Category Archives: Twitter

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.

Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

CPD and Randomized Controlled Trials

Evidence based ideas in education has been a hot topic over the past week or so – and not before time, in my opinion.

Whenever new ideas are brought forward, some teachers will always refer to the ‘tried and tested’ methods they prefer (some of which are actually just tried rather than ‘tested’). Equally, there is the counter issue where some teachers, or school leaders, come up with some new idea and proceed to insist that everyone else jumps onto their bandwagon. Both situations are less than ideal and, believe it or not, Michael Wilshaw appears to agree:

We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense.

Michael Wilshaw’s speech – via @oldandrew teachingbattleground.wordpress.com

It should be the teacher’s decision which methods they use in their classroom, based on their professional judgement and available evidence. The availability of this evidence is, in itself, an issue – one which I will look at in a little more detail below.

However, sadly, this freedom to teach, according to our own professional judgement, does not seem to be the reality of OfSTED or of many schools. Schools seem to be obsessed with OfSTED these days. What data does OfSTED want to see/expect you to know? What sort of lesson do they want to see? Which teaching methods? Sometimes this obsession seems to be almost to the exclusion of whether this actually helps the students who are in front of us for the 180-odd days that OfSTED are NOT in school. The Telegraph’s article about ‘mock’  inspections highlights my point. Surely the focus should be on improving teaching and learning, rather than identifying which hoops a possible inspector may want us to jump through? In any case, as highlighted in this blog post, how does OfSTED help schools improve the actual teaching and learning?

We, as teachers, need to return the focus in our schools to our core purpose, to teach our subjects to the best of our ability and prepare young people for life beyond school. One area we could start with is CPD.

We could use CPD time to enable teachers in school, or across a local area, to collaborate on research projects, work on randomized trials and present the findings  for other teachers.  Ben Goldacre‘s (@bengoldacre) recent report suggests that:

By collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children, and increase professional independence.

But no! CPD tends to pander to the latest perceived OfSTED desire, or fads supported by colourful brochures and expensive external speakers. It is strange that, in a profession full of postgraduates, our in-school CPD so rarely takes that into account. Instead, we are given watered down ideas, gimmicks without solid evidence, or worse: we are expected to relive a lesson through card sorts and role play. Stay in teaching any length of time and it is likely that you will sit through similar presentations without new input – not exactly differentiating for your audience.

When I started teaching, about 12 years ago, we had a departmental day at the start of the term, no agenda from above, no mention of OfSTED, no death by PowerPoint – we were trusted, as professionals, to know what needed to be done. One of the sad things is that, as accountability and OfSTED come to the fore they are accompanied by, what could be called, a ‘dumbing down’ of the profession. We can’t be trusted to work on our own on projects, almost as if we were a naughty bunch of year 10s who will nick off to the toilets for a fag as soon as the teacher’s back is turned.

The opportunity to make informed decisions about what works best, using good quality evidence, represents a truer form of professional independence than any senior figure barking out their opinions.  A coherent set of systems for evidence based practice listens to people on the front line, to find out where the uncertainties are, and decide which ideas are worth testing.

Ben Goldacre

To raise the profile of the profession externally, and encourage a sense of this professionalism within schools, we need to be more aware of evidence and research – if school leaders want teachers to use a particular strategy, give us evidence as to its effectiveness, suggestions for further reading, or a chance to be part of a randomized trial perhaps.
For a profession that exists under almost constant change, education can be very resistant to change and the idea of randomized trials can cause tension, as Goldacre says:
most people start to become nervous: surely it’s wrong, for example, to decide what kind of education a child gets, simply at random?
This may certainly explain some of the negative reactions that Ben’s  Guardian article received. But if we are honest, this happens all the time: the make up of a class, timetabling that creates split classes, a new syllabus, the new idea you choose to use, a teacher on long term sick leave, a PGCE student on a placement. We are not talking about throwing out everything we do to replace it with something else. Instead, the idea is to “decide which ideas are worth testing” and start there.
I have found Twitter an excellent starting point for this type of discussion, the sharing of ideas and sources of information with teachers across the globe is fantastic. I would hope that some of this turns into concrete academic research.

Teaching and education are emotive subjects – we all remember the teacher who inspired us, just as we remember the one who did not. In our rush to do the best we can for the young people in front of us, we need to take a little time to reflect, and question, whether what we are doing really allows us all to reach our potential.

 

The Language of Education

Over the past year or so, there has been a subtle (and at times, not so subtle) drift in the language used in education. There have been references to attainment, progress and achievement for some time – and, although measuring these can be fraught with difficulty, this is no bad thing. All teachers, I’m sure, want their students to make progress and to improve.

However, the change recently has been more insidious, more negative in its tone. We have heard of ‘the race to the bottom’, ‘cheating’, ‘dumbing down’. The implication is clear, education is in a mess and the Government need to ride in and take swift ruthless action before it is too late.

The Powers That Be

A brief look at some of the loudest voices illustrates my point. Ofqual‘s press release regarding the problems with the Summer 2012 GCSE results included the following:

Glenys Stacey said: “It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

A barbed little comment – is it ‘clear’? Are teachers being ‘forced to choose’? Although conciliatory in tone, the underlying implication is that lots of teachers are cheating – but where is the evidence? Which teachers have had to choose to cheat or risk their career? If this is true, then it is a scandal…if. The implication is enough to fuel sensationalist headlines, even without evidence.

