Leave those kids alone

Wouldn’t it be convenient if all the groups society agonised about were compulsorily cattled together for 35 hours a week?

Obese patients. The Biggest Loser could become a national programme. The depressed and the anxious. Dose them up with an SSRI, a meditation course, and silent reading sessions of a book on cognitive behavioural therapy. The unemployed. 9 am to 10 am: Guardian jobs. 10 am to 11 am: CV formatting. People having unsafe sex. Show them pictures of gonorrhoea on gonads, and load them up with condoms on their way out.

It would be so easy. We could solve all of society’s ills. (Apart from when they went home of course. But that’s OK. At that point we could blame the people they live with.)

The structure of school – where the vast majority of the population of a particular age are put together for 7 hours a day – means it is dangerously susceptible to this form of thinking. Something wrong with the under-16 population? Schools seem like the perfect arena for an intervention.

There’s just one problem: what this intervention takes the place of. School pupils are little people; they broadly have the same range of problems as big people. They get fat; they get ill; they get sad; they make bad decisions. And even where they don’t, they’re future big people. They might not have a gambling problem now, but let’s get in the PSHE sessions when they’re 13 to save them in a decade’s time. Soon we end up with a school curriculum like the TES’ media crowd-sourced timetable.

school tt

Schools become the place where we fight terrorism, tackle obesity, address mental illness, perform social work… the list goes on

School is not a holding pen for children to test out policy initiatives en masse. We must not be shamed by arguments about caring, or blinded by the novelty of intriguing initiatives. An aim can be worthy, and teachers can care about it, but it doesn’t follow that school time and teachers’ energy should be used on it.

School is for making people smarter. We must preserve that. Anything that doesn’t serve that purpose must be batted away at the school gates.

Why year 7 resits might be a good thing

Nothing says cross-spectrum support in education like Jonathan Simons agreeing with Sue Cowley. Year 7 resits: not many people are fans. My initial reaction, too, was negative. Just leave us alone to teach them, I thought. Every drop of juice has been squeezed out of the testing and accountability fruit. But might year 7 resits be a juicier proposition than we’ve thought?

Schools are given a sizeable chunk of money to help level 3 kids catch up. It’s reasonable for government to want to check that money is being used well. Currently, schools put together some paperwork “evidence” which sits in a box file getting dusty until Ofsted arrive: not the most robust form of accountability. An assessment is more reliable and valid than bureaucratic bum-covering.

Myopia and wishful thinking makes it easy for us to see progress where it may not really exist. An external examination encourages us to look at the interventions we choose with a more sceptical eye. Is this really evidence-informed? What can we learn from other departments and schools? Too often I’ve seen year 7 catch up spending be left up to a keen but inexperienced Key Stage 3 co-ordinator, whose focus is engagement through a creative, innovative solution, rather than something solid but effective like Fresh Start or Connecting Math Concepts.

A common argument against high-stakes assessment is that it distorts incentives. High stakes will certainly affect incentives, but it need only distort them if the stakes don’t match the stakeholders’ desired outcomes. We’ve seen the impact of an unbalanced accountability system, which had an undue emphasis C-D borderline and a dubious definition of “equivalent” qualifications. The move towards progress 8 and the EBacc is improving this. But one thing that is tougher to change is the emphasis on year 11.

People (rightly) say it makes sense to teach children properly in Key Stage 3 so there’s no mad rush in GCSE year, but it’s rare to see a head follow through on that idea. The strongest teachers, the most intervention, the priciest resources are thrown at this year group. It’s hard to blame headteachers for this. The argument goes, every year, why should it be this year 11 cohort that miss out in favour of year 7? This argument is even easier to make when a drop in results could have catastrophic results for the school, not to mention the head themselves.

The one thing that might finally tear attention away from year 11 is inescapable accountability in other years. The progress of the weakest in year 7 seems a good place to start. With an assessment on the way, sorting out year 7 takes on a new urgency; it’s not so easily pushed to the bottom of the SLT agenda. Staffing year 7 bottom set with the best teacher might take on renewed importance.

There’s no doubt the assessment would have to be very carefully designed. It should focus on a limited range of knowledge, such that it is feasible for secondary schools to teach it in a few months to children who may have failed to learn for years. It must also be genuinely useful knowledge that opens up doors to access the rest of the secondary school curriculum. The phonetic code; broad background knowledge and cultural literacy; times tables; fraction-decimal conversions; units of measurement. Knowing these things gives pupils the foundation they need to succeed at secondary.

