Thursday, January 18, 2018

Performance is not Progress

Q. I've got an observation coming up and I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. Well that depends on what you mean by 'progress'.

Q. Cut the sophistry and get to the point.

A. You're a very assertive figment of my imagination, aren't you? But since you asked, I think progress means that a student knows more about the subject than they did when we started. It's basically synonymous with learning.

Q. So, what's a good way of checking for progress?

A. If you want to know what someone knows, you ask them questions about it. If you want to see what someone can do, you ask them to do it. But progress is something different. Progress is change over time, not simply a snapshot. So if you want to see if someone has made progress you need a starting point and a destination. You can then compare knowledge at the start of a term, say, and again at the end. As long as your assessment methods are appropriate then you've got yourself evidence of progress.

Q. This all seems pretty straightforward. But I need to show progress in a lesson. So, if I teach them something new in the lesson and then do something like a quiz as a plenary, I'll be able to see if they've learned it?

A. The good old three-part lesson (starter, main and plenary) was always intended to allow the teacher and his students to make their learning 'visible', to evidence progress. You ascertain existing knowledge, you teach the next bit, then you review to see if the required new knowledge has been gained. But here's the rub. When you do this what you're seeing is performance, and performance is not evidence of learning, and so can't be evidence of progress.

At least it's not necessarily evidence of progress. It might be, it might not. But it is certainly, in the words of Soderstrom and Bjork (2015)[1], "an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place." (p176)

Q. So why is performance not a good indicator of learning? 

A. Because of the way that forgetting works. Simply, long term retention is strongest where forgetting is regularly interrupted by retrieval.

Here's a simple explanation using basketball. Two groups have three 'lessons' in which they are required to learn the free throw, the lay up and how to dribble. (Let's assume the groups are similar with regard to other variables, shall we?) Compare these two possible approaches:

Group A: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. One hour of practice of the free-throw
  2. One hour of practice of the lay-up
  3. One hour of practice of dribbling
Group B: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  2. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  3. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
So here's the thing, let's say someone came in at the end of each practice and asked the players to show their 'progress' in what they'd learned that day. Which group would perform best? Group A. Every day. But if you allowed a period of time to elapse after the third practice (let's say a week) and then tested the players on all three skills, which group would do best? Group B.

This is because despite being given the same learning time, they have the opportunity to practice retrieval of learning. They have the chance to interrupt their forgetting with retrieval. This is because "massed practice supported quicker acquisition..., but distributed practice led to better long-term retention" (p180). (Importantly, the evidence supports the value of distributed practice in both motor and verbal learning.)

If your plenaries only require students to perform things they have just experienced in that lesson, then any performance that is offered during a plenary is precisely that; performance. It tells you very little about learning.

Q. Okay, so maybe my plenaries aren't really evidence of progress, but they're not exactly a problem, are they? No harm done?

A. Counter-intuitively, short term performance improvements, like the ones the students show in the standard tell-me-what-you've-learned-today plenary may mask a lack of learning in the long term. A student can consistently give great plenary answers across a term and at the end of term have learned far less than their performance in lessons had led you to believe. And conversely, poor performance in plenary quizzes may mask the real learning that has taken place. This can be accounted for with a concept called 'latent learning'[1].

Q. So, back to my first question. I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. You can't. Not with any degree of certainty. And what's worse, this requirement may ultimately be counterproductive for student learning because it will tempt you to plan in activities for your observation that evidence performance and can't reliably show progress at all!


[1] Soderstrom & Bjork (2015) Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Integrate - Disintegrate - Reintegrate

There is always much talk of what great teaching should look like, and I have my own thoughts, of course. I've been struck recently by the work of Michael Polanyi, whose work on 'meaning' and 'knowing' has affected me profoundly. It can hardly be helped but to apply some of his ideas to see where they might assist me in my teaching practice.

Polanyi's most helpful concept is the idea that all knowing is, in his terms, 'subsidiary-focal integration'. I've written about this before in the context of sport. This idea is a remarkably simple one and yet its utility is vast and ranging. In this post I'd like to suggest that an awareness of subsidiary-focal integration (SFI), as the structure of all knowing, helps a great deal with lesson and scheme of work construction.

To do this, I will be applying SFI at the level of the individual lesson in order to highlight its applicability. By all means, extend the application of SFI across a series of lessons, or across the whole curriculum. I'll leave that work in your capable hands and for your individual subject and context.

