#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.

The Battle for the Middle Ground

Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse has stirred up the blogosphere. Old Andrew has written the foreword so I guess gets first place. Joe Kirby’s post makes me want to find a Bastille to storm – what a wonderfully forceful piece of writing! The comments from Laura MacInerney, Alex Quigley and Tom Sherrington balance it up somewhat. Harry Webb is more measured, thoughtful and personal. David Didau presents an impressive chronological précis (with some tantalising discussion of the Plowden Report in the comments). Debra Kidd is the only blog voice I’ve spotted taking total exception to Peal’s “progressive=bad” thesis but galavants off in the direction of neo-liberal plotting. Who else?

This post isn’t about the book. But the posts above have prompted me to write something about this progressive / traditionalist debate. And the first thing I would say is that I’m with those who are struggling to see the blob in all it’s purported glory, at least at the level of schools and classrooms. We have science trainees across about forty secondaries (maybe three-quarters of the schools in our partnership area) and none of them have anything other than science departments working directly on KS3 NC and GCSE specs from Y7 to Y11. I’ve never seen a lesson that wasn’t planned either to teach an essential piece of knowledge from these sources, or a practical or investigative or writing skill, relevant to academic qualifications (I do appreciate one could argue this skills teaching shows a progressive influence in GCSEs – I’ll come back to that). I’ve never encountered the kind of cross-curricular malarkey described in Harry’s post (which sounds horrendous), other than in the form of something like a languages week where you welcome pupils to your lesson in French. I’ve never been in a school that did not have escalating sanctions as part of the behaviour policy (although I’ve certainly been in schools where the policy wasn’t effectively implemented). It’s quite possible that some of what’s still wrong in schools is a consequence of these things being done in the past and that the quality of teaching would be even better if ‘the system’ had responded better to new thinking, but I don’t see today’s schools or teachers hamstrung by adherence to child-centred, progressive ideas.

What you could argue, in science,  is that there is too much discovery learning still. This is undoubtedly a constructivist teaching approach that can be traced back to the influential Nuffield Project in the 60s. That project was part of the progressive education  movement. However, the history goes back further than that because it’s important to be aware of what this replaced, which, in the case of physics, was a curriculum that didn’t include things like nuclear fission, ionising radiation, kinetic theory, nor anything about applications of physics in the real world – at the time of the Apollo program, space exploration wasn’t in! And the Nuffield Project tried hard to bring the big ideas into physics teaching whereas before there was often no sense of how the facts linked up.

To make a wider point, I think it’s important to be aware of what progressive education replaced more generally. There was a time when traditional education meant lots of rote learning (like the dates of Civil War battles without the big ideas of why anyone was fighting), regular beatings, and derision for anyone making errors. The progressive revolution was about changing this, moving schooling on from just acquiring knowledge and sorting the wheat from the chaff, to both acquiring knowledge and developing young people, it included an acceptance of constructivist psychology, and the (over)development of constructivist teaching approaches (these latter two are not at all the same thing), and rather too much of the zeitgeist of the era in attitudes to authority.

The problem, as so often with revolutions, is that what was needed was a more subtle change than the one that happened. Many babies went out with the bath-water; lets not make the same mistake now.

Babies & Bathwater

So what are the babies and the bath-water of the progressive / constructivist paradigm?

Not beating kids, mocking their errors, or suggesting that they’re thick. That’s a baby, isn’t it? I’ve no time for any suggestion that modern traditionalists don’t like children so we don’t need to worry about this one. No-one is suggesting going there again.

Getting rid of traditional subject boundaries. Bath-water; but I just don’t see any evidence of this in schools, although of course science is a core subject so maybe it’s happening in other areas.

Student-centred discipline. Well, the bit of the Plowden Report quoted in the replies to David Didau’s blog could just about have been written by Tom Bennett putting on a plummy Queen’s English accent (except it’s not entertaining), but the deeply progressive approach exemplified by Summerhill is never going to work and anything less extreme but promoting students’ rights over the absolute requirement to behave well in class, in school, and in society is dead wrong for me. You could argue that caring enough about children to set them immoveable boundaries, correcting them firmly and consistently but without aggression, and taking the trouble to ring their parents when they’ve done well, is pretty child-centred but democratisation of discipline is one of the more extreme progressive errors so I have to go with bath-water.

Teaching skills rather than knowledge. Oooh, contentious. Here is my post on this one but to save anyone clicking through, I think science should include lots of conceptual knowledge (facts and the way these are linked), and a range of skills that include practical techniques, the ability to plan and carry out an investigation, and the problem-solving that’s needed to answer science questions in both exams and the real world of scientific research. Abandoning knowledge to teach generic skills is bath-water, but abandoning the skills in science to teach only knowledge is way too far along the traditional end of the spectrum for me. As far as the Science KS3 NC and GCSEs go, there is a debate to continue about the right balance between subject knowledge and investigative skills but I think the question is not “knowledge or skills” but “which knowledge, and which skills?” And even more important than obsessing over this, I’d like to see a decision and then a good ten years focused on teaching before we have to re-write all the SoW yet again.

