Saturday, 23 March 2013

researchED 2013 Is GO. If you build it, they will come.

So Im running a conference this September....

Beginnings are often noisy: babies delivered in an eruption of clamour and viscera; shuttle launches where a dot of metal balances on a skyscraper of exploding fire and prayers. This firework went off so quickly I didn't even hear it until my house was on fire.

Last week: I'm invited to the Teach First launch of Ben Goldacres's 'Building evidence into education' at Bethnal Green Academy. As usual he's fired up and switched on about Bad Science; eloquent, spiky and charging into education. Research in education is one of my hobby horses- mainly because while some of it is excellent (as some of anything usually is) a lot of it is poorly constructed, riddled with bias, and empty of utility. I met some of the usual Baker Day Irregulars, had a coffee, and went back to school to teach year 7s about Jewish food laws, and babysit detentions.

Tuesday evening: I'm watching...well, I'm watching GI Joe, and marking essays. Don't judge me, I do it so others don't have to. Ben and a few others like Sam Freedman and Joe Kirby are talking about the need for teachers to talk about research in education in a more structured way: Ben wants RCTs, others want greater rigour, others are concerned with the link between policy and research, particularly cherry picking retrospective justifications. Sam says, 'Tom should do it,'; Joe, possibly for a dare, echoes. Like Marty McFly I did the obvious, stupid thing, and leapt like a Yahoo into the challenge.

One hour later. An hour is a long time on Twitter, as Sally Bercow knows. Hundreds of tweets from people expressing interest; then I put an email address out, because I'm like that, and a got another hundred. I finally learned how quickly your DM box can become swollen, then auto-emptied by a river of incoming messages. By 1am I had been offered five venues, gratis- all great ones- and had representatives of two dozen organisations that wanted in. Offers of help to set up websites, do admin, design art, host, lend a hand. I went to bed feeling just like that dot of metal I mentioned.

Next morning, it was all still there. Another hundred messages across the platforms, similar to before. I had my first offers of financial support and sponsorship, and more offers of help. People were asking to be put on a mailing list, so I thought I better start one, over coffee and toast.

That lunchtime I spoke to people in the business who advised about logistics; I used to run Soho nightclubs, so I'm not particularly fazed by the thought of having several hundred people under a roof and trying to stop them killing/ mounting each other, while simultaneously feeding them booze and engineering rhythmic proximity like a gang-bang in a lift. Just like your average education conference.

By Wednesday night I was a man, a plan, a canal, Panama. researchED 2013 as it was now called, will be a conference, sometime in early September, where researchers and teachers and interested parties can speak, listen and talk with each other about the role of research in education, and crucially, what needs to happen to improve matters. The difference with this conference from others, is that teachers would have to be involved- have to be, otherwise there would be no point. The abyss between practical experience and dessicated theory born of a Petri dish and tortured until it says what the designer wants, was apparent to me the first day I walked in a classroom. We deserve better; kids deserve better than cargo cult science, or the voodoo pseudo-science created in a few tiny classrooms and scaled up by zealots into universal dogma, often adopted by policy makers.

So: keynote speakers, of course- people need to talk. Panel discussions where debate can happen, with audience involvement. There are arguments to be made and had here. Opportunities for organisations involved in research to recruit teachers, and opportunities for teachers to engage with the research community. I won't call them workshops, because no one will be working, no one will be shopping, and nobody is wearing dungarees.Frankly I think there should also be music, but I'll let you know how that goes.

Wednesday and Thursday night were a bit like Tuesday- momentum hadn't stopped, so neither could I. Two national papers contacted me asking to support, three Universities, four colleges, and a certain Government ministry also expressed interest. More names for the mailing list. Between Tuesday and today I must have logged around two working days answering emails and calling people. In general I'm a bit sceptical about crowd sourcing- as you'll know if you've ever asked a class of year 9s what they want to do on a Friday afternoon- but the expertise offered and the generosity of people this week would melt the most callous of hearts. I asked for help with a logo: done. I asked for help with a website: dozens of offers. I asked for a Wordpress blog: done. Live streaming of the event: done. Website address registered: done.

Because so many people have helped already, I'm going to thank them publicly, properly, once researchED 2013 gets rolling a bit more, but I assure you everyone will get their reward, not in Heaven, but in this life.

