On Relevance

Miss Ellem stopped midway through her explanation of chromatography to glare at me. “What is that you are looking at Heather?” she asked. Everyone in the GCSE chemistry class turned their attention in my direction and I, with a slightly shaking hand, held up the offending volume that I’d been secretly reading under the lab bench.

You might wonder what book a fifteen year old girl had found so engaging that she had risked trouble to continue with it during double chemistry. I gather from some discussion on twitter today that young people are engaged by books that are relevant to them, depending on their class, gender and race. Young people want to read ‘voices near their own experience’.

So what book would suit my profile? I was a fifteen year old white girl, born in a council house whose parents had separated after my birth. Mother, lower middle class and with severe mental health issues, had died the year previously. Father, very working class, already elderly and suffering from dementia. My first memories were of life in a children’s home and since I was 13 I had been, not entirely happily, resident with working class foster parents who read the Daily Express, attended an American faith church and drove a minibus with bible texts printed all over it.

Such a girl needs ‘voices near her own experience’. There must be a book match out there somewhere!

Of course, as anyone with half a brain would know, such a girl was not looking for a book that would remind her of her own rather miserable life.

On that day I was reading Trollope. Anthony Trollope.

This dead white Victorian male chronicler of upper class life introduced me to a seductively orderly world of polite society, full of rich characters and written in a style that intrigued and whetted my appetite for nineteenth century prose. I do know lots of people that prefer literature that has more focus on the ‘gritty reality’ of life but that can often be because they haven’t experienced that particular reality for themselves. Often it is because such books are not the reality the reader is familiar with, that they are so intriguing. Curiosity is a basic instinct and descriptions of worlds very different from our own have always entertained. Conversely we also know that great authors say something general about the human condition. This is why their writing endures and why they are loved by readers of all social backgrounds.

It is odd that educationalists and teachers who are so keen to point out that they view children as individuals can so wilfully lump them into groups based on gender, class or race and bizarrely claim that literary tastes will depend on these factors. It is true that children need to read books to which they have access, that they can, on at least some level, comprehend. It is not because James Joyce is an Irish male, born in the 19thC that I would hesitate to recommend Finnegans Wake to a multi-ethnic A level class. The Dubliners might go down quite well. I’d suggest class and race are quite poor predictors of students’ interests and gender though better is still not at all reliable. Of course, someone’s politics are a slightly more reliable predictor of the books they may reject but we wouldn’t reject some books for our schools because of our political leanings, would we?

There should always be debate about what constitutes great literature but this identity based categorisation of our children, dictating what will engage them and what they will identify with, is patronising and stifling.

Advertisements

Why not assess loving kindness and compassion?

It was inevitable. Given the buzz around character education, mindfulness, mindset and metacognitive strategies etc it was only a matter of time before teachers started trying to assess these sorts of attributes. I came across this sincere attempt to chart progress in areas such as mindfulness and also loving kindness and compassion.

I have reproduced the blog’s suggested progression in ‘loving kindness and compassion’ below:

Their Journey so far Loving kindness and compassion
6 Regularly enjoys giving and receiving acts of loving kindness. Is regularly compassionate towards others and looks to help people in distress. Looks after the vulnerable in the school and looks to help them by talking and playing with them.
5 Is beginning to see how acts of kindness are beneficial to the giver and receiver.Beginning to understand the concept that we all suffer and that we shouldn’t look to add to people’s suffering.
4 Is beginning to see how acts of kindness can be beneficial to others.
3 Can be kind to themselves but not always show compassion or kindness towards others.
2 Finds it both hard to give and receive acts of kindness.
1 Find it hard to be positive about themselves or others.

Quite aside from whether it is the role of schools to prioritise the psychological manipulation of their pupils over academic goals, so many obvious questions appear ignored in the construction of this chart.

  • Do we really think kindness is a skill that can be taught?
  • If we really do can it be assessed effectively? How do we know?
  • Do people make any form of linear progress in behaviours?
  • Who decides what ‘better’ means and why?
  • Can a mark scheme actually show progression in kindness?
  • Is it not more than a little problematic that on this mark scheme the same person could sometimes be level 1 and at other times level 6?

Surely it is demonstrably foolish to set about assessing a desirable attribute without properly considering these questions? Isn’t it obvious that you can’t just pluck a series of statements out of the air that seem to you to show progression and claim they do and that you can use them to assess? How could the writer ever have thought this was anything other than nonsense?

Ah… Hold on a moment…

I didn’t include the above table to pillory this blogger in his sincere efforts to spread loving kindness. Why should he think there is any problem with his approach given the assessment levels he has been using as a teacher?

