Monday, 12 November 2012

Initiative vs systems, and how the Nelson touch is lost

This will be one for the military history fans - but please don't stop reading there, the 90% - bear with the analogy. I hope it will be revealing.

Several former colleagues at the moment are reflecting on the frankly depressing turn their school has taken. Whether it's the effect of brutal cuts, the Gove-driven nonsense that's causing rigged-down results / unsuitable EBacc pressures / ever-upward pressure on "minimum" standards at GCSE, the pressure (and the cottage industry in how) to get "from Good to Outstanding" or the increasingly defensive behaviour of a Head who's newly discovered that running an Academy means not just freedom but sole legal responsibility too and has become ultra-conservative in response - I seem to be hearing a string of misery from friends old and newer. And after a while it became clear that there is a common root cause of sorts: fixed standardisation, the great evil of a decade ago, seems to be making a full-blooded Slytherin comeback right now.

We'd nearly learnt to slay this dragon. The Blunkett literacy / numeracy era deserved the lauding it received in raising baseline standards; but it topped-out early, plateauing once the (small) number of inadequate or lazy teachers had been pulled into line or moved along elsewhere; beyond this, it was clear by the start of the last decade that a residual block existed that couldn't be improved by more of the same ultra-systematic model of all teachers being required to work from an identikit script. The interested should read Michael Fullan's various writings from early last decade on the importance instead of capacity-building across the system - all teachers needed nuanced understanding, a range of skills, and innovative and responsive mindsets in order to break that plateau barrier.

And it looked for a while as if the supertanker had turned. The revolutionary and liberating message of people like Paul Ginnis (an excellent INSET provider this year at my school) began to gain popular momentum among not just the teachers who had admired him for years, but also the leaders who needed to direct daily change in practice in their schools. Formative assessment, beginning with the famous Black & Williams paper, began to gain widespread interest, and even understanding, in instructing us to assess less frequently but more powerfully, and for the explicit, and usually ungraded, purpose of improvement. We briefly realised that value-added might even need social context as well as raw data for a while. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, no man for liberal ideals or anything resembling teacher freedoms, recently stated that there is no one model of the outstanding lesson. A kind of hopeful individualism and contextualism began to bloom in schooling.

Yet if experiences I'm hearing about recently are anything to go by, we're witnessing a resurgence of the old bureaucratism, a counter-reformation back to the old standardisations and classroom scripts for "good learning." Much of the current pressure on teachers is phrased in the new language - learning not teaching, formative feedback, differentiation, variety, student-voice or student-led - but is throwback-prescriptive, ultra-dogmatic and often inaccurately or dishonestly abuses recent research breakthroughs, cherry-picking what suits and blankly reversing them where the politics differs: you must mark this way; your lesson must be structured thus; this proforma must only and always be used; all reports will be between X and Y words in length and tone; right down to the words and comment structures you must use not merely in written feedback but in casual oral interchange with students - everywhere the fixed and centrally-dictated script seems to be achieving an ugly resurgence. It's like a horror movie franchise where the beast just won't die.

And so, to mix metaphors, to war. Not literally - just for a better analogy. Let's start with Nelson. Even the historically-disinterested will have a general inkling, courtesy of a large slab of real estate in central London, of the national idolisation we (rightly) give to old Horatio. (We quite literally put the man on a podium. Hats off to him.) He was famed for what has for two centuries been called "the Nelson touch." It meant not merely an ability to inspire faith, loyalty and tremendous endeavour from his men; it meant an uncanny skill of leadership to develop in those under him an incredible capacity to mirror his own genius, to think with equal skill, daring and innovation, and to engage effectively with the task in hand, independently of command or system of instruction, no matter what the time, place or people to hand. He regularly referred to his captains as his band of brothers and not merely did all show remarkable commitment to the cause, but almost all went on to be excellent admirals in turn, such was the calibre of Nelson's leadership. He spent swathes of time discussing tactics, options, scenarios and approaches with them, but these were no delivered lectures; his engagement with them, enhancing them, was on terms approaching social equality for the era: he was interested in their desire to speak freely, their potential to each respond to an emerging situation skilfully, rather than being set on indoctrinating uniform procedures.

Evident in battle after battle throughout his career, this obsession with building capacity and freedom of action is best evidenced at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798, with the utter destruction of a larger French fleet. Anchored alongside the shore to force the more veteran British fleet to engage on one side only, the leading French captain had left just a little too large a gap inshore of his ship. Without instruction - and in abject defiance of "play it safe" usual naval practice - Captain Foley of the Goliath, seeing the narrow gap, decided to seize the opportunity and take the risk. He found the line, cut under the French vanguard, and swung sharply to attack the second ship in line; the following captains showed equal independence of judgement and followed him - again without a word from Nelson - to undercut too and engage the first and fourth French ships. From a central command perspective, chaos ensued, as each individual British ship spontaneously selected and aggressively pursued an opportunity to approach their focus with excellence and complete freedom of manoeuvre. Nelson essentially gave no commands, and no system was followed - in fact systemic thinking was roundly ignored by all the British captains - and complete surprise and success followed. The following British ships swung to port early to engage the opposite side of the French line and even the later ships, recognising that the front of the French line was now trapped and overwhelmed, again independently decided to make best use of themselves further down the French battle-line: the battered Bellerophon valiantly placed itself, massively outgunned, against the French flagship and another battleship, in order to delay or prevent the involvement of the French centre before the front of their fleet could be reduced. From an apparent chaos of independent action emerged compelling evidence of the power of giving your subordinates freedom to think and act independently.

