Monday 25 February 2013

Book Review - Bad Education

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Is this the proverb that inspired Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian? (See and ). That column, the book and the blog of the same name inspired the writers of Bad Education (edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon, published by McGraw-Hill) to provide a survey of what research studies actually say about education debates.

And the result is excellent. I hope other readers experience some blushing moments when they see that some of the myths debunked are theories that they have explained patiently to parents or colleagues (as I did, and have); myths which are exposed either as merely urban myths, or (no better?) as mistaken conclusions of too little evidence in the early evolution of the understanding of some areas of education.

The authors, mindful of their task, are careful to distinguish between the conclusions they can draw, and areas of mystery. There are some calls for more careful research, too. But the conclusions of Dylan Willam – the PISA studies suggest that teaching is slightly less good in independent schools on average than in state schools (p12), despite attainment being much higher in private schools – is an early indication that there are some surprises to come.

While the authors fall very occasionally victim to political correctness – the chapter on grouping by ability by Ed Baines suggests that, since it is disadvantageous for the least able it should be avoided, with no interest in any kind of Pareto optimality – the result as a book is hugely satisfying. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the debunking of some modern variations of phrenology evident in some educational theory – particularly appeals to left brain/right brain stereotyping.

The last chapter of all is on dyslexia, and although a balanced, evidence-based approach is sought, the conclusions are highly controversial. It is hard to believe that the reason for leaving this topic until the end is anything other than the fear that, were it first, the book would appear to be living up to its title in a more literal sense to that intended.

On balance, I urge educators – Headteachers, curriculum directors and others – to read the book. For those short of time, I would recommend starting with chapters 12-14, which I found most stimulating. The book is a worthy project, and if that sounds as if I think it was better in conception and in realisation, then I have not communicated as well as the book does.

It’s bold, thought-provoking, instructive and – thanks to the word limits on the chapters that some authors lightly chide the editor for – surprisingly readable. Although even the paperback is over £20, it is worth it. I advise against the Kindle edition – you’ll want to lend it to others when you’ve read it!

Saturday 16 February 2013

What IS Half Term For?

Half term is a mysterious thing: all schools have one, yet I have never heard anyone explain what it is for. In such circumstances, it is more than likely that misconceptions have grown up, and even that half term is one of those accidents of history that we would use differently if we invented it now, if indeed we would do so at all.

There seem to me – and this is a personal view, after all – that there are three things that half term is definitely for, and three things which half term is sometimes seen to be, implicitly or explicitly, which it is not.

First, half term is a part of the rhythm of learning: activity followed by reflection. Schools embed into their routines the essential nature of improving cognition by term times and holidays. We could, after all, have 48 weeks of 4 days of school each year; it might even be easier for parents to organise childcare that way. The remaining weeks – two at Christmas and two in the summer, would, if such a pattern were adopted, be like the factory shutdown periods that provide the only holidays for many (still). The activity of term followed by the reflection of the holidays, however, builds in to the cycle of learning cognition, followed by metacognition. While this pair of activities is vital, and this is widely known, the structuring and highlighting of metacognitive opportunities (the reason why Oxford and Cambridge have such long holidays) is an opportunity most schools simply allow to pass by.

Secondly, half term is a chance the settling and sorting of memories and skills. It is a chance for mental pruning to take place, for a fresh start to come more often and for a student to lay down their failures and have a sense of perspective renewed as they return to school.

Thirdly, half term provides a brief interlude in the hurly-burly of term time busyness for students to extend or enrich studies with self directed work. Every child should make sure that, during a half term, they:
  •  read a book;
  • read a newspaper;
  • listen to a whole news bulletin;
  • spend half an hour thinking about one of their school topics – not doing anything, but thinking.

Half term is NOT, on the other hand, a period of time in which pupils can complete huge quantities of homework – it is not there primarily as a rest time for teachers, but for pupils. (It is the self-directed bit of self-directed work which is valuable). It is not appropriate, in my view, to set more than two evenings’ worth of homework during a week's half term. Nor is half term the right time for pupils to be doing coursework, or even preparatory reading – that makes it term time, and it isn’t. It's a rest.

