You know that idea that you can be divided by a common language – when you suspect you aren’t making sense to others even though you are using a common vocabulary? I feel like that about the word ‘homework’.

Homework to me is essential time for my classes to work independently reviewing learning and practising extended writing which will also consolidate their understanding and aid future recall. Yet when I read about homework on twitter it is often condemned as a waste of time – a method disproven by research although this isn’t entirely the case. I can’t get my head around these arguments and I’ll explain why.

A typical GCSE history class of mine will have:

  • Two homeworks a week of 30 minutes each
  • There are 33 weeks in my school’s year
  • My class will write one essay/piece of extended writing every week for homework.
  • About once every two weeks they will revise for a short test on previous material for homework.
  • Other homework will be either extra time to write longer essays or tasks that cover new material or review learnt material.

So (if we generously lop off a few weeks that inevitably get lost each term due to school events etc) over the two years of the GCSE my class will have completed the following homework:

I genuinely don’t understand. How likely is that that this homework is a waste of time?

  • Fifty four essays is an awful lot of practice, review and consolidation of learning and builds crucial writing stamina if the teacher keeps upping expectations.
  • The class get 54 extra lots of feedback on misapprehensions, technique issues and ways to extend their thinking. They generally complete a short feedback task directly focused on clearing up any problems I noticed when marking.
  • We know how important it is to review learning with short factual tests so how can that learning homework be anything other than worthwhile?
  • If my GCSE classes had had no practice building the habit of knuckling down to some private study how likely are they to develop those habits necessary to do the huge amounts of personal revision required to get good grades at history GCSE? If students don’t develop those work habits they’ll do far worse than those who have them, whatever their original potential.
  • There is a good chance students unused to knuckling down to independent study will feel virtuous at revision time despite having done a fraction of the work they actually have the capacity for.

The odd idea that location of the worker rather than task choice dictates degree of efficacy

Surely it isn’t the location of the worker, home or school, it is the appropriateness of the task that dictates usefulness of the work students complete? I don’t suppose endless wordsearches and posters are very beneficial homework tasks. They aren’t particularly useful class tasks either but we don’t suggest that we should close schools because some teachers make poor activity choices in lessons.

Research suggests that at primary level doing work at home, rather than school, isn’t especially effective. This is quite shocking news. I have spent the last nine years listening, every single evening, to some or all of my three children as they read from their school issue reading book. I’d say that the reading practice work that goes on at home with primary aged children is absolutely crucial – ditto learning timestables. I actually think that it is very wrong that schools rely on parents to ensure children learn to read. It means educational inequality becomes inevitable as some parents don’t or can’t manage but the idea that reading practice (because it is done at home, not school) is fairly ineffective, is nonsensical.

It seems reasonable that homework should be set once children are old enough to work independently on a task and take responsibility for completion. That said, I don’t underestimate the enormous challenge involved in creating a homework culture among students in some schools. Neither am I pretending there aren’t serious workload problems for some teachers when regular homework is set and needs to be marked. I’m not pretending that it is easy to ensure homework set by all teachers in a school will be useful. I am, however, saying that the whole debate over homework is unhelpful because it focuses on location rather than task appropriateness and that students who complete regular, well-chosen homework have a significant advantage over their peers.




Mastery does NOT mean full understanding

“For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known” 1 Corinthians 13 v12.

‘Mastery’ means ‘full understanding’ according to many teachers on twitter. So ‘mastery teaching’ means not moving on with your course until something is fully understood. I don’t think teachers really think this because there is a one insurmountable problem with this definition of mastery – there is no such thing as full understanding. For example:

  • When a KS1 child is first taught ‘place value’ is it conceivable that they can fully understand the notion, with all its implications? Surely many GCSE students could do with understanding place value better than they do?
  • My year 10 history class use the word ‘dictatorship’ with some confidence in their writing suggesting they understand it but sometimes they do use the term incorrectly so do they understand the full implications of the term? I know they don’t because I have a better understanding of the term than they do. Do I understand the full implications of the term dictatorship? I know I don’t because the historian Richard Evans definitely understands it better than me.
  • My eight year old son has started reading Harry Potter books by himself. Does he understand them? Well I don’t suppose he realises (as J K Rowling must have appreciated) that the Hogwarts house elves illustrate the Marxist notion of false consciousness. I don’t even think he gets the same depth of meaning from these books as his thirteen year old sister. So when will he be able to ‘master’ Harry Potter? Should he wait to read them until he is able to gain an appreciation of Marxist theory or just until he is mature enough to understand Harry’s teen romances?

In reality of course teachers, as professionals, don’t hang around waiting for FULL understanding – that would be ridiculous. They actually make sensible decisions about the ‘degree’ of understanding necessary for a child at that stage with the curricular content they are learning. The word, ‘mastery’ can’t tell us a thing about what this sensible degree of understanding might be.