Consider for a moment the implications in terms of leadership, action and capacity this required, and what this might mean for leaders of teachers in schools. You would not merely have to ensure your staff were fully motivated to participate entirely in all things at all costs. You would have to have any and all of them willing to take risks, make decisions without reference, often in exploratory ways counter to easiest or most common practice. You would need them each individually to make the choice they thought was best in every situation, not the one suggested by a written document or theory of best practice; you would spurn formal, especially written, policy or the idea of suiting Admiralty / inspectorate theorists sat in distant armchairs. You would need to encourage people to embrace certain kinds of chaos which offer the chance to overwhelm plodding system-driven thinkers like the anchored French line. You would measure your success as a leader by how little you needed to instruct, not by how clear your instructions were; you would measure your team's success by how many different routes of action they were capable of, and spontaneously chose and used well, not how standardised and "consistent" their practice was. You would value those who unquestioningly took on difficult tasks unlikely to succeed, in the best interests of the whole, rather than criticising their performance in the face of impossibility. You would foster the ability of those band of brothers like they were your heirs, not your staff or servants. And so effectively did Nelson do this all the time that at Trafalgar, his last, great, mortal, victory, he explictly decided to challenge the massively numerically superior combined French and Spanish fleet by sailing - in direct contravention of theory, orthodoxy and authorised naval practice - straight into the allied flank, because when this caused the disintegration of the enemy's fleet order, his far more skilful and independently-minded captains would thrive in the resultant free-for-all. He knew that by shaking things up, and developing independent action in all your subordinates you can defeat any odds: how's that for a moral for schools? Someone ought to write that on a badge somewhere in Latin. Try picturing as a head what that would mean in your school - or as a teacher in your classroom.

The naval analogy isn't done, I'm afraid, because the comparative story, a century later, is the great lost opportunity of the Battle of Jutland, at which the British Grand Fleet could have sunk the majority of the German High Seas Fleet and possibly hastened the end of World War One dramatically - but let this prize slip through their fingers as a result of total lack of initiative and rigid centralisation of command which discouraged all innovation or initiative: in a well-intentioned but woefully-misguided desire to (impossibly) codify the Nelson touch into universal practice, the Royal Navy killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So keen were they to mimic a handful of Nelson's tactical choices that over the intervening century they had written it all up in gospel instruction books of best practice that all captains were to follow at all costs, centralising decisions and standardising all professional practice. (The observant will notice without further detail the risks to teaching. This is the terrible temptation of all schools trying to move from Good to Outstanding - "if only we all did things a little bit more to one model that once worked somewhere else, with everyone doing the same thing, we'd triumph.") To cut a long story short, Jutland was a story of the larger British fleet cornering the Germans and trying to cut them off from home. Twice they nearly succeeded - twice in the dark and fog the Germans managed to turn away. The British Admiral Jellicoe, accurately second-guessing his opponent's line of escape, manoeuvred to the south and east of the German fleet - and successfully cut them off from home once and for all. And here is where it the futility starts.

Obsessed, in the century since Nelson, with the importance of no-one making a mistake, every British captain was programmed with a long list of how not to exercise initiative, and permitted only limited space for decision-making - the exact opposite of Nelson's approach - as the Royal Navy became more fearful of defeat than keen for victory (Churchill famously warned of the danger that only the navy could "lose the war in a day".) But fear is paralysing, and faith - so evident in Nelson's approach - harder. In the same way, schools - even those Good or better, or newly-converted academies suddenly with no backstop or external support - seem more obsessed with the risk of inspectors or lawyers finding fault than with the possibility of unleashing potential and exploring change and opportunity.

And so it was at Jutland that the German fleet escaped. Jellicoe's guess about the enemy's likely route home was accurate; and the Germans were forced to cut sharply across the line of small ships at the rear of the Grand Fleet to try to break through; but although the British destroyers exchanged fire with the German capital ships and responded as individual units exactly as required by policy, not one of them took the initiative of notifying the rest of the fleet or showed leadership in developing a new, localised, response to the developing situation. The British battleships, superior in number and firepower, sought vainly ahead of them to locate the enemy that was simuateously passing through the rear of their line undetected. It is an abject lesson in what happens when you remove all capacity for independent action and insist on blind policy and a fixed line of battle with commands emanating only ever from a flagship far distant from the real action. Jutland is a study in wasted opportunity - where fear of defeat meant missing victory for mediocrity. It is impossible to imagine Nelson's adventurous subordinates making such an error, given the freedom, trust and right to experiment which he permitted them.

My protest - in case anyone's missed the hammering unsubtlety of my analogy so far - is that most, good, teachers, should be left alone to explore, rather than be forced to work like others (or worse yet, to a shared, nonsensical mean teaching style which suits almost no-one.) But this is not the protest of some downtrodden union rep seeking relief. This is about excelling. I don't think teachers should be left alone because it would be nice for them, but because it works better in educational terms. Encourage teachers to share, to collaborate and innovate, to explore. Classes and teachers and schools and students are all different and the formula needs tinkering all the time - and no-one is better positioned to do that than those in that classroom all the time - certainly not those more distant. Review how exploration and liberalism helps standards after the fact. Don't regiment before it or you kill progress.

I maintain that there are broadly two types of teacher and school-leader - those who build capacity, with all the risky trust and appearance of chaos that can require - and those who command by dictat; and the long-term superiority of the former is clear. The lessons of industry, military history and artistic innovation - let alone educational research - do not suggest that rigid central policy (by government of schools, by school leaders to their staff, or by teachers to students) is effective in the long-term. We need more of the Nelson touch and less of the Jellicoe; we need more faith in possibility and less fear of failure. We need to celebrate classrooms' incredible differences and experiments, not their standardisation and tedious consistency. This is a human industry, not a machine-tooling one, and it responds to human desires to explore, vary, and connect, not to precision-gauge systems of measurement. It is difficult to imagine an industry less well-suited to Henry Fordesque production line automation. And yet in many schools, it is hard to imagine how we could create a more clear-cut contradiction between the values we proclaim - of individuality, differentiation, excitement and variety - and the monotone cookie-cutter systems we put in place. We preach potential and then pack the lid down on the sardines - with teachers even more than students. It is mind-boggling to understand how a profession as well-educated as this can be more simplistic or outdated in our organisational choices, our management styles and our use of unnecessary documentation. Jutland-like, we continue to sail through the dark and fog, crossing the battle lines in blind robotic order and missing crying opportunities to engage since we feel "unauthorised" to adopt new ideas. The risk-taking dynamism, freedom of manoeuvre and resultant devastating, incredible success of Aboukir is not merely missing from most of our schools - it has been purged, and we are the worse for it. If you're a school leader, try sitting down today and listing three things you could eliminate to aid this building of capacity - and three things, or people, you ought to trust more, and encourage to experiment. Hover on the moment Nelson must have felt watching Foley swing unexpectedly to starboard, on his own initiative, to the dangerous line inside the anchored French ships, rather than the regulation line on the seaward side; you can't help feeling he had a wry grin of approval at the daring and intelligence of his subordinate. You doubt Nelson had asked him to write a detailed lesson plan first on a shared official proforma.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Sophistication, smugness and sampling it all

