Making Excellence Ordinary in Norfolk

mundesleyThe history of education in Norfolk has had a very personal impact upon me. My mother grew up in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. I have many fond memories of childhood holidays building sandcastles at Mundesley, visiting windmills and rowing around the Broads.

My mother left because she was the only one of her family to go to university. Her father, my Grandad Tony, had left home at fourteen to join the merchant navy, and once he left the sea, he wandered between many jobs on land, including working as a cowherd. There was nothing wrong with his brains, though. When he was convalescing in hospital while my mother was at university, she gave him a copy of War and Peace, and he loved it. He was also a great fan of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and he could certainly give convincing political lectures.

But there were virtually no books in the house when my mother was growing up. She discovered books at school, and she went to university because of the school she attended for sixth form, in Norwich. It had been a girls’ grammar, and had only just started the process of turning into a comprehensive. At the top end, it was still a grammar school, and she had three excellent English teachers who inspired her and encouraged her to apply to Cambridge. It was there that she met my father, who was from a completely different background: the Radices had always been public school, Oxbridge types. If it hadn’t been for those teachers in that school in Norwich, I would not exist. It was because of them that the daughter of a cowherd and the son of a senior Treasury official met and married.

As with so many people, the arguments about academic selection cause me to reflect on how educational policy has affected me personally, and those whom I love. It seems likely that had she lived in later years, when comprehensivisation was complete in Norfolk, my mother would not have gone to Cambridge. But she was the exception in her family. She was lucky. The goal must be to offer such opportunities to everyone.

My mother’s example will stay strongly in my mind as I move to Norfolk next year, and work to provide access to knowledge for every young person who attends the schools in the Inspiration Trust. It should not be an exceptional event for a working class girl to have her mind opened to the wonders of great literature. It should be ordinary. And how are we going to make it ordinary?

We cannot reform education based on what is exceptional. We cannot depend upon a few exceptionally talented, gifted people to effect change on a large scale. We need to build something that will make ordinary classrooms places where ordinary pupils can learn about the great ideas which are the heritage of all humanity. We need to build a coherent curriculum, delivered through methods that immerse the whole class in specific domains of knowledge.

This really is achievable for any school. One of the things that is so attractive about E D Hirsch is his optimism, which is based not on vague ideas but upon the practical experience of helping to create core knowledge schools. He comments in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, that ‘I have witnessed over and over that in a coherent school most teachers can become highly effective’ (p35).

But Hirsch is also clear that a coherent curriculum cannot be implemented without better ideas. Unless those who design and deliver the curriculum are convinced that access to rich, structured subject knowledge is the key to success, and that such knowledge can be transmitted to all pupils, regardless of social background, then they will continue to be bogged down in the failed ideas that have been holding us back for so many decades. They will be hampered by the notion that only a select few are capable of grasping academic knowledge, or that it is tyrannical to impose upon ordinary people the knowledge which the elite has always possessed.

As a teenager in Norwich in the early seventies, my mother didn’t feel oppressed by the traditional teachers who presumed to introduce her to the great writers of the literary canon. On the contrary, she was inspired at the time, and has been grateful ever since. I want to make her proud by giving similar opportunities to the young people growing up in Norfolk today.

(Photo of Mundesley by Philip Halling).

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Liberation from Levels

800px-charlesdickens

This man wrote ‘effectively’. But was his writing ‘sophisticated’?

Since national curriculum levels were abandoned, schools have had to build their own systems for describing and assessing progress. Unfortunately, as with many of their new found freedoms, few schools are making the most of this opportunity to transform curriculum and assessment, and make them more specific, reliable and meaningful. Instead, they are producing schemes of work and assessment filled with recycled versions of the old national curriculum level descriptors.

It’s understandable that schools do not want to leave level descriptors behind. They were statutory for many years, and they are still used by examination boards to describe grades. The only problem is, they are nonsense, and educationally harmful nonsense, too.

For writing, they typically involve statements like ‘wide vocabulary’ or writing ‘effectively’, or writing with ‘sophistication’. What do these words actually mean? How ‘wide’ is ‘wide’? What does ‘sophisticated’ look like? Such statements do not provide an objective standard of measurement, because they are open to multiple interpretations.

A far better method of assessing writing is by ranking it. Systematised comparative judgement looks like an excellent way of harnessing the reliability of ranking. Teachers cannot agree consistently on a mark for any given piece of writing, but they can agree very consistently, when shown two pieces of writing, on which one is better.

Even in the absence of the more systematised comparative judgement, teachers can mark by ranking. When they have a set of essays or stories to mark, they can put them in a rank order, and if they have to assign a grade, they can do so according to that rank order.

