#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.

Haydn (2014) To what extent is behaviour a problem in English schools?

I stumbled across this paper via an article in, of all places, the Daily Mail. Typically, the interpretation in the leader displayed the kind of informed opinion about education, based on total ignorance, that we’ve come to expect from some prominent media sources, but it was ironic that a paper that prides itself on a reactionary viewpoint should espouse the epitome of a progressive approach in stating “Is it possible that if lessons were more inspiring, pupils would be better behaved?” I couldn’t help but tweet @tombennett71 – as the original behaviourguru. His response was apposite. I’ve now got round to reading the paper – Haydn that is, not the Daily Mail.

The Review of Education is a new journal and, as such, not only behind the usual paywall, but I’ve had to source a copy of the article through an inter-library loan, which indicates that it’s not yet well-enough established for the academics in my School of Education to be requiring regular access. Given that it’s produced by the British Education Research Association there is some possibility that it will become an important outlet for the kind of comprehensive reviews that are of much greater use to teachers than individual research papers, but that remains to be seen.

Haydn’s paper doesn’t fall into this category of comprehensive review but it does offer up a succinct overview of the issues and some linked research which presents an alternative to the official line from the Steer report and Ofsted statistics, that behaviour in most schools is okay. It tends to be surveys of teachers, mainly carried out by unions, that offer the usual alternative narrative; Haydn’s research is also primarily focused on asking teachers and head teachers to report on the levels of behaviour experienced in schools. However, the less obvious bias, and triangulation using data from trainee teachers and pupils, adds the weight to Haydn’s findings that union questionnaires lack.

He makes a strong case for the difference between his findings, and official ones, being to do with perspective. To an observer, a classroom where behaviour is good because the teacher has planned carefully to avoid disruption and where a significant proportion of their time and energy is going into maintaining that situation, may seem comparable to one where the teacher is barely thinking about behaviour because they don’t need to. To the teacher, these two situations will feel very different. Haydn’s 10 point scale, used in the research, draws out this distinction, with the former classroom experience somewhere in the region of 6-8, and the latter sitting at 9 or 10. Given that the research findings suggest an average teacher-rating of about 7 and a general view from ‘trainee teachers as observers’ that a good half of lessons were getting up to 9 and 10, added to the mysterious absence of some of the most difficult children during inspections, and I find I can see why an official view might be that behaviour was generally good in the majority of schools.

I think Haydn’s conclusion that, in fact, poor behaviour is a fairly regular feature of some schools is valid. A quick read of Levels 1-5, and the various results in the research showing that these levels are quite common, will probably not surprise many experienced teachers (many of us will have been there and some will still occasionally relive the experience, perhaps in the wee, small hours after over-exuberance at the cheese-board). There is no way that these levels do not significantly affect learning, so the inescapable conclusion is that poor behaviour does disrupt learning to an extent not recognised by the official, published line.

Of course, a lot of children need boundaries in the classroom to be established and continually maintained. These are not the unfortunate few with serious behavioural issues; these are ordinary kids who respond to good behaviour management but will happily talk over the teacher and think it’s funny if someone can make strange noises without the teacher being able to work out where they are coming from. Having just a few of these children in your class will mean that you have to make an effort to keep them on the straight and narrow. This  is one of the fundamental skills of teaching, for anyone working in all but the most leafy of comprehensives. So I don’t think Level 10 should be expected, but in schools with a strong behaviour policy, good support, and well-trained teachers, I think you would expect Level 8 to be consistently achievable with Level 9 for the better classes and the more skilled teachers. To me that would represent good behaviour, although most teachers would definitely still be having to work to maintain this level in their classrooms. So it’s the gap between this acceptable standard of behaviour, and the regular reality in classrooms in many schools, that is the key finding in Haydn’s research.

Although Haydn’s evidence draws attention to the problem, he doesn’t say much about why it exists. That may not be the point of his research but it is the most important question. My view is that often it’s that SLT have not got to grips with the problem – the behaviour policy exists but is not enforced unremittingly. Perhaps more thought needs to go in to how to fix this issue. It’s easy to say “appoint better headteachers” but that’s as trite as saying that the FA need to appoint a better England coach. Secondly, ITT courses do not equip enough teachers with the necessary skills. I’m afraid Michael Wilshaw was right about this. But it isn’t because HEIs are spouting progressive rubbish suggesting that engaging teaching will fix everything; the problem is that we provide several sessions along the lines of Tom Bennett’s Top Ten Behaviour Tips, delivered by people like Paul Dix, and local teachers that are walking the walk on a daily basis, but whilst our trainees know the theory, they can’t always apply it in the classroom. Now, they spend two-thirds of their course working in schools (and all of their NQT year, obviously) so it’s not that they don’t get the chance to do so, nor for that reason can I see how the rush to School Direct and SCITTs will make a difference. We could just filter out all the trainees that don’t nail behaviour management during ITT but the failure rate might be pretty shocking. I suspect, instead, that we need to give many trainees the chance to practice the skills in isolation – without the distraction of delivering a lesson at the same time. I know Doug Lemov and associates break down skills like this in the USA but it’s not happening as far as I know in the UK. Perhaps it should. Thirdly, teachers need to start talking properly and professionally about the problem instead of hiding their own issues and/or turning a blind eye to the issues of other teachers. Amongst trainees, at least, Haydn’s scale might be a good way to begin to make this happen, and perhaps it’s even more relevant to NQTs, but it’s an emotive topic unlike questions about most other aspects of one’s teaching. Regardless of how, it does need to happen, so teachers can start standing shoulder to shoulder in all schools, not just in the best ones.

Why are these three things not ubiquitous? Well that kind of brings me full-circle to the assinine comment in the Daily Mail and the implicit suggestion that if teachers weren’t so lazy and useless the problem would be easily solved. The success of some schools demonstrates that it’s fixable; but Haydn’s research shows it is an ongoing problem. The implication is that fixing it is not easy. Whilst Ofsted continue to suggest it’s generally fine it will remain a lower priority, in some schools, than data, or teaching and learning. That is the wrong message; Haydn’s is much more the right one.

Here is the  UEA Summary of the paper.

Haydn, T (2014) To what extent is behaviour a problem in English schools? Exploring the scale and prevalence of deficits in classroom climate in Review of Education doi: 10.1002/rev3.3025

Here a link to The Haydn Scale

And his book, Haydn T (2008) Managing Pupil Behaviour: Key Issues in Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge, which expands significantly on ideas about teachers’ experiences of behaviour and how trainees and NQTs learn (or don’t learn) from their experiences – is available on Amazon and elsewhere.


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.