Can Research Happen at School?

House: he knows a lot. That's why he's an expert.

House: he knows a lot. That’s what makes him an expert.

I recently had a very enjoyable time debating the place of research in the school curriculum. Many commentators were rather unclear about what research actually is. In academic subjects, research is a contribution to the sum total of knowledge, which is achieved by those who have thoroughly mastered what is already known, and spot an opportunity for pushing the subject further. They are, of course, standing on the shoulders of giants. They need to have reached an expert level in their subject, something which takes, on average, ten years of hard graft.

Clearly, this is not possible at school level. So what are school teachers actually asking for when they tell pupils to ‘research a topic’? Really this typically means ‘go and find out some relevant information about it, and report back’. Teachers are not in fact asking pupils to research. They are simply asking them to study, but without specifying exactly what they will study. The results will be uncertain, and the process will be highly time consuming. The opportunity cost will be large, and the outcome doubtful. More successful outcomes are likely to depend upon a high level of parental intervention.

At undergraduate level, students are never given such a blank canvas. They receive lectures which give them an overview of core content, and reading lists which allow them to study it in greater depth. This is not research. It is not even independent study, because the course leader has specified the topic, given a didactic overview of it, and demarcated the further reading which will deepen understanding. So those in charge of undergraduate courses are aiming, as Daniel Willingham suggests school teachers should, for deep understanding, not the creation of new knowledge (see Why Don’t Students Like School?, Chapter Six).

When the course is assessed, university academics will want to know what the students know. They will not be interested in ill-informed opinions, however ‘original’. It always helps to clarify these sorts of issues if one thinks of the study of medicine. There, ignorant, opinionated approaches could cost people their lives.

Most university education is in fact very traditional, which is why school pupils who have spent years in a progressive stew of ignorant opinions and empty self esteem are very likely to do poorly at university. A friend of my wife’s, who has taught history at a good university, which requires high A-level grades for entry, told my wife that she must assume that students know nothing when they arrive from school. After how many years of school history?? But of course they did lots of ‘research projects’ at school. That’s one of the reasons they know so little by the time they leave.

University readiness cannot be developed by working on mythical transferable skills of research and critical thinking. Thinking critically about a subject is dependent on knowledge of that subject, and true university readiness comes from receiving a thorough grounding in core knowledge at school, not wasting time pretending to be a professor at the age of twelve.

(Caricature of Dr House by Nelson Santos. Source: Wikimedia.)

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You’re the Expert; Get Used to It

That's actually rather a heavy piece of metal for a seventeen year old to pilot.

That’s actually rather a heavy piece of metal for a seventeen year old to pilot.

I remember talking to a friend years ago about how it felt to have passed her driving test. She said that when she was at the wheel by herself for the first time, she found herself thinking, “Shouldn’t there be a grown-up around here . . . ? Oh wait, that’s me!”

Let loose on the road, often at a very tender age, drivers carry their own lives and the lives of others in the palms of their hands. They need to grow up very rapidly, and take responsibility, or disaster looms around the next corner in the winding country lane.

As teachers, we are let loose on the young people in our charge. Like it or not, they look to us for guidance, and they look to us for knowledge. For many of them, we are the only people who will ever, I mean ever, talk to them about literature, or chemistry, or history. We have this short space of time in which to make a difference: the very few hours we will spend with them in the classroom, and the time we direct outside class in the form of homework.

If we’re not the expert in their lives, then who is? Television presenters? Pop stars?

For the most disadvantaged (which doesn’t always mean those who are materially the poorest), if we don’t give them the knowledge, then they probably never will get it. If we don’t add to their store of cultural capital, they will remain impoverished, because knowledge builds on knowledge. The increasing dominance of electronic distractions in life outside school makes school time all the more unique and precious, as a space in which young people can focus on listening to people who know what they are talking about, and who aim to share that knowledge with them.

Wait a minute, ‘people who know what they’re talking about’? Who’s that?

I’m that person. I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. They’re looking to me to enlighten them, to set them free from the trap of ignorance which could cripple them for life.

So I’d better get serious about improving my own subject knowledge. How many poems do I know by heart? Not enough. Is there an important author I’ve always neglected because I found them a little, well . . . dull? I’d better start reading some of their novels / plays / poems. Have I thoroughly memorised a schema of the history of English literature? Sort of . . . but it’s not good enough.

