A night with Pasi

I’ve had a date in my calendar for some time, and the entry read ‘A Night with Pasi’. The Pasi in question is Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. He has an impressive back catalogue, and you can peruse his gongs here. The night in question was last night, and by the time the educational part finished, I was ready for the heavy drinking part to begin.

The education part lasted one hour, and at the end of that hour it was difficult to isolate any key takeaways. One of the reasons I like ResearchEd is the diversity of presenters, and that includes teachers. Teachers work at the coal-face, and the translation of education research into classroom practice provides some of the most useful professional learning one can undertake. Education researchers and policy-makers are important people to listen to; but without the vital link of transfer to the classroom, even valid research and sensible policy can end up existing in a vacuum.

There was a hint of Sir Ken about Pasi. We were told early on that the standard of teaching in Australia is high, and that we should not be looking to improve in this area.  Instead, straight from Ken’s playbook, it was the ‘system’ that was problematic. This enables one to blame teachers without really blaming teachers, given that we are (at least in part) the system. NAPLAN was aired briefly, just enough time for teacher hackles to be raised, and we had a few avuncular anecdotes about Pasi’s year in Australia.

The talk supposedly centred on improving equity in education, and we were treated to a long explanation of how equity and equality are not the same thing. I expect he may have misjudged the audience, because it felt for the most part that we were being Fin-splained, and at a funereal pace. The graphic of three children of different heights standing on crates and trying to pick apples from a tree was used to illustrate the point. You know the one – it’s second only to the ‘fish climbing a tree‘ one for its ubiquity.

It seems that, according to PISA, Australia is bang-average for both overall performance in English and Maths *and* equity (which in simple terms was defined as the link between ICSEA and performance). The countries ranking highly in both were Canada, Estonia, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong – so find the common features there if you can. We were told that we needed to climb a ‘Stairway to Heaven’, given that these countries appeared in the top right-hand corner of the graph, but no suggestion of how this was to happen was posited. Instead, we were asked (excruciatingly) to wave our arms in time to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Being the edu-grinch I am, I refused.

Not only is it tricky to see what these countries have in common, it’s also noticeable that they are moving in different directions. High performance and falling is not a system one should ape, even if it were possible to transfer the building blocks of one country’s education system to another (note: it isn’t). Another common problem with PISA data (or any data) is the cherry-picking of reasons to support these data. Finland’s educational decline was not mentioned, and neither were its high-stakes terminal examinations or the high-status (and relatively high supply) of teachers. Instead, Finland’s longer and outdoor recess time was highlighted as a key reason, even to the point of stating that the longer children spend time in Australia, the less educated they become. If that’s not a slight on teachers, I’m not sure what is.

The importance of funding was mentioned, and though it may seem axiomatic to suggest this is important, there was no indication of how increased funding would improve outcomes or equity. The importance of focusing on early years was mentioned, which is probably a good point, but again it was only in the context of funding, not (for example) evidence-based approaches to teaching reading.

As a conclusion, we were left with three points. The first was fair funding (an undoubted crowd pleaser, but unclear on the links to equity/outcomes). The second was ambiguously titled ‘educate the parents’. I’m unsure if this meant increase parents’ cultural capital to avoid children falling behind when *not* in School, or whether we needed to being parents on board with best practice in education, but it was odd to see a concluding point make an appearance only in the conclusion, rather than at any point during the talk. The final point was that ‘healthy kids learn better’, which again seemed to come from nowhere, other than as a nod to Finland’s outdoor play.

Pasi Sahlberg must be a capable educationalist, surely? You can’t get all the gongs simply by impersonating Sir Ken, can you? But I cannot believe anyone was convinced or reassured by this presentation. The whole evening was amateurish, from him being introduced on several occasions as Pasi Salzburg, as though we could expect Finland’s top Mozart impersonator, to his mis-pronounciation of the researcher after whom the lecture is named, to the confusion of Austria and Australia on one of the funding graphs. Or maybe we just need some spatzle with our morning tea?

I will keep attending education conferences, workshops and lectures. We need to remain aware of our biases and open to the opinions of other informed individuals. But this evening was gossamer-thin in useful content and gave no reassurance that the Australian educational powers that be have a vision (or blueprint) for educational improvement in this country. If they want an example of equity in education, they should look to Schools like Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela, but I expect the ideological opposition to knowledge-development and testing, as well as an ingrained rejection of intellectualism will prevent this. Ho hum.