What is SFI?

Polanyi argued that as we make meaning out of our experience we rely upon what we know. This seems a fairly indisputable starting point. He further argued that all of our knowing, whether it is knowledge of a physical skill, a great play, or the history of England, is structured in the same way. That is, there are focal elements and subsidiary elements to our knowing that we must integrate if we are to find the meaning of these things and then move on into further knowing.

The focal is that which we focus upon. It might be the specific wording of a single line of Shakespeare, the chemical composition of andesitic lava, or the finger roll in a basketball lay-up. The focal is what you're looking at when you 'zoom in'. All of these things need to be known in order to make meaning out of the whole; to understand and be moved by the plight of Hamlet, to be able to develop warning systems for local villages in the shadow of a volcano, or to score a basket in the dying seconds of a championship game. These focal elements are not entire in themselves but part of a larger knowing. 

The subsidiary is that which we rely upon in order to focus upon the focal. This refers to the broadness of all that we have previously experienced, that reside in our bodies and minds: our prior learning, our embodied memories, our feelings and emotions, our existing mental schema, even our ability to read and write. These things are not unconscious in a strict sense, since we are able to call them to mind, but they are not focussed upon. Instead they are relied upon subsidiarily in order to focus on the focal object; the thing to be learned or studied. 

In integrating the subsidiary (the already known, but tacitly held) with the focal (the object to be incorporated into knowledge, toward which the conscious mind is oriented) we move towards a deeper understanding. Through this integration we come to subsidiarity rely upon what once was focal. Learning is simply the lifelong process of drawing the focal into the subsidiary and then relying on it to focus on something new. (Remember when you had to learn what the pedals in a car were for?) This fuller understanding could be meaning, or purpose, or beauty. In an educational context this might look like a moving towards mastery.

Planning a lesson with SFI in mind

My lessons follow a relatively straightforward structure, which relies upon my understanding of SFI.

At the outset of an Anatomy and Physiology lesson, for example, we always begin with reference to the whole topic, locating the day's learning in the overall. For the most part I do this by reference to a knowledge organiser (you can take a look at these here). We identify where the lesson content fits as a part of the already-integrated whole domain.  It is a bit like taking a good look at a map before heading out on a hike. You wouldn't expect yourself to remember everything on the page, but it helps orient you for the journey.

In doing this, we rely upon those who have gone before us, whose expertise has constructed the already coherent canon. The trailblazers, the map makers. We stand humbly on those giants' shoulders to survey the domain from our vantage point. In the case of A&P the giants are Wilmore & Costill, the writers of the finest A&P textbook I've ever used, and - of course - the devisers of the BTEC Level 3 specification itself. Bless their souls.

Once we've identified where the lesson content fits in relation to our existing secure knowledge, as well as in relation to the yet-to-be-conquered knowledge we see ahead of us, we can 'zoom in' to the particulars. This is what I'm calling 'disintegration'. We're setting out on a jounrey, with a map in our heads. In doing things this way we have already provided a context and a meaning for the lesson itself. In our  A&P example this might be labelling and then self-testing the major bones of the skeletal system. Students would aim to learn at least 80% of the names (there are 16 in the spec) before the end of the lesson.

The beauty of this approach - and the whole point of this blog post - is that the particulars are never detached from their overarching purpose and meaning. We're never just doing this because 'this is just what we're doing today'. The 'big picture' (the domain) is held subsidiarily, or tacitly, by the student as he works through the tasks at hand. He is continually offering up these new focal particulars to his existing understanding, and trying to form a coherent whole. It's what we all do, all of the time. Our students, as sentient and skilled organisms (mostly) are always in the process of making meaning out of the particulars in front of them. That meaning will always be linked to previously constructed meanings. It will relate back to the map we looked at before we set out. If we can model this for them at the outset, contextualising our little journey, we have a better chance of motivating them towards the acquisition of new knowledge.

The new knowledge must not only be secured through appropriate questioning, testing and retrieval practice, but, if it is to be meaningful, must be clearly and explicitly re-integrated back up into the big picture with which we started. We cannot be satisfied with conveying the particulars; we have to 'zoom out' again.