Unfortunately the mistaken notion of ‘full understanding’ is not harmless in practice. It can mean teachers do hang around for too long focusing counter-productively on ever greater understanding. A maths teacher may be convinced that a KS1 child must fully understand place value when the notion has been taught at a basic level. They may introduce word problems to check for mastery or ‘full understanding’ of place value. In their pursuit of ‘full understanding’ they fail to consider:

  1. Ability to use learning in new contexts (like word problems in maths or knowledge in history sourcework or applied GCSE science questions) tends to lag behind initial learning because newly learnt knowledge is what is called ‘inflexible’. To overcome this inflexibility you need to accumulate a greater store of related knowledge, facts and examples.
  2. In the case of reading, holding children back so they can ‘fully understand’ what they read, can mean they lack exposure to the very new words and ideas that will allow greater understanding to develop.
  3. As Willingham explains, knowing more facts makes many cognitive functions such as comprehension and problem solving operate more efficiently. Therefore a focus on memory (really knowing what is taught long term) as well as initial understanding is important. This means better understanding often develops after greater FLUENCY OF KNOWLEDGE has been achieved so, for example, lots of practice gaining confidence and really knowing a mathematical method can open up the possibility of further understanding of related concepts. Knowing more about the causes of World War One will make it more possible to demonstrate understanding in an essay.

I like to think of understanding and fluency of knowledge as the partners in a traditional dance. Sometimes they work in unison:

Netherfield Ball 4 (2)

And sometimes they work apart, one going before the other, like dancers executing moves that do not involve their partner.

netherfield ball 1

This means, dare I say it, sometimes it makes sense to teach knowledge and ensure it is remembered even though it means understanding lags behind. It is the teacher that needs to decide whether greater fluency of knowledge or greater understanding is more necessary at any given point. When making this decision perhaps we should bear in mind that in modern education the trend has been towards overemphasising initial understanding at the expense of necessary fluency of knowledge through ensuring that what is taught has been remembered confidently long term.

Where does this leave the word ‘mastery’? We’ve already established that mastery is not a principle we can use to judge the degree of detail in which students must grasp curricular content. Mastery can, however, describe how well children have grasped or can perform whatever the teacher has considered that they need to know or be able to do at that given point  whether that is fluency of knowledge or understanding. When used in this sense the term mastery is useful. The confusion occurs because teachers think about ‘mastery’ in curricular rather than pedagogical terms:

Curricular decision: What should I teach? I should teach this concept fully

Pedagogical decision: When should I move on? When they understand and have committed to long term memory what I have decided they need to know.

The latter pedagogical goal is a useful way to think about mastery. The former curricular goal is actually impossible (unless, perhaps you are in heaven with God and the angels…)


It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

Below are the results of testing in basic skills, over three years, in a group of English primary schools.

“[Of 25 000 children entered for tests] the total rate of failure which two years ago was 13%, rose last year to 14.46%, but declined this year to 11.3%. Of last year’s failures 20% were in numeracy, 7.7% in writing and 6% in reading.”

We need to know more about these tests (of this more later) but the results sound quite good. They were trumpeted by the government as proving the success of government policies. There were, however, some very familiar and very serious problems that those involved in the testing identified. For example:

 “It is found possible by ingenious preparation, to get children through the tests without really knowing how to read write and calculate.”

“[In preparation for these tests] the teacher is led to think…not about teaching their subject but about managing to meet targets. They limit their subject as much as they can and within these limits try to cram their pupils… the ridiculous results obtained by teaching under these conditions can be imagined.”

“[A system of targets has led to] a game of mechanical contrivance in which the teachers will and must more and more learn how to beat us [the test setters].”

“The circle of the children’s reading has thus been narrowed and impoverished all the year for the sake of a result at the end of it, and the result is an illusion.”

“…the more we undertake to lay down to the very letter the requirements which shall be satisified in order to meet targets , the more do managers and teachers [claim reaching these targets equates to successful teaching]”

Harsh words but sadly these observations on the impact of perverse incentives on actual educational standards are only too familiar. Many similar criticisms have been levelled at our modern education accountability systems.

Except that these words weren’t written recently. They were written in an inspection report on primary schooling from 1869. Yes, in 1869 Her Majesty’s Inspector Matthew Arnold put pen to paper and what I have written above (with very few minor alterations) is what he wrote. At that time it was not actually ‘targets’ as such that schools were chasing, instead individual schools were funded depending on their results on some very narrow testing in arithmetic, writing and reading, known as ‘paying by results’. Arnold set out to highlight the damage of this accountability system to the quality of the education the children received.

