Category Archives: Education debates

The Artificial Boundaries Between ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’

It has been a while since I have blogged (on this site at least), as I have been knee-deep in the first few months of my PhD. However, a mini-Twitter storm over these comments by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has prompted me to chip in my tuppence worth.

The timing of Ms Morgan’s comments are a little strange, long after A-level choices for the current Year 12 have been decided, and the points seem similar to the annual media frenzy over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The argument goes along the expected lines – future earnings, what ’employers want’ – and advocates for each side rush in to defend their chosen subject areas…But all of this is missing the point – it is artificial, and rather unhelpful, to polarise the Arts/Humanities and STEM.

Let me lay my cards on the table, although my GCSE subjects were relatively broad: languages, chemistry, maths, history etc., I studied arts and humanities subjects at A-level (I considered the embryonic Computer Science A-level, but at the time a GCSE in Physics was a pre-requisite) and at degree level – Ancient History and English. However, I am not about to jump into a rant about how Arts subjects are x and STEM subjects are y.

Realistically, the boundaries of subjects are blurred – increasingly so the further you go in education. Media Studies (a popular whipping boy) for example, can include the use of complex editing and image manipulation software – surely this is technology? An experimental physicist with brilliant ideas will not get very far if they cannot express themselves coherently in the written and spoken word.

With the school leaving age increasing to 17, and 18 from Summer 2015, personally I think that all students should take Maths or Statistics as well as a more English based subject (i.e. one with a strong literacy content) up to this age – not necessarily as A-levels. It would also be prudent for them to learn to code in at least one programming language.

Now, as a PhD student studying 19th Century literature and Digital Humanities, this blurring is even more apparent. Many of the articles I read include complex statistics, I am learning to code using R in order to carry out my analysis – is this Literature, or Statistics, or Technology? Or perhaps all three? Digital preservation and presentation of artefacts, GIS, and the ability to manipulate data are becoming increasingly evident in many fields. Perhaps it is about time that we stop trying to divide the subjects,  stop propagating the myth that you are only good at Arts OR STEM, Maths OR English, that boys are good at x and girls are good at y?

The best interests of our students will be served by them taking a broad range of subjects, rather than focusing entirely on one small area, and this means that school timetables need to make this varied choice of subjects a possibility, which may mean increased government funding.  This would more effectively prepare them for further education and employment than a current system which seeks to narrow the choices to Arts or STEM. We are not helping our students to propagate the myth that ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’ live in separate boxes, experience in industry and higher education will soon show how artificial these boundaries really are.

Dear Miss Truss – There Is A Problem With ‘Traditional Text Books’

As the end of the exam season arrives, unsurprisingly, government ministers are pushing forward to comment on the state of education and teaching. It is a pattern that, in the UK at least, seems to be repeated year on year.

In today’s Telegraph, Liz Truss announced that:

Teachers must stop “reinventing the wheel” by drawing up special lesson plans for children and revert to traditional teaching from text books – The Telegraph 26/6/14

Fair enough, so it seems based on the article – teachers spending too much time planning lessons and printing worksheets rather than teaching – it would be difficult to disagree…that is, if this was indeed the case.

However, Miss Truss goes on to refer to “strong core material” and that is at the heart of the problem – it doesn’t always exist. In my main teaching subject, English, the quality of text books for GCSE is rather poor. Lots of bright colours, text boxes, pictures, but very little decent content. These books are fine for a lesson or two, but any child whose entire English course was taught from the current crop of text books (or for that matter, some of those from the ‘halcyon days’ of O Level) would be short-changed indeed.

Many English text books follow a very similar format – a short text extract, several mundane questions based on the text and then an imaginative writing task – over and over again, without any real development in knowledge or challenge. As text books aim to cover all possibilities, and knowing that schools have increasingly limited budgets, they often cover most of the literature set texts in a page or two of surface level information.

The attitude Miss Truss reveals is one that suggests that if only teachers stopped faffing around and taught from ‘the text book’, all would be right with the world – it also suggests that this is all there is to teaching. This certainly seems to be the party line, that anyone, qualified or not, can roll up and teach a class. A job made laughingly easy when all you have to do is tell the class to ‘open your text book at page 23 and answer questions 1 to infinity’ while settling down with a coffee for a little gentle marking. Sadly, teaching is not that easy and the miracle ‘core’ text book is currently a fantasy.

In reality, things are not so straightforward. Good teaching means using the available resources and adapting them for the pupils in a particular class, which can take time. Yes, spending hours creating clip-art laden worksheets which achieve little is pointless, but so is getting pupils to work mindlessly from a text book without considering whether it actually meets their educational needs. I suspect that much of the time spent on ‘lesson planning’ is actually for the benefit of OFSTED or, more likely, OFSTED-obsessed SMT. The focus on differentiation and individually tailored lessons, criticised by Miss Truss, is a direct result of Government pressure for all schools to be ‘good’ or better. This in itself is based on Michael Gove’s flawed logic:

Q98 Chair: One is: if “good” requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?

Michael Gove: By getting better all the time.

Q99 Chair: So it is possible, is it?

Michael Gove: It is possible to get better all the time.

Q100 Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, Secretary of State?