But rather than leaving this work to the students, the teacher can provide explicit description of precisely how the newly learned is to be connected with the already learned. We can show which gaps in the students' existing knowledge it has filled. We can show what use this new knowledge is going to be in the future. Our students can use it to pose increasingly informed questions about the not-yet-known. In A&P my students (hopefully) will be able to provide an explanation of how to perform a lay-up, with reference to the muscular, skeletal and energy systems as well as the ways they interact. This despite the fact that all of the individual elements were initially learned as disintegrated particulars.

If new knowledge has been sufficiently well reintegrated, it nestles neatly and coherently within the domain. But the reintegrated whole is greater sum of the disintegrated parts. Now when we look again at the map it has a fuller meaning. The little symbols mean more. We can plan a better route, or a new route, or one that takes us via a particular landmark. We can think about what we might like to explore next.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A teacher is an authoritative guide

I've done a spot of travelling in my time, but the most enjoyable trips I've made, the ones which have enriched me the most, have been those trips where I've had a knowledgeable guide. I've had a tour of the Vatican. I've been shown round Florence. I was even guided around Israel for a couple of weeks by a pastor and theologian from Nazareth. What a lot I learned!

He took us to the crusader Church of Saint Anne at Bethesda where we sang a hymn, because, he told us, the acoustics are superb. (They are. We drew a decent crowd. Of nuns.) We learnt the comic-tragic tale of the Immovable Ladder. We heard the account of the siege at Masada and saw the astonishing earthen ramp built by the Roman army there. We walked the Via Dolorosa, gazed up at Golgotha, visited the garden tomb, drank Arabic coffee by the roadside in Nazareth, ate fish at the Sea of Galilee, peered over the Mount Precipice.

Yep, still there.
As we went I had questions. A lot of questions. (I'm that sort.) He suffered them all - with good grace - until I could think of nothing more to ask. I had questions about theology, geography, climate, conflict. And his answers were meaningful and joined up, they were authoritative. He knew what he was talking about.

Who better to be led by than a native, or someone with extensive grasp of the culture and mores of that particular locale? His authoritative knowledge and my trust in that authoritative knowledge, came together and consequently I learned a great deal.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Do you see? The subject you teach is a kingdom, a wide country full of wonder. And you are a native of that land, one who has trodden those paths, who knows the beauty of those shores, whose love for the place is irrepressible and deeply ingrained: it is part of who you are. You are one who has been lost and confused many times during your own wanderings in that landscape, but you have found your way again, always emerging with new insights. You know where the potholes, the pitfalls and the dead-ends are. You know where to linger for the best views. You may not have exhausted the richness of this kingdom, but your vast knowledge means you are equipped to be an authoritative guide.

You have the knowledge to lead scores of newcomers - your students, of course - through the highways and byways of each little settlement, pointing out how to move from one place to another, where these roads lead, and what are the landmarks along the way. 'Notice this thing here; look how those things relate.' You might stop a while at this place, or that, but always with purpose and always knowing how far and how long until the next stop. And your charges might ask you 'where does that path lead?', or 'who first found this place?', or 'what mean these stones?', but you will have an answer that is true and trustworthy.

But you can only do this if you know the lay of the land, if you're intimately familiar with that kingdom, with that domain.

I will teach Anatomy and Physiology this year, and I intend to lead the students first of all into the valley of bones that is the Skeletal System. Then we'll march around the mighty monuments of the Muscular System, putting flesh onto the bones of our understanding. We will travel along the arterial routes of the Cardiovascular System to the Respiratory System where we'll study some inspirational architecture. Finally, fatigued, we'll climb to survey the whole integrated scene from the breathtaking heights of Energy Systems hill. I expect from prior experience we'll have to tarry here a while.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Subject knowledge is not just important, it is crucial. You cannot teach effectively without it. But you also need to know how the domain looks (and feels) as a whole if you're going to map a way through it for your students. Trying to do otherwise is simply the blind leading the blind. And you know what happens to them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Planning a Scheme of Work from scratch

In September we begin teaching the new (from 2016) specification for Level 3 BTEC Sport. Here’s my attempt to break the process down into stages. I think of myself as a fair-to-middling sort of teacher: there are many things I’m yet to grasp or put into practice. As a result, I'm posting this in the hope that I might have some further advice thrown my way, as well as possibly introduce others to some of the ideas that have underpinned this planning.

Anyway, here’s the short version of what I did...
  1. Identified the curriculum content
  2. Built up a mental picture of the domain
  3. Divided the domain into sub-domains
  4. Divided sub-domains into lesson sized chunks
  5. Put lesson chunks into order
  6. Planned in low stakes testing
  7. Planned where topics would be recapped
  8. Got a colleague to check my progress

And below is where I explain each stage in more depth...

First I identified the content. What would I like them to know? In my case this is simply the Level 3 BTEC Sport Anatomy and Physiology specification, which outlines, heading by heading, the necessary content for the Unit. You can see it here.

Next I spent some time with the specification and built up a mental picture of the domain, walked through it, and identified areas of commonality, structural similarity (eg the specification for all of the body systems includes short-term responses and then long term adaptations to exercise) as well as the relative levels of difficulty of the concepts. I tried to identify whether any of the concepts rely on understanding other related concepts. If so, which ones, and in what order would the students need to learn them? For example, can you learn about the aerobic energy system (at level 3) without having learned about the respiratory system (at level 3)? (Incidentally, I think the answer is yes, provided you have a Level 2 grasp of the respiratory system, which the majority of my students will have. But I digress.)

I divided the content into sub-domains. Again, this is really done for me by the specification. I know there are 5 sub-domains in the specification, each one a specific body system (muscular, skeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and energy systems) and each of these has broadly equivalent volume of content. Over the course of two weeks therefore I can teach one lesson on each, plus a formative assessment lesson to ascertain progress in these 5 sub-domains. These tests will be designed to be visually and structurally comparable to the final exam (based on Edexcel’s specimen papers), so that students can begin to feel comfortable with as many aspects of the final exam as possible. Some of these formative assessment lessons (but not all) will also give the students the opportunity to learn to write medium-length answers in silence, which of course they will have to do in the exam. (For what it’s worth, I might even try to have this lesson in the room where the final exam will be taken, but that’s probably a long shot in terms of timetabling.) My feeling is that feedback to students in these lessons will be particularly critical for their sustained progress in learning.

I divided the sub-domains into lesson-sized chunks. Prior experience teaching the previous iteration of the L3 BTEC specification was very helpful when deciding on the size of the knowledge chunks. Of course, it also depends on lesson length as well as on the model of teaching and learning you are working from. As someone who leans away from constructivist methodologies, I will be making use of the Learning Loop (thanks to David Didau, see here), which I have subsequently amended to bring into line with my own thoughts on what is a suitable pedagogy for my context and age range (that is FE in a generally low-achieving area of the midlands).

Next I planned out the order in which these ‘chunks’ will be taught. For this I relied on the concept of ‘interleaving’, as opposed to a more traditional ‘blocking’ approach (in which whole topics or sub domains are taught in their entirety before moving on to the next topic). According to my understanding of cognitive science the requirement to move in and out of different sub-domains, retrieving previously studied information, is a key aid in retention. I know I have three 90 minute lesson per week over 17 weeks to teach this topic, and that the exam will be on the 22nd January (three teaching weeks after we return from the Christmas holiday). Here is a photo of what this looked like in reality.

I then planned in opportunities for hyper-regular low-stakes testing. I use the term hyper-regular to mean more often that you’d intuitively think was ideal. It wouldn’t hurt to do a couple of tests in every lesson (depending on the content covered and length of individual lessons, of course). I will be using a range of testing methods from pen and paper up to the much-maligned Kahoot (I like it: sue me). Principles for effective use of a multiple choice quiz can be found here and here.

When it comes to recapping previously taught content I worked off the assumption that when the knowledge is relatively new it needs to be revisited early, but more established knowledge can be revisited less frequently. So a topic such as ‘major bones’ was taught in lesson one then revisited in lessons 2, 4 and 7 of those lessons designed within the same sub-domain (in this case the skeletal system). This was done with every topic, and means that the most revisited topics are those encountered earliest in the scheme, and the least revisited are, naturally, those learned closest to the exam itself.

I used Google Sheets to type all this up into a format that made sense to me. At the end of the first night it looked like this. The interleaving was made clear with the use of colour coding.

At this stage, and before going through the arduous task of transferring this onto the ‘official paperwork’ (I know, I know!) I got someone to look over my initial sketch-map of the scheme. Ideally this will be a colleague who knows the domain, or someone with a strong grasp of curriculum design principles. Thankfully Dan Williams, of the University of Derby (@furtheredagogy), meets both of these criteria and was happy to take a look at my progress.