I’ve been dipping into Arnold’s writing on education this holiday. He is now best known as a great poet but it was his work as an HMI which earnt him his bread. While many education issues and structures he describes were quite different in the second half of the nineteenth century, what is most striking is how far the Victorians were actually grappling with the same problems, engaged in the same debates, attempting the same hotly debated solutions and driven by the same good intentions.  The prescience of some of Arnold’s commentary is at times startling.

I can’t help thinking of the damage done by the 5A*-C metric when I read:

“It is just the weakness of a system which attempts to prescribe exactly the MINIMUM which shall be done, and which makes it highly penal to fall short of the MINIMUM”

And that

“ Admitting the stimulus of the test examination to be salutary, we may yet say that when it is over-employed it has two faults: it tends to make the instruction mechanical and to set a bar to duly extending it [the instruction]… performing a minimum expressly laid down beforehand – must inevitably concentrate the teacher’s attention on the means for producing this minimum…the danger is the mistake of treating these two [the minimum and the good instruction of the school] as if they were identical.”

He seems quite familiar with the resultant problems of grade inflation…

“This is a hard comparison to make with accuracy, so as to be sure that the improvement in questions has actually taken place”

And the paucity of a primary education focused on narrow testing in the basics:

“…government arithmetic will soon be…remarkable chiefly for its meagreness and sterility.”

Arnold wrote a pamphlet critiquing education reforms in 1862 called ‘The Twice-Revised Code’. In this his criticisms of practices in education range more widely. I was particularly amused by his explanation of why he felt it necessary to write a pamphlet for the general reader. It seems he appreciated just how big a challenge Justine Greening will have mastering her brief:

The system of our Education Department bristles with details so numerous, so minute, and so intricate, that any one not practically conversant with this system has great difficulty in mastering them, and, by failing to master them, may easily be led into error.”

And he was just as cross as teachers today when politicians imposed flaky policies – SATs retakes and the planned academisation of all schools spring immediately to my mind:

“Concocted in the recesses of the Privy Council Office, with no advice asked from those practically conversant in schools, no notice given to those who largely support schools, this new scheme…by which they abruptly revolutionize the system…has taken alike their friends and enemies by surprise.”

The following quote made me think of the impact this year of government policies cutting places for university based teacher training:

“But we could wish some better means had been originally devised for accomplishing this limitation, by processes which the training colleges might have accepted, and which would not have abruptly deranged all their operations; by processes which their inventors might not have been, after all, forced to abandon.”

Arnold is particularly derisory of education reform led by political economists, forced to admit they had:

“…pushed their principle too far when they proposed to examine infants under six years of age!”

He reserves particular scorn for the way HMI were forced to look narrowly at a school’s test results when they visited:

“In fact the inspector will just hastily glance around the school, and then he must to work at the ‘logbooks’…as if there might not be in a school most grave matters needing inspection and correction.”

Finally I don’t know whether I am more amused or saddened by discovering clear explanations, written in 1862, as to why policies we still pursue today are doomed to fail. We have been pursuing criterion based marking in our schools for decades. There are now voices such as Daisy Christodoulou’s explaining why level descriptors don’t work. Here is Arnold, in 1862, explaining the obvious problem with descriptions of quality:

“…the terms ‘fair’ and ‘good’, when applied to the reading, writing and arithmetic of our elementary schools, are not always used in precisely the same sense, and do not carry to the minds of all who hear them used, precisely the same impression”

Most tragic in my mind is the way in the modern age we continue to pursue enormously damaging approaches in our efforts to teach good reading. Such approaches were so obviously wrong to a commentator on education in 1862 but still we persist. Arnold explains that to ensure good results in reading (and thus funding) schools began to focus on teaching basic reading to the neglect of teaching a wide ranging knowledge of the world around them. He observes that:

Commissioners themselves quote the case of a school at Greenwich, in which backward readers, kept to reading-lessons only, were found to make less progress even in reading than others equally backward whose lessons were of a more varied cast. The most experienced inspectors, too, declare that the schools in which the general instruction is best are precisely the schools in which the elementary instruction is best also.”

“[It is their progress in studying] civilisation which will bring them nearer to this power (of good reading comprehension), not the confining them to reading-lessons not the striking out of lessons on geography or history.”

The research of a whole field in cognitive psychology has been necessary to persuade many that it really is important to know lots of ‘stuff’ to have good reading comprehension but in education we are so keen find short cuts and justify them by claiming we know a lot better than people who lived long ago. Arnold wonders:

“If [for] good reading, cultivation in other subjects is necessary, why cut of all grants for these subjects in the hope of thereby getting better reading?”

Good question! Why do we focus so much time and priority on English teaching given the importance of learning lots of other subjects for comprehension?

Perhaps if people had studied a little more history they might be less dismissive of the idea that we can learn from the past. Perhaps the reason we often don’t learn from past wisdom is because we rather arrogantly think we must know better.

You can find Arnold’s ideas on education here: