A myth free day?

You may have been following the lively debate stimulated by Daisy Christodoulou’s book, ‘Seven Myths About Education’. If not you can follow the link to find out about the myths. I see those myths everywhere, they pervade every aspect of our education system so what is most interesting for me is how many people have denied there is any evidence of these myths at all or, as in this case, agreed that they exist but argued that they do not explain any weaknesses of our education system because they just are not very influential.

I am head of department in a traditional public school. If those myths aren’t influential surely they must barely come onto my radar? Well, here is the diary of a typical day. See if you can spot any myths…

Dear Diary…

I got into school in time to look over my first lesson of the day. I would be giving my year 10s back their source work questions on usefulness. I reminded myself that I must stress to them that to do well in the history exam they must remember that what defines a L4 for this answer is a discussion of the relative importance, or relationship, of provenance and content. I was worried we were a bit behind and I’d have to rush through the next topic but it was just crucial to nail this technique.

Period 2 I was free and wanted to look over possible new text book options for the Year 9 who generally study three topics in depth over the academic year. Hodder’s latest offering wasn’t what I wanted at all. It had seven brief ‘enquiries’, jumping from a few weeks on the British Empire to a comparison of Hitler versus Stalin and then onto a study into Equal Rights. The text book focused on developing concepts and processes with topic knowledge as a vehicle. I moved on to OUP’s KS3 history text. Well the headline marketing stressed it had ‘an added focus on skills’ and the list of how this text book could support teachers listed that the text book provided the following material: enrichment; differentiation; starters and plenaries; assessment; interesting, relevant  and engaging lessons and 21st century applications of technology.

The section on the book’s provision of an assessment framework caught my eye. ‘The marking framework is suitable for all schools, whether you decide to continue with levels or use a performance-level system such as Blooms or GCSE indicators. I rubbed my eyes and pushed the pile aside. I guess publishers know their markets but it wasn’t what I wanted.

I picked up my Year 13 politics essay marking and told myself I MUST crack on and not waste precious time. Each essay has to be given four different marks. One mark is for knowledge and the other three marks are for skills the student demonstrates. Grrrr, it takes flippin ages to mark these…

The bell went for break and one of my year 11 tutees interrupted my reverie. She wanted to chat about what to study at A level. She is very bright and her chemistry teacher had told her that chemistry was an ideal A level choice because of the transferable analytical skills she would develop. We had a brief chat and I looked up a few useful details for her on the internet but it wasn’t working. I realised the problem was that my tutee was leaning on the IWB. All the classrooms had them but I didn’t find mine especially helpful. Then I went over to the staff room for an essential cup of tea, via my pigeon hole to pick up my post. There was the inevitable mix of school tour company flyers and CPD options available for schools to spend their money on:

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I drank my tea quickly because I had some photocopying to get done for my Year 12 lesson after break, to supplement their text book. Their A level text was just so light-weight. It was actually easier than the books I used at GCSE 25 odd years ago and simply didn’t provide enough knowledge for the students to develop or support the arguments they make in their essays.

Lunch was munched quickly because we had our departmental meeting to fit in. I wanted to discuss extending the use of weekly/fortnightly testing from the GCSE years to A level. Regular testing of historical detail just isn’t a very common practice in schools so some of my department had been pretty sceptical initially, especially testing straight recall of facts and a number had argued that it was understanding that was key and so we had begun with a term’s trial of regular factual testing. However, they now agreed that fluency of knowledge had helped the students’ understanding and were now very positive about trialling a similar format at A level. We then chatted about how even our brightest year 11 students seemed to struggle with the GCSE question that asked for ‘effects’ of events. We discussed whether the solution was more practice of ‘effects’ questions to get the technique or more explicit teaching, drawing attention to effects of each event. Did they lack skills or knowledge? Finally we discussed preparation of a student applying for HSPS at Cambridge. He had asked for sessions to help improve his thinking skills ready for the Cambridge ‘Thinking Skills Assessment’.

I got home in time for the usual tea/homework/bedtime routine with the children. I’d very reluctantly started doing some handwriting practice with my son. He is in Year One but still forming lots of letters incorrectly. It is funny that his reception teacher had actually taught my eldest daughter six years previously and given her plenty of handwriting practice but the emphasis had switched so far towards child led activities that there had been considerably less teacher led formal handwriting practice for my son – and it really showed. After his reading and bedtime story I remembered he had been given homework, learning to halve numbers, in his case up to twenty. We normally play a few counting games before lights out so I asked him what half of eighteen was. “Silly Mummy,” he replied, “We did that last week.” It seemed halving was over and he was onto shapes now.

I had my book club that night but as I rushed out I saw that my eleven year old was STILL working on the poster she had been set for maths homework and chivvied her to finish and get up to bed. Book club is fun but lots of talking shop as some of the other members are teachers (you have to feel sorry for the rest). It turns out that my friend’s school is one of two locally issuing Ipads to all students. That provoked lots of discussion…

As I hopped into bed close to midnight I took a peek at twitter to see what was happening. Hundreds of people had retweeted the comment “Strong teachers don’t teach content; Google has content.” As sleep drifted over me I wondered whether the denial of the pervasiveness of the myths is inevitable. When arguments are made convincingly but have implications for practices that are part of the fabric of your working life can you even spot those implications? Isn’t it easier to disassociate the myths from your own practice, to see them as something a misguided minority believe in, rather than question some of the fundamental assumptions your efforts have been built upon throughout your working life?

I’d suggest one way to see more clearly is to compare our education system with others. Consider that while much ‘traditional’ (non myth- based) practice is quite normal in our   schools there must be quite different assumptions that explain the really very different approaches between our system and those used in other countries like China. http://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/files/60/report-on-research-into-maths-and-science-teaching-in-the-shanghai-region%202012.pdf    It is true that there is much we actually do similarly to schools all around the world BUT it is when you ask how systems are different you can dig out what assumptions account for these differences. I’d suggest that the myths explain a significant amount of that difference between our system and those of some other countries. Anyway perhaps more on that another time…

[In the comments I am happy to discuss how those myths can be found in my working day.]

 

 

 

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