I wrote piece recently for Schools Week on the problems with the idea of waiting until children are ‘ready’ to learn:
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:
- Written 54 essays or other pieces of extended writing
- Revised for approximately 27 tests (retakes in their own time if they fail…)
- Knuckled down independently to 54 hours of private study in my subject alone
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.
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”
“ 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:
24th December 2015
A recent blog by Tarjinder Gill really got me thinking. I instinctively dislike the identity politics that is currently so popular with some parts of the left wing and she made me dig deeper into why that was. She argued passionately that we are united by our humanity. I agree that the sort of labels used to define those subject to discrimination and in an effort to correct injustice, can simply make us lose sight of shared humanity. A particular memory from my past stands out when I think about this:
It was a long drive to visit my 88 year old father around the M25 from Reigate to Barnet, especially for a young and frazzled NQT. I arrived to hear him literally hollering at the home help. The agency used by the council often sent different people but I’d met this this chap before and felt he was particularly inappropriately employed. He never made any conversation with my dad or showed any sign that he considered himself to be engaged in a job that involved human interaction. He had gone to the shop to get a fresh loaf of bread and my dad seemed to think he’d kept the change. The home help was Nigerian and my father’s shouted insults horrified me as they were openly racist. In my embarrassment I stumbled over an apology to the home help who left soon afterwards and then I tried to make clear to an old man with a degree of dementia (and a striking resemblance to Alf Garnett in looks, speech and attitudes) just why he couldn’t talk like that. My dad was unable to separate the behaviour of this man from his skin colour and this despite him accepting other agency staff who generally weren’t white.
What strikes me looking back at the scene was that there were two sins I’d witnessed. One, the racism of my father, is openly condemned by society. It is a form of dehumanisation and we are rightly intolerant of it. The second sin was committed by the home help. Presumably focused on the money he could earn, he took no trouble to see my father as a human being and a very vulnerable one at that – lonely and desperately in need of human interaction. I can’t really distinguish between the degree of guilt of either party – both dehumanised the other. However, neither can I dehumanise either of those men by defining them in terms of the wrong they committed. My dad was quite scared and applying a prejudice he’d never really seen challenged. The home help was busy, probably very tired and had other priorities. Who hasn’t ‘treated people as things’ on countless occasions?
It is an impulse reminiscent of 16th and 17th century Puritanism to divide people into ‘the elect’, those distinguished by their virtue, and ‘the damned’, condemned to hell fire. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the definition of virtue and sin were not entirely the same as now. Then, drunkenness or promiscuity were accepted as evils by most of society (even if many were willing to risk eternal damnation in the pursuit of them!) Now society (rightly) believes racism (or sexism or homophobia) are abhorrent. The sins may have changed but the puritan impulse to separate society into two groups, the virtuous and the damned, to prove one’s virtue by dehumanising those who ‘sin’; is all too familiar. We all sometimes do it.
However, there is another path to virtue and despite having very little of my Christian faith left, it is one I cling to. At sunday school I was taught the bible story of the adulterous woman. The crowd wanted to stone her for her behaviour. Today we might limit our anger to a twitter storm, or in the case of the likes of Tim Hunt, the loss of his job and standing. Jesus, however, spent time socialising with sinners (i.e. those whose behaviour we find abhorrent). He did tell the woman to “sin no more” but when asked to condemn the adulterous woman his reply was “Whoever is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.” We are reminded that we all fall short.
When I see someone condemning the ‘evil Tories’ for their lack of compassion but then being nasty to someone on twitter how can I take their claims to virtue seriously? We do need to combat discrimination in society, this is important. However, there is a real danger of elevating wrongs against those from groups suffering discrimination above other injustice in the way we treat the guilty party. It seems to give some people a means to display their ‘virtue’ that leads to a merciless condemnation of ‘the damned’ which is as dehumanising as the original crime. Such ‘virtue signalling’ frequently leads people to forget the very reason why such discrimination so wrong. Granny Weatherwax got it spot on, it “starts with thinking about people as things.”
I’m not Christ-like. I know there are some wrongs I’m not able to see beyond. However, we can only ever keep trying to remember our shared humanity with those we would rather despise. A good message at this time.
Merry Christmas everyone!
This statement has been causing a bit of a stir on twitter.
Here is my response:
I looked doubtfully at the hockey stick handed to me by my mum. I was pretty sure this wasn’t like the sticks other girls would have. I really didn’t want to take it into school. My mum had bought it in a jumble sale and stated it was fine. You could not reason or argue with my mum. It was best to not even question her or she might ‘go mad’. In retrospect I can see this was probably quite literally what happened to my mum. She had mental health problems undiagnosed throughout her life. They had already meant we children had been in care once and would be again. I knew I could not trust my mum to provide me with the correct equipment my school expected Year 7 students to have.
