Monthly Archives: April 2013

Progress in my classroom? How it is made and how I know it

I don’t know it.

There. Let that be my first confession of this blog, as part of the #blogsync for April.

Of course, I’m being flippant. I’m not quite that ignorant and inattentive. But the reality is, I don’t know half as much as I or anyone else pretends. Because as with so many matters educational: reality’s not quite like that.

It’s very easy to say that progress is “knowing more when they go out than when they came in”. Except, that’s as easy to achieve as to say. It doesn’t mean much.

Currently as part of my class’s Geography work we’ve been enjoying naming the counties of England. At random times I ask them to name, for example, some counties beginning with ‘N’ and we reel off a few. If we had a revision session then as they left they would know more of them than when they came in.

So is that progress? What about if they’ve forgotten them next week? Or next lesson? Or next door?! There is a quotation – oft attributed to Einstein – that does something like:

Education is what is left after all that has been learnt is forgotten.

And in this case, there is every chance that many of them will have forgotten the names of those counties pretty soon. And for those who don’t… what good will it be? So, either they’ve achieved nothing, or we would need a way of measuring “what is left”, and I’m just not sure it exists.

Inevitably, it seems, we must now value that which is measurable, and so the ever recurrent theme of levels and sub-levels appears. And how it looks scientific. Johnny was a 4b last term, and he’s a 4a this term, ergo he has made one alphabetic place of progress. Whatever that means.

Except the adage remains: reality is not quite like that. Because what we think we see when we measure, is but a tiny fraction of the truth. And the more frequently and precisely we attempt to measure, the more we fool ourselves that we’re getting closer to the truth. We do it all the time with progress charts.

Image

Every time we discuss progress as a point score, or a plot on a graph, we choose to overlook the erratic richter-like variation of progress in reality.

So… maybe one of my students will end up knowing those counties by heart, and will happen to win University Challenge because of it. And maybe another will just have a glimmer of understanding about where Rutland is on an occasion where it really matters (!), but as to what I know of it today?

I’m a fool if I think I can take anything but a well-educated guess!

Maybe my knowledge of progress is just what’s left after all that has been measured is forgotten?

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Can we swap rigour for discipline?

Sometimes the language we use without thinking tells us more about our thinking than we realise.

Firstly, let me set aside the word “rigour”. It has become meaningless in the current discourse, largely through excessive use by politicians to justify a desire for old-fashioned schooling. There are merits on either side of that argument which I will not re-visit.

A word that slips comfortably into the arguments of both sides, though is “subject”. We use this quiet little noun all the time to refer to the chunks into which we divide our curriculum. There are those who would argue for the abandonment of them, and those who believe them to be the very founding stones on which all else should be built. But the word itself seems rather innocuous.

The OED contains tens of varied definitions of the word, but the one which most closely matches what I imagine most teachers and others are referring to in these contexts is definition 12b:

A body of knowledge or particular department of art or science which one studies or is instructed in, esp. as part of a curriculum or for the purpose of examination.

This seems to fit entirely with the current government’s push on knowledge. It implies a pre-existing set of facts and information which can be imparted or learned. A “body of knowledge” indeed.

Now, I’m not going to argue for the other extreme. I saw much of value in Jim Rose’s previous review of the curriculum, but I don’t want to suggest vague “areas of learning”. But what of that synonym of “subjects” – the discipline?

The definition of discipline seems much broader – and much more fitting in my opinion. It seems to much better demonstrate what teachers have in mind when working with their students. The OED says:

A branch of instruction or education; a department of learning or knowledge; a science or art in its educational aspect.

I shall overlook the risk of each school department being required to come up with its own motto leading to “a department of learning” signs all over campus, but stick rather to the subtle differences I infer.

A discipline is not so much a matter of imparting knowledge or facts – although it is clearly a part of it – but of a whole way of learning; the very essence of each discipline’s specialists. Much is made of the debate between skills and knowledge as thought they were mutually exclusive. Of course – as always – the reality is different. It is, indeed, the appropriate combination of skills and knowledge that is at the very core of disciplines.

The way in which a biologist might plan, carry out and reflect on his endeavours differs from that of a historian, or a mathematician, or an artist. They are each valid in their own field, but equally each relies on a combination of knowledge and other skills specific to that discipline.

So perhaps we need to move the debate forward? Enough of the dichotomies. Let’s really get to the bottom of what it means to study the disciplines we cover in our schools – and then can we have a curriculum that matches?

What I want from Stephen Twigg

A couple of things in the last week have come to my attention via Twitter, both of which have made me think about what I am looking for from the shadow Secretary of State for Education.

The first of these is the online campaign led by Twitter user @jackieschneider entitled “Go Twigg Go” (see http://gotwigggo.blogspot.co.uk/). Hers is a perfectly understandable campaign given the strength of feeling held by many in the profession that the opposition party is not doing enough to stand up against Gove.