Half term is not a chance for parents to whisk their children half a dozen time zones around the world, arriving back as their children return to school, with their minds still so jet-lagged they don’t know whether it’s time for breakfast or tea. When children return to school more tired than they left it, half term hasn’t fulfilled its role as rest.

Half term is not an interlude in which parents should feel bound to organise their own educational boot camp, with tutors, worthy visits to worthy museums, and a relentless programme of structured activity. Half term is a rest!

Society has some strange ideas – for some reason it is necessary to organise the Prime Minister’s job so that the incumbent has so little opportunity for rest, that (s)he ages about 5 years for every year they spend in the role. Some people seem to think that uninterrupted activity 24/7 is the best preparation for making the most important decisions. I beg to differ. 

Rest is undervalued in many quarters – yet it is a precious part of life, and it is time to reclaim it, starting in schools. Perhaps we would have a culture slightly less obsessed with the superficial if we started to teach young people the value both of activity, and of reflection, which requires time to rest from the activity.

And, in teaching it, we might learn something about it too.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Good Riddance EBC! But It Was Never the Real Issue.

The news that the EBacc is not, after all, going to replace GCSEs in 2015 has been greeted with, it seems, joy unconfined in schools. Nevertheless, its retreat does not mean that the EBacc, or ideas just as bad, will not re-emerge, because the essential misconceptions that underlie the reform of educational qualifications remain.

The obsession with qualifications is frustrating: good qualifications do not, per se, lead to good teaching. Poor, or mediocre, teachers can teach to the test however sophisticated the test is. At the same time inspirational teaching will usually lead to high performances in tests or exams, whether they are good tests or bad tests. The confusion over this in the UK public debate is unhelpful: the quality of exams and the quality of teaching are separate issues, and the Government, and the educational sector, need separate action plans to address them.

To take the issue of qualifications first: the crisis in the UK’s examining industry is not primarily to do with specifications (formerly known as syllabus), nor even to do with the timing and nature of the exams. The crisis is that the threat of litigation has made UK exams mechanical in the way marks are awarded, and mechanistic in the way that exams are marked, remarked, appealed and improved. An over-mechanistic structure simply doesn’t address the needs of students, who – in the end – are the customers of the exam boards.

The reform of qualifications needs to focus less therefore on which subjects are taken, when exams are taken and what the structure of the exams industry is, and more on the way in which the industry seeks to deliver ‘quality assurance’ to the customer. (It is a moot point whether the exams industry or the retail banking sector currently underdelivers most to its customers!).

In schools, the heart of the problem is not the qualifications pupils take – it is teaching. Many schools give reasons for changing qualifications which amount to the unsubstantiated assertion that the change will improve teaching, which is nonsense. What improves teaching is showing teachers how to teach better, not giving them a different set of subject content to bore pupils with, or a different test to obsess over in their lessons. Most teachers have a year of intensive  training at the beginning of their career, and then fractured and spasmodic development thereafter. Fifteen years into a forty year career, teachers have little idea how the educational research has moved on – what has been shown by highly effective studies to be worth pursuing and where, just as importantly, what seemed to be clever ideas have been demonstrated to be little more than headline grabbing fads.

That’s why, in the school in which I work, we have employed a professional teaching coach to work one to one with any teacher who wants to improve their practice. Our coach observes lessons, makes suggestions, having listened to what teachers want to improve, and seeks to help them develop. The overall cost to the salaries budget is modest, the extent to which it helps significant. It has also led to teachers sharing the improvements, and in some cases innovations, with their colleagues. A revolution is slowly taking place. Teachers’ ‘inset’ is actually delivering real benefits week by week in the classroom throughout the school year.

We are doing our bit; now it’s the turn of Mr Gove, and Ofqual, to do theirs. Reform of the qualifications industry is overdue. The EBC was not the answer; process reform is needed.