As I go along, I know I'm going to need more and more help. But somehow I get the feeling that once you build it, they will come. I know that's an article of faith rather than reason, but the experience so far tells me that they will. The Kids from Fame couldn't have put together a better, more impromptu show. Like Blanche Dubois, I rely on the kindness of strangers.

I opened a Twitter account (@researchED2013) 18 hours ago; as I write it has over 300 followers. Invitations to speakers start going out this weekend, although some have already been signed, and many have asked if they can take part. I'm visiting venues Monday-Friday, so I should be able to announce this week, but I can honestly say that every one of them is a belter. I've had to turn down kind offers of venues I never dreamed I could get, only on the grounds of size, or availability.

But did good win?
This is a pro-bono gig. It's not for profit, and that's at the heart of it. Once I've costed out the project, I should be able to start ticketing the event- there will be a charge to get in, but only what's needed to make it happen. I want this to be something that everyone can come to. The exact date will depend on the exact venue, but if you want to get involved, keep early September free, and hopefully the Saturday.

I'll start using a Wordpress blog and a website very soon to keep people updated about this, but for now, my own poor page will have to suffice.

I still have no idea how GI Joe ended. Maybe we need Heroes of Education action figures? Let me know if anyone can help.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Eduspeak: why Wilshaw still has a battle to change the orthodoxy of Ofsted, Part 1

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to your, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinkingnot needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." 

1984, George Orwell

Sir Michael Wilshaw, has set his shoulder to the task of turning the tide of Ofsted. Repeatedly and very publicly (recently here) he has stated that, among other things, he believes there should be no preferred teaching style; that lessons observed by inspectors can be dry and didactic, or jolly and jazz-handed, so long as it can be discerned that the students are learning.

I, and many others, welcomed this like Christmas. The bulldozer of Her Majesty's Inspectorate is central command's most powerful lever over the direction of how schools behave. It cannot be over emphasised to the lay person: Ofsted has become, since it's inception, both the lash and the rack of contemporary school culture. Along with league tables and parental choice, it can praise schools or bury them. Gladiators, sweating  in the Coliseum knew the same feeling, waiting for Caesar to laud or liquidate them.

The result? As inevitable as the crocodile running off with Mr Punch's sausages: schools spent more time working out how to please and placate the inspectors than satisfy their intrinsic aim of education. Management meetings rocked to the mantra, 'Will Ofsted will be looking for this?' and everyone slapped their heads like monkeys. I can barely describe how angry this makes me. I didn't enlist in this man's army to satisfy a bureaucracy- I came to teach, and protect children, to give them the best of my wasted, unworthy knowledge and hope it serves them.

The new, neutral inspector
You see it everywhere: CPD courses with names like 'Teach the Ofsted way' or 'Integrating discovery learning into your virtual learning platforms the Ofsted way.' Books, INSETs and agendas, all genuflecting at the altar, sacrificing children's interests in the hopes that this year's harvest of absolute grades and relative progress will be a happy one. Will the Gods be pleased? Have we done enough? Are our offerings sufficient, like Abel's, or will we be marked, like Cain, as Unsatisfactory, and doomed to walk the earth, cursed by parents?

Decades of this, and schools have practically forgotten what we came here to do. Rather than craft lessons aimed at excellent learning, many see their purpose as pleasing the Ministry of Silly Teaching, chasing the external metrics of a healthy school instead of working out how to be well. You might as well paint rouge on the cheeks of a cadaver, hang it from a hook and call it a groom. The outcome has become the only goal, and Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant.

Cue, The Inquisitor-in-chief, Sir Michael Torquemada Wilshaw. Unlike many of his predecessors, he's the real deal; he realises that Ofsted has been a dog's banquet for a generation, and wants to change that. He understands that inspectors shouldn't expect a preferred teaching style, because, well, because who gives a damn? There is no one way to teach a class, and plenty of odd dogma that emerged in the 20th century that clearly restricts learning- which didn't stop it becoming compulsory in every classroom, like VAK, Learning Styles and so on.

If someone inspects my teaching, I need some kind of reassurance that the observer knows more about teaching than I do. Frankly, while some are stalwarts, many do not convince. And as it happens, when I know the Dementors are expected, I dust off my Ofsted lesson, do my Ofsted monkey dance, wave cheerio, and then get on with my damn teaching the minute they leave, washing the craven memory away with Talisker later on.