I’m not there yet, not by a long way. But I’m not happy with that situation, and I’m working on it, because I need to be the expert, for the sake of my pupils.

And what I can never, never do is dodge the issue, by piously proclaiming that I don’t want to indoctrinate them by just telling them what think.

(Image from Wikimedia)

‘Research’ Homeworks Are a Waste of Time

'The Young Sabot Maker' by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). The Apprenticeship model still prevails at university level.

‘The Young Sabot Maker’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). The apprenticeship model still prevails at university level.

Should we set research homeworks? For pupils up to sixteen, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. There could be some limited space for it at A level, as long as the research is clearly demarcated through the use of judiciously selected secondary material, as it is at undergraduate level through the provision of reading lists.

Research homeworks fit well into the philosophy of discovery learning. They are used to promote the supposed transferable skill of investigating and weighing up source validity. But how can pupils weigh up source validity when they lack deep knowledge? Research is not required at university level until the very end of a degree, in the form of a dissertation in one’s final year. Even then, undergraduate dissertations are expected to be more of a summary of current knowledge than anything new. Genuine research does not take place until postgraduate level. A doctoral dissertation is the first occasion on which students are expected to contribute something to the sum total of subject knowledge. Before that time, they are expected to master what is already known, and master it thoroughly, for the closed book, broad ranging examinations which, thank goodness, still prevail at university level in our best institutions.

This is a wise model, which has not significantly changed for centuries. It is still the traditional model of the novice sitting at the feet of the master. Until they have attained mastery themselves, it is nonsense to expect pupils to do genuine research. As Daniel Willingham points out, schoolteachers should be aiming for deep understanding in their pupils, not the creation of new knowledge (See Why Don’t Students Like School?, Chapter Six).

And yet we have the odd idea at school level that by sending off twelve year olds to look things up on the internet, we are developing some mysterious kind of skill which will help them in later years. What will actually help them in later years is well mastered general knowledge. It is only novices who need to look things up frequently, and often they fail to understand what they look up, or they cannot properly assess its validity, because they lack the expertise to discriminate effectively. They would be much better off were an expert to explain the topic to them.

Our time, and our pupils’ time, is extremely precious. We need to maximise the effectiveness of that time, by providing clearly organised subject knowledge and focusing on using methods that will enable all of our pupils to master it. If there is core knowledge that they need to know well, we need to give it to them at the start of the course, and create many opportunities for repeated practice until it is firmly in place. We cannot afford to waste time letting pupils ‘discover’ it through fictional ‘research’.

Research homeworks are just as inefficient as all of the other discovery learning activities which have created ignorant, opinionated pupils over recent decades. Giving pupils the core knowledge straight, and expecting them to master it, is not spoon feeding. It’s putting three square meals on the table, full of nourishing and wholesome food.

Grinning Pupils in Glossy Brochures

Science ExperimentThe contents of a typical school brochure vividly portray the progressive ideology which dominates our education system.

Firstly, there are all of the pictures of pupils and staff with broad grins on their faces. These are supposed to convey the idea that ‘we make learning fun!’ But idiotic grins do not signify any kind of deep satisfaction in what one is doing. They are more likely to signify distraction. Properly focused teachers and pupils are more likely to have a frown of concentration on their faces, because they’re really straining their mental muscles.

The rare photos that do not feature toothy grins will feature something ‘creative’ or ‘active’. The only time you’re allowed to be really focused is when you are running towards the touchline, about to score the winning try, or when you’re playing a violin concerto for a rapt audience. This betrays one of the obvious contradictions in schools addicted to progressive dogma. Learning maths has to be natural and fun, but playing rugby or the violin will feature lots of drills and hard work. Without that, how would the school gain glory against its competitors? And of course the rugby or violin performance is public, so it would be rather embarrassing for the school if it were rubbish. Whereas the rubbish maths performance goes on behind closed doors, well away from the gaze of parents.

