Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Intellectual Abyss in education: Suzanne Moore, and why everyone's an expert

Is this what you want? IS IT?
There is an intellectual abyss in the educational debate so deep you could lose a school bus down it. I’m reminded of this every time someone writes about evidence-based research in education, and clearly doesn’t know what that means. Worse, they invoke it like a totem, when all they seek to do is justify their own superstition.

This feature by Suzanne Moore, for instance. I’m sure she is wise and admirable, but it’s a joyless donkey ride across the greatest hits of armchair fantasy edu- football. It’s what I imagine Michael Rosen’s rosary sounds like. Perhaps cautious after the recent harrowing experience of being defended by Julie Burchill, she’s having a go at a safer, softer Aunt Sally, accusing the beastly Gove of ideological dilettantism.
There is a painful contradiction beneath this claim: Gove, the amateur, the journalist who knows nothing about education, put in his place by Moore, the amateur, the journalist, who apparently knows so much more than he. Someone, somewhere, is putting pennies in the eyes of irony. This isn’t simply rhetorical Battleships; this is exactly the abyss to which I referred. Everyone, because they participated in education, believes they are qualified to descend from Sinai with tablets.  And if you sent kids to school, well, it can only be a matter of time before a grateful nation will beg you for guidance.
So what about research? The rational outside observer might think that this was a safe harbour against whim and fancy. But, tragically, it isn’t. The relationship between educational research and real schools, real children, is an unhappy, fractious one.
Part of the reason is the nature of social science itself. I could write a book (and have) about the way scientists attempted to turn the miraculously efficient  methods of the natural sciences to the inner world of the human mind, and found that discerning the boiling point of sodium was a very different goal than working out ‘What is learning? ‘, or ‘How deep your love?’. Difficulties with establishing methodologies that distinguish causes from effects, effects from each other, causal density, reliability, cognitive bias, the Hawthorne effect….if it’s a problem with clean methodology in the natural sciences, it’s a problem cubed in the social sphere.
The second reason is that social science research is often twisted and stretched into chimera by rolling media, and eager lobbyists looking for evidence to substantiate their bias. Of course, this is an issue in medicine for example, but it’s worse- much worse- in education, where the very things you’re trying to assess are nebulous abstracts like ‘learning’ and ‘engagement’ that defy clarification and revel in obfuscation. In Teacher Proof, out next June, I wrote about this, frustrated by the way that evidence in educational research points both ways, like Dorothy’s scarecrow.
Almost every criticism Moore makes about Gove’s strategy makes the same mistakes of which she accuses the Laird of Surrey Heath. Ad Hominem attacks on his motivations (which, unless she’s also Professor X or Derren Brown) should be beneath a serious commentator. References to utterly discredited, cotton-wool fluff like Emotional Intelligence or ‘the crossing over of art and science’ (what?) as valid educational goals, simply display a lack of familiarity with contemporary research that torpedoes such concepts as having any reliable empirical validity.

‘Design, for instance, is an exercise in problem-solving that involves lateral thinking….. music engages the same parts of the brain as maths and poetry.’

Does it? And so what if it does? What evidence is there that this relates to any argument at all? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. I can afford to be upset by these kinds of claims, because their near-universal adoption in state education has been utterly to the detriment of children (research base: ten years teaching). 

‘The academies chuck out their disruptive kids by the second term. Disruption can mean anything from very disturbed behaviour to crimes against uniform to socialising in groups of more than three.’

