#EducationFest No.4: How will we know?

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College and the second post on Rob Coe’s talk. The first is here.

Moving on from the possible can of worms associated with the Danielson Framework, Rob’s session was really about how teachers can improve and how research and evaluation has an important role to play in this process if hours and hours of wasted time are to be avoided. He is closely involved with the EEF Toolkit and suggested this was a good starting point for the question of what we should be doing to improve. However, I think he suggested an even more important question to be asked once we think we have identified the thing we need to work on.

“Does focusing on these things lead to improvement?” It’s a critical point, isn’t it? A teacher might well feel, or be told, that their subject knowledge was weak but there is a possibility they might put hours and hours of work into improving this, only to find the impact on their pupils to be zero. It’s a wider question though. Currently the zeitgeist in the blogosphere is about retrieval practice, distributed practice, and interleaving. There is lots of good research from cognitive psychology to support these ideas but what if we put hours and hours into re-writing SoWs only to find the impact on our pupils to be zero? The EEF Toolkit, Hattie’s meta-analysis, and one or two other reviews do point very strongly to a few things that do have significant impact. Feedback is probably the best example, but if it were that simple then AfL would have had a much bigger impact on the effectiveness of teaching in the UK than has actually been the case.

I suspect the problem is that different teachers need different things, and different teachers implement the same idea in different ways. There were three teachers in my first physics department. The HoD was an Oxford graduate, by far the best physicist, and capable of brilliant teaching ideas, but taught everything by the seat of his pants, sometimes went over the heads of his pupils, and left all but the most capable feeling disoriented. The other teacher was the fiercest disciplinarian in the school, originally a chemistry specialist, and was organised and pedantic to a fault; his pupils worked tremendously hard, did some very high standard work, and completed the course with immaculate notes, but often struggled to link knowledge to solve problems when working independently. I was short on both subject knowledge and classroom experience and my two biggest problems were keeping everyone on task and not completely cocking up the physics, but I had a pretty good feel for the problems pupils had in understanding the subject. With the benefit of hindsight I would have said we all needed to improve but in different ways. Feedback may well have an effect size of 0.8, or 8 months or whatever, but it certainly wouldn’t have had that impact on my teaching at that time. And if we had tried AfL or some other feedback strategy, there’s every chance that we would each have done it differently. As Rob pointed out, despite all we know about learning, CPD still mostly consists of just explaining at length to teachers what they should do and expecting them to understand and be able to do it. Even a typical behavioural intervention (+4 months) wouldn’t have helped me as I was already using an assertive discipline strategy to moderate but not universal effect. What I needed was to do a lot of past papers, add some more variety to my teaching, and work out how to notice behavioural issues and nip them in the bud before they had become disruptive.

Having cogitated on this for a week or so, I find myself going back to Ben Goldacre and the whole RCT thing. There are a whole bunch of issues with running RCTs in education that are less of an issue in medicine, but I think the biggest difference is that diagnosis in medicine is a lot more sophisticated than in education. There may have been many decades of evidence-based medicine but I suspect that it’s still pretty hard to know “what works” if the symptoms are “feeling unwell”. In education, when we talk about how to improve, we’re at the “feeling unwell” level of diagnosis. We might well find that high quality research would show that giving unwell patients Lemsip might have an effect size of 0.8 but that doesn’t mean it’s the best treatment for leukemia, cirrhosis of the liver, or someone throwing a sickie.

I don’t suppose Rob Coe intended me to head off on this particular tangent but it’s the mark of a great talk that it changes your thinking. Thanks Rob – best session of the festival, and the competition was pretty fierce.

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#EducationFest No.3: A Research-based, Constructivist View?

This is the third in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

Rob Coe is currently occupying the position, shared perhaps only with Dylan Wiliam, of a Colossus with limbs astride the sometimes separate worlds of education research and education practice. There are other well-regarded academics that can claim the same combination of having worked in schools, and having produced high quality research directly relevant to teaching, but I’m not aware of anyone other than these two so prominently engaged in dialogue with the profession.

His contribution at ResearchEd 2013 about graded lesson observations last year turned out to be momentous in its effect and has been very widely quoted. Whilst entirely in agreement with the majority of teachers that the typical ‘three graded observations per year’ approach to performance management is crap, I do have some reservations about the way Rob used the US research papers, and the way this has been picked up and passed on as if it reflects a major study carried out in this country, using our methods of lesson observation. So with that in mind, but also a keen awareness that Rob was likely to have something interesting and important to say – his ResearchEd 2013 talk is online, and is well worth watching – I settled myself in the Old Hall and studied the oils of previous Masters of Wellington College, breathing in the oak-panelled atmosphere.

Rob started with three questions about improving teaching: “What does better look like?”, “How do we get better?” and “How will we know if we have?” I’m a big believer in the importance of asking good questions in teaching; Rob’s were humdingers.

Rob strikes me as a measured commentator and he wasn’t going to provide a definitive answer in under an hour. Instead he laid out some interesting thoughts. I’ve split these into two posts because the first thing he said has led me in a different direction to the rest.

And the first thing he did was lay into the Teachers’ Standards. Well, more ‘laid-back into’ but his wry comment, like with the reliability of lesson grades, was all that was required. In contrast he offered the Danielson Framework for Teaching as an example of how research could be used to develop something better. Having looked at that framework, it appears to have a fair bit to offer, but it does describe itself as follows:

The Framework for Teaching is a research-based set of components of instruction, aligned to the INTASC standards, and grounded in a constructivist view of learning and teaching.