An experienced marker is doing some kind of comparative judgement in any case. He will say ‘I know what an A looks like’. What this means, is that he has marked hundreds or even thousands of pieces of work and compared them mentally, placing A grade work at the top of the rank order. An experienced marker will never be thinking to himself, as he gazes at a mark scheme, ‘Now is this sophisticated, or is this effective?’ Even if he uses those words because the mark scheme tells him to, what he will really be thinking is, ‘Is this top, middle or bottom? How does this compare to the best writing I’ve seen?’ and similar questions.

As well as being hopeless for accurate assessment, level descriptors undermine efforts to build a knowledge curriculum. They tend to be generic. In the study of literature, they will contain statements like ‘Can analyse the author’s use of language’. If we’re measuring progress against vague, general statements like this, we will not be thinking in terms of content that must be mastered, but in terms of general skills that can supposedly be demonstrated with any content. The content becomes indifferent.

Level descriptors take us away from specific content, because they never say clear, specific things like ‘Knows in what century Chaucer lived’, or ‘Knows Chaucer’s attitude towards late medieval society’. In fact, it’s rare to see the word ‘knows’ in a level descriptor. They tend to be about what you can do, not what you know, and thus they perpetuate the myth of general skills divorced from specific domains of knowledge.

If we want to assess attainment meaningfully, and if we want to build a knowledge-rich curriculum focused on specific content, we need to consign level descriptors to educational oblivion. Once we’ve left them behind, we will be able to focus our attention on specific content that should be mastered, and measure attainment against exemplar work.

Specific content and exemplar work give teachers and pupils something clear and definite to aim for. Pupils will be relieved and pleased to be shown a definite way forward, instead of wandering in the vague territory of the difference between ‘effective’ and ‘sophisticated’. And teachers will be able to say to pupils, ‘I want you to know this’ and ‘I want you to be able to write like this’, instead of muddling around with grade boundaries and tick boxes.

Direct Instruction: The Great Equaliser

SnowflakeClever people are good at identifying patterns. That’s why aptitude tests always include exercises in pattern spotting. Whatever the pattern might be, the sharper people are more likely to spot it with less need to have it explained to them.

But whatever someone’s aptitude, they can grasp a pattern if it is clearly explained to them and they practise sufficiently.

That’s the difference between look and say and systematic phonics. A clever person will teach themselves to decode letters if they see enough print. They are spotting the patterns, and effectively giving themselves a course in phonics. But someone who is less good at identifying patterns will only know how to read the whole words that they have seen, or very similar ones. Because they have not been systematically trained in phonics, and they do not have the ability to teach themselves to decode, they are crippled by their ignorance of the alphabetic code, and unable to read unfamiliar words.

In the middle of the twentieth century, after several decades of look and say dominance, many American educators were openly saying that a large proportion of the population were simply non-literate. They had come to this conclusion because they had been using methods that only worked effectively with the most intelligent pupils. They had been using methods which denied effective reading skills to many, while giving a disproportionate advantage to a cognitive elite.

Of course, many parents weren’t happy with this. The new methods had been foisted upon their children without their say. Reactionary fools that they were, they didn’t like to be told that their children were ‘non-literate’, and, for some reason, they still wanted their children to learn their ABCs.

This battle has been going on for a century. It’s still going on, on both sides of the Atlantic, despite Jeanne Chall’s research and Project Follow Through, because of widespread ideological repugnance for the principles of direct instruction: whole class teaching, careful sequencing, repetitive drill, and large amounts of practice. If you think children should go at their own pace, and that learning should be fun, you just won’t want to teach like this. Especially because, as a university graduate, you’re one of those people who spotted the patterns with little help, so why shouldn’t your pupils do the same?

The issues at stake in the reading wars apply across the curriculum. Will we use thorough, explicit and carefully sequenced methods that allow everyone to make progress, or will we continue with an incoherent curriculum in which only the highly intelligent can spot the patterns?

The Myth of Thinking Skills

Latin Labelled Brain

A century ago, half of all American high school students were enrolled on Latin courses. It was a high water mark for traditional academic study in the USA, following the recommendations of the Committee of Ten, and before the progressive influence began to take hold through institutions such as Columbia Teachers College.

The vast majority of these students of Latin were not intending to go to college. Their decision to study such traditional material was not therefore part of a college prep programme. Why was Latin so popular? The answer lies in the fact that Latin was the subject which had the highest reputation as a method for training the mind. Most parents and students believed that the intellectual element of education primarily consisted of developing mental discipline.

In other words, Latin, and other traditional academic studies, were primarily justified on the basis of what we would nowadays call transferable skills. Even if you never read a word of Latin after school, the argument ran, you would have a more agile mind which would perform better in any task, if you put yourself through the mental gymnastics of translating Caesar. It’s an argument we still hear today from the likes of Neville Gwynne.