What evidence is there that this is an issue on anything other than individual cases? Universalising from case studies is a process more commonly associated with Shamanism than science, and research. But research is commonly only quoted when it agrees with us, and frequently fails to be invoked when we make claims about issues we know nothing about. I know this is true, because there’s been a lot of research done into cognitive bias. Claims that the academies are middle-class Madrassas are an odd claim when so many schools are now academies. Claims that schools won’t value creative endeavours are pure scaremongering, based on faith, not fact. Which schools are planning to ditch art from the curriculum? Parents want their children to do art and music, and so do schools. Show me the masses of schools abandoning the recorder and I might believe it; until then, this Thomas is doubting.
I have nothing against a good vent; I’m a blogger, I have a black belt in such things. But this confusion about what does and doesn’t constitute good evidence in education is part of the reason education is such a broken arrow in the UK. Everyone thinks they’re right, but often few people seem to know what proving it might look like. Worse, they self-parody by accusing others of subjectivity or worse, the non-criticism of ‘being ideological’. An ideology is simply a bundle of beliefs unified by a coherent system of relationships. Everyone has one, or attempts to. Teachers have been shackled by the well-meant but essentially indemonstrable claims of progressive educationalist for decades, which have become the new dogma. Group work, personalised learning, learning styles etc- these are all the catechisms of the new Church of Learning.
But they are empty prophecies. They are an infinite series of turtles, resting on each other , values justified by values, opinions relying on opinions.
What do we want in educational research? Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Would you like a tissue for that? Why teachers make terrible therapists

 From the second I stepped into classes, I started to drown in the issues that running a room with multiple students entails. Children who come into school with clothes unwashed between weeks; hungry kids; latchkey kids; kids enduring abuse, domestic humiliation, poverty and anxieties of every conceivable shade. Unless you are very fortunate, or very callous, you cannot have failed to notice this. Even in the most fragrant arbours, where every physical need is met there are camouflaged pockets of deprivation in other areas: neglect, abandonment, cruelty.

And it struck me, equally instantly, that classrooms are terrible places in which to do anything about this. Yet we are tacitly expected to. One of the problems of philosophical models of humanity is that it often assumes that people are perfectly rational, when they are clearly not; similarly, many school structures are constructed on the understanding that children are neutral recipients in the classroom experience, when they are reagents. Children are like Jacob Marley, dragging the chains of their entire lives with them.

It is essential for the teacher to lay clear boundaries, to police those boundaries, and to reward and sanction as consequence demands. These foundations are the womb of structure, creating a safe space where everyone is valued equally, where children know where they stand, and where they know what they have to do next. Without structure, law and consequence there can be no justice, no education. That's absolutely fundamental to the efficient execution of learning in an institution.

But what about the ones who have problems that cannot be amended by clear boundaries and consequences? There are children tortured by anxieties and social dilemmas so enormous that it is almost impossible for them to comply in a meaningful way. This can range from autism to Tourette's, to the knowledge that their father will be ready with a belt when they get home, because it's payday and he's drunk. What then?

And this is where the dislocation occurs. Every school has children that need extra help. But the place where this is often expected to occur is within the classroom. Take a humanities teacher in the average secondary school. He might stand in front of 300 different faces every week, many of whom might be seen once only. There will certainly be about 25 children in every room. Even if he divided up his time equally between them, they would be lucky to have two minutes apiece, and that would mean no teaching at all.

Who can stop the Juggernaut?

And teaching has to be done. It's our primary role. It's how we're held accountable. The juggernaut of our jobs doesn’t slow down because one passenger has taken ill; try to do that too often, let the bus go under 50, and the bomb goes off. So children, whom with support could be turned around, are instead crushed under the wheels of the truck.

'Of COURSE I have time. Nothing but.'
And I'm not criticising the truck. I’m driving the damn truck. Teachers don't have the ability, the time or the resources to run personal mentoring sessions with every child. If we did, we would never leave school, and neither would they. Unfortunately, the very best thing, the most efficient thing that can be done in instances of, for example, bad behaviour, is the administration of clear boundaries and the consequences attached to them. As a strategy, it has the benefit of utility for the majority of children, whose behaviour is amenable to direction, and who have the inner resources to respond to the prod and the goad of punishment and reward. But the minority: the very broken, the fractured, the abused, the vicious, the totally lost, frequently fail to respond. The process must continue, otherwise we ruin the structure that keeps most of us healthy and whole, but the imperfection is obvious.

The problem is partly resources. A child who is paralysed with anxiety about looking stupid in lessons might curl up like a hedgehog in the classroom. A good teacher will be able to spot the difference between shades of refusal, but apart from a few carefully chosen words in or after the lesson, and a short chat with home, that's as much time as we have before we need to deal with a hundred other issues. To help that pupil through their non-compliance is the work of several weeks of coaching, coaxing, probing and mentoring.

Or the problem might be worse, and it's a kid with ten years of mucking about under their belt because of a million other reasons; yet we have to tend to them too, and hope that we can unpick the million stitches of their lives and accrued character and somehow teach them about German verbs or trigonometry. Sisyphus would pity us.

A Dangerous Method

The point of well-run behaviour management isn't just to identify those who should be praised and punished; it's also to identify behaviour problems and then refer them to ways in which these behaviours can be amended. And that's when the system breaks down, because we simply don't- in the majority of cases- have the time. Nor the training. Do you know how to deal with an anorexic pupil? A pupil shuttled between homes all her life? A pupil who believes she's evil and worthless?

We were asked and trained to teach. We were hired for our subject expertise and perhaps a classroom skill. But we are required to be therapists, and we simply aren't. The classroom is the very worst place for that sort of help. Good mentoring and coaching is done in small groups, probably one-to-one. The adults who are good at this usually aren't teachers. And teachers are often very poor mentors, not through deficit of will, but of opportunity.

I spoke at a conference about mental health this week; the audience were mostly therapists, child psychologists and the like. And I was fascinated by the abyss that existed between their role and mine. My job is to run a room and teach my subject. Theirs is to mentor and heal. If you've ever been given an Ed Psych report on 'teaching styles suitable for pupil x' and looked at it with scorn, you'll know what I mean. It's easy to say 'child x should be allowed to run around the room when he is anxious' or 'let him leave the room whenever he wants' but it is the very devil to run a room that way, when the other children, quite rightly, wonder why they can't enjoy the privileges of the statements party.

And I can understand a child therapist rubbing their brow in despair when I talk about the need for fairly rigid classroom structures, where pupils have to be taught that their actions will have consequences, pleasant or not. My tactics are blunt, and designed to appeal to the majority. But I work with a best-fit model. the therapist usually doesn't  teach classes, and his little idea how one-to-one relationships become scaled up to the level of a class.

Schools on the Couch

The schools best at this are ones that make mentoring a backbone of their strategy; where the internal exclusion unit is run by trained professionals who have experience in both child behavioural issues as well as subject knowledge. Where children who deserve punishments are discerned from children who need assistance. Where exclusion from the classroom is as much about a genuine effort to identify and deal with problems rather than simply a short spell in the cooler. If teacher's timetables were reduced, this would be a huge step, because then they would have time, not merely to plan and assess, but also to consider these issues. Or perhaps better still, the role of the tutor, or Head of House could be made muscular, and given the time and training they need to focus on these matters.

As it stands, the two groups need to understand each other more. Teachers aren't therapists. Therapists aren't teachers. When we pretend they are, everyone’s a loser.  

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Everybody be cool. Why the EBC is nothing to be scared of.

'We feel the Ebc is both a good and a bad thing.'
I have noticed that whenever things change, my pupils often resent it: a new teacher; a different room; a new pupil in the class. Then people get used to it and everyone calms down until things change again, and then we all get upset and pine for the good old days. It's like when they change the layout of Facebook.

In a different league, now we have EBCs. Man, people are lining up like Swap Shop presenters in mufti at the ticket counter of Heathrow to have a pop. It's the most fashionable piñata in town. Anything that unites the NUT, Ofqual, Graham Stuart, Michael Rosen and Tory backbench unspectaculars has to be something special. But behind the light of the unhappiness, is there any heat? I'm not so sure there's anything to fret over.