I've had an awesome first day back today with an INSET led by the rightly well-known and -regarded Paul Ginnis (, @paulginnis) and a number of the materials and examples he showed us set me thinking and offered something new - as good INSET ought, but so rarely fails, to do.

Over the past year I've been trying to be adventurous with one particularly trailblazing set, a mixed-ability year 10 Psychology class with a great attitude to learning. The adventurousness has taken two forms - firstly, essentially no written work (see my prior blogpost or the Guardian's shortform of the same), and secondly - and what I'm going to focus on here - a heavily experimental, practical, group-working, out-of-the-classroom-much-of-the-time approach. I've been incredibly impressed, feeling very optimistic about their results all summer, and a class median of B on GCSE papers sat in year 10, and including 3 A* grades in a class of 14, has affirmed the quality of their learning and the energy and commitment they have brought to it. But watching Ginnis's presentation today has made me wonder if I'm so busy being pleased about the new ideas I've already tried that I'm not embracing others I might be starting to experiment with too. Let me start with the thing I think I'm doing well - for the purpose of showing it's not enough in itself. Like all alternative approaches, there's plenty of other people in other places doing it - even if you didn't know the name it has come to be known by in training circles. I've just always thought of it as practical or research or experimental work in Psychology, but Ginnis's labelling of it as "Problem-driven learning" is fairly neat. The idea is to start with the big question, allowing intrigue, interest, and desire to solve to drive the engine of the content learning. In practical Psychology lessons, this takes the form of asking them, on a given syllabus topic, what they'd like to know about it, how they'd like to research it - what evidence would they want to go after, what big question answer? Why do boys and girls do differently on this? What else do they think differently on? Are there set meanings to set forms of body language? How would we find that out? Three weeks down the line we often have some compelling data and clear conclusions after designing and executing experiments real researchers have been impressed with. I watched the Gifted group of this class of 14-year-olds report one of their self-designed projects to first year university psychologists this year, who were gobsmacked by how outclassed it made them feel. The big problems and the big picture and so motivating that they set in context how easy much of the related curriculum material is - so students tear at a rate of knots through the specified curriculum as mere foundation work to explore what they really want to know about at a higher level. Although most marked at the top end, the benefits have been clear across the whole ability spectrum.

So why am I so dissatisfied with this practice, then? Both senior colleagues and trailblazing peers with whose own innovations I am impressed have remarked positively, and the results have been impressive - and I was never under any impression that I was doing something no-one else was attempting, only something rare - but watching Ginnis talk through a whole range of innovative approaches, it strikes me that I'm doing little or none of this other stuff. Scoring one goal, even a spectacular one, doesn't win the match; one swallow does not a summer make and all that. Worse yet - and here's the crux - the very same peer colleagues with whom I have mutually-supportive conversations about our respective innovations are in many cases doing these things already: that's their innovation, as mine is mine. We've shared one another's trailblazing in moral support terms but actually not really learnt from one another, not cross-implemented. I'm great at problem-driven learning; but I don't flip the classroom (provide online resources teaching theory, then using classroom time to do, close-supported, conventional "homework") very much; I rarely reverse (exploratory work first, theory in retrospect.) Suddenly it strikes me that using - depending on - one such innovative technique is intellectually lazy and potentially low-geared in teaching terms. If you are a model classroom-flipper - if you design brilliant theory material for them to pre-access - you would be even better if you were a reverser (in the Ginnis terminology) too: if you allowed the exploration work first, you could be crafting more apt flipped materials as you saw them struggle and fail with certain concepts as they went. If like me you always provide good opportunity for problem-driven learning at the end of the unit - a kind of reward for rattling through the content to get to the big stuff - why always do it in that order? Couldn't I start with the briefest covering of the topic area, invite the problem-driven project work to happen there at the start, and be doing a kind of reversing at the same time? Couldn't I be used that coaching time, with a randomly withdrawn group, to create the flipped material as others completed experimental work to a university standard? (I'd have a link to YouTube to show you that here - if I was doing this, which I'm not - yet!) And there are a dozen more techniques, so work out your own unfulfilled combinations of game-like / theory of fun, choice, externalised teaching and so forth. The point is the more you innovate, the more you enhance each innovation; as each trick is mastered, add other layers. And I've not been doing this, it suddenly strikes me, with the best class I've had in years.

Now the school year is hard, long, and the longer it gets, the harder; and the defence of my failure to innovate further or pick up yet more new ideas is (a) it's a big ask to keep reinventing yourself all the time and (b) most teachers would be pretty impressed with those two big changes to my practice at the same time anyway (dare I breathe that many teachers might need to try both a bit more?) But this will not do. Even if it is not smug being proud of taking, and making successful, approaches which are new to you and relatively new to the school - I hope it's not - you can't stop at one or two changes which work. The most common death of good initiative and research evidence is when it is robotically systematised, so I don't want everyone forced to try my approaches; the next most common abuse of a good idea is when teachers attempt too many changes at once, and either mangle all of them, or develop an overload aversion as a result of the stress resulting and therefore reject and allow to lapse developments in their practice which they'd have naturally embraced given a more organic route of change. But I'm not talking about these (depressingly regular) cases: I'm talking about changes I have chosen to make and explore myself, supported by a flexible and interested Senior Team, on a timescale of my choosing. And that flexibility, combined with this good INSET (and, dare I say, a long holiday) have made me the one who decides that's what's going on already may be fine, may be great, but it's not good enough - something new and more is needed. I don't know yet what it will be - flipping more consciously, reversing more often, adding better visualisations, video work, or quiz- or mystery-like components to the learning I oversee - but something will come out of this. It's not enough to be good and adventurous at just one or two things. Reinvention needs to be lock and stock, as well as barrel.