Old Andrew has done a fine vivisection of the problem: The Burra Sahib of School Inspections doesn't look for, or judge schools on teaching styles or groovy hipster dogma....but many inspectors still do. Read OA's blogs on the matter if you're not convinced. The problem isn't Wilshaw; the problem, like a greasy spot, is on the other side of the window pane, and you can polish as much as you like, it won't shift.

'And where is VAK in your planning?'
Which finally brings me to the opening quote. The problem, which I'll return to in a later blog, is the contemporary language of education. For decades now there has been a creeping shift in how it is even possible to speak about teaching, learning and schools. To put it bluntly, there is now a Newspeak dictionary of what it is possible and isn't possible to say. People now talk about students as stake holders, and I think, Jesus, when did that happen? Classes as Learning Zones; corridors become break out areas. Pointless surveys and opportunities to bully staff are justified as 'student voice, innit?'

Worse, it becomes possible to write and speak about education using nothing but these shibboleths, saying nothing, but sounding as if you are. As someone once said, 'For someone who speaks so much you talk a lot of shit.' You can read a sentence like 'A Good lesson, evidenced by the way the discovery explorers were engaged, independently thinking then sharing higher level thinking where their opinions were valued and reflected,' or something equally moronic. And it sounds like it means something. Yet all it does is reflect the ocean of preference and prejudice of the inspector, rather than an even handed duty towards discerning if kids are learning.

The whole language of education has been harrowed and replaced by an imposter language, a Newspeak grown in the laboratories of fashionable orthodoxy and released into the wild. Some concepts are practically impossible to express using it- try saying that kids need to 'get in trouble for misbehaving' and see how many tuts you get; I normally use 'sanction' as a safe replacement. Some words, like 'literacy' have had their meanings speyed and substituted by bloodless simalacra: witness how it used to describe being able to read, write and speak fluently and fluidly in one's tongue, and how it now appears to mean 'can use an IKEA manual and browse for Flash games,' I mean, kill me.

That's what Wilshaw is up against. That's why it's so hard to change things on the ground. The solution, as best I can see, goes beyond simply installing a competent and righteous Top Banana. The whole thing needs a reboot; new inspectors, new training. The old guard won't change their opinions on teaching. You want change fast? Dismiss the thought police and replace them. Otherwise, abolish the whole thing and start again, because Oftsted appears to be dragging the chains of its past with it.

If you're looking for someone to help with the axe, my number's in the book.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Thinking in the right direction; just don't put all your faith in RCTs. Ben Goldacre's vision for evidence based learning.

But is it outstanding?
Bethnal Green Academy, a soy latte's throw from both hipster Columbia Road and the surrounding estates, was the venue for the launch of Ben Goldacres's new advocacy project: Building Evidence into Education. Nice looking school; it's got BSF written all over every plane and pane. The livery outside the school shouted every second sentence of the latest Oftsed report. Most pleasingly it was styled in the Star Wars font (or as my kids call it, 'That old film'). 

Hosted by Teach First, the Royal Marines of the teacher profession, we were first treated to an introduction by Dame Gove himself in what was, I thought, a remarkably short set. It was like booking Geoff Capes and asking him to open a jam jar. Goldacre followed;  a passionate and determined thinker and speaker, whose Bad Science series shook me, like Hume did for Kant, from my dogmatic slumber.

It's a familiar saw for him: the need for Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) to become more prevalent in the social sphere (here represented by education), as they are in the medical profession. He made an interesting comparison: medical practitioners at first resisted RCTs because they were convinced of their own intuition, until it turned out that intuition often led us down the wrong path; eg using steroids for brain inflammation did more harm than help- the reverse of orthodoxy. Now, so are teachers (resisting RCTs, not harming the brain. Oh wait.)

Goldacre's point is refreshing and disarming: we run trials like this for every pill and potion; why not policies, which in the galactic scale of things, dwarf even pharma for dollar tonnage. And as usual, there is a lot of practical wisdom in what he says. I am delighted that the DfE is looking into ways of conducting research that is robust and real, rather than fanciful and driven by dogma.