Buying cars in Wales

For a country with a population of just over three million, it’s not only rugby union where Wales punches above its weight.

In the cerebral fields of literature, poetry, art and music, Wales has contributed much. The Thomas brothers (Dylan and R S), Gruff Rhys, Augustus John, John Cale, The Mabinogion and the magnificently named Adam the Welshman are solid examples.

Wales is an ancient and mysterious country and its cultural traditions have had plenty of time to develop.

Fast-forward to 2019, however, and intellectual progress seems to have stalled. The Welsh Youth Parliament clearly is less interested in literature and language than ‘how to clean, and buy cars’:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-50126863

Aside from the fact that instruction on how to buy a car probably isn’t going to take much time (you know how you buy anything – by having the money to pay for it, then handing it over? It’s like that), this suggested collection of life-hacks has nothing to do with intellectual development, and more to do with filling a void left by parents. It cannot be the job of Schools to fill in every time parents (or society) are judged to have failed. This does not mean we shouldn’t seek to educate via more than just subjects, but there is a limit to what Schools can achieve.

One shouldn’t blame the children of the Welsh Youth Parliament either. At least they’re not suggesting compulsory study of Shakin’ Stevens. But neither are they curriculum experts, and asking 14-year olds what they think should be taught in Schools is not something that would be enacted in fields taken more seriously than education. Pupils are always likely to revert to these sort of suggestions, partly because they have no idea about the more complex aspects of curriculum design.

There are two other points worth making:

  • Why are we unconcerned with how fearful young people are about real life? The fact that they yearn for lessons in how to deal with grief, how to speak in public and how to maintain healthy relationships is a matter of genuine concern. I suspect this is a reflection of the confidence we have drained from this generation, with endless talk of safety, offence, resilience, mental health and vulnerability. The more we encourage these conversations, the more we seem to push our neuroses onto them. The curriculum suggestions of these children should act as a wake-up call for us.
  • It is clear that these children have a very limited view of what an academic education can do for you. Knowledge and understanding is liberating and helps us to navigate the world better. It allows us to become independent thinkers. What they have done is analogous to understanding the need to become an independent thinker, and then suggesting that we introduce lessons on independent thinking. Education doesn’t work like that.

It is fine for children to have opinions on their education, but it’s also worth remembering the words of the late and great Douglas Adams:

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

The Factory Fallacy

When you next attend a poor edu-conference (and let’s be honest, that probably means your next edu-conference), one way to avoid gnawing your hands off during some of the worst presentations is to play bingo. Not the ‘Maggie’s Den’ type, but seeing if you can get a line or full house of edu-BS and tired cliches. One of the commonest of these is the ‘Factory Model’ of education. This is a favourite of the C21 skills brigade, because it can be used to denigrate just about anything they don’t like – children in rows, teacher teaching from the front, a common curriculum etc. The fact that many people lambast this model whilst orating from the front to a rapt audience of teachers seated is rows is an irony unnoticed by many. Perhaps they’re too busy weeping inwardly at the grainy black and white photos of young children with chalk, slates and abacuses, staring mournfully at the camera lens and reminding us that it really was grim in the early C20.

For a comprehensive take-down of why the factory model (as presented in this manner) is wrong, you may wish to read this article. It’s certainly far better than the following hastily assembled contribution.

I wish to make two points. The first is that children seated in rows, learning powerful knowledge from an expert teacher is something to be lauded, not scoffed at. The passing on of an academic ‘tradition’ is one of the hallmarks of an educated society. It demonstrates a commitment to making minds and a care for the intellectual and cultural development of children. The fact that all children are exposed to this curriculum is an educational and social leveller, and whereas we may (and should) debate the content that makes up a curriculum, a communal approach to learning is a wonderful way to bring children together; to emphasise they are part of something bigger than the self.

The second point is to highlight where we do have a problem with a ‘factory model’ in education, and certainly in the education system where I currently reside. ‘Factories’ are concerned with ‘products’. How the product is formed is perhaps of lesser interest, so long as the process is efficient and cheap, with appropriate quality control built in. Our product is ATAR, and that remains the key focus for too many. The process has become joyless for many, with efficiency and minimisation of risk being the main considerations. Quality control comes in the form of myriad assessment tasks, except these aren’t really anything of the sort – they’re just mini-products that come together in the end for the final ATAR product. The tasks are written by teachers who then mark the tasks; there’s a whole tutoring industry that exists (at least in some cases) for the work to be outsourced to, and we are all complicit because the final product justifies the trudging journey.