My PE teacher curled her lip disdainfully. She looked faintly amused. I shrivelled up inside, desperate to get the offending stick out of sight. I was not in trouble though. I might get nagged about missing name tapes, shabby uniform, inadequate packed lunches and incorrect sports kit but this time it clearly wasn’t my fault. Mind you I was used to fudging, prevaricating and generally steering a way through the minefield that is school life when you don’t have a parent holding your hand along the way.
It was obviously wrong that I was held responsible for issues over which I had no control. Especially now I have children of my own my heart goes out to that little girl I used to be, getting on with life as best she could, playing the hand dealt to her and never really questioning the justness of the situation in which she found herself.
Surely such a child has every excuse to fail? There was no one to put out my swimming kit every Wednesday (or even dry it out after use), no one to find that missing exercise book in the panic of a Monday morning, no one to sit by me as I got through the summer homework project, no one to take me to WH Smith for fresh supplies. I’ll always be grateful for the kindness of those who saw I had needs and without fuss or busy-bodying self-importance helped that little girl solve the small problems that were big in her life.
I am also very grateful that no one at my school made excuses for me. No one told me I could live by different rules to everyone else, hold myself to a lower standard. I had a fight on my hands to make something of life and I didn’t need anyone giving me excuses not to bother trying. Perhaps most children had extra help along the way but I was perfectly capable of remembering sports kit, getting homework done (even in very ‘difficult’ home circumstances) and remembering a flippin pen. I was unhappy and neglected, not a moron.
I remember a moment later in my teens when I saw this clearly. My boyfriend’s brother was complaining bitterly about his mum’s favouritism towards his siblings. He stopped short, realising that I had no mum (she had died by this time) and perhaps such talk was inconsiderate. Oddly I had never really considered myself worthy of special consideration because of my background. I revolved the idea around in my mind, attracted by the seductive pull of this mindset. I could demand special consideration from others in the way they treated me! I could get angry and offended every time someone talked about their own privileged lives without consideration for those like myself not so fortunate. I really liked the thought of this but some common sense part of me couldn’t go there. Why should people censor normal topics of conversation because of my presence? What was the point of making excuses for myself if it meant I didn’t get to university and give myself a chance of a better future?
There are plenty of ways to help children who have miserable lives but making excuses for them is not one of them.
Setting, Differentiation by Task or Mixed Ability?
There isn’t a ‘right answer’ to every question in teaching. Often there are simply decisions and those decisions have consequences, both positive and negative. This is especially true with the debate over differentiation, setting and mixed ability teaching.
Today I read this persuasive and angry piece by Mary Mered on the iniquities of ability grouping in primary schools. I fully sympathised with all her nuanced arguments. I have seen the way ability based table grouping can hold children back at primary level and I know there is research showing mixed ability teaching is (can be?) more successful. However, I think Mary is wrong to presume the problems with mixed ability teaching are particularly surmountable. It has its own distinct drawbacks, as any teacher allocated a massively mixed ability class knows full well. So while I fully sympathise with Mary’s concerns I think we need to openly acknowledge the weaknesses of EACH approach, weigh up the relative advantages and disadvantages given the children we need to teach and the type of subject matter. Then, having chosen the least of the possible evils in terms of the grouping rationale we plump for, we must then do our best to mitigate against the known weaknesses of that approach.
When deciding whether to set or go mixed ability I wish decision makers would stop following mindless blanket rules and instead take account of the following (rather obvious) considerations:
How wide is the ability range that will need to be catered for?
Mixed ability teaching means compromising. The explanation I would give in history if only A* students were present is necessarily different from what I actually say when I know B or C or even D ability students are also in the classroom. However, if your ‘mixed ability’ class does not have a big ability range, if the teacher can give whole class explanations and generally set the same tasks for all, then mixed ability teaching is probably the best bet. Children avoid being pigeon holed in terms of expectations – the big danger of setting – but can still be taught as a class.
Is the subject matter hierarchical?
In subjects such as maths and languages a very wide ability range can only be catered for by running what are in fact four or five mini classes each lesson because there is limited similarity between the subject matter different ability groups are handling. This significantly dilutes the ability of the teacher to provide strong explanations, respond to difficulties and assess learning. In humanities it is possible to teach a wider ability range as explanations can more easily be given to the whole class.
Is the workload feasible?
It is enormously hard work for the teacher who has to ‘differentiate each lesson three ways/four ways/for each individual…’ or whatever the latest unreasonable ‘best practice’ demands are on the conscientious or over-managed. There is also the danger that many tasks are differentiated because they have to be and thus not in ways that are going to ensure good progress. For example, Mary Mered wrote that her daughter on the low ability table was only required to cut and stick ready labelled parts of the human ear when high ability groups got to draw and label the ear themselves. Why on earth should the less able have less practice drawing and labelling? If they actually had poorer writing or presentation skills surely they need more practice? In fact there seems no reason why virtually all students couldn’t have done the same task in this case. Mandatory differentiation is daft as in many subjects it is difficult to devise a range of different tasks that exactly meet the needs of different groups and it is massively time consuming.