And this is where I've got to...the next step is to put the flesh on the bones, or the muscular on the skeletal, if you will. Update to follow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ten Years Since I Quit Teaching

The Road Not Taken?

It dawned on me this week that I am approaching the ten year anniversary of quitting teaching after the first half-term of my NQT year. This post is a reflection on what went wrong then, why I'm still in teaching, and, perhaps most importantly, what I've learned from a decade of QTS.

Before September 2006

My PGCE year went well. Perhaps too well. I had the opportunity to work with some genuinely talented trainees and learn from top quality lecturers at Leicester Uni. (Secondary Geography, since you asked). We embroiled ourselves in the pedagogical topics du jour. I remember, in one seminar, making a speech about the moral dangers of the 'fake it till you make it' approach to teaching, and getting a resounding round of applause from my peers. What a schmuck.

But I had a pretty successful first placement at a school in the town where I was living. I put the hours in, that's for sure. And it seemed to be paying off, my learning curve was giddying. I subsequently found out that - on the strength of placement one - I'd been handpicked to go to one of the toughest schools in the area for my second placement. Cheers. I hadn't even got through my NQT year before Uni staff were telling me I needed to become an ET as soon as possible. I got the first job I applied for.

To paraphrase De La Soul, stakes was high.

September to October 2006

But the cost was beginning to be felt. I became overtaken by the need to reinvent the wheel for every single lesson. It had to be new, fresh, exciting. I went from teaching a handful of lessons per week on my PGCE to a 90% timetable, and in that context my lesson planning obsession was unsustainable.

I don't have a lucid or clear memory of those days. I can't say if the SLT were helpful; I don't remember. I'm not sure how much of my workload was picked up by other staff, though I'm sure it must have been. (If that was you, you know who you are: thank you!). There were lessons where the kids would crawl on the floor under the desks. They would mock my attempts at discipline. They weren't all bad; some of them still come to mind with fondness, but I really did have some difficult students to deal with. I had no concept even of how to begin to teach them! Bottom set year 8 is burned into my subconscious. I forgot I was on lunch duty pretty much every time. I would sometimes wake in the morning with strained vocal chords from shouting at the kids in my sleep.

At the end of each day I would gather up the carnage, realign the desks, put on my iPod on and fly out of there as fast as my no-longer-shiny shoes would carry me. I would not look back. But very soon I'd reached my limit, and then I broke.

Half Term, October 2006

The week before half term - barely 7 weeks into my illustrious career - I handed in my notice, in tears in the head's office. All aspiration had drained away. Later that week I overhead a conversation between a couple of middle managers about who had the better rate of employing staff who made it through. One of them had backed me, the other had not. Cheers.

Turns out that the only other NQT at the school had also handed in her notice; we both left at Christmas. That last departure, strutting like a punk out of the gates for the final time, remains one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I scored four goals that Saturday. Just sayin'.

January 2007 to June 2009

I got out, and tried to stay out. I had pretty low overheads at the time and so my teacher wages lasted me another four months. But the bills needed paying, and despite sending out stacks of applications, no one would have me. A school down the road was looking for a cover supervisor. I applied and got called to interview. I went along totally lacking in confidence, and unsurprisingly got turned down. Then a week later I had a call from the school to say that the vacancy had come up again. (I later learned that a good friend of mine had been offered the job initially, but found something better inside a week!)

I learned the stuff that I really wished I'd been taught as a trainee: how to conjure a lesson out of thin air, how to manage behaviour, how to rely on my subject knowledge, how to give verbal explanations of concepts without props. Contingency plans.

It was another tough school. A shoddy 'Grade 3' at the time. A year into the job and the History teacher went off on maternity. The maternity cover teacher lasted a couple of days, before thinking better of it. The next replacement lasted about 5 weeks. Then they asked me. Fourth choice. Cheers.

I turned it down and decided to do something else. I worked with a mate who sells (a lot of) books on the internet. I catalogued all the pre-ISBN books, and created listings for each one. Then I got married and moved to the West Midlands, with the intention of working with a friend in his landscaping business. I figured I'd watch and learn and set up my own business in due time. Us Brummie lads love a spot of grafting, after all.

December 2009

The credit crunch. Remember that? No one needs their garden landscaping when they've got no money. People's optimism waned and the recession grew deeper. And it was winter. I got laid off. We found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we had no income, and we're living in Dudley. It's like a Springsteen song, but without the murderous undertones.

I started looking for jobs and the first thing that jumped out was the local FE college and a vacancy to teach BTEC Level 2 Travel and Tourism. Now it so happens that during my very first placement on my Geography PGCE I was asked to teach this to a handful of kids, so I applied. The interview didn't go great, if I'm honest, but the people seemed nice, and so I was hopeful.

I didn't get the job. I had a call on the Thursday to tell me I'd been unsuccessful. Then, the following Thursday, I got another call offering me the job that they'd just turned me down for. Their first choice had found something better! That's now happened to me twice.

January 2010 to October 2016

The morning I was due to begin at the college it was bitterly cold. I woke early, showered and overdressed. (Turns out the dress code at an FE college is, let's just say, 'loose' by comparison to that at a school). Just before leaving to do the thing I never wanted to do again, I hugged my wife and my eyes welled with tears. The vortex that is teaching had sucked me back in. Given all my previous experiences I was sure that it was just a matter of time before it would swallow me whole.

I struggled through the first term. I fought with a whole host of demons. But I made it. And then something happened. There was an internal vacancy in the Sport department, and they knew that I had a joint honours degree in Sport Science. I applied, and I got the job.

Since that day I've taught at Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. I've taught BTECs, A Levels, NVQs and Foundation Degrees. I've gained my NCFE Level 2 in Fitness Instructing, and started a Masters as well as my TAQA. I'm a 'champion' for English & Maths in our department and for TEL on my campus.

It's been 10 years since I quit teaching. And 6 since I returned. I've come a long way and I've learned a lot. I'm glad to be in the classroom and no longer feeling like I'm about to lose my mind. So, given all that experience, here are just three things that have emerged over the years as central themes for me in my teaching. I could say much more but I've droned on long enough. Maybe one of these will resonate.

Three Lessons Learned

1. Behaviour is the bottom line. I've been in some challenging schools and seen 'behaviour management' done well and seen it go horrendously wrong. You have to figure out a way of inculcating an atmosphere in which learning is the preeminent thing, and where everyone knows that they have a role to play to that end. I use humour and openness wherever possible, but gone are the days when I'd shy away from invoking the disciplinary procedure. Do what you have to, but don't scrimp on behaviour.

2. Be real. This probably merges with the one above, but, put simply, humans relate to humans. So be human. If you find something funny then laugh. Apologise when you're wrong and back down if you have to. If you don't know the answer, say so. The kids, the sentient ones at least, can spot a fake at 100 paces. This relational element of teaching, of course, is the great obstacle faced by the devotees of online learning.

3. Know what you're talking about. Or perhaps more accurately, have a coherent knowledge of the domain and how it interacts as a body of knowledge. This means that you can anticipate left-field questions, or identify gaps in student understanding and the likely knock-on effects of those gaps further along in the learning. You can then move away from barrelling your way through the Spec and start to make explicit linkages across the domain that will assist the students in terms of their own schema building. Plus, it's fun to know stuff!

October 2016 onwards

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Still in favour of Grammars

It's been all over the news. The Tories want to lift the ban on Grammar Schools. There is near unanimity amongst teachers and education types that this is a backward step by a deluded and out-of-touch political class hankering for the glory days of imagined British greatness. And although I may agree on this assessment of the Tory party, I've yet to be convinced that grammars are a bad idea.

I've heard scarcely a voice in the wilderness of the public sphere in favour of the status quo. Except, that is, for two well-known conservative figures, who have both written in support of Grammars. Their names would give the game away, of course. (But what the heck: see here and here)

In this post I want to confront two arguments in favour of retaining the ban on new grammar schools that are the most repeated.

Argument 1. Grammar schools don't work.

Well I'm pretty sure they do. Grammar schools consistently out-perform comprehensive schools in terms of academic results; it's not hard to find the data. But I'm leading you on, because I know what is meant by the 'Grammar schools don't work' trope. What people mean when they say this is that grammar schools don't make poor, working class kids financially better off.

My response to this is, so what? That's not an argument against grammar schools for anyone but the staunchest of utilitarians and the money-obsessed.

And besides, grammar school does make poor kids richer. It enriches their minds through exposure to the great works of art and literature, and to an abundant cultural heritage of which they might have otherwise had little experience. Grammar schools typically provide an enormous amount of extra-curricular activity, especially in drama and sport. Do we judge the quality of a person's education by the paycheck it ultimately produces? Or do we judge it by the beauty and wisdom and knowledge deposited in the minds of the kids?