Along the way, we squeeze out resilience (there’s no need), ameliorate risk (it can be mitigated) and reduce the importance of subject mastery (due to the domination of the ‘task’). The only thing that suffers is the children’s knowledge and understanding, and the associated joy that *could* develop as a result. Instead, they are the ones on the factory conveyor belt, and instead of refusing to accept this system of education, the Holy Grail of ATAR and university shines so brightly as to blind them to the absence of education in its true sense.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the phrase that sums up this rather uninspiring approach to education (‘The Factory Model’) had not instead been tagged to something which represents a possible, and brighter, alternative. There’s so much confusion about education, but this might be the most glaringly obvious.

Be more amphoteric

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

So wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was referring to the juxtaposition between the clearly superior intelligence of man over dolphins (as assumed by man), and the opposite view (as assumed by the aquatic mammals).

Remaining in the water, the H2O molecule is a good example of something that is not always what it seems. It is amphoteric, meaning that it is able to react as both an acid and a base. Given that acids and bases are chemical opposites, this means water is a molecule that struggles to make up its mind. In the presence of an acid, it behaves as a base, and in the presence of a base, it is acidic.

I consider myself to be a centrist and there are few (if any) hills I will chose to die on. I am a social liberal but a fiscal and educational conservative. I can understand and accept most people’s views, even if I do not agree with them. The reason for disagreement is sometimes an inability/unwillingness to see things from another’s point of view, and I’m aware that I am guilty of this on occasions. We are never able to see the same thing with the same set of eyes, and from the same angle, so making the effort to see a different point of view is as essential as it is difficult.

I feel like a water molecule every time I engage on social media, particularly Twitter. When debating education, I am classified as an out of touch right-winger, given that advocating for teacher subject expertise and strong discipline inexplicably characterises one as a staunch Tory/Liberal (via the UK/Australian definition). Concerning Brexit, however, I’m apparently a woolly liberal, naive in the hope that we should believe in a European ideal. Twitter is dominated by strong acids and bases and each are assertive in their own way. 280 characters gives little room for nuance, hence conversations are punctuated by bold assertions, vigorous certainty and pugilistic defence when challenged. It seems more important to win than to be made to think, and if in doubt, just make stuff up. I realise that when debating on Twitter, you are less trying to  change the mind of the person you debate with, than persuade the silent onlookers (or floating voters) with reason and logic (as opposed to relying on bombast and sloppy spelling).

There are so many ‘untouchables’ in Australian education that even trying to open up a discussion is difficult. Poke the bear just once, it seems, and the bear attempts to rip your head off. Try for yourself – suggest that perhaps examinations are a fair way to assess student knowledge, and see what vitriol comes back your way. It seems that throwing acid isn’t wrong, at least in some people’s eyes. Or maybe suggest that students shouldn’t be given much choice in what they learn; or that ‘student voice’ tends to be more tokenistic than of genuine value; or that School funding is perhaps not the main reason for improving or declining educational outcomes…

If we can’t debate these issues, and refuse to listen to alternative views, we end up splitting into acids and bases. We agree with everything our fellow acids say, and excuse their rudeness as mere ‘passion’. We reject anything the opposing bases have to offer and consider them not only wrong but morally corrupt. I suspect that most of us are more amphoteric that we let on, and we’re forced into acidic or basic behaviour by the people with whom we choose to interact. This is ok, so long as it doesn’t force us to one or t’other end of the continuum on a permanent basis. The last thing we need is even less nuance on these platforms.

You can’t have anything you want.

“You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.”

So said Abraham Lincoln, presumably whilst sharpening an ax. He also appeared in the video for Gay Bar by Electric 6, remember, so he was a man of many and diverse talents. But he’s wrong of course, because talent, luck and hard work all matter more than the nebulous ‘want’. You cannot have a yacht unless you have the money to purchase one and you cannot play cricket for England unless you have Stokes-like talent.

Teddy Roosevelt was closer to the mark with this one:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

The effort. The struggle. The time invested. The desire to succeed and achieve that is so great that we can overcome obstacles that litter the path.

Then we come to this article in today’s Australian, showing that despite increased investment in education, performance in NAPLAN has flatlined since its inception in 2008. The NAPLAN tests are far from perfect, but to blame NAPLAN (as some choose to do) is odd. Don’t blame the messenger because you don’t like the message.