Another variation on the grin is permitted when you’re wearing protective goggles in the laboratory, as you gaze at a test tube full of frothing, colourful liquid. Then you can have the seraphic expression of a scientific genius as he reaches his ‘eureka moment’. It’s the joy of discovery learning! Never mind that your lesson was mostly filled with laborious, mistake-ridden mess, and an uncertain conclusion, which the teacher could have explained in five minutes, and you could have spent the rest of the lesson studying in depth and memorising thoroughly. You’ve discovered something for yourself! You’ve discovered that when you combine the thingummy with the whatsit, it goes all frothy and cool! And you’ve got lots of funny stories to tell your mates later about broken test tubes and funny smells! Eureka!

And we mustn’t forget the pictures of a teacher leaning over a group which has busily been discussing the finer points of a Shakespeare sonnet. They smile as they share the journey of literary discovery together. Then the teacher can drift on to the next group and find out what wonderful insights they have gained into the subtleties of the Bard’s language. What the photographer doesn’t record is the moment when the teacher walks away, and the group return, with a sigh of relief, to their avid discussion of last night’s football results. They will spend about five minutes of that lesson focused on Shakespeare, and four of those will be when the teacher is talking to the whole class. The other one will be the time he spends talking to their group.

Of course I don’t object to seeing pupils smiling and enjoying learning. Learning really is enjoyable. But the smile should be a smile of satisfaction at a job well done, not an idiotic, empty-headed grin. I look forward to seeing prospectuses in the near future which give some idea of what is really needed for learning to occur. I look forward to seeing pictures of teachers teaching and pupils listening. I look forward to seeing images of pupils frowning in concentration as they grapple with a really difficult concept or memorise a really beautiful piece of poetry. I think there are plenty of parents out there who are more interested in their children learning something than in their being entertained.

(Image from Wikimedia)

How I Survived Teacher Training

Teacher training: swamps to avoid, metaphors to disentangle . . .

Teacher training: swamps to avoid, metaphors to disentangle . . .

I trained in 2003, in the early years of the Graduate Teacher Programme, the forerunner of School Direct. Looking back on the experience, I am thankful for many things.

Firstly, I am thankful that I avoided doing a PGCE. I did have to visit the university which sponsored my training, and I did have to write one or two essays, but it was very light touch, and the main focus was the practical training in the school. Hilariously, the only thing which was taken really seriously was the noddy little numeracy, literacy and computer skills test. That was truly non-negotiable.

When I did visit the university, I was treated to my tutor’s views on how ‘teacher talk’ was like the telegraph poles holding up the wire. The wire, of course, was all the wonderful independent work the pupils were doing, despite the teacher not having taught them anything to speak of. Fortunately, the influence of this typically progressivist denizen of the academic world was tempered by the down to earth wisdom of a retired headteacher, who had recently taken charge of running the GTP at the university. In the end, it was he who signed me off, and I think he did it more because he thought I would make a decent teacher than because I had jumped through any ideological hoop. So that was a lucky escape.

I was also extremely fortunate in the school where I trained. It was a grant maintained comprehensive with a very average intake that had an excellent reputation in the local area. Although its facilities were nothing special, it was distinguished in those days by senior management who took discipline very seriously. There was an efficient centrally managed and staffed detention system, which all staff were at liberty to use as they saw fit. As a result, pupils knew that if they misbehaved or failed to do their work properly, they could look forward to spending an hour after school the following day in silence, copying out the school rules. The school was therefore generally a well ordered and civilised place.

And if that wasn’t enough to fill my cup of blessing, there was the head of English, a jovial fellow who had a healthy contempt for group work as a means of teaching. He called it ‘shared ignorance’. He lectured his classes, but his lectures were interspersed with jokes and banter. He was popular with pupils, and the school had a good record of GCSE results.

I didn’t know how good I had it, until I moved school for my year as a newly qualified teacher, and began to taste the pain of a much more bog standard comprehensive . . .

At least I was able to enter that world of pain without the baggage of anti-educational progressive dogma which still burdens so many newly qualified teachers.

(Image from Wikimedia)

Progressivism: A Very Short Definition

Literacy and numeracy don't grow in the hedgerows.

Literacy and numeracy don’t grow in the hedgerows.

There are two key mantras of progressive dogma: naturalism and formalism.

Naturalism is the idea that education happens naturally, like the growth of a plant, and teachers need to stand back and let it unfurl.

Formalism is the idea that factual knowledge is unimportant; it is transferable skills that count.