Is differentiation REALLY going to be better than setting?
Lessons where there is generally differentiation by task are worse than setting. You have all the drawbacks of setting – the fixed expectations and possible psychological hit but few of the advantages. The teacher of a set has a more manageable workload, can hone great explanations and spot and deal with misconceptions more easily. The teacher delivering differentiated lessons is less able to keep all groups on task and more assistants sometimes become necessary to provide extra support, which is expensive.
If setting is not practical but the ability range is wide can you avoid blanket rules about task differentiation?
Yes! Schools can avoid blanket rules and teachers must be allowed to be free to judge what differentiation is actually necessary, to avoid an outrageous workload and counterproductive or pointless extra task creation.
If you choose mixed ability grouping then at least be aware that your most able are likely to find the explanations easy, tasks unchallenging or resent spending their time over the years supporting the weakest (who may feel lost and lack support).
If you think differentiation is the only option then be aware that there will be significant work load implications and the teacher’s ability to explain ideas and monitor and supervise each group will be weakened. You also need to be aware of the problems pigeon holing and low expectations.
If you opt for setting be hyper vigilant about the problems with pigeon holing and low expectations.
In an ideal world (otherwise known as Finland) there would be an expectation that the weakest students could to some extent ‘catch up’ with a focus on providing genuinely effective remedial help to that end, so that mixed ability teaching was more practicable in the long term.
In the meantime I tend towards setting as the best option when faced with wide ability ranges. This is because it is possible with good management to overcome some of the problems created by low expectations. A school can create a culture in which they expect weaker students to be given help to genuinely catch up, rather than applying developmentalist assumptions that will stop children having the opportunities to make more rapid progress than their peers. By comparison, the problems with mixed ability teaching or differentiating by task are innate in the model and less surmountable.
To those that want to believe that you can have the best of all worlds – sorry. There really isn’t such a thing as magic. There are simply decisions, each with pros and cons. By demanding that teachers deliver a ‘best of all worlds’ product you are simply piling unreasonable expectations on teachers and making them secretly feel like failures.
Have you ever produced a new teaching resource even though you have something that would do well enough in the file? Or conversely faced your class with that nagging guilt that you’ve been lazy and stuck with old materials? On the latter occasions my conviction fades as I deliver the lesson. I’ve even apologised to my class the odd time for my naff resource. When I know I have worked hard I have the confident conviction that I am a good teacher. Why? Because I work hard for my classes to give them my best.
I’m feeling smug because I’ve worked hard this summer, preparing a whole new module. I’ve been reading up on Elizabeth I ready to teach a new A2 coursework module in September. It has been twelve years since I taught the Early Modern period and one area I had to brush up on was the causes of religious tension. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists all disagreed about the role of ‘works’ and whether good works were necessary to get to heaven. I’m beginning to think teachers are all Calvinists…
Followers of John Calvin believed that God decides in advance who will get to heaven (double predestination), it isn’t based on merit. You’d think that would lead to Calvinists being quite relaxed about their behaviour on earth as they have no control over their final destination – but not a bit of it. As ‘the elect’ were likely, among their other attributes, to be hard working, you could demonstrate that you were one of those chosen for heaven (or elect) by working hard in your life on earth.
I’m convinced we teachers try to demonstrate, not that we are chosen for salvation, but that we are good teachers, by working hard and making new stuff. We need to prove this to ourselves as much to others. I’m not saying we should all be lazy but, for example, we are very attached to the idea of innovation as a good. This is despite having the accumulated wisdom of teachers through the ages to date for us to draw upon. The current subject specific description of outstanding history teaching actually says, ‘lessons are exciting and often innovative’. To be outstanding you must be innovative…
Also as much as some teachers complain about needless bureaucracy there is also a tendency to feel virtuous about completing it.
I once had a department member that never made his own resources. If his colleagues didn’t provide him with a shiny new resource he would, without shame, use whatever pitiful half scrawled sheet was to hand. We were justifiably narked with him but he taught well and got good results. I often wonder whether, instead of making something new when faced with apparently imperfect resources, I used the preparation time to totally master the content, to really work through the mechanics of the lesson, to anticipate pupil responses and misconceptions and how I will build on those, I might be making better use of my time.
I return to work in the sure knowledge I am a good teacher because I have worked hard this summer and prepared something new. Imagine how exposed with my classes and guilty I would feel if I had been lazy and done no work over a summer. However, this new module is supplementary. There are good reasons to introduce it so I have no regrets but we weren’t forced to start teaching Elizabeth I this year. In other words I realised that I could have done NO WORK AT ALL this summer, carried on with a well resourced current module and all my pupils would have been just as well taught. It is just that I would FEEL different about myself as a teacher.
Innovations, new resources and fresh lesson plans are often a distraction and I wonder how often we can teach just as well or better without them.