1. Having one exam board might destabilise the industry. Frankly, I'm not too bothered that Ofqual worries about this, because I'm left wondering why examining students needs to be an industry, rather than an enterprise for the common good.This is one of those areas where you don't want competition, where you don't want a Darwinian race of survival based on self promotion. The gory sight of exam boards pimping out their syllabuses for the love of money should have turned your stomach by now on this matter. Oddly enough, I hear many left wing commentators worrying about this absence of competition.

2. Some have complained that the EBC will kill creativity. This seems an odd proposition, given that English, one of the core subjects, is an incredibly creative, critical, analytical subject, and that creativity can be learned through any subject. Are we saying that maths can't be creative? Plus, when schools actually stop teaching art and PE and Drama, instead having timetables full of nothing EBC subjects, I'll believe the claim that schools will drop them. People are naturally creative. You can hardly stop people being creative. It's in everything, everywhere.

Oh, and forgive me for not really giving a monkeys what Stella McCartney or David Puttnam have to say about education.People often complain about non-educators sticking their oar in, but become suspiciously supportive of it when it's a sleb with whom they share an opinion. 

Is this what you want? IS IT?
3. This is a return to the 1950s. Give. Me Strength. For a start this isn't an argument, and I'm still perplexed as to what people actually mean when they say this. But then it isn't an argument; it's a sound bite, and people should be ashamed of making it.  Empty of content, it sounds like it might have something plausible underneath it, but it doesn't. It's rhetoric, sophistry.There is a good deal in education since the 60s that needs a long walk from a short plank: Brain Gym; Thinking Hats and so on. Because education isn't a science, improvements are neither incrementally guaranteed not linear. These reforms aren't a return to the 50s, and even if they were, I have no problem with men wearing hats again, or films by Alfred Hitchcock. Modernity isn't the womb of quality, nor is innovation a guarantee of improvement. See: onesies for details.

4. Others have problems with linear exams, with fewer options of retakes. I've always seen modules and resits as the snooze alarms of assessment. 'Five more minutes' the students say. 'Then I'll properly start revising.' If everyone gets the same opportunity, then everyone has the same chance at the outcome. Allowing successive bites of the cherry simply skews the benefit towards other groups, for example 'People who don't fancy coming into their lessons on Monday morning.'

But the best argument of all is to look at the state of GCSEs. They are, as they stand the walking wounded. 30 years of grade inflation. Years of lunatic BTEC equivalence. Successive, incremental, Darwinian dilution of content in favour of vapid, vague skills that rely on content to exist but ironically are starved of it. Reform or replace, the outcome is the same. The system needs to change. The venom directed at certificate reform is what we could expect of any change in the system. 

You wait. If it gets a chance to bed in, give it fifteen years and people will be out on the streets with placards campaigning for its preservation if anyone dares to meddle with it.The EBC might be fantastic. It might be the Ragnarok of civilisation. But the arguments levelled against it don't convince.

Plus ça change.  Everybody, be cool.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Laugh of Khan: if this is the future, then classrooms really are fl*pped.

You're going to make me, aren't you?
This week's TES leads with a story on the rise of the Khan Academy. This is a not-for-profit on-line project that seeks to provide free access to short videos on a variety of subjects to anyone who wants to look at them. And there's nothing wrong with that. I've seen a few of them, and they're perfectly serviceable little shorts talking about primary/ secondary level maths, computing, a little history and so on. 3,600 videos in all. As far as that goes, I clasp them to my bosom. Personally I find them as entertaining as watching Miranda, but then I suppose I'm not the target audience for either.

The problem is- and it is a problem- that I frequently hear it hailed as the future of education/ the saviour of education/ the model for the 21st century century and so on. And I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

The Khan Academy. Motto: 'It is our mission to accelerate learning for students of all ages,' which is the most boring thing I have ever read outside of the Radio Times. The website is unbearably groovy, giving me the impression that everyone at HQ wears Thinking Crocs and calls each other by their favourite emotion. Don't believe me? One of the staff members is Toby, the Director of Wellness. Toby, I'll point out, is a dog.