So why not have RCTs in the social sciences? One possible objection, the ethical, can be easily dismissed: issues of consent, and issues of knowingly withholding a potentially useful intervention from the control group. But we already introduce dozens of interventions in schools every single day. It isn't as if we aren't already drowning our kids in optimistic hoodoo. Why NOT randomise it once in a while? When was the last time we asked a kid's consent before we popped a Thinking Hat on them, or told them to rub their brain buttons? 

I think there are, however, some serious problems with the use of RCTs in education.

 RCTs aren't the answer to the question 'What really works in schools?' because differences in context can never satisfactorily be ironed out. The causal density of humanity is too high; there are too many factors to establish a reliable protocol that could hope to encompass the variables of the human mind. There are as many factors to juggle as there are grains of sand on the beach. Lazy research is sodden in bias and assumptions, wooly over interpretation and optimism. That said, there is room for quantitative research , some of which will be amenable to RCTs. I've heard social scientists say that the problem is merely one of design; I say the problem is the methodology itself. If you're making quantifiable predictions about the physical world you need to provide unambiguous methods of establishing initial conditions as well as outcomes, possible causal mechanisms, and demonstrate reproducability. That isn't easy.  

Also, the problems of cognitive bias, the Hawthorne Effect, the John Henry Effect, the Pygmalion Effect and so on are enormous obstacles to appreciating when an intervention is effective and when it is not.

This is definitely thinking in the right direction. Goldacres's attempt to lasso the spoon bending of social science and pin it down to some kind of methodological rigour, is exactly what I, and many teachers, want to hear, and I absolutely support his attempts to reinvigorate the debate. But there are many obstacles to this, even before considering motivation.

One is time. I work pretty hard. I don't expect a biscuit, because I bet you do too. I'm also pretty good with my time. And I barely have time to do, well...this kind of thing, and the only reason I do is because I cash in hours of sleep like chips in a casino. Doing research into education is going to be a niche pursuit until workloads go down. Like archaeology in the 19th century, it will remain the hobby of gentlemen.

And let's be honest, most teachers aren't scientists. They're as prone to their pet prejudices and tender perversities as most people. Read the Tooley report if you want to see how badly education research can be conducted even by people who should know better. Now multiply that by 100 and you get, I would say, most of us. Many teachers would love to get involved with what Goldacre sensibly described as driving research.But would research benefit? Not until teachers learn what the scientific method is.

Dating for Nerds

So, what next? From the presentations, and the discussion one thing became apparent: this isn't the launch of anything concrete yet. At this point, the program is advocacy. There was no funding committed, no projects starting tomorrow. From one perspective, it's hard to see many education secretaries getting too worked up about RCTs- the average tenure of the Headmaster-in-chief is about 18 months. RCTs can take years; to be efficient, to be meaningful, they have to be as large and long as possible (as the inspector said to the janitor). Why invest in something that a) won't bear fruit until after you've been moved to The Department of Silly Walks and b) Might disagree with your own pet projects? It's always safer to simply pick research that appears to validate your own objectives.

And yet, and yet. Gove was, at least, there. The Dfe's involvement with Goldacre shows, at least, a symbolic commitment to better research in education. And let's not forget the £125 million DfE funding for the Education Endowment Fund (represented here by Dr Kevan Collins) a Sutton Trust start-up devoted to research, some of which involves RCTs. There might be some will there, but it isn't very full-throated. 

So much in education is an abstract, an artefact of art as much as engineering. We can barely agree as to what educated means. Or learning. Or thinking. Or engagement. Or creativity. These aren't amenable to metrification.How do we study what we cannot catch?

But to sound a more positive note: anything which seeks to firm up the wiliest of educational research is an asset.  Goldacres's profile should help turn a search light upon the relationship between research community and Chalkface warriors. He's absolutely right when he says that there needs to be more communication between the practitioner and the research communities. Teachers make bad researchers, and often, researchers make bad teachers, and the assumptions are apparent in many articles of research I read- where assumptions and biases that would have you laughed out of the physics club are common.

One thing's clear: it's a mess. I'm not so sure, as Mark Keary and Ben Goldacre implied, that we're on the cusp of a Golden Age of research bounty in education. They've been saying that about the social sciences since they were invented, and microscopes and abacuses, which had been so generous in the natural sciences, were turned to the human sphere. We're still waiting for the Industrial Revolution in social science.