Unfortunately for those who justify the study of Latin in this way, experimental psychology has consistently shown, from the late nineteenth century onwards, that it is a myth. Your ability to translate Latin does not have any measurable impact upon your general mental capabilities.

There’s a delicious irony here, of which few people are aware. A century ago, traditionalists used the concept of mental discipline to justify the study of Latin. They lost the argument, and Latin faded from the curriculum, along with the general respect for academic study for all, regardless of whether they were bound for college. A hundred years later, the same argument was used to empty the curriculum of content in, for example, the 2007 National Curriculum for England and Wales. It didn’t matter what you studied, the argument ran, so long as you developed thinking skills and creativity. Knowledge would quickly become obsolete anyway in the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, so you just needed to ‘learn how to learn’.

Progressives helped to destroy the myth of transferable skills in the early twentieth century, only to revive the same myth in the early twenty-first century. In both cases, it was the traditional academic curriculum which was the enemy. In both cases, this curriculum was seen as outdated and irrelevant to the lives of most students in the modern world, so it ended up being reserved for the privileged few.

Most traditionalists shot themselves in the foot by depending on a myth a century ago. But there have been other voices, then and now, who have defended teaching academic subject matter to all students not on the basis of mental training, but on the basis of powerful knowledge. As Diane Ravitch points out:

Mental discipline was objectionable not only to progressive educators, but to liberal educators who believed that knowledge and understanding were of far greater importance than the alleged power gained from mental gymnastics. James H. Baker, a dissenting member of the Committee of Ten, had argued that “mere form, mere power, without content, means nothing. Power is power through knowledge. The very world in which we are to use our power is the world which we must first understand in order to use it. The present is understood, not by the power to read history, but by what history contains.” (Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, p62)

The mind grows when it is nourished with powerful knowledge, and all are capable of acquiring a huge amount of such knowledge if traditional methods are used to inculcate it. It really does matter what you study, and the best preparation for a useful and enjoyable life is a broad, knowledge rich curriculum that gives students access to serious reading and discussion.

The Illusion of Progress in Longer Lessons

Can we be sure our observations reflect reality?

Can we be sure our observations reflect reality?

Learning is invisible, as David Didau loves to point out. We can only observe current performance, and if we take current performance as a guide to long term learning, we are deluding ourselves.

The fact that learning is invisible renders graded lesson observations invalid. It is the height of hubris to claim to be able to observe progress, or lack of it, in the space of one lesson. The pernicious practice of grading lessons has been abandoned by Ofsted, but it is still poisoning the lives of many teachers across the country, as this blog post illustrates painfully and vividly.

The obsession with the lesson as a unit of time in which certain fixed things must take place has had another damaging result: the introduction of ever longer lessons. A colleague in an independent school where I previously worked once lamented the thirty-five minute slots used there, and reminisced about the eighty minute lessons of her former state school employer. She claimed that the pupils really went on a ‘learning journey’ in those longer lessons.

This ‘learning journey’ is precisely the kind of illusion which gives the appearance of progress, while slowing down the process of genuine mastery. In eighty minutes all sorts of performances can be extracted from pupils, and after having ‘journeyed’ through so many of them, they will doubtless be ready to perform some beautiful hoop-jumping that will impress an inspector who is suffering from the hubris mentioned above.

But does all this wonderful performance mean that they have actually remembered anything? In fact, this long period of time spent on one topic doing all sorts of activities is precisely the worst way of acquiring mastery.

Long term remembering is greatly aided by spacing and interleaving. Spacing is doing small amounts of practice separated by intervals of time. When you do this, the fact that you start to forget the material and have to make the effort to recover it helps to forge long-term memories. Interleaving works in a similar way, but instead of just space between practice, you do something different between each session. Doing something different is even more effective at causing that partial forgetting which is so useful in the long term for remembering (see Wrong Book, p192 and p228 for more detail on these principles).

In a traditional school timetable, with lots of brisk, short lessons in different subjects, spacing and interleaving is just part of normal business. Pupils continually have to make the effort to remember what they did last time, thus helping them to forge long term memories.

Of course, it’s hard work, and longer lessons could have a much greater feel-good factor, especially if the teacher has slaved away to make those eighty minutes a veritable theme park of thrilling educational rides. After all, one couldn’t actually expect them to work for eighty minutes, right?

UPDATE: Heather Fearn has written about this as well, here.

(Image from Wikimedia).