There is another problem, for decent text books to exist there needs to be several years of stability within the examination system. A text book is likely to take a year or so to create and publish – difficult to do well when as soon as it is published it is obsolete (remember all those text book chapters on controlled assessments?). In addition, there are currently multiple exam boards in England and therefore, unless there was a single board and a single syllabus, there would never be a single, definitive text book. Currently, the major publishers each tend to focus on a single exam board, knowing that schools teaching that board would be likely to buy their book. If we had a single board for each subject then some healthy competition might develop between publishers to produce the best text book – at the moment this is simply not the case.

A similar problem exists for English departments (and every other school department, I’m sure) – every time the syllabus changes or the set texts change, hundreds and thousands of pounds have to be spent on buying new stock, money which is increasingly hard to find. If I wished to teach, for example, Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (assuming it was on the syllabus) I would need copies of the text to use in class (for those who can’t or won’t buy their own copy) and perhaps additional clean copies for the final exam. This all costs money. There is no text book for ‘Emma’, so it would be necessary to create suitable tasks (something that I would do anyway, even if there was a text book as it is unlikely that one book could cover everything my class would need). Or should I be limited to teach only those texts with an existing text book? Hardly the challenge and rigour so favoured by the Government.

Now, I try not to be too cynical about education and politics, but is there, perhaps, a darker reason for this panegyric on text books? It may be interesting to note that the education secretary, Michael Gove who advocates a return to ‘traditional’ teaching, used to write a column for The Times (a NewsCorp company) and received an advance from Harper-Collins (a NewsCorp company) for a book which he has not yet written (listed on the Register of Member’s Interests)…and that Harper-Collins is a major publisher of educational text books. But, surely that is all just coincidental?

 

What do you do when it all goes wrong?

It took me a long time to decide to write this post. Part of it deals with a particularly unpleasant part of my teaching career and I was unsure whether to address it in public. However, it was several years ago, and I came out the other side to continue my successful teaching career. Please note, it is not my intention to be a ‘raincloud of doom’ or suggest that all schools are like this, in fact, in my experience, the vast majority of school are great, albeit pressured, places to work. My intention, or rather my hope, is that it may be of use.

Teaching can be an emotional job. Any profession that works with people, especially young people, has a level of emotional investment. When you feel that the future of those young people are, potentially, affected by the decisions you make, then those emotions can be pushed to breaking point.

On a good day, there is nothing that comes close to teaching (with the exception, I guess, of the medical profession) for sheer joy and exhilaration. The class who achieve great results, especially when you know how hard they have worked. The buzz when they just ‘get it’. A thank you note from a pupil. A lesson that goes  as you have planned, or even better. Each of these, from the large to the small, are the things that make the job worthwhile.

However, there are times when things do not go well. Just like the positives in teaching, the negatives can run from the fairly minor to the awful. In the rest of this post I will give some examples of when things have gone bad, what I did, and what it taught me.