The videos themselves are astonishingly pedestrian. Having been ordered several times by enthusiasts to watch a few, I was expecting something game-changing. What I got was a short chalk 'n' talk video that reminded me of watching someone's interactive whiteboard without the pen moving. It was fine, and clear, but no more than that. And the humour was funereal. What, I wondered, was the fuss? It certainly wasn't the tutorials themselves.

Give me a huge bag of money and a lobotomy, and I'll tell you.
Some perspective: total revenue is $150,000 in donations from Titans like Bill Gates, Google, and private donors. That, plus $2,000 a month it made in advertising (now discontinued) meant that it had a revenue in the ballpark of $175,000 PA, which....which is pretty small beer actually. I ran a Soho nightclub for a few years that took around £2,000,000 PA, and people paid to get in (and sometimes out again). With 36 staff on the payroll, what we have here is what I like to call 'something on the internet'. Yes, yes, half the population of the world have clicked on one of his videos, and there are certainly some big numbers there (202 million clicks). But do you know how many people watched 'Charlie bit my finger!'? (If you're not familiar with it, it's a video of a wee boy whose brother bites his finger and I am not f*cking with you here). I'll tell you: 500 million. You heard me. Do you hear about anyone hailing the 'Charlie Bit my Finger' movement? No you bloody well do not. Because the only party for whom hits are intrinsically important, are advertisers. Piers Morgan has more Twitter followers (3.1 million) than the population of Lithuania (2.9 million), but no one's particularly worried about him invading anywhere soon (I know this is perfectly redundant, but isn't he awful? His latest Twitter pic is 'Me and the Obamas,' Christ have mercy).

Controversial saviour of 21st Century Learning
But Honey Bear don't care, not with Bill Gates blowing thousand dollar bills up his ass. And that's part of the problem. Sal Khan, the Messiah of educational modernity seems to be a perfectly committed, intelligent young man with little other than a desire to share free lessons. But he's never been a teacher. Nor have his principal donors. Never run a school. Never had to design, execute and assess a curriculum for a cohort of students that had to display evidence of accumulated learning. What he does is impressive, in a dilettantish way. But it isn't education. It's a cartoon.

The main USP of Khan is that his academy offers an unusual and fluid level of access to potential audiences. But that isn't enough to get kids learning. You see, in a real school, we have to teach children who don't want to learn, sometimes. Who couldn't give a shit about the Tudors, or trigonometry. In a real school we also offer easy access to learning, and expertise. But that doesn't mean they want it. His assertion that 'almost every four or five year old takes ownership of their learning,' is touching, but laughable. It's the view of a man who knows nothing about scaled-up education (for example, an ex-Hedge Fund analyst) or someone drowned in Rousseau or Montessori. I have many children who are starving to learn, and practically bite my hand off when I offer them a lesson. I have far more who would rather be texting unimaginative insults to their friends or playing on their X Box. Because they're kids.

James Kirk's most feared adversary
The main problem with the Khan revolution is that it assumes that children will, with bare direction, blossom into beautiful learning butterflies. They won't. Most will do as they please, because they are humans, often frail, and because they are children, often unwise, often a little lazy, a little selfish, a little short sighted. Just like us. It angers and frightens me a little that enthusiastic amateurs propelled by the capital of equally enthusiastic and terrifyingly wealthy amateurs can fancy they could reinvent education. But then we get into the territory of the Cult of 21st Century Learning, and the Cult of IT, and the big beasts who smell an emergent market in education, and it suddenly starts to make sense as to why it's happening.

Do the Khan videos serve any purpose? Sure. They're better than nothing. I wish him luck, because if a child has the choice between no teacher in their remote village, and seeing one of his videos about spelling or maths, then let it be the latter. But that's the strategy of disaster relief, not world class education, which requires experts with whom you can interact, peers with who you can discuss, and people there to encourage and push you when you feel like giving up or succumbing to misunderstanding.

In other words, a real school. With real teachers. I know, it's radical, isn't it? Perhaps Bill Gates will give me a box of money to start one up.

Original TES article:
Meet Toby.   Then have a weep.