Now look at the comments in the article; from educators, research fellows and academics, highlighting what needs to be done (and what is being done in Schools that show good outcomes/improvement):

‘Explicit teaching methods and targeted interventions for students who needed it…’

‘We need to focus on explicit, whole-class teaching, set high ­expectations and reintroduce memorisation and rote learning…’

See how far we have moved away from sound principles of education, such that the statements above are seen as necessary solutions, rather than just stuff everyone should be doing as a matter of course. The more we listen to futurists, tech-salesmen and Sir Ken, the more we move away from what’s necessary when it comes to mastering English and Mathematics. Unlocking and harnessing creativity comes from a solid grasp of the basics – a second-nature fluency that allows creative thought to be articulated and number problems to be solved with elegant solutions.

But amidst all the hand-wringing about what Schools should be doing to improve reading, writing and doing sums, there’s another oft-unmentioned group with a significant responsibility: parents.

We all want our children to read and write fluently, but do we (as parents) want it badly enough? Encouraging, (nay, forcing,) your children to read; setting an example by reading yourself; discussing the books with your children; making them feel clever by reading clever books; helping them when they trip over words; taking them to the library on a Saturday morning as well as to footy. You can do this.

If we’re serious as a country about improving standards in Maths and (especially) English, we cannot afford to outsource everything to teachers and Schools.

I interviewed a boy for a place at School recently, and I asked the young chap what book he had enjoyed recently. His mother leant across, put her hand on his, looked me in the eye and said ‘he doesn’t read’. ‘He will when he comes here’, I said, and then we talked about dinosaurs for a while.

 

Assessment, assessment everywhere

I have written before about the need to keep education simple. The core pillars of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are set firmly in place, and it will always be thus. If you are having conversations in School not directly linked to these three, my advice is not to waste your time. Educational silver bullets abound, with seductive twin promises of modernisation and revolution, terms that involve moving away from the mythical ‘factory model’ and embracing the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. The fact that neither of these soundbites is true doesn’t seem to bother education consultants or teachers keen to leave the classroom and forge a career telling colleagues about jobs that don’t exist.

No system is perfect, but an effective system should:

  1. Enable excellent teachers to be recruited, retained and developed.
  2. Provide a stimulating curriculum for pupils to gain expertise in a range of subjects.
  3. Eschew ideology in favour of evidence (but also allow for teacher autonomy).
  4. Offer a valid and non-invasive system of assessment.

Some of these are easier said than done (particularly the first), but by concentrating on ‘core business’ we should be able to retain the best of what we offer whilst seeking gradual improvement via harnessing modern research, evidence and technology.

Let’s concentrate on point 4 – assessment. Learning is invisible; we can only tell what pupils have learned and understood if we assess them. Assessment takes many forms – written or oral, timed or timeless, standardised or not. It can be as simple as a short quiz, or be the product of a year’s work (or more). All assessment has a core purpose: to find out what children know and can do. We usually test a sample to give us information about a domain and effective assessment should therefore allow us to make wider inferences than simply the mark achieved. This is why the task is of lesser interest than what it tells us about that child’s expertise in the domain.

Here follows some general considerations when considering assessment:

High stakes v low stakes assessment

Low-stakes assessment is often more useful. A teacher will assess the pupils in a way they feel is necessary to glean information about understanding. Low-stakes assessment provides data used by the teacher to guide learning; it does not become the central focus, as can be the case with high-stakes assessment, where the mark on the task is all-important. All assessment should be formative, but high-stakes assessment is less likely to embrace the formative. In extreme cases, high-stakes can become the sum goal. An example of high-stakes assessment is a terminal examination; these are necessary to ensure valid grading of the pupils taking that examination, but they should be the pleasant by-product of excellent learning, guided by genuine formative assessment.

Generic assessment

One valid criticism of examinations is that they can be practised ad infinitum, so pupils end up becoming proficient in exams rather than the subject. There are many examples of this, and taken to extremes, pupils can spend more time working through past papers attempting to question-spot than learning the subject. The answer here is to produce better examinations – ones that test genuine understanding and the ability to synthesise ideas to solve unfamiliar problems, rather than just regurgitating answers on automatic pilot. A bad version of anything is open to criticism; exams need to be stand-alone, not like an IQ test where IQ goes up simply by taking more versions of a similar test.

Continuous assessment

Yes, of course. Teachers should be taking readings to gauge pupil understanding on a lesson by lesson basis. But this need not be invasive; it does not need to be assessment ‘that counts’; it need not be part of a formal assessment schedule. Trust teachers to deliver the material, check understanding and allow it to build through logical sequencing of lessons. If a course lasts for two years, what does it matter how much a child has mastered after one year, unless it’s for formative purposes? Including assessment that counts to a final mark before the whole course has been taught makes little sense. As mentioned above, learning is invisible, but it’s also messy. We can rarely plot a linear path of pupil learning – some reach a plateau of understanding, whilst others improve exponentially. All assessment that counts should be delivered at (or near to) the end of the course; we don’t call the winner of the match at half time!

Who should write the assessment?

My simplistic view is that teachers should be trusted to assess their pupils in any way they feel is necessary during the course, and then assessment should be taken out of the hands of teachers in the final summative reckoning. It’s not a case of not trusting teachers, but of ameliorating their workload and ensuring the pressure of summative assessment is taken away from the educator. Having the educator prepare the test, especially when it’s a sample of the domain is unfair, considering the high-stakes nature of this assessment and external pressure from parents. In this case, teachers will always default to ‘teaching to the test’, which is a common complaint when preparing for terminal examinations, but will be exacerbated when the teacher has written the test!

Let’s see what we have in the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE):

Who writes the assessment?

Teachers, in the main. 70% of assessment that counts to ATAR is written by the teachers, who then deliver that assessment to their students. So pupils in different Schools are doing different assessments, written by their own teachers and graded by their own teachers. The teachers then choose the moderation sample themselves, which is a small fraction of the whole. Surely anyone can spot the flaw in this system?

Continuous assessment?

Yes, lots of it. On average, a pupil will produce around 75 assessment pieces that count during their final two years at School. This invasive assessment is akin to coaching a team that only plays matches but never trains. Assessment, far from retaining its key purpose (to find out what pupils know, remember?), has become a sum-goal grind, less about testing knowledge and understanding and more about producing the task by whatever means possible. Many teachers will write the assessment task before looking at how to teach the course – they then plot the most linear route to that task. If the task was different, so is the teaching, but that makes no sense educationally, right?

Generic assessment?

Yes, very. As is usually the case when assessment is not only high stakes but also internally controllable, it makes sense to both widen the hoops and to bring the hoops so close to the students’ heads that they can’t help but fall through them. It is in everyone’s interest for assessment to be unchallenging and controllable, with either multiple similar ‘practice assessments’ being implemented prior to the real thing or using a lengthy drafting process to polish pupil work.

High stakes v Low stakes?

It’s mostly all high stakes. Boys and girls build their ATAR from 75 assessment bricks. They don’t need to worry about expertise in a subject, because that isn’t really the goal. Satisfying assessment criteria, jumping through assessment hoops, submitting drafts and outsourcing work to tutors have all become the norm, and what has been squeezed out is the joy of learning and the satisfaction of developing expertise.

I suppose I would mind less if at least there was some honesty and transparency about the process. But there isn’t. This system of assessment that is ripe for gaming and actively promotes a tactical approach to education is advertised as a standard that is shifting at the pace of change. Whatever than means.

Tall poppies?

Teaching. There are many and varied reasons for choosing this career. I doubt that wealth features on people’s lists, but a deep interest in one’s subject and a desire to communicate that subject probably should feature highly. So should a genuine commitment to educating children in the widest sense of the word – to model the sort of behaviour we wish to see mirrored. Days full of human interaction are invigorating and make us feel alive. Teaching can be a wonderful experience if one commits to the above.

When I taught in the UK, I didn’t feel teaching was always awarded the status it deserved. It certainly wasn’t a low status profession, but the majority of people felt they could do the job. This was distinctly different from airline pilots or eye surgeons. Everyone has been to School, therefore everyone has an opinion on School. But many of those opinions were poorly informed and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been given soundbite advice from non-teachers. However, on the flip side, it was generally accepted that one needed to be clever to be a teacher. When informing people that I taught chemistry (and when we’d moved beyond the fact that their chemistry teacher was mad/old/hopeless), I was pleased to note the warming breeze of respect that fluttered over me as they realised I must know some difficult stuff to teach a difficult subject. This made me feel proud: being thought of as clever is pleasant.