  • The unruly class. Every teacher, unless there is some kind of miracle, will have a class who pushes them due to their behaviour. This can be a teaching group or a tutor group; it can make you feel alone and like you’re fighting a losing battle. It seems to be par for the course for pupils to see how far they can push a new teacher. Over the years, I have had several groups like this, it doesn’t necessarily get easier to deal with, you just have more tools at your disposal. In one school, I had a Year 10 class of 30 pupils. I was new to the school, so didn’t have any previous knowledge of the group, nor did I have a reputation I could trade on. There were play fights, silly ‘coughing’ games, and, memorably, a student setting fire to paper at the back of the room. The best way to deal with a group like this is to get tough: create and insist on a seating plan (ask for support from HoD or SMT if you think there may be arguments); have a quiet chat with some of the ringleaders, away from their audience, about their behaviour; call parents for good as well as bad behaviour (this is a hearts and minds campaign!); be consistent, and make sure you only punish those in the wrong, whole class detentions will usually make the situation worse; if you have supportive SMT, ask them to pop in when they are doing the duty rounds – reinforcing to you and the class that you are not alone; don’t plan whizzy lessons until you have the group behaving the way you want – group work can very quickly turn to anarchy if you do – keep it straightforward but challenging. In most cases, these will work – but it may (and probably will) take time, sometimes a whole school year of struggle. The group I mentioned above improved gradually, but it wasn’t until they moved into year 11 that they became the type of class that it is a joy to teach. In some cases, the situation is tougher or does not improve. If this is the case, you definitely need to work with your HoD and SMT. The temporary removal of a key player may improve things; it may even need to be permanent if there is no change after their reintroduction. The key thing to remember is that it is never the whole class, even though it can sometimes feel like it.
  • The meeting with an unhappy parent. If you have been in teaching for any length of time, chances are you will have a meeting like this. In reality, this type of meeting is rarely the horror that a teacher has created in their own mind. If it is a tricky phone call, give yourself enough time for the call, have your notes to hand, stand up and smile – sounds odd, but standing up makes you feel more confident (you can always sit down as the call continues) and smiling comes through in your voice, making you sound friendly rather than confrontational. The key to this type of meeting (by phone or in person), and any other to be honest, is careful planning. Know what the meeting is for and have in mind the outcomes you would like; organise a time that is convenient (to you and the parent) and means that you don’t have to rush off; bring any paperwork and data that may be useful; and, if you suspect it may be a particularly tricky meeting (or the parent is someone who has been aggressive in the past) ask for your HoD or HoY to be part of the meeting. It is important to remember that, however vile little X has been, chances are mum and dad have heard a very different version of events, they may also feel that the fact that they have been invited in for a meeting is in some way a criticism of their parenting. Give them time to express their concerns. You need to be diplomatic and friendly, while making your point. This is where paperwork and data come in. In a meeting with a particularly ‘challenging’ member of my tutor group (I also had the HoY in attendance), the pupil’s main complaint was that I was picking on him and that he had done nothing wrong, and the parents were inclined to accept his view, mentioning a ‘personality clash’. This was proven to be untrue when behaviour slips from 6 different teachers were shown to the parents, indicating that the pupil’s poor behaviour was not an isolated incident – the impact of the paperwork changed the whole tone of the meeting. Overall, remember that the common ground between you is that you all want the pupil to do their best.
  • The ‘bad’ observation. Remember, this is not a comment on you, nor is it a definitive judgement on your teaching, it is, at best, a snapshot. There have been several posts regarding the value of lesson observations (for example here and here) which make interesting reading. You should get feedback, ideally verbal and written and it should focus on developing your teaching. If you feel that the observation is unfair, challenge it and ask for your challenge to be noted, you can also suggest another observation. Leave it a few days and think through the lesson and the feedback – with hindsight, there may be things that you can change or work on. Then forget it and move on, after all, you can’t change it and spending your time dwelling on it will not help at all.
  • The assault. This is something that really should not happen. I find it bizarre that buses and post offices have signs saying that verbal and physical assaults will not be tolerated, and yet schools don’t. It doesn’t help young people to think that this sort of behaviour is ever acceptable. In fact, I am aware of at least one case where a pupil, (who was used to verbally and, on at least one occasion physically, abuse teachers) was punched when he pushed and swore at a ‘non-school’ adult outside the school. In my whole teaching career I have only been assaulted physically once, when a pupil in a classroom pushed me head first into a wall. If you are in the unfortunate position where a pupil assaults you, remember it is not your fault, take some time out of the classroom (I stayed in the corridor outside the room until someone came to remove the pupil, partly because I was so shocked that I was shaking, and partly because I was very tempted to punch the little sod), if possible get someone else to cover your class for the remainder of the lesson. Write the incident up in as much detail as possible, make a fuss and demand that something is done about it by SMT (chase it up until you have a response), consider reporting the incident to the police (you are perfectly within your rights to do this and the school cannot insist that you don’t). Remember, the school has a duty of care for your safety as an employee. In most schools, this sort of incident will lead to the pupil being excluded, either temporarily or permanently. In my case, the pupil was (very  reluctantly) temporarily excluded for 5 days, his mum took him on holiday for 2 weeks and he was put back in my class on his return (and gloated to his mates that his mum had said he shouldn’t pay any attention to that ‘bitch) – but that was one particular school and a set of circumstances which lead me to my final point.
  • When it really hits the fan. Like it or not, there are some bad schools out there, I don’t necessarily mean the ones in deprived areas where the pupils have challenging behaviour. What really makes a school a bad place to work is ultimately the management, either those who are incompetent or those who are unpleasant and unsupportive. For those of you who have read my previous post on job applications, you will know that I have twice worked in schools which, with hindsight, would have been best avoided. The school I worked at was a tough school with challenging pupils, I had worked in similar schools and had been teaching for more than 5 years, but SMT made the school an unpleasant and depressing place to work. Teachers were routinely sworn at and assaulted by pupils, the school had a very high staff turnover (in fact one teacher’s leaving speech – limited to 30 seconds due to the numbers leaving – paraphrased Wilde, saying ‘to lose one teacher is unfortunate, to lose 15 looks like carelessness’). Each staff meeting was prefaced with an announcement by the head about how awful the teaching staff were, how all poor behaviour was down to the teacher and that it was our job to get the pupils good results. Unions were not encouraged and any union meeting was attended by one of SMT who made notes. There were several events which pushed me to the edge at this school, firstly, the assault I mentioned above (made worse by the fact that not a single member of SMT asked me if I was OK and their insistence that it was my fault – for trying to pick up a tennis ball he had thrown); being expected to take on the HoD’s work when she was promoted to assistant head, while still doing my own and teaching a full timetable; the total lack of support from SMT for poor classroom behaviour (any incident was viewed as poor teaching – this included one poor teacher who was racially abused by members of her class); an onslaught of emails about my ability as a teacher and middle manager, despite my observations being mostly ‘good’. I almost left teaching as a result, but applied for, and got a new job – even with the ‘neutral’ reference from the head (although she made it tricky by insisting that after 2 interviews I had to take any others as unpaid leave). I hoped, with the end in sight, things would improve – they didn’t. There was pressure to cheat on pupils’ coursework (something I refused to do); SMT ‘popping in’ every few lessons and making negative comments in passing about the few seconds they had seen; no behaviour support at all, duty calls went unanswered. Stress began to build, I felt sick at the thought of work, I could talk about nothing else, I began to get twitches in one, then both eyelids and constant headaches. Finally, I was told that the head wanted a ‘little chat’ one break time. When I got there, she, and one of the deputy heads, proceeded to ambush me, telling me that they were disappointed, that I was not a good teacher, that I could be disciplined for a badly marked piece of coursework (which I had not taught or marked). Her parting comment was ‘I hope you can do better at your new school’. I mustered all my strength (helped by the knowledge that I had only about 6 weeks left) and told her that I knew I would do well at my new school, because I knew I was a good teacher. The rest of the day was a blur. When I got home, my headache was worse, I was shaking and felt unwell – my husband insisted on taking me to the nearby NHS walk-in centre. They took my blood pressure, 255/135 (ridiculously high) and asked me about possible causes of stress – by the end of the appointment I had been signed off work for a week. A follow up appointment a week later showed my pressure was still high, and any mention of the school sent it higher (even today , 6 years later, writing this causes my BP to shoot up). I was eventually signed off for the remainder of my time at the school, going back only once to collect my belongings. If you find yourself in a similar position (and I hope you never do), keep detailed notes and copies of all emails and observations. Contact your union – at a local or regional level if you prefer, but don’t rely on them to act (I contacted mine who knew the school by reputation but actually did nothing to help beyond suggesting I looked for another job). Speak to supportive friends, or someone like the Teacher Support Network, see a doctor and if necessary take time off. Stress can be awful as you can feel like a bit of a fraud, like you shouldn’t leave the house because you are off work – but you are allowed, and must allow yourself to start having a normal life so you can get better. Stress and high blood pressure can cause serious and life-threatening conditions so should not be brushed under the carpet. The best thing I can suggest is to leave the school – not necessarily teaching, unless that is the best thing for you. No job on earth is worth making yourself ill for and being miserable.