There's no magic wand about it. Constant self-refreshment and renewal is difficult in most lives and especially hard in an emotionally-draining field like teaching. Too much INSET and training in schools is suicide-inducingly procedural or (perhaps worse) a masquerade of inspiring "practice-changing" developments whilst being at best third-rate recycling and more commonly packaged orthodoxy in demoralising management speak. Real vision about change, real energy to motivate expansion and experimentation, and real examples of success making new ideas work in a breadth of contexts - this is rare, delightful, and frankly surprising. So, Bravo, Mr. Ginnis. I'm switching the congratulations to you because my best class and I have had our pat on the back already this year, both in the form of enjoying the learning and getting strong results from it; it's time for us, and from my point of view, me in particular, to question, challenge and extend anew - to not just rest on the laurels of one effective innovation I think my classroom is leading in - but to start experimenting with the others too; others where I know, if I'm honest, that I've known about but failed to try. Onward and upward - just where good INSET should send you. And Headteachers and Principals everywhere, remember this: you get about a fortnight once a year, about now and not again, to invest this training time in inspiration and daring propositions rather than house business - keep its use to that purpose, and see the gain. Give leeway and foster innovation in your staff and they'll find those new successes you are hoping for. What's next?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are you writing for?

We ask students to write all the time but rarely ask why. The Ken Robinson enthusiasts among you will claim there's an outdated Victorian model in place; other liberals will argue it's all about teacher accountability and not quality. System technocrats, especially in English and Maths, will claim it embeds and proves attainment of learning objectives for e.g. Assessing Pupil Progress, while traditionalists will argue that it's all about the (lost?) basics we need to go back to; with raised eyebrow a few cynics will tartly observe that it's to keep students quiet for a certain proportion of the lesson and force some individual thinking in a generation that talks well but lacks attention span.

All have some truth to them. But try this: it has two wildly different and conflicting purposes. What if we needed students to write for a limited, very traditional and strict purpose - because exams are written and so will very many decent jobs be - and separately, for a wider, more idealistic purpose: because it's the ultimate method of exchange of ideas in depth, of skilled argument and reflection, condensed to a tight form? If they were true, we'd do two different kinds of writing, and neither of them might look that much like the broken-down spoon-fed short written exercises now so common across all subjects: first, we'd much more commonly use formal test papers to acclimatise students to (and quite insistently use well-supervised peer marking to measure progress on) exams - slightly dull but precise and necessarily regular - perhaps even weekly. And beyond that, we'd let written tasks have pretty free rein, and encourage students to be as ambitious, free-thinking and wide-ranging as possible in writing. What that would mean is freeing up most classroom time outside of the revise / test / peer-mark cycle to be about group project work, self-directed learning (flip the classroom here if you like), talk and flexible deadlines; and we'd make the recording of this learning in written form a highly flexible range of outcome options - for students to write what, and when, they like, to show the world what they have learnt and now understand or can do. In other words, we'd do more exam work, and almost all writing beyond that would be on student blogs. Because a blog isn't telling your teacher or your parents you are ticking boxes in the subject: it's showing the world you get it, and want in on the global discussions about it. So I've spent the past few months with GCSE and A-level classes doing absolutely no writing at all beyond sample tests and student blogs.

What I've found is that the most powerful and compelling reason for asking students to write for an entirely public audience is this: they realise how high that bar is, and can be initially intimidated about the prospect. But that removes all apathy or sense that the writing is a humdrum task - that perennial cry of "What's the point?" disappears at a stroke. Asking all students to write their own blogs as their learning unfolds and interlinks empowers the teacher to be more supportive because they're less tied to the bureaucratic side of the process; it raises the challenge level; it enables IT-skilling though confirming the message that "content is king"; it enables good differentiation; students can easily personalise their work; it lets them see their own progress; it promotes limited and purposeful writing and means more productive and accelerating talk time in learning rather than rote writing tasks.

The breadth of results has impressed me. Students have collated and commented on topical news, explained practical implications and real-world examples of syllabus phenomena, made "Comment is free" type posts detailing their views on issues, written up experiments in thorough detail, published data they have either researched or sourced elsewhere and linked it to other topics, and commented skillfully on one another's work. And if, as the best have done, they write professionally in the public domain already as teenagers - which top university Admissions Director wouldn't offer them a place on a degree course of their choice?

There are a powerful range of practical advantages to student blogging over other written forms. Composing complex written arguments with IT is better than on paper - you can adjust planning as you go, cut-and-paste as your argument develops; add in the online capacity to link-reference other webpages (the teacher's or peers' blogs, news stories, resource pages) as you construct the argument and you have a really punchy way to create a detailed and well-argued viewpoint. The range of interfaces, appearances, skins etc associated with public tools like Blogger and Wordpress professionalises the appearance of students' work and they rise to that implicit reward with serious attempts to write in depth: seeing your work given impressive profile and knowing the world is only a click away from reading what you think is considerably more motivating than continuing to write longhand in that dog-eared exercise book.