One thing teachers need to do, exactly as Goldacre said, is to familiarise themselves with the the principles of science; to arm themselves with at least a basic understanding of what it means to say an intervention is true, or probably true, or probably not. God knows we need to, given the deluge of garbage that we've endured, justified by silly hat research.

So I wrote a book about it. It's called Teacher Proof, and it's out this June. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

How we solve the behaviour crisis part 1: What the problem is, and why some people can’t see it

I was watching 187, an odd but strangely moving film where Samuel Jackson plays a teacher tormented by his gang-banger students, and I was reminded of Picasso’s proposition that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’. Jackson works in a downtown LA sink school, where the teachers pack heat in their desk drawers, the kids are screwing in the portocabins, and the head is so allergic to civil action that teachers are ground to a paste by the indifferent cogs of bureaucracy. Sometimes the line between truth and fiction is diaphanous.

I normally shy away from magic bullets. Complex situations are usually immune to simple solutions. But there's something obvious about schools that I noticed the first day I started training, and it hasn't gone away: behaviour problems crush learning, and strangely, many schools don’t seem to know what to do about it.

Apart from that, did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?

I often hear people say that behaviour isn't so bad. That there are pockets of unruliness, but on the whole the view has a rosy, crepuscular glow. For example, former Behaviour Czar Sir Allan Steer said in 2009 that:

‘...there is strong evidence from a range of sources that the overall standards of behaviour achieved by schools is good and has improved in recent years. The steady rise in standards needs to be celebrated....the great majority of schools are successfully achieving satisfactory or better standards of pupil behaviour…’

Learning Behaviour: LESSONS LEARNED A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools. Steer, Alan, 2009

Ofsted agree:

'According to Ofsted inspection data, the majority of schools have Good or Outstanding levels of behaviour. As at December 2011, 92.3% of all schools in England were judged Good or Outstanding for standards of behaviour. A further 7.5% were judged Satisfactory and less than one percent (0.3%) were judged Inadequate.'

(Ofsted, 2012)

On the surface that looks encouraging- very encouraging. So why do many teachers disagree?

Actually, it is quite bad

'There is mixed evidence on the extent of poor behaviour reported by teachers... However, another earlier survey showed 69% of members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) reported experiencing disruptive behaviour weekly or more frequently (Neill, 2001)'

(Ofsted, 2012)

I’ll add that almost every teacher I’ve worked with as a behaviour coach would agree with the latter paragraph, and more personally I’ve never been busier advising teachers crushed by their own realities. I propose that inspection data cannot be relied upon to reveal the true behaviour situation in a school for the following reasons.

1.Senior teachers and middle leaders start hyperventilating about inspectors seeing naughty kids, in an anxious version of the Hawthorne effect. The worst pupils often vanish for a while, mysteriously hidden on trips and temporary exclusions. Staff curiously appear in corridors they haven't walked down in weeks, maintaining order. Often students respond to the observation effect by sharpening up as well.  No, an inspection isn't the best time to see behaviour. Like quantum scientists, the observer affects the experiment.

2. Another reason why there is such disagreement about the extent of the behaviour crisis is that the people who think there isn't one usually work in an entirely different school from those who think it does. Not physically different; there are often several different schools in the same spot. Take two teachers: one has seniority, either of rank or tenure. Known to all pupils, enjoying high status, with a light timetable and a career built on the kids knowing what they can do. They usually have plenty of time to catch up with behaviour issues. They might have the privilege of easier classes. They definitely don't have to grind from class to class with barely a breath in between. The second teacher belongs to a lower caste: new teachers, junior teachers, supply teachers. They work in a parallel universe to the first teacher and his kin. Kids mock them, refuse their wishes, and do what kids do to unfamiliar or uncertain adults. That’s what I mean by a behaviour crisis. Every school is at least two schools, alternate dimensions, layered over each other, barely able to conceive of each others existence.

' bad behaviour in here...'
3. Consider this: the groups who say there isnt a problem are mainly composed of people who don’t have to teach difficult classes: inspectors, senior staff, researchers, teachers of biddable communities. The groups who say there is a problem are usually the ones who experience highly challenging behaviour. The former tend to occupy positions of authority and get to write the reports. The latter don’t get asked very often.

Can you see the problem?

Part II coming soon: How we solve the problem

Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art by Alfred H. Barr Jr., published for The Museum of Modern Art by Arno Press, New York, 1980

Viewed on   10/03/13