In Australia, teaching is a relatively low-status profession. It is not a particularly competitive or desirable profession, as evidenced by the low ATAR requirements for teacher education courses at university. I think the pay is quite generous, but one is unlikely to become as rich as one might do, say, working in finance. So again, we are left clinging to the fact that at least the public perception of teachers as being clever people is assured, right? Wrong.

I am keen to simplify education and teaching. An effective teacher needs to understand their subject well, be able to communicate that subject well, and ideally have some charisma and intuition (regarding children) to accompany those essentials. The first point requires teachers to be clever – this is a pre-requisite if one is to become a subject expert. Flaubert said that ‘writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful‘. Teaching is similar – to make one’s subject come alive for children (at any level), one needs a massive ‘backstory’. We need anecdotes, historical context; weird, wonderful and forgotten stories; the people behind the discoveries, the lost manuscripts, the failures before the success and an ability to extend topics and stories in multiple directions.

It is possible to be a giant brain, with wonderful expertise, and to be poor at communicating this to children. But the first does not automatically lead to the second, and this is where things become problematic in Australia. There is a general assumption that the cleverer you are, the worse you will be at communicating your expertise to children, as though there is some inverse relationship at play. The exception has become the rule. I argue we are unlikely to be able to educate some of the finest minds of the next generation without employing some of the finest minds of the current one.

Not only does the above inverse relationship make little sense, it is actively damaging to the status of the profession to imply your intellectual ability is somehow irrelevant (or worse still, damaging) to your chances of being a successful teacher. Maybe we’re in classic ‘tall poppy’ territory, which is a concept beloved by Australians: if we’re going to give with one hand, it’s best to take with the other; we can’t have people getting above their station. This is ingrained so deeply that it even makes the following list (just after barbecue sauce, which give you an idea of the love Australians have for TPS):

https://thingsaussieslike.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/no-18-tall-poppy-syndrome/

Maybe we need to ditch the image of teacher as ‘Aussie battler’ and instead respect the profession for its expertise and intellect. Who knows? We might even raise the ATAR requirements into the 60s!

Do we really love our children enough?

One of the things I tend to ask prospective teachers when they come for interview is what they think education is for, or what’s its purpose. It tends to stump most people, a bit like when people ask you about your favourite books, and then you suddenly can’t think of a single one. I don’t mind what people say – social mobility, the passing on of a cultural literacy, preparation for the world of work – I just mind that people have spent a little time thinking about it. Otherwise, we’re just cogs in a machine, following the next lesson in the scheme of work, right? Some teachers talk about how much they enjoy working with children and young adults, which seems to be a pre-requisite for the job. I have occasionally worked with people who appeared to actively dislike children, but come to think of it, they disliked adults too.

In terms of the ultimate purpose of education, I’m with Hannah Arendt. Her seminal essay, The Crisis in Education, reads as relevant today as when published in 1954. She argues that we need to educate children in order for them to take responsibility for a world not of their making. We need to bring the world to them, and them to the world.

‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education (1954)

Much has been written about the Pygmalion (or Rosenthal) effect and the power of expectations. The reliably good Tom Sherrington has written about it here, in fact:

Great Teaching.  The Power of Expectations.

It is becoming harder, however, to insist on these high expectations [note, I am not talking about unrealistic expectations]. I have used the following line to parents: ‘please do not ask me to lower the standards I have for your son’, which always goes down well, until a point of tension is reached. Academic challenge becomes ever more strongly linked to stress, anxiety and mental health, with these words and phrases used ever more liberally. Directly in the cross-hairs are standardised assessment and examinations, and the fact these generally give the most reliable measure of student learning is perhaps more than a coincidence. The instant medicalisation of standard negative human emotions is a relatively recent practice, and it seems that one teacher’s high expectations can quickly become another’s unfair application of stress and pressure.

Do we love our children enough to maintain our high expectations, and to encourage them to develop genuine resilience and coping strategies; to work their way through difficult challenge and periods of uncertainty. Or do we love them so much that we rob them of the pleasure to be gained from overcoming challenges, instead seeking to whisk away all obstacles in their path? This mis-characterisation of care does little to help children, and instead becomes a banal ‘arms race’ [often played out on social media] for who can virtue signal their love of children loudest. Hashtags like #kidsdeserveit or #doingitforthekids are good identifiers of a commitment to low expectations.