That word ‘constructivist’ is interesting, especially in the same sentence as ‘research-based’. I suggest you have a look at the framework if you’re interested but I guess my take on it would be that there is a child-centred element to it that might not be to everyone’s taste. This raises some fairly fundamental questions: if the framework is based on really good research then the implication is that this child-centred element is part of the answer to Rob’s first question,”What does better look like?” If he is right, that will certainly upset some and please others. If on the other hand, the child-centred element is wrong, then either the research it’s based on is dodgy (in which case why hasn’t Rob spotted this?), or there is a deeper problem that good research is giving us more than one ‘correct’ answer about what better looks like. This is a really hefty question; at the moment there is a feeling in education that if research is carried out effectively, and teachers engage with this properly, there may not be a complete blueprint for effective teaching but it will be possible to paint a picture of it in broad brushstrokes. For the neo-traditionalists, the research on constructivist approaches is both limited and flawed, and they would argue the decent research pretty much all points their way. So where is Danielson, and by association, Rob, coming from? Is he actually Rob The Blob? If not, is it possible that there is good research in favour of both traditional and constructivist approaches?

Does anyone whose read the research leading to Danielson’s conclusions fancy commenting?

My thoughts on the rest of Rob’s talk are in #EducationFest No. 4

#EducationFest No.2: More root than trunk

This is the second in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

After Wilshaw, the first proper session of my day was Tom Sherrington. Of the distracting number of blogs I follow (I have to ration myself to 20 minutes at a time otherwise nothing else would ever get done, but it’s a strain because there’s so many people out there writing interesting stuff) Tom’s blog is the one I find myself most in tune with, most of the time. I thought I would feel the same way about his session on how traditional and progressive teaching approaches tend to blend together in most of the good teaching sequences we see in real classrooms, but I left just a little dissatisfied. He gave plenty of examples, not all from the selective setting where he is currently headteacher. He quite rightly identified electric circuits as a good example of when the teacher’s explanation and direction is crucial to childrens’ learning, and how good subject knowledge is critical in doing this well. Just as appropriately he talked about situations like A-Level investigations where giving children the opportunity to direct their own learning allows them to develop their interest in the subject and flourish intellectually. His description of how, in his school, Art and D&T were tightly controlled and very teacher-led at KS3 so children gained the skills required for later, much more self-directed, projects at KS4, was a good example of how learners can progress quite quickly from novice to a much more expert level where more open learning is appropriate. He presented his tree model of effective teaching; the more progressive roots providing important nourishment and skills and a highly structured, traditional trunk providing rigourous knowledge. The point being that both are needed if glorious foliage is to be developed. However, as a physicist, perhaps Tom had forgotten that one of the most prominent misconceptions in biology is that the bulk of a plant comes from the soil when, in fact, it comes mainly from the air. I found the whole session a bit like that. I didn’t find fault with his thesis, but I didn’t find his talk totally convincing either. Maybe too much anecdote and not enough evidence. Maybe just a lot of good material but not carefully enough marshalled. But it wasn’t just the tree that reminded me of a physicist talking about biology that is essentially correct but just not quite learned well-enough to avoid some ragged edges. Maybe it was all roots and no trunk. He didn’t need to convince me, but I don’t think this session will have convinced any of the people that he does need to convince.

#EducationFest No.1: Play up, play up, and play the game

This is the first in a series of posts on the Festival of Education at Wellington College.

I’m a little surprised that Michael Wilshaw chose the glorious surroundings of Wellington College to launch an attack on state sector mediocrity in sport. Given that anyone wanting to attend his speech had to park on the athletics field and walk past the 1st XI cricket pitch with its pavilion the size of a small comprehensive, the possibility that different levels of facilities might contribute to the divide won’t have been far from anyone’s thoughts. I think he made a decent point on Radio 4 about schools working with whatever local facilities they have but I don’t suppose Antony Seldon has ever needed to know where the local park is. However, I think the facilities are a red-herring; that’s not why £33000/year translates into sporting success. The real difference is the 7 day week at Wellington College, and the balance of teaching, residential, and extra-curricular responsibilities that go with a boarding school job. This is a lot more significant to sporting opportunities for pupils than whether or not a school has a boathouse on the Thames. I can’t see the DfE stumping up to give teachers a chunk off their teaching load in exchange for a longer working day and weekend commitments. It’s all very well implying that teachers don’t do these things because they lack ambition and have been subverted into lazy and/or anti-competitive mind-sets by the progressive movement but that ignores the reality. My first teaching job was in an HMC boarding school, and for sure I was working 80+ hours a week with the children, putting in a couple of evenings and a fair chunk of weekends, doing sport. But I also got paid £3K over a state-sector starting salary, had a free flat, got three meals a day, and had someone pick up my laundry and return it cleaned and ironed. My timetable was about 70% compared to the 90% a state sector teacher would expect and I got 19 weeks holiday a year.

This is a shame because his speech was actually a rallying call to make comprehensives everything he would like them to be, and whilst I don’t think that having a decent rugby team matters a jot, most of what he said about academic standards, parental responsibility, behaviour, and leadership, are not a bad combination to be aiming for. He didn’t really say so much about sport – it certainly didn’t dominate his speech – but given that Ofsted published their report on competitive school sport the same day, with this as the focus of their press release, that’s what everyone will be talking about. I can’t help thinking that Wilshaw was a better headteacher than HMCI and that what he achieved at Mossbourne had far more potential to influence the quality of comprehensive education in this country than all the speeches he makes now about how we all need to pull our socks up. I wonder if he has considered going back into school leadership and leading by example rather than exhortation. I will always listen with an open mind to what he says, because of what he achieved, but the more he suggests it’s just a case of making a bigger effort, the less convinced I will be.