2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

SOLO, Learning and Teaching

For educators, there is a need to identify how they can best help students to achieve their potential. School makes up a significant part of students’ young lives, so it is unsurprising that:

Schools shape and change beliefs, both as purveyors of knowledge and as epistemological training grounds for developing students. (Schraw, 2001:406)

The challenge is to balance the imparting of knowledge with providing students with opportunities to develop positive epistemological beliefs. New initiatives often focus on the former, specifically teaching methods, possibly because this is an easier area to demonstrate impact. As Hattie (2012) notes, most of what we do as teachers will have some effect on the students we teach.

OfSTED’s (2012/13b:32) definition of an ‘Outstanding’ school highlights the importance of students ‘making and exceeding expected progress’, whatever their starting point. To achieve this, schools need to know what causes variance between students, both between schools and between students in the same school. Hattie (2003) identifies several elements which are responsible for potential variance in achievement. The most significant factor identified was the student themselves, being responsible for 50% of variance. Student engagement, beliefs and motivation is at the heart of the matter.

Levin (2010:89) explains that:

Schools with higher levels of engagement are more successful with students from all kinds of backgrounds.

This supports Hattie’s (2003) findings that home is less significant an influence than perhaps we might expect.

The second most significant influence was the teacher (30%):

It is what teachers know, do and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation. (Hattie, 2003:2)

However, Schraw (2001:406 summarises a key difficulty with addressing the issue:

The existing research invites the conclusion that schools should make the effort to change beliefs in positive ways, although it is less clear how those changes should occur.

Hattie’s work (2003, 2012) may give us an indication of how these changes should be approached; if both students and teachers are responsible for 80% of the variance between student outcomes, it is here that the focus needs to be. Ideally, a focus on techniques and strategies which encourage teachers to teach in the most effective manner, while encouraging students to learn and develop positive epistemological beliefs.

Students’ Learning

To understand how students learn effectively, it is useful to be aware of a number of key areas. Firstly, how do epistemological beliefs affect learning? And secondly, which specific traits does an effective learner have?

 Hofer & Pintrich (1997:88) define personal epistemology as:

How individuals come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which such epistemological premises are a part of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning.

Resent research into students’ beliefs about learning (Pintrich, 2002; Cano & Cardelle-Elawar, 2004; Dweck, 2006; Barnard et al., 2008; Afflerbach et al., 2013) have highlighted the link between how students view learning and their academic performance. Cano & Cardelle-Elawar (2004:182) suggesting that:

The evidence that secondary school students hold immature beliefs…might go some way to explaining the poor academic achievement of many students.

As teachers, we often see this manifested as a willingness to give up when challenged, reluctance to work hard for results and the belief that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a particular subject. I know that, in the past, I have been guilty of this, especially with Maths – in reality, I’m not actually bad at Maths, I just find it harder.

However, Louca et al. (2004:58) assert, in their study of teaching science to 3rd grade students, that students are not aware of these ‘beliefs of theories’, but instead ‘have a range of cognitive resources for understanding knowledge’. With many schools implementing ‘learning to learn’ schemes, students are now more likely to have an awareness of how they learn. At the heart of this awareness, there needs to be the belief that learning is complex and requires effort.

An effective student needs to develop a wide range of skills and attributes:

Learning at school requires students to pay attention, to observe, to memorize, to understand, to set goals and to assume responsibility for their own learning. These cognitive activities are not possible without the active involvement and engagement of the learner. (Vosniadou, 2001:8)

The emphasis, for effective learning and progress to take place, is on the need for students to be self-regulated (Barnard et al., 2008; Nückles et al., 2009; Afflerbach et al., 2013) and for students to have some control over their learning (Skinner et al., 1998, cited in Yeh, 2010; Vosniadou, 2001; Zull, 2002).

What Makes a Teacher Effective?

Researchers and policymakers have often tried to define what makes an effective teacher; however arriving at a definition can be fraught with difficulties. Shulman (1987:6) notes that these definitions often ‘became items on tests or on classroom-observation scales’ which ultimately end up as a restrictive check-list. Levin (2010:90) points out that, proposals for improving teaching ‘have been made many times before’ and that merely listing suggestions is not enough – we need concrete examples of how this might be achieved.