I hope that few, if any, of these happen to you in your career, but if they do, I hope this post has helped, at least a little.

What did OFSTED teach me?

When I started teaching, back in 2000, OFSTED was rarely mentioned. As a trainee teacher, I was aware of teacher standards and observation grades as it was part of my assessment. We had essays on the SEN code of practice and were regularly assessed on our subject knowledge, but nothing specific on OFSTED.

In my first teaching job, as an NQT, I was observed a few times for the forms for my induction. Training was generally focused around new technology or, in department, on exam specifications and developing schemes of work. OFSTED was in the background (They might visit), but were barely mentioned.

About 7 or 8 years ago that started to change. There were occasional INSET sessions about preparing for OFSTED, a particular lesson structure was suggested as something that OFSTED wanted. But still, most of the time, they were barely mentioned.

The most dramatic change happened in the past 5 years or so. Suddenly OFSTED was mentioned regularly – in lesson observations, in INSET, in staff meetings. We became bombarded with information regarding OFSTED and what they wanted. There was a, not so subtle, shift from teaching to the best of your ability, challenging and stretching the pupils to being a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ teacher. Everything shifted. Suddenly it was not about what the pupils needed, or what you as a teacher needed, it was all about what OFSTED wanted.

OFSTED became a big stick, which in many schools has stilted the focus on teaching and learning. You must all have x, y and z in your lesson, your lesson plan should look like this, hour after hour of INSET on lesson grading. Observations being about judging teachers and giving them a number, rather than being a discussion about their teaching and what each party could learn. (One teacher told me that, after being observed by SMT and given a ‘Good’, she asked which member of SMT she could observe teaching an ‘Outstanding’ lesson – the response? No one!).

The school year for many has become a round of learning walks, graded observations, book checks, mocksteds. Boxes being ticked, reams of paperwork being completed. This can lead to fear: fear of innovation in case it fails, fear of teaching the way you know works because OFSTED might not like it, fear of allowing staff to use their judgement. The end result is often all teachers being treated as though they were incompetent or lazy, rather than the occasional teacher who actually is. If Michael Wilshaw wants to know why so many teachers leave it is this (and schools with poor SMT who don’t support staff with behaviour).

After years of dodging the OFSTED bullet, I was visited a few years ago. It was brief, I got little feedback and the process had no impact on improving my future teaching. I suspect that, for most teachers and most schools, improvement is despite OFSTED rather than because of them. It makes me sad, because, alongside this bloody minded focus on OFSTED, there has been a real change in teaching – the joy is being sucked out of it. Teaching is becoming more and more about targets, data, results and paperwork rather than the joy and excitement of learning. If you want excellent teachers, let them teach, trust them as educated professionals. And if OFSTED visit they will see what they should have been looking for all along – hardworking teachers teaching well and pupils learning.

So, what did OFSTED teach me?

  • Fearing OFSTED is an unhealthy waste of time. 12 years, 195 days a year, I worked as a teacher, that is 2340 days. One OFSTED inspection in all that time which lasted 2 days – that is 0.085% of my teaching career to date. Now obviously, OFSTED did not spend those two days with me, they actually spent 30 minutes. So, 5 possible teaching hours a day for 2340 days is 11700 hours – a massive total of 0.004% of my teaching time. To get worked up over something which takes up so minimal amount of your actual teaching time is pointless, akin to worrying and attending training to deal with a wasp in your classroom.
  • SMTs interpretation of OFSTED guidance is not always accurate. OFSTED is about schools rather than individual teachers, and as such, there is a lot of pressure on SMT and particularly the Head. It is hardly surprising that this pressure can turn into an almost obsessive focus, skewing what should be the core focus of the school and teaching. Heads worry, so they often pass this down to their staff, and in their panic they interpret and misinterpret what the OFSTED documents ask for. This is never more true than when they are applying gradings to lessons. Comments on twitter like this:
    TeacherToolkit (@TeacherToolkit)
    I received an email last night from a teacher; informing me that their line-manger expected to see progress within 10 mins in a Food lesson!

    Teachers being told that a single mistake will lead to an inadequate grading and capability. The problem here is not OFSTED, but SMT’s misinterpretation and using it as a big stick.