Expecting more of the children we teach (and ourselves too; we are not immune) is perhaps the ultimate compliment to them. It shows that we believe in them – we know that they can, with our role to help, encourage and support. Making excuses and removing difficult or unpalatable situations will not breed resilience but encourage feebleness and entitlement. it will not ameliorate the concerns of children, but will make them less likely to be able to cope with problems further down the line. Normalising high expectations and effort, and occasional frustration, may do more good in the long run.

One question worth asking yourself is this: when was the last time any pupil reached the end of their schooling and thanked you for making things easy for them, for flattening the obstacles and skirting the challenge? Now compare with those who thanked you for believing in them and pushing them to be as good as you knew they could be.

Not a contest, is it?

The hate that dare not speak its name

I gave an assembly to Year 9 boys this week. They sit mid-year examinations during Term 2 and I speak to every year group about how to approach the tests. I give revision tips, explain how to behave during examination season and how to use papers for academic improvement once they are returned. By the time they’ve heard the same thing a few times, boys tend to tune out, so I mixed things up a little this time, and talked about exams in the context of the overall learning process. I explained that exams are a fair form of assessment; that they provide useful feedback to boys about their knowledge and understanding and feedback to us about how to adapt our teaching. I also talked a little about poetry, and I’ll pick up on that later.

Exams are neutral. They are diagnostic, like an X-ray or a dental check-up. They are neither good nor bad, though it seems that adult thinking makes it so. The hysteria about examinations (whether it be SATs in the UK, the examined component of the VCE in Victoria, or (going full tonto) NUI Galway’s need for ‘therapy dogs’ to calm students frazzled after a study session) has surely reached peak. There are two significant reasons for it, neither of which involve the children taking the papers.

Teachers: do not attempt to motivate your pupils by telling them how important exams are; by telling them these results will define the rest of their lives; by talking about how ‘this time it really counts’. Do not put countdown charts on walls. Do not attempt to improve performance by the introduction of fear. This is lazy teaching and the opposite of genuine motivation. You do not develop a healthy group dynamic by collective panic. Ensure your pupils are well taught, know how to revise, understand the style of the examination and how to approach the paper on the day. Make sure they take things seriously, but not to the point that the exam’s shadow is larger than the exam itself. Make sure they take joint responsibility for their performance, and know what they need to improve for next time. Make sure they know that almost examinations are formative; they take a reading, which may lead to certain adjustments being made. Help them to understand what these adjustments are and how they are implemented. Do not entertain phrases like ‘exam technique’ unless this is a genuine concern – most of the time ‘poor exam technique’ is ‘didn’t know the work well enough’. Disappointment when performance is not good is to be expected, and occasional disappointment is inevitable. Speak to performance in terms of individual progress and the individual’s journey, not in terms of absolute grades or relation to year level averages.

Adults in general: encourage your children to embrace occasional testing, as a necessary part of Schooling and an opportunity to show off all you have learned to that point. Do not reach for words like ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, ‘pressure’  and ‘overwhelming’, unless these are genuinely observed. Be careful with your words, for they may end up being self-fulfilling if used liberally and in advance of the tests themselves. Remember what it was like when you were a child faced with exams and tests, and try to find the words you wish someone had said to you. Build up children, don’t encourage them towards ‘learned helplessness’. Encourage them to face challenges head on, and to overcome these challenges, whilst providing that support to do so. Do not take away the obstacles before they have even reached them. Most children are far more resilient and robust than caring adults seem to think.

In my assembly, I referred to the Edward Thomas poem ‘Rain’, in the context of how much more enjoyment can be gained from a poem by knowing a little about the structure and rhythm of language and by understanding something of the historical background to the poem. I am not one for making children feel guilty, but a certain irony was not lost on me. Edward Thomas was meditating on his own likely death whilst sitting listening to the rain spatter on his corrugated iron hut [in fact, he was killed at the Battle of Arras, just one year later]. This experience is likely to provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. The idea that studying poetry like this and having to provide a written response under timed conditions could have a similar effect is grotesque. We must retain a sense of perspective. It is possible to care about things that matter without them taking over our lives.

Education and competition

I rarely write blogs as direct responses, but I thought I’d make an exception having read the following article, printed in The Advertiser earlier this month:

http://www.sace.sa.edu.au/about/publications/chief-executive-blog/sace-is-not-a-competition

It is written by the Chief executive of the SACE board, Martin Westwell. For those who are not aware, SACE is the South Australian equivalent of the HSC, or the IB, or A levels. The short post makes several points, some of which I agree with. In particular, the point about ‘gaming the system’ and employing a tactical approach to subject choice is something about which I have deep concerns.