So that leaves pedagogy, where we find both babies and bath-water, with the distinction not so clear as to which is which.

I have very occasionally seen discovery learning of physics concepts done very effectively; much more often I’ve seen pupils failing to fix misconceptions, developing new ones, or just spending a lot of time faffing around when they could have been consolidating something they had been taught. I think there are a few teachers who can make it work, but most can’t and therefore most shouldn’t be using it to teach conceptual knowledge. I don’t think you can read the evidence in Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) and conclude that no-one can make pure discovery learning work but the evidence that most teachers can’t is very strong. On the other hand, there may be a place for guided discovery learning – with care that can give memorable Eureka! moments without much danger of either misunderstanding or wasting time. Mayer (2004) is another review highlighting the evidence against pure discovery learning but if you read the research designs the contrast is between pure and guided discovery. Possibly this paragraph makes me sound a bit more constructivist than I would like. I’m pretty clear with my trainees that if a concept is at all tricky, it’s their job to ensure their pupils don’t entrench misconceptions and most of the time that means explaining it effectively to them.

The evidence for collaborative learning is much more supportive (see the EEF Toolkit). Again, some teachers do it well and some badly; the coversations in those good classrooms are exceptional but in the bad classrooms it’s mostly lazy chit-chat. Anyone who doesn’t want to have children talking to each other about their subject is not going to be criticised by me (and certainly shouldn’t be criticised by Ofsted) if their whole-class teaching and individual activities are effective, but learning to manage work in pairs and eventually as a group can lead to really good results and I think that trainee teachers should be encouraged to learn how to do this, but with open eyes to the problems rather than selling it as an essential part of good teaching – and if it doesn’t suit them, that’s fine.

Teacher-talk is good, when it’s good, but I challenge any non-specialist to spend a highly engaging half-hour listening to David Attenborough, Simon Schama, Brian Cox et al and then recount everything they’ve learned the following day. The cognitive load is just unmanageable. Quite how much teacher-talk is too much depends on who is doing the listening but at some point active learning is essential. For those with the skill, making notes whilst listening or shortly after is active learning, thinking about the answers to the teacher’s questions is active learning, doing tests, analysing worked examples, silent practice, doing MCQs, scaffolded writing, cloze paragraphs, concept maps, discussing in pairs, peer-assessing against a MS or rubric, preparing a debate. This doesn’t feel like a progressive v traditional issue unless it’s framed as being against the teacher explaining, asking questions or modelling solutions. Some of these activities are claimed by traditionalists, some by progressives. I claim them all!

And this is where I make my stand for the middle ground. There was a load of old rubbish that came in with the progressive tide, but also some valuable flotsam and jetsam. The modern traditionalists have a lot to offer but have a tendency to get a little carried away by the collective erudition of their blogs and excitement with their shiny new ideas. Lets make sure we continue to turn the clock forward and judge everything by whether it works for us, in our classrooms, with our children. The research evidence doesn’t provide any absolutes because every teacher is different and their classes are too; it just gives us ideas to try. In my work in ITT I continue to try to strike that balance; there is still a bit of resistance to the best of the traditional, new ideas (there’s an unusual pairing of adjectives) in my world and I want to try to change that but my School of Education is nothing like the hothouse of progressive ideology some claim – just a slight leaning towards guided discovery, group work before trainees can handle it, and a slight underplaying of the importance of worked examples, individual practice, and testing. We’re dealing with a rate of change from the DfE that it’s hard to sustain and we’re going to lose some good things in all the confusion. But when classroom doors close (perhaps metaphorically) we are in charge, so lets take changes to our teaching very steadily and try to have a half-revolution this time.

Unbalanced or Resultant?

  • An object will remain stationary or continue to move at a steady speed in a straight line unless there is an unbalanced force.
  • An object will remain stationary or continue to move at a steady speed in a straight line unless an unbalanced force acts on it.
  • An object will remain stationary or continue to move at a steady speed in a straight line unless there is a resultant force acting on it.
  • An object will remain stationary or maintain a constant velocity unless there is a resultant force acting on it.
  • The velocity of a body will not change unless there is a resultant force acting on it.