Although our knowledge of how the brain works has developed over the past century, the topic can be a contentious one. Information processing, ‘the mental operations that come between a stimulus and response’ (Malim & Birch, 2005:25), is at the centre of discussion between cognitive psychologists, especially when related to student learning (Vygotsky, 1978 cited in Vosniadou, 2001; Kolb, 1984; Baddeley, 1999; Bischoff & Anderson, 2001; Tsai & Huang, 2001). Kirschner et al. (2006:77) highlight the importance of an understanding of the brain’s processes:

Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information, or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information, is unlikely to be effective.

 As a result of the complexities, and lack of a definitive explanation of how the brain works, there have been disagreements between academics as to the best mode of instruction, in particular between project based learning and direct instruction (Bishoff & Anderson, 2001; Wallace & Louden, 2003; Gauthier & Dembélé, 2004; Zull, 2002; Wu & Tsai, 2005; Kirschner et al., 2006; Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007; Granger et al., 2012; Hodges, 2012). These discussions can become polarised, while the most effective teaching is likely to judiciously use elements from both modes.

However, there also appear to be several areas of agreement; Hattie (2012:16) states that:

The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student; thus the key ingredients are being aware of the learning intentions, knowing when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, having sufficient understanding of the student’s prior understanding as he or she comes to the task and knowing enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is some sort of progressive development.

This suggests that an in depth knowledge of the students is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher. In addition, we can add: high expectations (Levin, 2010; OfSTED, 2012), formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 2006), differentiation (Hattie, 2003; Yeh, 2010; Hook & Mills, 2012; OfSTED, 2012) and feedback (Hattie, 2003, 2012; Black & Wiliam, 2006; OfSTED, 2012). The SOLO taxonomy can offer teachers a structure for implementing these skills in conjunction with the teacher’s existing strategies.

References:

Afflerbach, P., Cho, B-Y., Kim, J-Y., Crassas, M., & Doyle, B. (2013) ‘Reading: What else matters besides strategies and skills?’ The Reading Teacher, 66 (6), pp. 440–448. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/TRTR.1146 [Accessed March 2, 2013].

Baddeley, A. D. (1999) Essentials of Human Memory. Hove: Psychology Press

Barnard, L., Lan, W., Crooks, S., & Paton, V. (2008) ‘The relationship between epistemological beliefs and self-regulated learning skills in the online course environment’. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4 (3) pp. 261-266

Bischoff, P.J. & Anderson, O.R. (2001) ‘Development of knowledge frameworks and higher order cognitive operations among secondary school students who studied a unit on ecology’. Journal of Biological Education 35 (2), pp. 81-88.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1119/. [accessed 23 August 2012]

Cano, F. & Cardelle-Elawar, M. (2004) ‘An integrated analysis of secondary school student’s conceptions and beliefs about learning’. European Journal of Psychology of Education 19 (2) pp. 167-187.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Gauthier, C. & Dembélé, M. (2004) ‘Quality of teaching and quality of education: a review of research findings. UNESCO. Education for All Global Monitoring Report. 2005/ED/EFA/MRT/PI/18

Granger, E. M., Bevis, T. H., Saka, Y., Southerland, S. A., Sampson, V., & Tate, R. L. (2012) ‘The efficacy of student-centered instruction in supporting science learning’. Science (New York, N.Y.), 338 (6103), pp. 105–8. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23042893 [Accessed March 11, 2013].

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R.G. & Chinn, C. A. (2007) ‘Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)’. Educational Psychologist  42 (2) pp. 99–107. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00461520701263368.

Hodges, G. C., (2012) ‘Research and the teaching of English: Spaces where reading histories meet’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (1), pp. 7–25.

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Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2012) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 2: Planning for differentiation. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

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What is the SOLO Taxonomy?

Learning taxonomies and frameworks are researchers’ and theorists’ attempts to categorise and explain learning (Bloom, 1956; Anderson, et al., 2000; Moseley, et al., 2005). These frameworks help teachers gain an insight into how students think and learn, however, due to the complexities of the human brain, they can only be used as a guideline. As our knowledge of the human mind develops, so will the frameworks used to explain the structure of thinking and learning.