Feedback, groupwork and a visible papertrail are all effortless gains in this model. Display student work for class discussion, comment in reply to students' posts to give feedback; set homework for them to make short comment critiques on one another's blogposts; give project tasks requiring them to read multiple peers' work and synthesise an overview post with linked references. No hassle passing exercise books around / taking other students' work home to peer-comment on (and losing it); all their blogs are linked to from my own as class teacher. They can review across classes and year groups. They can also find resources on my blog or by following a dedicated Twitter feed. Line managers wishing to check my classes' work can trace to the minute what tasks were set, what resources provided, what reminders given; to the minute they know the time students posted their work in reply, commented on or fed back to one another, and can see if and in what way I've provided further feedback; an email papertrail confirms further support where needed - all without leaving their desk. (By the way, I'm not intimidated by this intrusive rise in monitoring capability. I do my job well and want my students to feel that accountability isn't something to be scared of either. In return, I give students, and expect from my SLT, considerable flexibility in using this powerful system: don't be bureaucratically nit-picking about timescales or exact procedures; stick to the big picture of whether the student is engaging and developing.) This is all massively more powerful, and infinitely easier, than collecting exercise books for monitoring and restricting peer-feedback to within the classroom, and a source of far less hassle and conflict than fixed small-scale written homeworks with exact deadlines. Furthermore, parents can easily be directed both to any information they need to help and (should they complain) to the evidence of what their child has both received and achieved - and to comparative students' work from within the same class. This forcefully and positively shifts the onus back onto the student to self-manage and the parent to monitor - where it ought to be - so I can remain a lead learner on tap as a resource for the motivated, and an aid to the struggling, more than a policeman of small-scale paper-based tasks.

Of course, there are a number of "I wouldn't risk that" concerns with student blogging, but none justify avoiding it: my aim is not to tell you that it is problem-free, but that its problems are essentially no different to any conventional learning medium. Most terrifyingly for the luddites and senior leaders, the risk of defamatory or provocative remarks exists; but this is a behavioural issue, not a technological one. It's no different to the risk of a student in uniform mouthing off at the local shopkeeper, or a student on stage in the school play "going off on one" - we fear these things, but they rarely ever happen, and are behaviour issues to be addressed like any other, not technological issues. Don't deprive all of an exciting outlet because of fear of a remote possibility of misuse by a tiny few. (In fact, the very public exposure of allowing students to blog about classroom activity is a sign of trust to which students rise admirably. And I advise a common sense approach to online courtesy and standards, not another wordy policy with fixed rules. Like most issues of morality / community consensus, discussing them if problems arise is a good opportunity, not a delay, and enriches understanding. I've had no problem all year with this.) And anyone who's ever managed a Facebook-centred incident in school will know the useful incontrovertability of screenshots as proof. Policing this kind of misbehaviour, if it does occur, isn't so hard. And if you really want you can require them to give you editing rights on their blog (I don't want to, but it's easy if you insist.)

Others worry that some student work is too weak for this medium and will make the school look bad or the student feel demoralised. But we put all our students' work on display boards, don't we? And we claim to care about the progress each makes over time - where better than a blog to show that flow of development? Student bloggers are not meant to be the finished article as writers (I'm not sure most professional bloggers are...) and what we're looking for is for them to strive to emulate, and participate in, a global community of discussion, however fledgling their efforts. Support the weakest closely but don't hold back for that reason: all should be told they're worthy and able to attempt it, that they have a right to their views - and that they too must try to meet a standard of excellence if they're to draw readership.

Plagiarism is also a problem, but surprisingly less online than offline. I've had one incidence of this all year (that I know of!) - a direct lift from the textbook. A discreet, firmly-worded private email explaining copyright law to the student (copied to the parental email) and a brief non-naming public reiteration to the whole class of how this was both a legal problem, a disciplinary issue and (worst of all) just poor character, effort and engagement - the post swiftly disappeared and the problem never occurred again. In group work, groups can share and co-write sections and use them across multiple blogs - they're just asked to make clear when they do this.

Use of strong language (to make a point, rather than directed use designed purely to offend) is a moot point. I have a philosophical position that this should not be stonewalled in public discussion, and it is not the place of a school to ban it. I allowed A2 Sociology students this year to use it in political posts; tellingly, they did so freely in early posts, but then its use fell away - strong language sometimes has a place that cannot be replaced (often it is critical in satire, for example) - but its casual use disempowers it and makes the writing appear lazy and ill-thought-out. The students themselves ended up reflecting that they should choose words better and not so easily. "You don't hear Polly Toynbee saying 'What a dick' in her articles, even though she clearly thinks David Cameron is one," asserted one perceptive wit, to general agreement. This is not a conversation teacher training prepared me for, but I'm glad it happened; and I think those students are better writers now for learning, with freedom to choose, how to make words have their most powerful effect. Of course, language is a thorny issue, so I share this story without wanting to impose the advice.

The last major concern is Child Protection but this ought to be shrugged off. Certainly older students are far more risk-savvy online than the press moral panic would have us believe; they all use Facebook all the time so telling them blogging isn't safe is laughable to them; and a glance at educators' Twitter accounts would reveal numerous links to excellent webpages, class blogs, and Twitter accounts being run for / by / with students down to primary age. Teach e-safety once and well, and take firm action in the rare occasions there is a genuine problem - but don't lock your kids away from the world. My students were delightfully amazed and excited to discover postgrads in Germany, travel writers in South-East Asia and Occupy activists in the US liking, commenting on and following their blogs. There is a world of engagement out there - let's get in touch!

None of this is a unique experiment. It's part of a broader, slow, piecemeal colonisation of this new frontier of IT-led learning. I see strong similarities of aim and approach with excellent initiatives like inter-school Quad Blogging, class blogs with multiple student authors, forum debate pages, increasingly commonplace teacher-written content blogs (please get off VLEs, they're depressingly clumsy and archaic alongside a blogging / tweeting class system), and the habit of using class tweets to see if the world responds. These great initiatives all share the same aim - to get students facing out to the world of interaction - and I'm heartened but (as a secondary specialist) faintly embarrassed that so many are primary-led. The system I describe is one I use with year 10 through 13, and hopefully provides a complement to primary excellence of blogging use; adapt and use as you see fit. Or contact me to discuss it via Skype - how's that for useful CPD!