Here we have the old National Curriculum science levels. I have taken excerpts from the levels for energy forces and space:

Level 1 Pupils communicate observations of changes in light, sound or movement that result from actions
Level 2 Pupils know about a range of physical phenomena and recognise and describe similarities and differences associated with them.
Level 3 Pupils use their knowledge and understanding of physical phenomena to link cause and effect in simple explanations
Level 4 Pupils describe some processes and phenomena related to energy, forces and space, drawing on scientific knowledge and understanding and using appropriate terminology… They recognise that evidence can support or refute scientific ideas… They recognise some applications and implications of science
Level 5 Pupils describe processes and phenomena… drawing on abstract ideas and using appropriate terminology… They explain processes and phenomena, in more than one step or using a model… They apply and use knowledge and understanding in familiar contexts…. They recognise that both evidence and creative thinking contribute to the development of scientific ideas… They describe applications and implications of science

 

  • Do we really think things such as ‘recognising similarity and difference’ are generic skills, readily transferable to whatever material is being learnt?
  • If we really do can it be assessed effectively? How do we know?
  • Do people make any form of linear progress in recognising similarity and difference?
  • Who decides what ‘better’ means and why? Can a mark scheme actually show progression in recognising similarity and difference?
  • Is it not more than a little problematic that on this mark scheme, depending on the material taught,  the same person could sometimes be level 1 and at other times level 6?

Apparently you are ‘able to recognise similarity and difference’ from level 2. Level 4 is when you get the skill of ‘recognising some applications and implications of science’ and by level 5 you can explain these. My six year old’s science school report suggests he needs:

‘…to use his observations to make a simple conclusion’.

Ah yes, that ‘using observations to make a simple conclusion skill’. Isn’t that the skill he used as a new-born baby when he decided he wanted to be with mummy because she had the milk? What level did that make him?

Surely it is demonstrably foolish to set about assessing a desirable attribute without properly considering these questions? Isn’t it obvious that you can’t just pluck a series of statements out of the air that seem to you to show progression and claim they do and that you can use them to assess? How could the writer ever have thought this was anything other than nonsense?

Why am I going over old ground? Levels are gone (at least gone from some schools) and new better forms of assessment, endorsed by the Department of Education, are being substituted. Let’s look at one of these winners of ‘Assessment Innovation Fund’ money from the DfE…

Concept: Causation in history Learning for Progress: Key Stage 4 History
CreatingStudents organise and represent information in a new / different way.Action words: Plan, invent, design, develop, construct, compose Demonstrate their understanding of the past through developed, reasoned and well substantiated explanations of relevant causes, consequences and changes
EvaluatingStudents judge the quality / usefulness of information sources, making decisions based upon agreed criteria.Action words: Assess, justify, prioritise, judge, decide / choose, recommend Demonstrate their understanding of the past through reasoned and well-justified explanations of relevant causes, consequences and changes
AnalysingStudents break down information sources into key parts, finding a range of differing evidence.Action words: Compare / contrast, examine, investigate, categorise, classify, sort Demonstrate their understanding of the past through developed and reasoned explanations of relevant causes, consequences and changes
ApplyingStudents begin to solve problems / answer questions by using learned information in different situations.Action words: Use, complete, examine, illustrate, solve, apply Their descriptions are accurate and their explanations show understanding of relevant causes, consequences and changes
UnderstandingStudents begin to solve problems / answer questions by using learned information in different situations.Action words: Use, complete, examine, illustrate, solve, apply Demonstrate their understanding of the past through description of reasons, results and changes in relation to the events, people and issues studied
RememberingStudents begin to solve problems / answer questions by using learned information in different situations.Action words: Use, complete, examine, illustrate, solve, apply Demonstrate their understanding of the past through description of reasons, results and changes in relation to the events, people and issues studied

This is better than the old NC levels because there is an emphasis on the idea that the degree of skill will depend on the events people and issues studied. But then again…

  • On what grounds do we assume that analysing is a lower level skill than creating? This not a minor niggle. If we can’t actually show this (and we can’t) it undermines the whole premise of the assessment structure.
  • The structure implies that during KS4 a student will go higher up the assessment ladder as they do more topics. Will they? How do we know?
  • Historians spend quite some time simply writing descriptions. Are they operating at a lower level than a KS3 student who has reached the top ‘creating’ level on the ladder or can writing a description actually be quite hard?

The demands of comparative accountability require state schools to use progress’ measures but they will always be flawed because:

Surely it is demonstrably foolish to set about assessing a desirable attribute without properly considering these questions above? Isn’t it obvious that you can’t just pluck a series of statements out of the air that seem to you to show progression and claim they do and that you can use them to assess? How could the writer ever have thought this was anything other than nonsense?