Finally, the assessment should test as much of the domain as possible. The beauty of a times table check is that the sample in the test is identical to the domain. Teaching to the test isn’t an issue: the test is just as broad as what was to be taught. A resit test can be aimed squarely at the weakest pupils. Unlike SATS, we don’t have to worry about creating a bell curve that covers the whole population. There is potential to make this a test worth teaching to.

For once, a vulnerable, easily ignored group could be made the priority. Year 7 retakes, done properly, could be a real opportunity.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature abhors a power vacuum.

Idealistic teachers often propose a classroom set up where co-operation reigns over command and control. Whilst lovely in theory, in practice we end up with more of a dystopia than utopia.

A teacher’s decision not to assert their authority won’t result in a classroom of equals. There will be a leader. It just won’t be the adult.

Instead, it will be your most bolshy pupil.

It’s true of adults, too. Think of any group you’ve worked in. Everyone hates being over-managed. But a vacuum of leadership is worse. It sounds seductive, not being told what to do. But even in a group of well-intentioned, motivated adults, the frustrations of decision making by committee soon lead to collapse – unless, of course, a natural, unofficial leader emerges. Lack of certainty is uncomfortable, unsafe and unenjoyable.

So it’s no wonder it’s a calamity when applied to a group of children with less maturity, more competing motivations, and a more acute sense of peer approval.

Humans intrinsically seek belonging and will impress whomever necessary to make that a reality. Make that the most fearsome member of year 9 set 3, and the results are predictable.

Being a leader, telling children what to do, and keeping clear, tight boundaries is the kindest thing to do. It keeps our children safe and allows them to learn. Us teachers should never feel we have to apologise for being the one calling the shots. Anything else is an abdication of our responsibility to keep our children safe, happy, and learning.

Going postal about posters

Posters lessons. We’ve all done them. Maybe we were naive NQTs, who believed it really would be a great way for 7 set 4 to synthesise their understanding of the formation of ox-bow lakes. Maybe we were exhausted, the week before Christmas, sleep-deprived to the point of torture, and thought it would tide us over. Maybe it was coming up to the summer holidays, and all the key stage co-ordinator had written on the departmental Schemes of Work was “group work on fireworks”. Maybe Open Evening was coming up, and the yellowing displays needed replacing. Maybe we were taking our tricky year 9 form for PSHE, on a topic we knew little about and felt uncomfortable with; when we’d raised it with the Head of Year, all she’d said was that the other forms were availing themselves of the sugar paper.

Fine. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. But let’s be honest: a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.

There’s been quite the kerfuffle over Tom Bennett’s reasoned, measured comments about the value of certain lesson activities. Tom was very diplomatic, caveating his assertions carefully with the word “some”. I think he doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think posters are ever an effective use of lesson time. The exception, perhaps, would be graphic design, where the poster can be the point. As IndieP tweeted, “If you want to teach ‘making a poster’, teach it. If you want to teach ‘history’, teach that instead.”

The additional fripperies of poster making merely distract from a learning objective to acquire, practice or memorise knowledge. Thinking about layout and visual appeal takes up precious mental space that should be wholly focused on the subject matter.

A poster on the causes of World War I cannot possibly induce more learning than the same content written in an exercise book. The difference is that the poster will inevitably take much longer; it is much less time efficient. Wasting our pupils’ time is an insult to their futures, their intellect and their dreams.

And that’s assuming the poster is taken as seriously by pupil and by teacher – which, let’s be honest – it rarely is. Often, the less conscientious pupils won’t take the task seriously; the more conscientious will take it seriously, but entirely the wrong things. The bubble writing of the title will be immaculate; the speech bubbles coming from the cartoon Napolean’s mouth perfectly formed; Homebase could turn the border design into a wallpaper pattern. Work is rarely assessed beyond a tick and “2 house points” for the neatest girls’ work. After all, if it’s for display, you can’t sully it with ugly red pen. And if it’s the end of term, marking is as likely as eating your 12 boxes of Ferrero Roche in moderation.

Teaching is a noble, honourable profession… when we’re actually teaching. We are so much better than sugar paper and felt tips.

Don’t mind the gap

How many digits of pi can you remember, Layla?

Only twenty, Miss.

Layla sees nothing extraordinary about the fact she remembers four times more digits of pi than her maths teacher. Not when her classmates can remember 40, 50, 60… hundreds digits of pi*. Not that she’s upset about it, mind. She knows that a fortnight ago, the most anyone in her class knew was three digits. She knows that the reason for the difference now is sheer hard work.

How is it possible for a 12-year-old child in an inner-city comprehensive to see knowing 20 digits of pi as unremarkable? By not minding the gap. In fact, we encouraged the gap through competition. Two weeks ago, the gap between the best and worst in the school at reciting pi was three: between those who had no clue, and those who knew 3.14. Now, the gap is in the hundreds.