The second is the new article in the New Statesman – brought to my attention by another twitter user – Laura McInerney – written by Tony Blair. (see www.newstatesman.com). I wouldn’t consider myself a Blairite, and almost certainly consider myself to be more left-wing than he would, but I do recognise that he has very valid views on how the Labour party need move forward.

The reality is that my instinct is to favour @jackieschneider’s approach wholeheartedly. I do find it frustrating that so many things that the current DfE is pushing through are so wholly unappealing to me that I want Labour to act strongly as a voice of opposition. And I find it frustrating that the party that I want to be standing up and fighting for an alternative seems to be keeping quiet.

But, I also recognise that what Blair says is true: settling back into the circumstance of simply defending the status quo will not help to bring an electable government and won’t necessarily do much to prevent changes. And perhaps significantly, there’s no indication that it will play well with a wider audience.

Blair suggests that what the Labour party needs is a “root-and-branch inquiry, from first principles, into where we spend money, and why.” I’d tend to agree. And as my post yesterday showed, this is perhaps particularly significant in education. Too many changes are proposed, or have been pushed through that don’t command broad support from the profession or broader audiences. But perhaps most importantly, its been to long since we stood back and actually asked: what are we – as a nation – trying to achieve in our schools? Only when we have the answer to that question can we decide where and how to spend our money, time and energy in achieving those goals.

So what do I want from Mr Twigg? I do want him to stand up to Gove, but not only to defend the status quo or to demand a halt to rushed-through proposals. I want to see the Labour party leading the way on a proper national debate. A serious process of analysis, debate, discussion and argument into what the stakeholders in education want from schools – the employers, businesses, universities, parents, students, teachers and others all need to be involved. Proposals like those formed by the excellent Headteachers Roundtable ought to be brought to a wider forum.

I’ve never been a fan of fixed-term parliaments, but in this case at least the certainty of 2 more years allows time for a serious debate to take place and still leave time for proper, informed policy-making. And most importantly, it allows the opposition to garner public support and understanding, and a real mandate for future change.

Whose curriculum is it anyway?

I will not be the first person to say that we need a real debate on exactly what it is we want from education and schools today. It’s an aspect of reform that seems constantly overlooked by politicians and others on all sides, but surely it should underpin everything else we do.

My concerns about the proposed National Curriculum have been made clear, but even I recognise that I cannot be the sole arbiter of what happens in our schools (and indeed I am glad of that restriction most of the time). It is also clear, though, that in bringing forward its proposals, the current government did not have “enemies of promise” like me in mind.

What is less clear is who they did think wanted this curriculum? A cursory glance at the common groups of ‘stakeholders’ (a word much loved by the previous administration) doesn’t indicate any obvious explanations. So… whose curriculum is it anyway?

Universities?

For a long time, it seemed that the Govian focus on academia was linked to his admiration of universities. He suggested that the previous government’s target of 50% of people going to university was too small; that more should go. [Ref] So perhaps it was the universities who were crying out for a change in the curriculum?

But since its publication, it seems that academics have been lining up to condemn it – from the 100 “bad” academics to members of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. Neither the Russell Group nor the 1994 group seem to have shown much interest in the statutory school curriculum at all, their focus being far more on A-levels.

So if not universities, then who is it for?

Employers?

The Conservative party have traditionally befriended those in “big business” and it might seem reasonable to think that perhaps it was industry and enterprise that was demanding the return to an archaic curriculum. Yet one of the biggest groups of employers, the CBI, was quite clear in its report – First Steps – last year that its intentions were different. The recommendations it made included:

Removal of the currently over-specified and repetitive national curriculum from primary schools
Development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver.

The report also noted that “there is a set of behaviours and attitudes, a kind of social literacy that we must foster. An exclusive focus on subjects for study would fail to equip young people with these”. [Ref] And yet, the government’s focus has been entirely on its perception of “rigour” rather than the breadth and skills demanded by employers.

So if not employers, then who?

Parents?

Arguably one of the largest constituencies for any politician is that of families. So perhaps it is parents who have demanded a return to the academic structures of their – or rather their parents – days?

Yet, the evidence is lacking again. In its call for evidence over half of parents said they found reporting National Curriculum levels useful, yet they are to be dropped. Over a quarter said that the curriculum is too prescriptive, yet we see a move to year-by-year outlines in great detail at the primary phase. Around a quarter said that “the National Curriculum must develop the whole child and teach them the skills necessary to learn“, yet we have a knowledge-based list of criteria. Nearly a fifth indicated that they felt that “learning should be more creative and enjoyable”, yet we have a “rigorous”, old fashioned, rote-learning system proposed. A third said there should be more vocational options in the curriculum; none are proposed. [Ref]

One would have thought that these three groups were the major stakeholders in the development of a curriculum for schools – and I am quite happy to admit that teachers are not as important as any of these three: we are merely the means. Perhaps students ought to be included, but I would venture that there are limitations to their ability to identify their own needs from the earliest ages. (And it my own classes are anything to go by then a student-led curriculum would largely consist of cooking, drama and “making learning fun”)

But if none of these groups is being served by the new draft, then who is?

I wonder?

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