How can I really check my year 9 history students have made ‘progress’ over time in some generic sense, that doesn’t actually hinge on whether they have learnt the latest stuff they have been taught? That apparent ‘progress’ will evaporate if students make less effort on the next topic (or my teaching is poor). The following links are to blogs that all explore the reasons levels are problematic and suggest alternative ways forward, see here, here  and here.  Using the idea that a child is making ‘progress’ rather than simply learning more stuff can work better in subjects where the content is more hierarchical such as maths and early reading although even then it can lead to short termism in approaches and can be problematic because models of progress are often inevitably flawed.

While the education establishment continues to show distaste for the idea that education is about learning a body of knowledge we will not have decent assessment. The idea of actually comparing schools by checking how many students in a year group can explain Hooke’s Law or a myriad of other facts, seems almost absurd in the current climate (although it is what GCSEs do). However, what is more absurd is the alternative.

Meaningful assessment involves checking how well students have learnt the specific stuff you have taught them and difficulty of the task will be dependent on how difficult the students find the specific material being learnt.

Who is doing the work?

I visited a lovely school recently. My impression was that it was very similar to mine in many ways:

  • The same sort of intake in terms of ability and social background
  • Sincere and dedicated teachers
  • Similar range of teaching styles

There was one interesting difference. Their exam results were not as good as they could be, while my school’s results are superb.

Naturally, this school assumed it should take on board Ofsted’s usual suggestion, from a report of a few years back, to tackle ‘passive learning’. Let us set aside the problem with following advice which is simply promoting a preferred teaching style (especially as inspectors have now been explicitly told they can no longer use ‘passive learning’ as a criticism), it is still problematic advice from Ofsted.

I had to ask myself why getting compliance from teachers in preferred teaching styles would be the best solution when in my own school we have been getting such good results without taking this option. While we are accountable for results and there has been CPD on different lesson techniques, my school management has let teachers use their professional judgement when choosing how to deliver lessons.

I could see another difference between the two schools that I think must play at least some part in explaining the variation in exam results but a difference Ofsted showed no interest in highlighting. In my school there are unusually strong structures in place to ensure we know if students aren’t making adequate effort and clear, proactive mechanisms in place to do something about it.

  • Students aren’t just told working hard is a good idea
  • We don’t do assemblies on growth mind sets and stick up posters on the virtues of persistence and hope the students will listen to our exhortations.
  • Pastoral staff want to know if there are issues with a student’s effort, even if they are just coasting so they have the big picture and can step in and discourage bad habits. Therefore, subject teachers aren’t left to chase up persistent late or poor work without support.
  • Our students are graded at least twice a term for effort by their teachers and the main purpose of our tracking is to identify students who are not making an effort with their work and ensuring they do something about it. Tracking IS about effort. Achievement barely gets a look in.
  • Pastoral staff have weekly conversations with students in which they are held to account for poor effort and shoddy work. Students may get detentions or lose privileges.
  • If yr12 and 13 students are not showing the maturity to manage their available time they do face consequences.

All this means that our students do tend to work quite hard. There wasn’t such a rigorous system in place when I came to work at the school 15 years ago. I can see the difference it has made. All students now learn the habit of settling down to regular work and have the chance to realise that their efforts pay off. It is funny how negative some management are about putting more responsibility onto the pastoral system for monitoring and taking action over poor student attitudes to learning. It is not at all easy for class teachers to have the same impact and in fact, most teachers have a pastoral role anyway so workloads remain similar. Teachers are just more able to have an impact in their pastoral role as long as there are systems so they are well informed about their tutees. It is worth making clear that the system is not just in place to ensure students are learning to work hard, it is holistic and has students’ well-being at its heart.

Perhaps you think that it is the teachers who should be required to work harder, planning more engaging lessons and that will then make students work harder. I don’t know why some teachers think planning specifically for engagement is better for motivation than planning to get real progress. Self-efficacy is a great motivator and engagement through fun tasks is just another extrinsic motivator. It has a place but fun doesn’t directly lead to students practising the habit of deferred gratification or self-control they need to develop to really make excellent progress. Even wonderful lessons, which bring the subject alive, don’t tackle the problem of how to force yourself to write a four page essay when you’d rather go out with your mates.

I came across this clip (click on the ‘expectations’ clip), made by the very successful Dixons Trinity Academy. It couldn’t be more different from my school. I think there would be horror and consternation if we painted six foot motivational slogans around our school’s Victorian quad! However, I was very struck by one very big similarity between this school and my own, the emphasis on hard work.

The education world searches endlessly for tricks to get even marginal gains in student progress through classroom teaching, heaping ever greater pressure on the teachers in the process. However, to actually hold students to account for their effort can have a much bigger impact but is unfashionable. How can students learn the cost of laziness if in school it has none? I fear we often deprive our children of the chance to build good work habits because of our squeamishness over requiring hard work. I don’t think we do our students any favours.