  • Beware consultants selling fear. I have always had an issue with consultants, especially those who work for OFSTED, don’t teach and have a side line as a consultant. Realistically, it is not in their interest to say to a school ‘Just do what you’re doing, there is nothing specific OFSTED is looking for’, they would do themselves out of a lucrative job (unless they are doing this free out of the goodness of their heart). If you pay for someone to deliver INSET, you expect them to deliver something, a checklist or key messages – it doesn’t follow that, just because you pay them, they are any good. I have been told about a recent INSET with an ‘OFSTED consultant’ telling staff that they would be fools not to have a lesson plan (despite this line from the School Inspection Handbook ‘Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection.’), that they must show progress in the lesson observation and differentiation for each pupil, that they need an ‘OFSTED file’ containing student data and seating plans. My particular favourite was that if a single child is late to your lesson it is a) your fault for not engaging them (how can you engage them if they are not there?) b) lateness is the teacher’s issue (not SMT, whole school or the pupil themselves?) and c) if that happens your lesson is inadequate.
  • Luck has a lot to do with it. Any observation, and OFSTED in particular, is a snapshot – one tiny moment in time (0.05% of a school year, if you are observed for about 30 minutes). That observation is subject to a range of influences: is it last thing on a windy Wednesday with 11v27 after their half day at college? Has a giant wasp invaded your class room? Is the start or end of term or the school year? Have you been up all night with a sick relative? You do your best, but sometimes in teaching things don’t go the way you want. One observation does not define you as a person or your teaching – we all know those who are excellent but crumble under the pressure of being observed. Equally, I’m sure we all know those who are half-arsed teachers the bulk of the time but can pull a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ to of the bag when being observed. The time I was observed by OFSTED, with a Y10 English group, in the first 3 weeks of a new school year, I was lucky. My lesson was pretty much what I would have normally done, the luck was: that I had taught most of the class for the previous year, and in some cases two years (pity those teachers seeing groups for the first or second time), and that two of the boys decided to have a detailed discussion about the character of Mr Darcy in response to my prompt. I was told the lesson was ‘Outstanding’ but I know that it just happened to be one of those days when all my ducks were in a row, I could have been faced with stony silence and a swift shift to a written task.

OFSTED has become an all encompassing focus in many schools, the danger is that it, and the way that schools interpret its advice, will continue to have a negative effect on teaching. Schools and teachers need to choose whether to allow this to happen.

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

Looking back, looking forward

Over the past week on Twitter #nurture1314 has featured strongly in my timeline. It has been really interesting reading all the fantastic things people have accomplished over the past year and their plans for 2014.

I thought it would be a nice way to finish the year to write my own list of highlights and hopes, although I wasn’t quite able to come up with 13 highlights.

My Highlights.

  1. Graduating with my MA (Distinction) in Education from Edge Hill University. This is undoubtably one of the things that I am most proud of. It was very hard work, especially persevering over several years part time. Distance learning certainly has its benefits but it can leave you feeling quite isolated – Twitter was great for linking me to other teachers and academics. DSCF0381
  2. Learning differential and inferential statistics. One of the challenges I faced when completing my final assignment was the analysis of my data. I had a basic knowledge of statistics but needed to get to grips with chi square and statistical significance. The internet and my tutor came to the rescue, especially the Khan Academy videos. It also helped prove once and for all that I can ‘do’ maths, it is just a matter of learning how.
  3. Gaining a detailed understanding of the SOLO taxonomy, both as a teacher and as a learner. I had been teaching and experimenting with SOLO techniques for about a year and had found them useful, not a magic bullet but certainly something worth exploring in greater detail. However, it was when I applied SOLO to my own studies that it really came into its own. One of the sections of my assignment that I found particularly tricky was the literature review – the difficulty of bringing together all my reading into a coherent story. I had lots of ideas and quotations but it was only when I looked at this stage as being the SOLO multistructural level that it clicked – I needed to make detailed links between the texts and ideas (relational) before I could fully understand the topic. Once I had grouped my ideas it was much easier to identify a unifying thread. Sections which just wouldn’t fit often needed more information – reinforcing the idea of SOLO as a series of cycles rather than a linear or hierarchical model.
  4. Settling into a new country. Although Ireland isn’t exactly a million miles away from the UK, there are a number of differences between the two countries. The tax, medical and education systems are all slightly different and it can be tricky to get your head round everything.
  5. Taking lots of photos and, hopefully, improving my skills as a photographer. This summer I focused on taking landscapes and nature pictures, they are great to look back at, especially when the weather is awful. DSCF0299
  6. Learning to sew. This was something I had wanted to do for some time, partly because I had been shockingly awful at it when I was at school. I signed up for a course of lessons in Dublin city centre with ‘When Poppy Met Daisy’ and learnt the basics, making a skirt. For Christmas i made stockings to go under the tree. I am not particularly good yet, but hopefully I will improve over the next year.
  7. Improving my fitness – this is something I need to work on, but I was certainly more active this year.
  8. Continuing my blog – I have now had nearly 10k views and have had visitors from all over the world, something which never ceases to amaze me.
  9. Deciding to apply to study for a PhD. I have thought about further study for years, but it has only been a pipe dream up to now. Taking a break from secondary teaching has given me the chance to take steps towards making this a reality. I have now identified a topic and have been preparing my proposal.
  10. Getting a reading card for the National Library of Ireland and studying in its beautiful domed reading room.
  11. Ate out at some great restaurants – a little thing, but something that I hadn’t really done for years.