So where now? Our first year of use has been rewarding and engaging for students and myself, relatively problem-free, an example which other subjects in the school have now started to follow, and intriguing. I am genuinely confident it has enhanced students' enjoyment, their writing skill, and their university prospects. Our use has been a bit hit-and-miss - but that's what a trial is for, and I go into year two with a clearer idea of the advantages, limitations and required timely guidance in asking students to write for the public forum. Next year I'll provide even more exemplars, flowcharts of thinking-to-writing processes, more emphasis on image and use of video, perhaps some spoof too, instead of all serious (to satirise something you have first, by definition, to understand it); and I may use more written feedback on blogs, as well as oral formative comment and discussion in class. I've not come across other KS4/5 student blogging programmes but I'd welcome the chance to collaborate and I'd encourage others to try this. Remember what learning is for - to enrich and connect our understanding of things. Remember what writing is for - to share what we see, think and believe, and invite response. Remember what schools are for - preparation to enter a wide world of possibility. And as Durrenmatt said: "A writer doesn't solve problems. He allows them to emerge." Who wouldn't want their exploratory classroom to look like that, and their students to live and learn that way? Get all your students blogging and you will see how exciting exploration can be.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Middling standards, being mean, and how every child matters

Right, let's rattle some cages. That headline probably makes you think, as we pass through exam season and await the grades that August brings, that this will be another blog / movement / initiative / mentoring scheme which is about pushing up "satisfactory" or "bog-standard" schools / teachers / students through forceful management and monitoring, so that your class / department / school / federation / pan-galactic empire achieves 100% A*-C. You will be disappointed with what follows as I intend to tell you I pay little attention to the C/D borderline and sometimes let students fail even though I know I could get them C. But hear me out - and first I need to go a little around the houses in some theory.

School value-added analyses continue to use the mean as their average when in fact they should use the median. How a mathematical distinction which should be obvious to a level 4 student slips by 400,000 teachers every year quite escapes me. Let me explain. Ten of 30 students in your class hit their data targets. Ten beat it - usually by one grade. Ten miss it - seven of them by one grade and three recalcitrant sorts refuse to do anything work-wise and each miss by three to six grades. Use the median and your value-added is zero - you're exactly performing to target (if indeed student grades can be used to measure teachers, but let's presume so for today.) Use the mean and the data is skewed heavily by those three refusers: you're at minus a third of a grade on average or so and hovering on statistical underperformance. Certainly you are going to have a difficult performance management meeting this year. But the same number of children beat target as fell short. But two of the three problem students are problems right across the school - and one barely attends. A mean average, as any year 8 maths student should know, is skewed by a small number of extreme data points. And whilst it is almost impossible for an individual student to get more than +2 grades above data, it is easy - if you resist, refuse to study, or absent yourself - to get far worse.

The appeal goes that "every child matters" - you can't let those students fail, even if they represent only 10% of your class, even if they are choosing to fight you. Somehow you have to get through - every child matters, and their future is in your hands even if their past is a problem. Fairness, goes the argument, is a society in which we give up on no child. This is idealistically true but practically limited, and here's why: ask yourself how much more time you spend on those students than on the diligent (and equally deserving in a different way) who embrace every task you set and who want help moving from B to A - or A*. You're not allowed to answer that you help them too - because you don't, if you're endlessly chasing the problems to drag them up to C. You're lying to yourself. And you might need to ignore the instruction to get everyone Cs and back a more natural justice approach - perhaps a somewhat Tory approach of telling people to sort themselves out before they're entitled to more help. Teachers' time is a finite resource and a decision to devote it to one cause is, ipso facto, a decision to reject another: to "save" one child is by that very choice to abandon another - and just because the abandoned don't complain as loudly doesn't make it any better a choice.

The C/D borderline is not the be-all and end-all and principled teachers, confident of their purpose, should ignore it. Focus on excellence and you will get results - and I mean this at all levels of the academic scale, and in all contexts. Focus on results and all you will get is narrow-purpose minimal-competence drilling - mediocrity by any other name. I had a conversation almost a decade back with a different Head of Department colleague who got 100% A*-C in their department - more than three-quarters of them C. I got about 90% as 3 students in my department missed C, and she held forth that she had "beaten" me. But my department's median grade was A and hers was C. My value-added median was +2 over data targets and hers was 0. In addition she had managed to massage a cohort into universal middling values which leave employers and universities completely unable to distinguish talent and commitment from spoon-fed apathy. She and her staff had devoted 80% of her time to 20% of her students and settled for moderate competence from the highly able. My department had 6 A*s and strong A-level take-up; hers had one and little, respectively. I'll take my 90% A*-C rate over her 100%, thank you. The point is this: by all means invest that reasonable amount of extra time, sympathy, support, and pushing in those struggling to find a way to love the subject and engage with it; but in the end, stop depriving others who deserve your attention too, at a different level, and distribute yourself more evenly to all. If fairness is a society in which we give up on no child, why are you ignoring the potential A* students on the other side of the room? (And the F/G who could reach E too.) Why are you investing more time in catch-up sessions than extension opportunities? If EVERY child matters - that means the able and well-behaved too. Sometimes those who continue to resist, refuse and who want to fail need to be allowed to do so. It's not giving up. It's giving your best, and more time than they're due, and then leaving them the consequences of their choices. Keep the lines of communication open (often the recognition that, although you're there and waiting to work with them, you will no longer continue to be at their beck and call endlessly, or that you have stopped prioritising them, is the very stimulus that wakes them up and kick-starts a late recovery) and hope that, even if they don't turn this round in time, they'll learn the lesson in time for a resit or the next stage of qualifications. Remember we are teaching children for life, about self-application. Every child matters: go spend some time with that potential A* over there instead. Don't be happy about his high grade B essay comparing Brutus and Antony's speeches in Act 3 of Julius Caesar; ask him why he isn't both cross-comparing them and also comparing them to the previous evidence of the two protagonists' private character and public image - and perhaps also to other great speeches of Shakespeare. Letting 2-3 students each year fail if their engagement level proves they intend to, and being conspicuous in not bending over backwards to do it all for them, can have powerful effects in motivating not just those of high potential but the middling too: if they know that both (a) people will be allowed to get their just deserts - high or low and that (b) you'll invest time in anyone and it's their responsibility to make what they can of that - suddenly a previously ignored majority can fly. Try to get through to the demotivated, and always provide every help to the weak, but give everyone the time they deserve; and make sure parents get the message if their child is under-applying - and that it is THEIR business (students AND parents), and not yours, to fix that.