What confuses me about this most is that those people who I have heard vehemently decrying the idea that the central purpose of schools is to create economically prosperous citizens will happily use (or re-tweet!) the argument when it comes to assessing the worth of grammar schools.

Grammar schools do work. Just not in the excruciatingly narrow sense that seems to have been carelessly adopted as the primary criterion.

Argument 2. Everyone is entitled to the very best education

Perhaps it's the not the schools themselves but the structure of the whole system with which you find fault. It's not that some reach their academic potential, but that others fail to.

After all, there's nothing much to disagree with when it comes to the statement 'everyone is entitled to the very best education'. Except that it's an essentially meaningless platitude. The first question to ask is not whether or not grammar schools are the way to provide the best education for everyone, but whether you think all schools can provide the very best education. It would be great if we could make that the case, but I'm sceptical. And so I'll stick my neck out and say no, they can't all be that good. Under any system.

The very best education in my view is found in a school espousing traditional pedagogy with a culture of high expectations for behaviour, a focus on imparting the collective wisdom of the ancients, a fast pace of teaching and great depth of content, as well as a strong moral dimension. You know, like a grammar school. You might get the odd Comprehensive meeting these criteria, like the much-vaunted Michaela for example, but what can't be done is to have this grammar-style education for all children in all schools.

It can't be done because too many teachers think it's a flawed or old-fashioned way to run a school. It can't be done because there isn't the collective will to make it happen. It can't be done because people aren't as interested in applying the latest educational research findings as we might like to think. It cant be done because there can never be enough teachers of a good enough standard to carry the necessary burden. It can't be done because there is seldom the 'critical mass' of academically driven kids required in a given comprehensive cohort to make it work. It can't be done because kids are not bottomless receptacles of knowledge waiting to be filled up. Some of them are more or less capable of - as well as more or less inclined to - learning than others. Everyone knows this.

The Trade-off

I'm in favour of grammars because the real-life alternative is worse (especially for those white, working class kids whose levels of attainment the educational establishment bemoans). As a conservative (that's a small 'c', I must insist you realise), I'm put off by Utopian visions which always fail to materialise.  The same is true here. The grammar school / comprehensive system is manifestly imperfect, but, imperfection is something we're going to have to learn to live with. In the words of the ever-quotable Thomas Sowell, 'there are no solutions, only trade-offs'.

Grammar schools are a perfectly reasonable trade off between the Utopian vision of the admirably-optimistic left-leaners and the dog-eat-capitalist-dog world of Independent schools and selection by parental income. Mrs May's government should lift the ban.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Exercise Books

They came this weekend. A job-lot of exercise books.

This year I will (as per usual) be teaching the linked units Anatomy and Physiology and Physiology of Fitness to the first year Level 3 BTEC students. These units are very content-heavy, which means I tend to teach in a fairly direct way. There'll be plenty of writing, drawing and labelling of diagrams. There will be lots of factual information to absorb in order to make use of it later (for example, during the Sports Injuries or Fitness Training units).

I've been teaching in FE for some time and one trend that seems to be evident is the inability of students to structure their own note taking or simply keep hold of work that has been done in previous lessons. This has a fundamental impact on their retention of knowledge. I wonder if anyone else has noticed that this is the case with 16 year olds, or if it's peculiar to my particular locale.

In an attempt to counteract these failings I intend to furnish each student with an exercise book, which will be kept in the classroom. While I'm aware this is what happens at the vast majority of schools, it is pretty atypical in FE colleges, as far as I can tell. Will the perennial FE student (and staff) excuse of 'it's not school' mean that exercise books, being so associated, are doomed to failure? This year, I'll find out.

I am hoping that using exercise books will enable a few specific functions:

1. Inform a conversation between me and the student about their work.
2. Keep the 'big picture' and flow of the unit in clear focus for the student.
3. Prevent students from stuffing scraps of paper into their bags and ultimately losing them.
4. A place to record student progress in increased numbers of tests and quizzes (see my previous post)
5. Enable better retention and recall of the unit even after all the assignments are marked and completed.

With all this in mind, I'm after some pointers from teachers (particularly from FE but also from schools) who already use exercise books. If you have any wisdom to share on how to make the most of exercise books in Further Education, I'd love to hear it.

Thanks so much!

(And yes, I bought them with my own money. Don't ask.)