In absolute terms, the achievement and progress has been excellent. Pupils, including the weakest, reel off scores of digits. In relative terms, it’s a disaster. Layla can say twenty, but Aliyah can recite 160: an eight-fold difference. In relative terms, we were better off a fortnight ago, when the difference was a mere handful of digits.

“Closing the gap”: a well intentioned policy, but one that worries me. I worry about its effect on our Aliyahs; that it encourages us to rein in their potential artificially. But I also worry about our Laylas.

When we focus on closing the gap, our implicit messages are toxic. We imply that there’s only so much we can expect; that there’s a cap on what’s reasonable to achieve. Our monitoring and scrutiny doesn’t leave room for pupils to go off and propel themselves, independently, beyond what our limited imaginations can fathom for them. Round-the-clock interventions for those struggling, while the top end go off and revise on their own, induces a learned helplessness; a sense that work can’t be done without a teacher holding their hand. The intensity of the teachers’ attention implies to the children that their teachers are responsible for their grades, not them. Pupils may even come to recognise that the less they do, the more the teachers worry, and the more the teachers do for them. Pupils are not allowed to fail, and thus gain no experience of the link between laziness and failure; the link between hard work and success.

In fact, I’d posit that if your gap is narrowing, you’re doing something wrong. The Matthew effect states that with the same inputs, the knowledge-rich will get richer more quickly. My experience is that the top end will accumulate knowledge more quickly even if given a fraction of the input of the bottom end.

We should not be concentrating on “closing the gap”. An obsession with relative under-performance doesn’t just harm the top, but also the weakest we are trying to help.

Encourage competition. Encourage every pupil to do their best. It won’t close the gap. It will widen it. In relative terms, it will be a disaster. In absolute terms, it will be a triumph.

 

*A note on pi: this was an optional competition, a bit of fun for pi day; pupils learnt pi of their own accord outside of maths lessons. I don’t think learning pi is maths, but it was great at creating a buzz!

What’s the point of knowledge if you don’t use it?

Production. Outcome. A result. Project-based learning seems intently focused on this. Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence has a lot going for it: its attention to disciplined, persistent work is admirable, but it, too, falls into this trap. Learning is only seen as valuable if something is done with it.

In a similar vein, Debra Kidd said of School 21:

What is the point of learning if no-one hears you? What is the point of academic success if you can’t interview successfully? What is the point of knowledge if you don’t use it to change the world?

This view of learning just doesn’t resonate for me. There is intrinsic value in learning: in making your mind a more interesting place to be; in the wonder and awe that new information can bring. We may be unlikely to use, in a practical sense, much of what we learnt in school, at university and in life, but I certainly feel privileged to know it. Why do David Attenborough documentaries get so many viewers? Why do long reads get millions of clicks? Why do books still sell in an age of Kim Kardashian apps and Candy Crush? Because learning is wonderful, whether or not it is shared or used.

As for interview skills, my mind is immediately drawn to my first week of university, at the matriculation dinner. By the third course, the computer science students had ceased engaging in conversation and broken out their laptops. A lot of them would be the first to concede they would not interview well (how do you know a computer scientist’s an extrovert? They look at YOUR shoes when they’re talking.). But that damned well did not render their academic success pointless.

It’s not just ivory towered academics who benefit from knowledge in the absence of interview skills. A plumber probably won’t need to know much Shakespeare on the job, but knowing which plays he wrote and some of the fabulous lines would mean he feels just as entitled to go and see a play at The Globe as anyone else – and why not? The works of the Bard are worth knowing because of their greatness, regardless of whether you use them for practical purposes.

Corporations will inevitably concentrate on production and utility: I expect the CBI will be grumbling about skills for work on the Today programme every few months until I retire. But we teachers need not fall into that trap. We can recognise and celebrate all knowledge: the useful and the useless, the easily accessed and the esoteric, the applicable and the arcane.

Knowledge is an inherent good. Let’s stop obsessing over what we can produce with it, and simply laud learning in its purest form.

I could care less: detentions for pens

Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.

Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?

It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:

140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.

High standards, high support

Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.

Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.

Some common responses were:

“A conversation is better than a detention”

“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”

“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”

“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”

You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.

We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.

Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.

If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.

Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.

We have high standards, but we also have high support.

Nudging, signalling

Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?

No.

A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.

Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.

The whys and wherefores

Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?

A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.

Why don’t we?

Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.

Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.

Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.

Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.

Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.

Care is a doing word

We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.

I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.