All these statements of Newton’s 1st Law are correct; which is best for GCSE teaching? Should we consistently use ‘resultant’ or use ‘unbalanced’ sometimes to emphasise the idea behind it? Should we always break down ‘changing velocity’ to emphasise that ‘starting moving’, and ‘changing direction’, are counted or should we work until the students never respond as if velocity just means speed, and then always use velocity? And if so, should we insist on practising until they reach that point before we do Newton 1? Any thoughts – I have a view but I’m available for conversion.

There is a lot of emphasis at the moment on using the correct scientific language. I am in general agreement with this e.g. calling a liquid ‘viscous’ instead of thick is the example from the Durrington High School blog but is there a point where the need to shift misconceptions trumps the need to teach the formal language of our subjects?

And what is the adjective to describe water if the adjective to describe glycerol is ‘viscous’?

Which Knowledge; Which Skills?

There has been a hefty onslaught recently against the deliberate teaching of skills by those in favour of a knowledge-based curriculum. Knowledge is essential, and it seems to me an unassailable argument that teaching only skills to the exclusion of knowledge is a mistake, but that’s not something I’ve witnessed in my career, a point made by several people here, here and here. If you’ve been following the trend, or even if you haven’t, then there’s been plenty written that covers the basic points of the debate. However, the argument that knowledge should be favoured to the exclusion of skills, seems to be gaining momentum and I’m thinking this is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Either that, or it’s the result of an unjustified alignment of teaching knowledge with one pedagogy and teaching skills with another. A recent post from Joe Kirby has galvanised me to join the fray.

The first issue for me is the question of what is meant, both by ‘knowledge’ and by ‘skills’. If you want to achieve a clear dichotomy then knowledge can be seen as factual information e.g. the universe is 13.8 billion years old; universal indicator is green in a neutral solution; the function of the lungs is to remove CO2 and increase O2 in the blood etc. and you can use ‘skills’ to refer to non-cognitive skills such as the ability to work effectively in a group, to evaluate, presentation skills etc.

If you start with either of these definitions then, if you want to denigrate a knowledge-based curriculum you can argue that this is all about making children learn large numbers of facts with the implication that they will end up with masses of knowledge with which they can do little, and if it’s skills-based that you want to shoot down with flaming arrows then it’s not difficult to show that trying to teach these skills directly, or using a trivial context which pupils already know all about to avoid the need for new knowledge, is going to be ineffective, or will widen the gap, dumb down etc.

Alternatively there is a more subtle way to look at this. The reason why accumulation of facts can be supported is that, in the hands of any vaguely competent teacher, facts are not unconnected, and with masses of knowledge pupils can do all sorts of sophisticated things, like make an evidence-based argument for the Big Bang theory, describe the general features of acid-base reactions and predict the salts produced, or identify the similarities and differences between the respiratory systems of a range of animals. And the reason that teaching skills can be defended is that, firstly, within each curriculum area there are lots of skills that are crucial e.g. how to lay out a results table for a new investigation, how to manipulate a burette to get a titration accurate to 0.5 ml, how to evaluate conflicting evidence to draw an appropriate conclusion, and secondly, there is evidence that meta-cognitive programmes have a high effect-size, so whilst trying to teach critical-thinking skills does not seem to be very effective, teaching study skills can be.

And, for me, somewhere in the middle it becomes increasingly hard to decide the extent to which a skill is actually an accumulation of integrated facts and recall of experience of similar examples i.e. knowledge. The champions of knowledge-based teaching would, I think, mostly argue exactly this point – that to learn a skill you have to accumulate knowledge. To go back to my titration example, the skill starts with facts (it is possible to be accurate to +/- 0.5 ml, your eye must be level with the numbers when reading the scale), followed by learning what this looks like, then being able to recall the feel of more or less stiff taps, and knowing how to adjust them, and that they leak if they are loosened too far, and finally repeated practice drives into the long-term memory knowledge of all the little subtle things about when to go fast and when slow and what different indicators look like in different solutions…

I don’t think it matters much whether this is a skill, or an accumulation of knowledge. Old Andrew makes the distinction between the sort of skills I’m talking about, and generic skills which might be taught in a context-free way but even here I think teachers would be making a choice about the context. It may be a mistake to teach critical-thinking skills, or essay-writing skills in a knowledge-lite context but you can’t teach science, or history, or English without developing these skills, in context, in your students, can you?

So in the end, I’m with LeadingLearner – in a different jungle. What matters to me is deciding how much of the curriculum is going to be recall knowledge (and which knowledge it should be), how much is going to be about being able to do sophisticated things with this knowledge (and what are the most important sophisticated things), how much is going to require pupils to apply general principles in new contexts (like drawing up that results table), and how much (if any) is going to be about practical skills. I would like to see all of the above in the new science GCSE – when we finally get it. And then we should be starting the same debate for Beyond 2020, not a ‘knowledge versus skills’ debate but a ‘which knowledge; which skills’ debate.