My Hopes

  1. Apply for my PhD in English. I am hoping to be able to study full time which will be a huge luxury. I also hope to be able to do some teaching at university level. It has been great fun exploring the initial literature and bouncing ideas around. However, I do need to finalise my proposal and submit it.
  2. Set up a new blog for my PhD studies to explore ideas and hopefully continue to use the internet to make academic links.
  3. Continue blogging on educational topics, although I am not teaching at the moment I see myself working in education at some level in the future.
  4. To read lots of books for pleasure – I have been rather disappointed with my reading in 2013 as most of it has been study related, so this year I want to make a real effort to read more for fun.
  5. To complete a course in Corpus Linguistics. I have signed up for a MOOC in Corpus Linguistics, from University of Lancaster, to help prepare me for my PhD. The 8 week course sounds really interesting and gives me a chance to  use some of the software as well as read more about the topic.
  6. To make an item of clothing from scratch that is actually wearable. This is going to be a big challenge and will take some practice, but I would love to be able to make the occasional item of clothing.
  7. To really work on my fitness. I have an existing gym membership but my visits have been rather sporadic, so I want to make much better use of it.
  8. I want to take more photos, but especially I want to try to take some star photos.
  9. I’d like to travel a little more and visit some new places.
  10. Eat more healthy food, especially more vegetables.
  11. To learn how to use Excel more effectively, especially the statistical packages.
  12. To be more selective over what I watch on TV.
  13. To go to the cinema more often. I love watching films and don’t go to the cinema nearly enough.
  14. To spend more time with those I love.

The Problem With Education…

In January, I wrote this post looking at the language applied to education, in particular by the media and the Government. I hoped that the negative language which seemed all pervasive in 2012 would not feature so heavily in 2013 – unfortunately, as we move through the final quarter of 2013, that does not seem to have been the case.

Crisis

Education in the UK seems to be in crisis – it’s a profession which seems to be in constant conflict with the Department for Education, sections of the media and, at times, with itself. This is a toxic situation which cannot continue without causing damage to all involved, in particular the children we teach. Why has the education sector come to this? Is there anything that can be done?

It’s Not Fair

Before we look at what may be at the root of the problem, I think it is important to make a key point about fairness. All may be fair in love and war but it certainly isn’t in education. Harsh it may be, but the brutal truth is that achieving ‘fairness’ for all pupils is a fantasy. The playing field will never be level.

This hit me forcefully when I was watching ‘Harrow: A Very British School’ on Sky 1. I find the program fascinating, a real insight into how a top private school functions – far distant from my own comprehensive school and the schools I have taught at. The grounds, the traditions, the facilities – it looks wonderful, and I am sure it is. What struck me, was the vast differences between the experiences of the Harrow boys at West Acre and some of the children I have encountered in my career.

Obviously, the best facilities that money can buy are part of the disparity, however, it was the little things that really struck me. Having a clean uniform ready for you, eating good quality food three times a day, having somewhere quiet to work, having someone checking that you are doing your homework, having a computer for your personal use – all of those little things that make a big difference to a child and their performance. The Harrow boys (as well as the majority of our  school children)  also don’t have to: care for siblings or parents, work before or after school, travel long distances to get to school, live with parents who are addicts etc. So, realistically, the children for whom these are everyday occurrences are never going to have a similar school experience.

It isn’t fair. Those who are most socially and economically deprived, those who are born with learning difficulties, those who are refugees from war torn countries (and a hundred other misfortunes), will not have the same opportunities as those who do not have these disadvantages. While we can do our best to mitigate against these disadvantages, they exist and we have to accept that, unfortunately, life isn’t fair.

What is Education For?

At the heart of the problem with education lies this question – what is the purpose of education? It seems a straightforward question at first, and I’m sure that most people will come up with a list of purposes which may include: qualifications, becoming a well rounded individual, becoming a useful and productive member of society etc. However, listening to the media and the DfE, the purpose does not seem to be clear:

  • Exams are too easy
  • Children are not achieving good enough exam results
  • Qualifications should reflect the needs of employers
  • Qualifications should enable the ranking of children and schools
  • A robust national curriculum is needed to ensure standards
  • Not all schools need to comply with the national curriculum
  • Teachers are professionals
  • Teachers don’t need to be qualified

the list goes on – contradiction after contradiction.

What Can be Done?

Before making any more statements, or changing any more policies, the Government needs to decide what the purpose of education, and in particular its examination system, is.

If it is important that, where at all possible,  all children should achieve a range of solid qualifications, then the examination system has to make this a possibility. Qualifications should be criterion referenced against a specific and public set of criteria so everyone knows that x grade means a child can do y at z level. If this is the purpose of education in the UK, then there should not be grade quotas or manipulation of results to avoid perceived grade inflation. Any child who achieves the specific criteria gets the grade.

If examinations are about ranking children (obviously taking into account that this will never be entirely fair, as I have discussed above), there needs to be a number of specific changes to the way children are assessed. Firstly, we would need to do away with the multiple exam boards and variety of qualifications in each subject – there should be only one exam in each subject which all children, from all types of school within the UK, take. How can children and their results be compared when the exams they take are different – for example the continuation of coursework for iGCSE? The nationwide results are then ranked and, perhaps a grade allocated according to norm referencing or some other formula. It may even be possible to combine the two – perhaps a grade and a national rank, or a percentage.