The Quest for Knowledge

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

The principles of a liberal education are actually rather simple. Pupils will encounter the greatest minds of the past, and from this encounter they will gain the insights to seek after truth and goodness for themselves. Liberal education equips pupils to ask the most fundamental questions: ‘What is man?’, ‘What is the good life?’, ‘What is the good society?’

The principles are indeed simple, but in practice it is very difficult to offer or to a receive a liberal education in twenty-first century Britain. Why is that?

Firstly, we are cut off from the past by a mistaken idea of relevance. Teachers are reluctant to foist ancient material on pupils, thinking that they will reject it as unconnected to their lives. But this lack of connection is only at the most superficial level. Relevance properly understood transcends the immediate concerns of the present. The greatest thinkers are always relevant, because they address the most important human questions, the questions which are of deep relevance to every human being: questions about significance and purpose in the face of mortality, for example. Last time I read the newspaper, death had not yet been abolished, and we are still just as mortal as Socrates.

The second key barrier to a liberal education is relativism. If there is no truth about the human condition, then we cannot expect to benefit at the deepest level from reading serious books, so why put forth the effort?

E D Hirsch is right to point out that exposure to a generous sample of great writers is vital to build cultural literacy, and allow our pupils to gain admission to the civilised conversation of our society. He is right that the ability to read effectively depends upon a good store of core knowledge built up through familiarity with the great legends and myths which have shaped Western society. His arguments are compelling from the point of view of social justice, as they must be accepted if we are to offer equal chances to those from homes that lack cultural capital.

E D Hirsch is right, but his arguments will not be enough to revive liberal education. The principles of core knowledge are attractive partly because they neatly sidestep the philosophical questions. They put to one side the question of whether we will find truth in the great writers of the past, and offer a pragmatic reason for studying them regardless.

The philosophical neutrality of Hirsch’s arguments are both their strength and their weakness. It is certainly eminently sensible and rational to propose the study of core knowledge in order to improve cultural literacy and open up the life prospects for poorer pupils, but is it really exciting, in the way that the discovery of truth is exciting? True liberal education appeals to the eager desire for truth that is in every child. It is the eros of the mind, yearning for consummation. There is all the difference in the world between proposing to study something because it is useful, and proposing to study something because it is true.

The search for truth is what makes us take books seriously. Every time we open one, we might discover something that will change our life. Mere entertainment or practical utility are pale shadows in comparison to the thrill of discovering the truth, and the liberation it brings.

The Cult of Differentiation

Some of the most persistent zombie ideas in education are related to the cult of differentiation. This is the firmly held belief, in spite of any logic or evidence, that a class teacher’s time is best spent producing different lessons attuned to the individual needs of his pupils.

Around 90% of teachers still believe, for example, that learning styles exist, and that pupils are taught most effectively in their preferred learning style. This defies logic, because instruction is always best attuned to the material being taught. If it’s a practical skill, learners need modelling and hands on practice. If it’s the skill of writing, pupils need to have the rules explained to them clearly and repeatedly practise them. If it is geographical information, they need to look at maps and learn to interpret them by memorising mapping conventions and repeatedly applying them. A visual learner will not learn how to write by looking at pictures. An auditory learner will not learn about the geology of Britain best by listening to a description of a map.

The fact is, the best method works best for everyone. A teacher’s precious time is best used working out the best method for the material and using it to teach the whole class. The opportunity cost of producing differentiated material is obscene, and it is futile, because however different pupils are, they will still learn best from the method of instruction which is best attuned to the material being taught.

And yet the learning styles nonsense continues, because if we reject it, we stand accused of failing to treat pupils as individuals. The moral cudgels come out and the traditional teacher is seen as a stern, inflexible and inhuman instructor who doesn’t get down with the kids and see things from their perspective. This is really the heart of the cult of differentiation. Teachers are supposed to sacrifice the best interests of their pupils on the altar of rampant individualism, in which everything must be different for every person: ‘personalised learning’.

But a teacher who refuses to differentiate is not claiming that his pupils are identical. He is simply working on the basis of the well evidenced fact that cognitively, we are far more similar than we are different. Morally, personally we are doubtless unique. We vary too, of course, in intelligence levels, so that some will have to put forth more effort to attain the same levels of knowledge. But we do our pupils no favours when we excuse them that effort and encourage them to think that they have some unique excuse for not trying.

As a matter of fact, well organised and efficient whole class instruction allows far more opportunities for good quality individual attention. It creates a well ordered environment in which expectations are clear and work is well defined. Thus it makes it far easier for the teacher to spot anyone who is struggling, and offer a few words of extra explanation. This quiet, focused, and unfussy intervention is what caring teachers have always done. Now it is much harder, as the madness and chaos of individualised learning continues to make many teachers’ lives next to impossible.