And this is why I refuse to use the mean in data analyses. If twenty students in a class of thirty-one beat their target grade (as happened in my GCSE class last year), most by one grade, I'm not about to let two wilfully apathetic refusers on target-minus-four cancel that out. So I'm taking the median instead, which treats each child underperforming as the same as each child overperforming - what matters is how many under/over perform, not by how far. Because every child matters - so a mean value-added analysis which scores those two refusers as four times as important as each of the twenty who worked damned hard to overperform - is just downright offensive. Means and medians are averages - are ways of working out "the middle" - well, what I'm saying is that if you use the mean, your focus is on middling values - in the derogatory sense - on block-scoring mediocre, minimal-competence C grades. It's offensively preferential, it panders to resisters over the deserving, it sends the wrong message about quality in education, and it is useless to employers. I reject the mean, and the obsession with C/D, on principle - and don't be surprised that I therefore almost always beat, in practice, those who champion it solely.

At this point, depressingly, there are probably still some alarmed Senior Leaders out there reading this and thinking "He's dangerous, I'd fire him", or at least "I'd get him to see why he's wrong" (which means, "I'd make him change back to focusing on the C/D borderline and if not, then I'd fire him.") And it is these people, and not my approach, that is the problem. In terms of getting students A* grades last year, I was seventy-five times as effective as the average core subject teacher at my last school. SEVENTY-FIVE TIMES. And I am not walking on water; I am not especially brilliant; I simply reject a dogma of triage about getting everyone C both on principle and because in practice it always results in dumbing-down. And there are people who think the problem is my approach? Senior Leaders - I ask you: who wouldn't want a teacher who gets these results? (And for the record, I have never, ever, taught in a selective context, and the school I am referring to last year was only 3 years ago in Special Measures and on Ed Balls' famous hit list. The course was sat in 60% of the recommended course time. I invite you to challenge my credentials on social justice vs elitism and on quality vs context.)

So ask yourself whether you're dividing your time fairly. And next time you're asked for a value-added analysis, use the median and not the mean, and strongly challenge anyone who uses a mean instead. It's OK that some students fail. It's not OK that many students don't reach their fullest potential because we're obsessing about the far fewer who might fail. Because every child matters - not some more than others. Think what it really means.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Wilshaw busts a gut - just not his own

Further to recent remarks by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted ("Teachers don't know what stress is"), a leaked document from the National Audit Office has revealed that the government is forming a calculus for levels of teacher stress. MBD on Education can exclusively reveal the content of this calculation process and why the document has not been released to the public courtesy of an off-the-record leak by a junior statistician at the NAO. The results will shock teachers, but probably not surprise them. (Unless anyone is foolish enough to believe this spoof / sketch is genuine news, of course.)

Our source was unable to discover which firm had won the contract - "it was one of those massive firms that parasite onto public sectors contracts, like Serco or Capita, but neither of those two - I can't remember and they'd erased their logo from the paperwork by the time it reached me, once they realised the project was tanking. They'd moved on to a new DWP contract removing the long-term unemployed from the voting register by then."

The reason the formula has not been applied is obvious upon closer examination of the maths involved. Here is the formula, explained by our NAO statistician:

 "It looks complex but let me break it down for you. The sideways M letters are sigmas - you add things up. c is the number of curriculum change initiatives - numbered as y ('why bother') - you add all them up from the first day of government to a maximum level of d (for 'derision') - gauged by how many of the population think, inexplicably given that they don't think this about doctors or nurses, that they could do your job better than you. To reduce this slightly, you divide this by h times t where h is the holiday length and t the relatively early time in the day teachers are said to finish, so the top-left sigma is about stress caused by managers and parents and what little respite teachers get from that. You could remember the 'ht' as standing for half-term if you like, except most teachers just spend them ill, recovering barely in time for the next Monday. The ht divider used to balance this proportion of the graph out but in the last decade, and particularly under this government, this part's become top-heavy: the EBacc is messing with the curriculum and the right-wing press has ramped up the we-hate-those-lazy-teachers rhetoric from the 1980s again, and then Gove is trying to abolish the summer holiday too. Plus anyone in the industry knows nobody goes home at half three anyway, so this is the first big stress block.

"The second sigma function is based on stress caused by children. It sums up i - people presumed at first that it stands for children's usual self-centredness, or the 'x' for the zero initiative they regularly show, but actually this function is a measure of how much they use their iPhones instead of doing what they're supposed to - from a value of zero to f, where f is how many times in the average lesson they try to check their Facebook page. This can be divided by w, or the number of bottles of wine teachers are provided with at the end of term. Obviously that divider makes this part of the score very favourable for staff in independent schools, whereas it is often as low as zero for state school teachers, meaning that the child-caused stress figure is divided by zero, producing a level of infinity for stress in this sigma function for teachers in schools of the ungrateful poor.

"Next you add together those two sets of data and multiply them by the large E divided by the small r. The E stands for the ego of your particular headteacher and acts as a multiplier for how much stress comes down to classroom teachers. The nearest thing we have to data from the 1980s suggested that headteachers protected their staff from stress and stupid central initiatives because they remembered what it was like in the classroom but now we have NPQH to develop a sense in headteachers that they're altogether different in kind from teachers, they're a master race who rise to the top inevitably and owe nothing to their erstwhile colleagues. The really important thing, they now realise, is for them to make to it to being Chief Exec of a profit-making academy chain earning a quarter of a million a year so they need never step in a classroom again. You divide this by r - for remuneration of normal teachers, which is obviously falling after years of consecutive pay freezes. Remuneration was slightly higher in some academies than unconverted schools, but this effect is massively outweighed by the Ego rating of heads of academies, who pretty much all think themselves Plato.