At the moment, however, it is not clear what the purpose is, at least from the Government’s perspective. It seems farcical to say that all schools should achieve a specific level of examination results and then make it impossible for all schools to do so. If you want an education system where all schools are ‘good or better’ then it needs to be possible – which means that the way schools are measured needs to change to reflect this. It is this pressure to achieve the impossible that seems to be at the root of many teachers’ arguments.

If Mr Gove and future Education Secretaries want to make a positive impact on education in this country, they need to think long and hard about what education in the UK is for. Then they can start to change the system for the better.

SOLO Research: Conclusions

What have I learnt from my research into the SOLO taxonomy?

Researching and Note Taking

At a personal level, this research has been very useful. I have found out that I really enjoy research and reading academic articles and texts. In particular, writing the literature review was an interesting, challenging and enjoyable part – far more than I had expected it to be. It was like a giant jigsaw which needed to be put together before it would make sense.

notesI tried out a variety of note taking methods for the review, the most effective one turned out to be writing key quotations onto post its which I then sorted into linked areas on large pieces of paper with lines and comments added to show the relationship. This helped organise each part of the review into paragraphs and made the links clearer to see. It was while I was doing this that I realised that this was also a SOLO task – I was moving my knowledge of the literature from the multistructural to the relational level and beyond. Thinking about the process in this way was quite useful as it mitigated some of the frustration I felt at having to go off on tangents in order to understand the bigger picture – it was simply that I didn’t have the knowledge at the multistructural level.

Twitter, the Internet and The Khan Academy

As someone who completed their undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, studying at Masters level was a very different beast. Beyond the level of complexity that obviously exists in the step up, the key difference I noticed was the availability of resources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an academic library – the smell of the books, the chance finds in the stacks, the quiet you only get in the obscure corner of the Old English section on floor 10 – but, as a distance learner, the internet has been invaluable to me.

Twitter has been a fantastic source of ideas, suggestions for academic reports and texts as well as a source of data. Without this community of educators, I think my study would have been a sad shadow, and I would have been a very lonely researcher.

One of the challenges I faced was gaining an understanding of descriptive and comparative statistics. As far as I can remember (and it was a very long time ago, so I may be wrong), this was not covered in much detail in my GCSE Maths course. Although I have used maths on a day to day basis in work and as a teacher, this was something I needed to brush up on – that is where The Khan Academy came in. One weekend watching their statistics videos and trying out a few problems, and I had a good understanding of what I needed.

Is the SOLO Taxonomy Effective?

Based on my limited research, it does appear that the SOLO taxonomy can be a useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal. The use of rubrics to identify the knowledge (both declarative and functioning) and stages of learning were particularly useful for making this explicit both for me and the students. The emphasis on looping back through the multistructural-relational-extended abstract levels in order to develop a more detailed and sophisticated understanding helped scaffold the most able and encouraged them to view learning as open-ended.

Knowledge is vital – without relevant knowledge, students cannot progress through the SOLO levels. Direct instruction, whether it is through teacher talk, rubrics or any other direct method, help to provide the  knowledge needed by the student. The rubric can keep this instruction at the forefront while students complete independent tasks – the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

A key benefit of the SOLO taxonomy is creating a common language for discussion of knowledge and feedback – used by the teacher and in self and peer assessment it can help to ensure the quality and focus of feedback.

Of the SOLO techniques I trialled with my classes, I felt that the use of rubrics, hexagons and SOLO stations were the most useful. The weaker students found the hexagons helpful to pull together their knowledge of a text and bridge the gap between knowing the text and being able to write a clear paragraph about it. SOLO Stations allowed for differentiation, student choice and teacher guidance while giving me the time to work individually with students. The HOT maps were rather hit or miss depending on which type was used – the Part/Whole Analysis was a useful structure for discussing and revising a text in detail.

Given the recent reports from Sir Michael Wilshaw, regarding the brightest students in schools failing to achieve the highest grades, it is certainly interesting that in this small scale study Level 5 students and males taught using SOLO methods did considerably better than their non-SOLO counterparts. Ev ex 2Although it is impossible to know whether SOLO was the key factor in this difference, it suggests that this may be a possibility and would warrant further investigation.Ev ex 4

 

Taken as a whole, based on my personal observations, surveys of teachers and students, a lesson observation and exam data analysis, it appears that the SOLO taxonomy may be effective. As with any teaching technique, it is not a panacea – however, it is certainly worth trying.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 2

Exam Data

In addition to the other data collection methods, I chose to analyse the modular examination results for a group of Year 10 students, one group (n=29) taught using SOLO methods, and a larger group (n=82) who were not.

To try to ensure that, as much as possible, the groups were comparable, I chose students who had started school with either a level 4 or 5 from their Key Stage 2 English tests. The students were all from one of the two parallel top sets. Students who did not have a Key Stage 2 level were excluded from the analysis.

All students in the groups selected took GCSE English Literature exam module A663 (Prose from Different Cultures) in the summer of Year 10 and studied the same text – Of Mice and Men. The results were analysed using descriptive statistics to gain an overview and identify areas where the data warranted a closer look. In areas which appeared to show a difference, a chi-square test was applied to test significance; a significance threshold level of p<0.5 was set to ensure that any significance was meaningful.