Wordle: Ofqual

In his ‘Good to Great’ speech, Michael Wilshaw said:

“we need radical improvements to the education system”

Is this really the case in most schools? Or is it a man, who has a passion for education, overstating the case – a rhetorical device?

If the system was so bad where did all these “brightest and best graduates” come from? That in itself is an unpleasant myth – writing off pretty much everyone already in the profession at the moment – a quick glance at twitter will show that new teachers don’t have the monopoly on innovation, motivation and passion for the job.

Wordle: OfSted

The current Education Minister (current, as we have had 8 different ministers in the past 10 years – this in itself could explain some of the problems in education, as each one wants to make their mark), Michael Gove, in his speech to Brighton College said:

“And because we recognise that Governments must take sides in debates – we must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence – for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.”

Truly a comment worthy of Orwell’s Squealer – disagree with us and you want the opposite. The image of the rabid, stike-ready, trade unionist teacher, who cares only for their pension and doing as little work as possible, is lurking in the background. No grey areas, no acknowledgement that we may want the same but disagree with the methods, especially the methods espoused by a man with no teaching experience, a love of the independent sector and little experience of the English state system.

The Truth?

The real situation is probably somewhere between the extremes. Some schools, some individual teachers, some students may well cheat; some may look for the easiest route to tick the boxes on the performance tables. Realistically, most schools will push the boundaries as far as they can, while still staying within the rules.

What is the motivation for this? We have to look at the way schools are judged/ If we don’t want a system where each school focuses on league tables, then we need to remove them – or change the way the tables work. Schools are not created equal, so judgements made on the numbers of top grades will only reveal what we expect to see – selective schools and those with a more affluent intake doing better than those in deprived areas. Teaching alone is not sufficient to change this pattern. Looking at value-added impact gives a more balanced view, but again is fraught with problems – not least who this information is for and how understandable it is.

There are no easy solutions here, but the bottom line is that schools will do their best to meet the standards set for them. It is churlish for ministers to criticize schools for trying to meet standards that they, or their predecessors, have set for them.

Schools

Beyond the Government and the press hounds slavering for a juicy headline, the language used within schools also seems to be taking a disturbing turn. Now, these are my personal bug-bears (right up there with the usual culprits of BS bingo). I can live with the shift from ‘Teaching and Learning’ to ‘Learning and Teaching’ – obviously little learning took place until this semantic change! The BLP ‘learning muscles’ set my teeth on edge, however, the two phrases that I find the most poisonous are ‘customer service’ and any reference to ‘getting them their C grade’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that poor quality teaching should be accepted, I have issue with the language itself. Both phrases have the suggestion of something being ‘done’ to a ‘customer’ – a customer who doesn’t have to put in any effort themselves – rather like an expensive massage.

The danger is that all language contains messages – and sometimes the message received is not the one intended. Phrases like ‘getting them their C grade’ suggests the student is entitled to the grade, there is no suggestion of work, of effort, of mastery – and, sadly, this is a message that is received loud and clear by some of our young people. They believe the hype and headlines, and their chances are negatively affected (admittedly, largely through their own lack of work). We are failing our ‘customers’ if we let them think this, but that is the message of this type of language, as well as those easy to pass exam equivalents.

So, what is my point? Really, that language is powerful. It is easy to accidentally, flippantly or deliberately create a damaging impression. This was where education in the UK seemed to be at the end of 2012 – hopefully 2013 can be more positive.

New Year, New Start

Change, in education and in life, is one of the only constants. It is what we expect with every new education minister and every new academic year. As a teacher, I expect, and generally welcome, change – but I hadn’t realised to what extent things would change for me in the course of 2012.

Twitter and Blogging

2012 was the year that my twitter use shifted up a gear. It moved from being a bit of entertainment, to being essential CPD and giving me the opportunity to discuss educational ideas with a huge range of fantastic #tweachers. Far from being trivial (although, at times, that is no bad thing) I was surprised at how academic and detailed some of the discussions became – no mean feat in 140 characters. Twitter became a fantastic resource and a way of keeping up to date with the latest developments in education.

Inspirational teachers shared their ideas and ecperiments with technology and techniques. I tried some, not all worked well, but my teaching certainly developed over the year – discussing ideas with other teachers helped me become more reflective and certainly more experimental.

Along side the experimentation, I started this blog to explore some of my experiments, to reflect and to share my successes and failures. When I started the blog in March I had no idea that I would still be blogging almost a year later. I have found blogging about my teaching very useful, time and lessons fly by during the school year and it has been really useful to pause and look back.

The Really Unexpected

However, it was in the final part of 2012 that the biggest changes and challenges took place. A great job opportunity for my husband in Dublin, meant a rush of resignation, removals and relocation. From finding out he got the job at the end of October, to finally moving over to Ireland at the end of December – it has been a whirlwind. My final half term was full of meetings, hand overs, controlled assessment marking and packing. Hardly any time really to take on board the massive change I have signed up to. To be honest, I still feel like I’m spinning.

So, here I am, 2013 in a new country. I have a little time on my hands while I get to grips with where I am, sort out my paperwork for applying for jobs, as well as getting my head around the differences between the UK and Irish system. Scary but exciting times ahead!