news when I was growing up, I would have understood the stance that Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, took at the service to commemorate the end of the Falklands war in 1982. His determination to pray for the dead on both sides of that conflict caused an irreparable rift between him and Lady Thatcher, who had wanted the service to be triumphant. Given that he had won the Military Cross for bravery forty years earlier, it was hard for the government then to criticise him.

Runcie’s underlying point – that there is loss, bravery, integrity, and heroism (and the lack of three of these) on both sides in a war – was not well understood at the time. It is possible that the way in which remembrance has been cast to school children during that time has contributed to a one-eyed view of conflict in this country.

How many young people in the UK know anything, for example, of The White Rose? This was a group of students, who – in 1942-3 – sought to do what they could to oppose the evil of the Third Reich. The core of the group was composed of just five students, two of whom were siblings - Sophie and Hans Scholl. All were in their very early twenties. Members of The White Rose believed that their Christian beliefs meant they had to protest against what they saw happening in their country. As a result between June 1942 and February 1943 they prepared and distributed six different leaflets, in which they called for the active opposition of the German people to the Nazi movement and its policies.

In the first leaflet they wrote: ‘It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes ... reach the light of day?’. Understandably, the Third Reich was extremely concerned about the potential effects of these and the Gestapo were instructed to find the publishers. On February 18 1943, the Scholls took a very large quantity of leaflets to their university. They dropped piles of these leaflets in the empty corridors for students to find when they poured out of lecture rooms. Before leaving, since they had some leaflets still in their suitcase, they returned to the university atrium and went up to the top floor, and there at the top Sophie threw the last remaining leaflets into the air. This was seen by a janitor, who called the police. Soon afterwards, they were taken into Gestapo custody. Then other active members were soon arrested, of whom six were convicted and executed.

One copy of their last leaflet was smuggled out of Germany, and it was edited by the allies and millions of copies were dropped from aeroplanes onto Germany.

Nearly six decades later, a German national TV competition chose "the ten greatest Germans of all time". The Scholl siblings – founders and leaders of The White Rose - came fourth, ahead of Bach, Goethe, and Albert Einstein. And readers of a widely circulated German magazine voted Sophie Scholl to be "the greatest woman of the twentieth century".

Why is this heroism not widely known outside Germany? Why, in our Remembrance Day activities, do we not think about the waste of life, the courage, the acts of selflessness on both sides of the conflicts that we remember?

Perhaps if young people were taught not just history-according-to-the-victors, perhaps if they were able to understand the effects of war on both sides of a conflict, perhaps if they could hear the accounts of those whose country was hostile to theirs, they could come to a balanced and thoughtful view of conflict. But instead we have seen remembrance through the monochrome lenses of British-centred view of lives lost. 

Of course, we should remember those who give their health, their physical wholeness, or their lives for peace. We should honour their sacrifice most by working for peace. But we should recognise that war has costs on both sides, that for every British family that grieves a fallen, or injured, serviceman, there is probably one - or more than one - that grieves elsewhere too. The Red Poppy appeal recognises only those who have fought under our own flag. To do so in my view is to teach remembrance in a manner which remains jingoistic. We should lobby to broaden our view: we should learn about the cost of war in other countries, and other conflicts. We should teach our children this too. 

Perhaps, if remembrance in schools were to be less patriotic, and more bilateral, young people would grow up into adults who would go to war less often. As decision makers, at the polls or in the government, we might be more careful about entering armed conflict.

On Friday 11th November this year, I will remember those brave men and women who died defending the UK against aggression in both world wars of the twentieth century, and those who have died since. But I will also remember the Scholls and all those, like them, who have sought to fight evil at great personal risk, of whatever nationality or cause. Getting beyond what divides humankind in our remembrance is surely how we provide for a future which is less defined by war, and the need for remembrance, than the past has been.

Monday 29 August 2016

The Sixth Form Transition: the Ten Key Elements.

It is so often said that a student has, or hasn't, made the 'transition to Sixth form work'.  And yet, it's very rare for a school to spell out exactly what that means to members of Y12 at the start of Sixth form courses. This seems unreasonable to me and I think it should more often be unpacked in clear terms for those embarking on A levels. And this is going to be even more important now that the vast majority of courses will be linear.

For those starting the Sixth form this term, many will be going on to university within 25 months. At university, it will basically be up to them whether they buy in, or drop out; follow up/pastoral care will be far less evident than it is at school. So the process of adjustment that takes place in the Sixth form is not just necessary to prosper at A level, but also to survive at university.

So here are the ten key things Sixth formers need to do:
  1. Offer opinions in class backed up with good reasoning.  At GCSE, pupils can merely recount facts, whereas at A Level students of most subjects are required, for good grades at least, to add to these facts a judgement, and give reasons for this judgement.  Practising this in class is essential for doing it well in an exam. 
  2. Ask questions about areas of confusion.  The onus is on the sixth former to say when they don’t understand and to find help, rather than on the teacher to discover what it is the student doesn’t know and offer help uninvited.  In this way students are expected fully to be collaborators with their teachers.
  3. Think about what they will be studying in lessons before they actually study it.  Sixth formers should be given some guidance as to what they are studying at various times of the year, and should be getting ahead with it.  For some that will mean reading works of literature during the holidays before studying them during lessons, and for others it will mean that looking at areas of study that are coming up and familiarizing themselves with them before encountering them in the classroom.
  4. Revise each teacher's work each week as if having a weekly test, whilst fully knowing that the teacher will not set such a test. Most pupils will have studied with a teacher who gave them a weekly test and may remember those for example in the area of language vocabulary. In the sixth form all students should be learning as if they had a weekly test but shouldn’t actually be using class time or prep time on a weekly test of that sort.
  5. Read things which help work in lessons, although the teacher hasn’t asked pupils to.  This might include reading the newspapers, websites, and magazines.  Doing this is a key way in which a student might be able to show a university Admissions Tutor that they are more worthy of a place than other applicants, and it will provide them with a lot to write about in their personal statement on the UCAS form.
  6. Plan what work to do and when.  Study periods should be being used to do homework no longer set according to a timetable. This organization of the working day and week should be being done explicitly and in writing, and regularly, to make sure the student is allocating appropriate amounts of time to each subject and to work as a whole.
  7. Talk to fellow students about areas of subjects outside lesson time.  I remember walking past two students walking from History to English arguing about some aspects of the Reformation which they had been studying in the lesson that they were coming from.  This kind of discussion sharpens understanding and ability to craft arguments and it develops ability to do all this under time pressure in an exam. 
  8. Show enthusiasm in lessons.  If a student is not speaking up very often and not working outside what teachers have set, how are they showing enthusiasm for their subjects?  After all these are subjects that they have chosen. If they are not showing enthusiasm, what are they expecting their tutor to write on their UCAS form about their work ethic? And actually, enthusiasm comes  from hard work because it is hard work which leads us to enjoy academic study.
  9. Invite a teacher to school lunch occasionally to continue discussions started in lessons.  If a student is never interested enough in what has been studied in a lesson to want to talk to their teacher about it after the lesson, I seriously question whether they have chosen the right A Levels. If a student doesn't feel this enthusiasm, they should get this out into the open with the teacher most directly responsible for their welfare and progress - maybe the subjects need to change. 
  10. Take responsibility for their own learning. In many respects this is a summary of all of the above. If a student is not regarding their work as being primarily their responsibility, secondarily the responsibility of their teachers and thirdly the responsibility of their tutor, Head of House, or year head, then they haven’t yet 'got it'.
Sixth form should be intellectually thrilling. If it isn't, one of these may need more work. It will be worth getting the method right!