Although every attempt was made to make the analysis as unbiased as possible, for example choosing to focus on a module which was externally marked, it is important to remember that looking:

At results before and after a new intervention is rolled out…can be very misleading, as other factors may have changed at the same time. (Goldacre, 2013:9)

 

In addition, as the group selection was not randomized, or carried out over a longer period of time, the results may not be replicable, although I feel that they may provide some indications for areas which would be worth investigating further.

Analysis

The non-SOLO group shows normal distribution with a modal grade of a B. The SOLO group also shows a relatively normal distribution, which is less steep than the non-SOLO group. Ev ex 1 The tail at the higher end of the SOLO group does not drop off to the extreme of the non-SOLO group. The modal grade for the SOLO group is one grade higher, an A grade.

Comparing the results of the combined level 4 and 5 students between the SOLO and Non-SOLO groups, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 4%; a significant result. These results suggest that, based on this limited study, SOLO may have a positive impact on exam achievement.

To identify whether this impact can be pinpointed, the data was explored in subsets according to level and gender.

Exploring the subset data, it is apparent that, in this sample, the SOLO group females did not achieve significantly different grades to the non-SOLO group. 

When comparing the difference between the level 4 students, the difference is significant. Ev ex 3

However, it is when comparing the achievement of students starting school on a level 5  and male groups that a very highly significant difference is evident.

Ev ex 2

Comparing the results of the students entering school with a level 5, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 0%; a very highly significant result.Ev ex 4

As suggested by the graph there is a significant difference between the achievements of the two male groups. Looking at this distribution, using a chi-square test suggests that this distribution (p=0.0000) is very highly significant.

Although there are limitations to this particular aspect of the study, the results suggest that SOLO techniques may have a measurable impact on student exam results. Therefore, it would certainly be worth further, structured research.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 1

Overview of the Project

As the project was to investigate an aspect of my teaching practice, I chose to use an action research approach. Alongside this, and the literature review, I also carried out a small scale survey of students involved and a slightly larger scale survey of teachers. The final part of the project was an analysis of exam results (I will go through the findings of the exam analysis in another post).

Throughout the action research I completed a series of blog posts outlining my experiments with three separate SOLO techniques: use of hexagons, use of HOT maps and the use of rubrics and SOLO stations. Within each entry I tried to outline the techniques used and comment on my perception of their effectiveness. Newbury (2001:3) describes the ‘research diary’ as:

A form through which the interaction of subjective and objective aspects of doing research can be openly acknowledged and brought into a productive relationship.

I felt that, as one of the criticisms of the action research model was that results were often restricted to the teacher carrying out the research, it would be helpful if I shared my experiences with other teachers via a blog. As Weston (2012) states in his blog post:

Researchers need to develop a culture where findings are not simply broadcast to schools, but where they engage with increasing numbers of schools to find out how to successfully adapt the approach in different contexts, how to overcome different challenges, and how to successfully combine the idea with other priorities in the classroom.

My observations focused mostly on Year 10 classes, although I also trialled SOLO based activities with Year 11 and Year 12. Classes were chosen using convenience sampling.

Any personal commentary, especially reflecting on one’s own teaching, is subject to bias, as Gavron (1996:159, cited in Biggam, 2011) notes:

It is difficult to see how this can be avoided completely, but awareness of the problem plus constant self-control can help.

 I have endeavoured to keep this in mind through my analysis, and chosen to use data from a range of different sources to mitigate any unconscious bias. In addition, although convenience sampling is not ideal, as the sample size is relatively small and the groups were not chosen at random, this is acceptable for action research.

My Observations

The blog posts on each of the techniques can be found here:
Hexagons – 1, 2, 3, 4
HOT Maps – 1, 2,

SOLO Stations – 1, 2, 3,4

Overall, I felt that the techniques had been useful in conjunction with existing teaching methods. The use of the rubric to specify key elements of the knowledge being taught was particularly helpful for structuring feedback with clear next steps. I will expand on this in my final post (Conclusions).

Student and Teacher Surveys

Unfortunately, the number of students who took part in the survey was small (partly as my time ended up being rather cut short due to my relocation). However, on the whole, the students found the SOLO lessons useful and felt that they had helped them develop their knowledge of the text and how to present their responses more clearly.

In March, I asked for volunteers to complete a short questionnaire about using the SOLO taxonomy in lessons as part of my MA. I was overwhelmed that so many readers took the time to complete the survey – 60 of you in total! Thank you so much for your help.

Evidence 1aThe majority of teachers who responded felt that SOLO techniques were effective and based this belief on a range of indicators, not simply personal observation.

Evidence 1The most popular techniques were, perhaps unsurprisingly, those which have had the most coverage in blogs and are the most straightforward to implement.

Evidence 2My final questions asked which subject the teachers taught and how long they had been teaching. Teachers from a wide range of subjects took part, from science to history, from PE to English – suggesting that SOLO techniques have the potential to be used effectively across the curriculum.

Evidence 3 The findings of this survey certainly suggest that teachers with 6 or more years teaching experience are using social networking and experimenting with new techniques. Now I am not saying that those who have been teaching longer are ‘better’ than those just entering the profession. This is more to do with – the difference between ‘experienced’ and ‘expert’ teachers. Effective, expert teachers are prepared to experiment, and adapt their teaching, not because Ofsted or SMT want it, but because they have decided that it would be beneficial to their students.