Educational Perjury

Rubber StampWhen one of our daughters was in preschool, we were presented with a lovely file containing lots of labelled photographs. The photos combined with the annotations were supposed to ‘prove’ all kinds of things about our daughter’s development. The time taken to compile all of this must have been significant. At the same time, our daughter was not, as far as we could tell, being taught any kind of objective knowledge in a coherent systematic way. For example, she was encouraged to discover her own way of writing the letters of the alphabet, rather than being required to begin a systematic course that would have given her the first steps towards attractive and legible handwriting.

It was clear that more time was being spent gathering ‘evidence’ than doing explicit teaching. In spending their time this way, staff were dutifully following the requirements of the early years curriculum, as the school interpreted them.

Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark, this obsession with so-called ‘evidence’ is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, the evidence isn’t even evidence. It is the recording of one current performance, not proof of any kind of fluent mastery. If a pupil knows something today, and we believe that means he will know it forevermore, we are deluding ourselves. Thus, if we spend time fabricating a wonderful one off performance for the sake of producing such spurious evidence, we are involved in nothing less than a time-wasting sham of education.

If current performance cannot determine mastery, does this mean that we should not be testing our pupils? Of course not. We should be testing our pupils very frequently. But the tests should be genuine tests, not fabricated performances, and we should not be abusing the results of the tests by claiming that they are evidence of mastery, or a lack of it.

Tests are an excellent way of consolidating knowledge that has already been taught. That is their key function. As a measure of mastery, they must be viewed with extreme suspicion. Even if everyone in the class scores 100℅ today, what will they score tomorrow? Or next month? We must always, always be on our guard against the widespread and pernicious fallacy that current performance is a measure of long term learning.

So how do we know when to move on? How can we ever have any confidence about whether our pupils have mastered something? Instead of generating spurious ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ this, or just ‘going with our gut’, we need to turn to programmes of instruction that have been tried and tested over many years and with many pupils, and look at the ways they build mastery using a carefully designed schedule of spaced and interleaved repetition. We need to look at how programmes designed by organisations such as the National Institute for Direct Instruction work, and either adopt those programmes, if they focus on the content and skills we want to teach, or do our best to apply their principles of instruction to what we are teaching.

If we’re serious about mastery, we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence. It’s educational perjury.

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15 thoughts on “Educational Perjury

  1. “we’ve got to stop wasting time faking evidence.”

    An interesting post. My take would be that we should only make claims that are supported by evidence therefore we should be clear which claims are justified.

    I don’t necessarily agree with “mastery” or “direct instruction” being used as coverall terms. I believe that direct instruction has it’s place as does mastery.

    My preferred reading is still ‘Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them?’ by Derek Rowntree. It is nice to be able to reflect on assessment via a text that is untainted by the nonsense that has pervaded the subject over the last 30 years. (not suggesting everything produced in the last 30 years is nonsense)

    I would be interested to know what you see as the role for testing in a context where testing today does not predict likely performance in the future. Why sould a teacher/pupil “move on” as a result of testing. If one isn’t going to know something in the future, why insist that they know it today?

    Do you believe that testing today should be able to predict that the testee will demonstrate that same performance on the same test at any time in the future?

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  2. If staff are spending more time ‘getting evidence’ than teaching & interacting with children, then they’re are doing the EYFS wrong. The statutory EYFS is very clear on this. As you say direct instruction has its place, as does mastery. I suspect what you call ‘finding her own way’ to write the alphabet is actually an attempt (poorly explained) to develop the physical fine motor skills of holding and wielding pencils properly and with control – direct handwriting instruction will happen in YR and beyond. Reception and Year one teachers will tell you many children do not have the right physical skills for writing, which makes learning it harder and frustrating for children.
    I suggest you visit a preschool and reception class using the EYFS to make learning explicit and where children make great progress.
    I agree with you about mis-using evidence as examples of mastery. However, sitting young children down for tests is damaging and ineffective and the data will be unreliable. (Just look at the Baseline fiasco). Of course lots of people will jump up and tell me their 3 year old likes nothing more than a test…but the reality is that most cannot and do not, and time spent testing 3 – 5 year olds is time wasted not teaching, interacting and supporting learning. One example of something is not evidence. That is why we need to build a highly qualified workforce of early years teachers with excellence in professional knowledge of child development and teaching – and trust and value that knowledge.

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    • There are all kinds of ways of doing low stakes tests. They are an excellent way to build mastery. Take a look at the Learning Scientists blog.

      If handwriting were generally taught systematically at primary school, most pupils would enter secondary with decent handwriting. They don’t. Take a look at the Getty-Dubay handwriting course for the kind of thing I would like to see used.

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      • They are taught handwriting in primary school. As soon as they get to secondary, they revert back to their natural hand because it is no longer taught there or reinforced. The most important skill towards good handwriting for young children is the development of fine motor coordination and muscle strength required to write. That’s why EYFS teachers spend a good deal of time with children on manipulating small objects. Without the physical motor skills in place, the rest won’t follow. Of course, every early years specialist knows this, which explains why it may be better for secondary teachers to stay within their sphere of knowledge and experience. The goal is knowledge, not assumption.

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      • If they had mastered handwriting, they would keep doing it at secondary school. As for needing certain motor skills before being ready to write, I don’t dispute it, and have plenty of experience of it as a father of five young children. Handwriting should be taught properly starting at an appropriate age. But playing around pretending to write is something children can do without expensive tax funded professionals hovering around them.

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  3. Any muscular activity requires regular practice and reinforcement or it’s lost as I’m learning to my cost having taken a break from running. And of course there are different styles of handwriting – we can often recognise the distinctive and personal handwriting of others. But what you complete ignore in your blog is the purpose of those files of what you call “evidence”. For most parents, they’re not an early indication of whether or not their child will be academically successful, but a treasured set of memories, carefully collected and curated by nursery staff. My children still treasure theirs. I didn’t send my children to nursery to be hot housed. I sent them so they’d develop their social skills, be happy, play and so that I could work. Testing them at that age would be ludicrous. My eldest took his messy handwriting all the way through Oxford university and beyond. The middle son, with his pristine handwriting is more interested in art. There is no correlation between neatness and achievement. There is a need in the early years for children to develop their vocabulary, confidence, ability to share and take turns, use the toilet and a knife and fork. There is a need for them to build up the fine motor skills and strength required to write my manipulating small objects as often as possible. There is no need at all for them to acquire academic knowledge and be tested. For what? So their parents can brag?

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    • You’re talking about things that families teach, not expensive tax funded professionals. And I’d rather make my own family photo albums.

      It’s never too early to start building worthwhile knowledge. Why should it be such an issue?

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  4. Sadly, this blog demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage.

    In itself, I have no problem with that as few teachers have deep knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and best practices.

    However, to be dismissive of the whole EYFS in the way you have may lead the reader to conclude that you are, by association, dismissing the work of Early Years professionals.

    I’m sure that this was not your intention but that is the overwhelming impression I got.

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  5. Ha! “Like joyriding through a multistorey carpark” is a PERFECT description of the impression the so-called “spiral” approach to curriculum gives me every time I see one based on this, ah, “principle”. Brings me to mind of the carpark in Edmonton Airport having quite literally, a spiral (actually helix, but you get the drift…) ramp through the levels of the carpark.

    I’m definitely going to steal that metaphor (actually simile but you get the drift …)

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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