Unfinished business…

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the pre-course tasks for @SotonEd PGCE trainee teachers, one of which requires them to write 750 words summarising, and critically comparing, the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and then a further 500 words relating these theories to what they observe in school.

I had responses from several directions. My blog has always been about trying to clarify my own thinking about teaching, learning, education research, and teacher training, so it’s really helpful to have questions to consider.

My response to @nastyoldmrpike is that, quite possibly knowing all of this wouldn’t make him a better teacher because, unlike my trainees, he probably already understands – either intuitively or explicitly – that students don’t all learn the same things from a particular bit of teaching. I go back to my original justification that my trainees often don’t appreciate this at the start of their training. Ironically, the choice is then to allow them to learn from their own experience – the constructivist teaching approach – or to provide more guidance.

I have two points to make in response to @suzyg001. Firstly, I could have taken a different tack with my list of ideas related to constructivist cognitive psychology but for me the post was part of an unfinished conversation so I wanted to pick up on some of the ideas about teaching and learning that form a backdrop to this. And secondly, whilst I appreciate that Dan Willingham occupies a position that is justified more by his level of engagement with education (in comparison to the majority of cognitive scientists) than by his representation of that field, and by the convenient alignment of his work with the inclinations of the traditionalist paradigm within education, I do inevitably view things through the filter of my own experience – how about that? – and the whole working memory / cognitive load theory does fit with my experience of teaching. I can see that there is a more complex picture but as someone who had to Google to check the meaning of ‘memeplex’ I have to work at a level with practical implications for my own teaching, and that of my trainees. I think that’s the key to understanding “where this is coming from”.

Best wishes

When Is A Trend Not A Trend?

Most of us think we can spot a trend in school data when we see one but increasingly I’m not so sure. The problem is not that trends don’t exist; some schools will genuinely be improving and others declining. The problem is not even a failure to recognise that some trends might be completely outwith the control of the school. The problem is that what looks like a trend, might be no such thing.

Actually, I think the deeper problem is that most people tend to accept that schools have blips in their data for reasons that are almost completely random but that looking at data over several years gets past this problem. Reaction to the Cramlington Learning Village Ofsted report (Outstanding to Special Measures) is a good example.

Some of the arguments against this kind of interpretation have been about the validity of statistical methods – @Jack_Marwood has blogged about this extensively and there has been a little frisson of excitement about the way that the clustering effect has been used to overule the apparent statistical significance in the recent RCT on reception baseline testing, with speculation about how this might be applied to RAISEonline etc.

But I want to take a different tack. Have a look at this graph.


Over ten years, the red school data falls pretty steadily from the national average of 56% 5A*-CEM – what do you think Ofsted would make of this? And the green? Well it’s not as dramatic as the improvement at Huntington School but as long as they survived the first four years I think most headteachers would give their right arm for this data.

The thing is, about once a year I give myself a little VBA project. I am totally crap at writing code but I enjoy the challenge (and the immediate, if often entirely unhelpful feedback!) This year, the red and green graph is the outcome. I have taken a spreadsheet with 26 identical ‘schools’ with a 56% A*-CEM score and applied an algorithm that randomly allocates anything up to a 4% variation each year, for ten years. The spreadsheet then graphs the best and worst performing ‘school’. If you want to have a go for yourself then here is the Excel spreadsheet


You’ll need to enable macros when you open it, then click the RESET button, and then click the ADD 1 YEAR… button. As a bit of fun I’ve added some of the things that are sometimes cited as key reasons for a school’s success (or not), but I promise you the data is completely random.

Best wishes

A little bit of Piaget and Vygotsky: an unfinished conversation

#DHSTM15 was followed up by a small team curry at Shafiques (delicious), to which I was graciously invited, and a conversation that started with tatoos, but had just got onto the presence or otherwise of Piaget and Vygotsky in the ITT programme at Southampton when David Didau @LearningSpy had to head home. Hence, an unfinished conversation…

As one of several pre-course tasks, @SotonEd trainee teachers are required to write 750 words summarising, and critically comparing, the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and then a further 500 words relating these theories to what they observe in school. Is this helpful for trainee teachers, or is it the first step in guaranteeing that everything [they] know about education is wrong?