"A helpful mnemonic to remember this part of the teacher stress equation is that E/r is like 'Emergency Room', because by now the patient is all but dead on the table."

Next this total amount of stress, for causes from above and below and balanced with any possible benefits, made specific to your context, is divided by a multiplier called 'ao/b'. Our statistician explains: "This is three factors considered together: a is for attendance - we don't know why that's in there, but apparently it has to be included in all school data now, no matter how relevant or otherwise; o is 'opportunity index', a measure of how wealthy an area a school is in, sometimes also called the 'offensiveness index' because we measure it by how many minutes a teacher can go for without being verbally abused in a way most other professionals never have to suffer. In many independent schools this can be months at a time, whereas in inner-city schools it's usually a fraction of a minute. This produces a really low divider score, raising the overall stress level coming out of the equation. You multiply the attendance by how much respite teachers get and then divide it by b, which is 'bare-faced cheek.' This is ascertained by reading the Education Secretary's recent pronouncements, in which a millionaire educated at a thirty-thousand-pound-a-year school with a pupil / teacher ratio of 8:1 and which sends more students to Oxbridge than the whole UK Free School Meals population lectures the working classes on how it's their fault they've failed to penetrate the inbred network of privilege and favour that forms the closed upper echelons of UK society. In short - the more Gove opens his mouth, the higher teacher stress levels rise.

"You can probably remember these variables because by calling them 'aob' we've basically chucked everything else we can into the equation, just so it's really hard to calculate, is even more non-specific, and wastes another load of time you can't spare. Best of luck working it out. Apparently they were going to call this denominator the 'Gove Fantasy Index' but that got vetoed early on."

So far so complex. Many teachers will have been trying to calculate their own stress levels using the calculus so far; but if you're pleasantly surprised by how low it is, read on and brace yourself. The real problem with the data recently, has been the next step - you need to put the number arrived-at so far through the exponential 'bull' factor. The best way to explain this is to hand back to our statistician. "Oh, the bull - that's easy to explain. This stands for 'beating up on lead learners' and is a measure of how much abuse comes out of Wilshaws's mouth, directed at teachers. If you know anything about maths you realise how rapidly exponential rise can push the final number up - and this is where Wilshaw has made a real impact. He's had nothing nice to say about teachers either during his long public soundbite audition for the post, nor for the time he's been in post. He's actually not been in the role long, although for most teachers it will feel like he's been there an eternity. Apparently in the design of the equation consideration was given to multiplying the bull by an 'mp' factor - not for 'Member of Parliament' but for 'Michael Palin' effect for how amusingly ironic it is when Wilshaw bangs on about teachers not feeling stress then contradictorily uses his own experience as a teacher as a comparative reference. It reminds people of the 'When I was a lad, we were so poor we lived in a hole in the road' sketch of Monty Python fame, basically."

We asked one teacher in Walthamstow what the difference was between Wilshaw and his predecessor Christine Gilbert. "It's like swapping matron from the Carry On films for Voldemort," she said, turning pale. "She was just a mean and humourless old bitch - although it's funny looking at her hypocrisy now trying to defend the profession - but he's a force of unmitigated evil, aiming for universal domination and the destruction of all that is good and true. OFSTED Inspectors are basically the Dementors from Harry Potter, let's face it. I wouldn't mind half a chance to f***ing Expelliarmus him."

There is one final tiny positive tweak in the calculation. Teachers will be half-heartedly reassured that a (small) deduction can be made from the now-astronomical stress figure produced by the calculus so far. Over once again to our statistician:

"Notice the small-font 'ps' at the end. You take the value of a teacher's pension for p, and the sense of solidarity with colleagues whose integrity and ethics are also under constant assault by those meant to champion and represent them - and multiply them together to get 'ps', and take this away from the result so far. Whilst solidarity is at last rising again, that's being more than offset by the fall in the value of pensions.

"Of course, as deductions to stress go, by then it's like Palestinian children chucking stones at tanks, it's that futile and irrelevant an impact. So 'ps' in small font seems quite fitting because it's a trivial afterthought, let's face it."

It appears that the reason for burying the formula - assembled expensively in the private sector for a budget of around four million pounds (enough to run a medium-sized comprehensive school for a year) - is political: not only did data testing of the formula on teachers across multiple schools produce results in all cases likely to end in the DfE being sued for constructive dismissal, the highest results of all were in Gove's newly-formed academies.

"It was a nightmare" reports our source. "The stress levels coming out of the model were above all maximum health and safety limits set by EU law. Gove went mental. Somebody senior said the government wanted us to bury it until we can pull out of the EU Social Chapter - there was something about how, after that, we can screw teachers and the rest of the workforce all we like, but until then it might leave the government liable for large payouts. Worse yet, it turned out that neither the Education Secretary nor the Head of Ofsted scored anything like as highly for stress as the mean figure for year 5 teachers in urban schools. That would have looked really embarrassing, so I guess that's why they canned it."

The private sector contractor allegedly offered to look again at the model, but their eight million pound redraft fee was considered unreachable, with the D of E already having closed two county support centres for children with learning disabilities so that the private sector firm could put in the six hours' work needed to draft the original formula. "Plus," adds the civil servant, "it was difficult to reach them again after the problem arose. We could only get through to voicemail and a message saying they were on their way to the bank. There was quite a lot of laughter in the background."

This blog approached the teacher unions for comment in response. NASUWT sighed then put down the phone, the ATL representative just wept for twenty minutes, and the NUT phone line went quiet, followed by sounds of weaponry being armed faintly in the background. We'll keep you updated on further developments. At an hour-long INSET to explain the new calculus at one rural school in the North-West, one sparky NQT asked whether it could integrated with SIMS for export to a marksheet, while seven of twelve heads of department exhaustedly indicated they didn't understand the data anyway.