Equity between subjects is important, and students should choose subjects based on interest, aptitude and ambition, not simply with an eye on maximising their ATAR. As Martin says:

If we define student success as doing better than someone else in a mythical competition then they and their teachers will feel pressure to play the game to win. Stay away from subjects which you might find difficult, “tick and flick” the Research Project, and learn for assessment rather than assess for learning.

The logical conclusion is that an effective assessment system should ensure parity between subjects. It should not be possible to improve academic outcomes solely through tactical choice of subjects. Students should be rewarded for their mastery of subjects, achievable via a combination of talent and hard work. But it is entirely possible to game the system in SACE. 70% of all assessment is internal, written by individual teachers. Most work is not subject to external moderation, and teachers choose most of the work that makes up the moderation sample. Many subjects are non-examined, which encourages students to stay away from these subjects, given the lack of ‘controllability’. Mathematics and English are tiered, and it is possible to gain the maximum possible ATAR (99.95) despite studying lower tiers. Hence, students are actively encouraged to stay away from subjects they might find difficult, which is precisely what Martin seeks to avoid. The post continues:

Education is not a competition. Our post-industrial, globalised world, doesn’t care if a student is winning or losing in a test against their peers. What the world cares about is what that student knows and, more importantly, what they can do with what they know. The world cares if the student is good enough to meet the world’s expectations, whether they are up to the standard. That is how the world measures student success.

There are multiple meanings of the word ‘standard’ at work here. A driving test is a binary standard – you either pass or fail. A system of assessment in education is similar in that it is also pass/fail; there are, however, a set of standards within the overall title of ‘pass’ – either you know enough for an A grade, or a B etc. The concept of a standard that refers to the world’s expectations is tricky to justify given the breadth of that concept. If we take ‘what they can do with what they know’ to be the main thing about which the world cares (and this is not unreasonable), ‘knowing’ is an essential part. Not sufficient, perhaps, but certainly necessary. We should be careful in embracing any narrative which seeks to downplay (or bypass) this importance of knowing. I’d also question when this has ever not been true – we have not sought to promote a nation of people who know things purely for the benefit of pub quizzes in the past! Finally, with 70% of SACE assessment completed during the final year of Schooling, one might also make the point that the world does not care what you know at various points during the year, only what you know by the end. Education (in the pure sense) may not have a finish line, but School does, and it should only matter what you know at the end point.

When skills have a half-life of five years they go out of date so quickly that being “skillable” is more important than ever. The world will judge our young people against this standard.

Here is another use of the word ‘standard’ and one I’m not sure I understand. I think it means there is such a thing as being ‘skillable’, which is to be able to learn new skills quickly (and presumably to be able to forget those skills that go out of date in five years or so). The problem here is that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are not only domain-specific but also reliant on deep knowledge within that domain. The oft-shared information from the WEF (below) lists the Top 10 Skills needed in both 2015 and 2020. It seems as though negotiation is on the way down, but creativity is on the way up! It’s difficult to find reasons for this, or to find a skill that is teachable explicitly (or new).

 

The standard is not just about knowledge and skills, it is about how you can use them in your life. Being able to take what you know and influence others, to work ethically, and to think a proposed solution to a problem all the way through to the end. That’s the standard. Demonstrating that you can harness diversity, make the most of technology, and have the entrepreneurial thinking to just get stuff done. That’s the standard.

Here’s another standard – the skills standard. Problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking are standards. As Paul Kirschner states, quoting from Daniel Willingham:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care most about – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).

Problem solving is not a transferable skill. I find it easy to solve problems in organic chemistry because I have expertise in that area. Solving the problem of my car not starting is a different matter. And back to the first point:

If we define student success as doing better than someone else in a mythical competition…

The competition only semi-mythical. Like it or not, there is an element of competition, and that can be healthy or unhealthy. There are a limited number of places for courses at university, and therefore students are in competition with their peers. Achieving the standard required to access a History degree at Oxford is only part of the story – you still need to be better than most of the other standard-hitting applicants to be accepted. And it’s important to get used to competition. In the job market, there’s usually only one successful applicant, and there may be large numbers of applicants who meet the required standard.

The SACE is not a competition. It’s a standard. A standard that is shifting at the pace of change. 

This is a final line that concerns me. Is the standard shifting up or down, or simply shifting focus? In any case, what does this mean for the students involved?