I’m always interested in what other people think, but it’s important to be aware of context here. Whilst a few trainees have extensive experience in school before they start, many barely know which end of a child is which, and are really starting from scratch.

The idea that’s common to both Piaget and Vygotsky is that children learn by developing a mental model of the world and learning is about adding to, or adapting, their mental model to include whatever you are trying to teach them. Because they have different mental models, two children won’t necessarily respond to a learning experience in the same way – what one ‘gets’ another may not. Vygotsky particularly identified a ‘sweet spot’ beyond current capabilities but manageable with support, in which learning is most likely to be effective.

For me, that is constructivist cognitive psychology cut down to its bare essence: exactly what I’m looking for in my trainees’ assignments. If trainees get this then a number of other important ideas follow fairly logically:

A clear explanation of a new idea does not necessarily lead to a clear understanding (the input/output myth) – this clear understanding only comes when the mental model fits, or is adapted to fit, the new idea;

Children’s prior knowledge matters – leading to the importance of knowledge organisers and planning of learning sequences;

The misconceptions in children’s mental models need fixing – awareness of these is therefore a crucial part of teachers’ specialist subject knowledge;

Adapting mental models is an uncomfortable process – so learning can be hard work;

Adapting mental models requires mental wrestling – this is an argument for desirable difficulties;

Children often need to encounter new ideas in several different ways before they understand;

Learning is an active process so children need to be actively thinking in lessons: “learning is the residue of thought“. (There’s a much longer discussion to be had here but hopefully it will suffice to say that this is a comment about how much children should be thinking, not about what kind of teaching approach or learning activity is best).

For trainees starting out with the typical understanding of someone not involved in education or cognitive psychology – that if something is ‘taught’ well, and children are paying attention, then children will learn successfully – I think having some understanding of the constructivist theory of learning is a useful step forward but there are four possible problems, to my mind, with starting with Piaget and Vygotsky.

Firstly, Piaget also suggested that there were four distinct stages in the development of children’s thinking, reached at fairly well-defined ages. However, he based a lot of his work on observation of his own children and it has since become clear that, although children do get better at abstract thinking as they get older, cognitive development does not occur in discrete stages. The whole point of the M-Level bit of the PGCE is to encourage critical thinking about education; our trainees are going to encounter Piagetian stages at some point (in school) so I would rather they did so critically. Including Dan Willingham’s American Educator article in the reading list provides an accessible starting point.

Secondly, Vygotsky’s emphasis on social interaction has been used to imply that collaborative learning should occupy a large part of lesson time. My experience is that trainee teachers don’t read it this way and from Vygotsky pick up the role of the teacher as the ‘more knowledgeable other’ and the importance of getting the level of challenge right.

Thirdly, though, there is all this baggage that comes with constructivist cognitive psychology. I get the impression David didn’t think highly of his PGCE – I’ve not picked up much but maybe the odd, dark hint of unhelpful lecturing on constructivist pedagogy. I certainly am well aware that I’m seriously sticking my neck out with the title of this blog. The problem is that a shedload of progressive teaching approaches were pinned onto the back of Piaget and Vygotsky, such as the suggestion that whole class teaching should be minimised, group discussion maximised, and that learning should be minimally-guided. It’s clear to me that this justification is spurious and I see no way that my trainees could end up with this misconception given what they read, are taught, and experience, during their training.My argument is that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Finally, is there an opportunity cost here? Should we start our trainees off with ideas about working memory and Sweller’s cognitive load theory, spaced learning and the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, retrieval practice and the testing effect, or something else? These are all things they encounter during their training but my feeling is that these are all very important ideas about how to learn more effectively, whereas Piaget and Vygotsky provide important ideas about the process of learning itself. I want my trainee teachers to have this idea at the start.

But what do you think?