Naturalism is plausible because it does describe the way we learn our mother tongue. But it is wrong because there is nothing natural about the acquisition of literacy, numeracy or academic subject knowledge. You could stare at a tree your whole life without ever learning about photosynthesis. The human race existed for many generations before the alphabet or base ten mathematics were even invented.

Formalism is plausible because there is such a thing as general skill in reading and picking up new skills with facility. Formalism is wrong because this general facility is based on good general knowledge. It is also wrong because specific skills always require specific knowledge. Experts are experts because they know a lot about their subject; it is novices who must look things up, and this prevents them from thinking efficiently. In order to think like an expert, you need expertise, which means large amounts of knowledge at your fingertips.

(See E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need, p218-222, for more detailed and eloquent definitions and refutations).

Independence and the National Curriculum

Should state power be used to enforce educational uniformity?

Should state power be used to enforce educational uniformity?

Only a school system which specifically defines the knowledge and skill required to participate effectively in each successive grade can be excellent and fair for all students (E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 1996).

We have a strong tradition of independence in British education, which contrasts strongly to the more centrally directed approach of other nations such as Spain, where even private schools are required to follow the national curriculum, and to give evidence to state officials that they are doing so (although a Spanish friend tells me this is only strictly enforced when the Socialists are in power). The Gove revolution in education has tended to see independence as a source of strength, and has thus extended elements of it to tax-funded schools.

At the same time, though, there is a tendency in the current administration to seek greater control, through punitive use of Ofsted, and efforts to strengthen the national curriculum with more rigorous requirements.

This is an inherent tension in the ongoing reforms. On the one hand, there is an admiration of much about the independent sector and a desire to replicate it in state schools. On the other hand, there is a wish to use the national curriculum as a means to raise standards, when independent schools have never been required to follow it.

This ambivalence towards a centrally directed curriculum is partly a consequence of the damage done to its credibility, damage which has been inflicted by the repeated progressivist hijacking of the curriculum in order to dumb down content in favour of complex formalist requirements. Such requirements are heavy on paperwork, but essentially empty in terms of measuring the learning of core knowledge. Ramping up bureaucratic surveillance of the fulfillment of complicated but empty requirements has been an excellent method for discrediting the whole process of defining a curriculum, which has been hated by the progressive professoriat from the beginning.

It’s heartbreaking to read E D Hirsch writing in 1996 (in The Schools We Need) about how Britain has finally turned the corner and embraced the need for a properly organised system of education with a national curriculum. He’s referring to the 1987 curriculum, put together mostly by the very experts who were intent on removing academic rigour from our education system. It wasn’t until Gove arrived that we had an education minister who knew that he could not trust the experts. Gove had, of course, read Hirsch’s analysis of the progressivist destruction of educational standards. He knew his enemy.

But a good national curriculum is not a burden. It is a great aid, because it removes from schools and teachers a lot of the planning. A good national curriculum clearly sets out the cumulative sequence of knowledge through the years, so that pupils can start each year ready to build on the knowledge they learned previously. To achieve this, we need something much more specific and concrete. The 2014 curriculum moved in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. We need a curriculum which actually specifies which works of literature pupils should read in year seven, for example. Think of it as a large scale knowledge organiser.

It’s also worth remembering that specifying content does not mean specifying methods. As long as their pupils are learning, teachers should be left alone to do their jobs. There should be no ideological specification of methods, just a pragmatic insistence that the core knowledge should be mastered, because if it isn’t, the pupils won’t be ready to start the next year. This could be measured by annual objective tests of core knowledge. If the pupils of a teacher were persistently performing poorly in these, it would up to the head to take action. Ofsted inspections would consist chiefly of looking at results and checking that heads had proper processes in place for dealing with poor performance.

And if such a helpful national curriculum existed, should independent schools be required to follow it? Definitely not. Their independence is a precious part of British culture that should be protected. But if the curriculum was actually a useful aid instead of being an ineffective burden, then many independent schools would want to follow it in any case. They may decide to make it, say, seventy percent of their curriculum. Pupils often transfer between schools, including between state and private schools, and it would make sense to schools to be part of a coherent national programme which minimises the disruption caused by such transfers.

(Image from Wikimedia)