In education, Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, in its original form and as updated by Anderson et al. (2000), is probably the most familiar, examination questions often follow the hierarchy. However, it is not without its problems. Sugrue (2002:1) points out that the original taxonomy ‘was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance’, and criticises the ‘consistency’ with which it can be applied. Teachers can avoid these problems through an awareness of alternative taxonomies, for example the SOLO taxonomy (Hattie & Brown, 2004).

SOLO (the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy was first introduced by Biggs & Collis in their 1982 study. The SOLO taxonomy maps the complexity of a student’s work by linking it to one of five phases:  little or no understanding (Prestructural), through a simple and then more developed grasp of the topic (Unistructural and Multistructural), to the ability to link the ideas and elements of a task together (Relational) and finally (Extended Abstract) to understand the topic for themselves, possibly going beyond the initial scope of the task (Biggs & Collis, 1982; Hattie & Brown, 2004). In their later research into multimodal learning, Biggs & Collis noted that there was an ‘increase in the structural complexity of their [the students’] responses’ (1991:64).

It may be useful to view the SOLO taxonomy as an integrated strategy, to be used in lesson design, in task guidance and formative and summative assessment (Smith & Colby, 2007; Black & Wiliam, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Smith, 2011). The structure of the taxonomy encourages viewing learning as an on-going process, moving from simple recall of facts towards a deeper understanding; that learning is a series of interconnected webs that can be built upon and extended. Nückles et al., (2009:261) elaborates:

Cognitive strategies such as organization and elaboration are at the heart of meaningful learning because they enable the learner to organize learning into a coherent structure and integrate new information with existing knowledge, thereby enabling deep understanding and long-term retention.

This would help to develop Smith’s (2011:92) ‘self-regulating, self-evaluating learners who were well motivated by learning.’

 A range of SOLO based techniques exist to assist teachers and students. Use of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2009) encourages teachers to be more explicit when creating learning objectives, focusing on what the student should be able to do and at which level. This is essential for a student to make progress and allows for the creation of rubrics, for use in class (Black & Wiliam, 2009; Nückles et al., 2009; Huang, 2012), to make the process explicit to the student. Use of HOT (Higher Order Thinking) maps (Hook & Mills, 2011) can be used in English to scaffold in depth discussion, encouraging students to:

Develop interpretations, use research and critical thinking effectively to develop their own answers, and write essays that engage with the critical conversation of the field (Linkon, 2005:247, cited in Allen, 2011).

It may also be helpful in providing a range of techniques for differentiated learning (Anderson, 2007; Hook & Mills, 2012).

 The SOLO taxonomy has a number of proponents. Hook & Mills (2011:5) refer to it as ‘a model of learning outcomes that helps schools develop a common understanding’. Moseley et al. (2005:306) advocates its use as a ‘framework for developing the quality of assessment’ citing that it is ‘easily communicable to students’. Hattie (2012:54), in his wide ranging investigation into effective teaching and ‘visible learning’, outlines three levels of understanding: surface, deep and conceptual. He indicates that:

The most powerful model for understanding these three levels and integrating them into learning intentions and success criteria is the SOLO model.

 However, the taxonomy is not without detractors; Chick (1998:20) believes that ‘there is potential to misjudge the level of functioning’ and Chan et al. (2002:512) criticises its ‘conceptual ambiguity’ stating that the ‘categorization’ is ‘unstable’. In these two studies, the SOLO taxonomy was used primarily for assessing completed work, so use throughout the teaching process may mitigate these issues.

 An additional criticism, in particular when the taxonomy is compared with that of Bloom (1956), is the SOLO taxonomy’s structure. Biggs & Collis (1991) refers to the structure as a hierarchy, as does Moseley et al. (2005); naturally, there are concerns when complex processes, such as human thought, are categorized in this manner. However, Campbell et al. (1992) explained the structure of the SOLO taxonomy as consisting as a series of cycles (especially between the Unistructural, Multistructural and Relational levels), which would allow for a development of breadth of knowledge as well as depth.

Allen, I. J., (2011) ‘Reprivileging reading: The negotiation of uncertainty’. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 12 (1) pp. 97–120. Available at: http://pedagogy.dukejournals.org/cgi/doi/10.1215/15314200-1416540 [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Anderson, K. M., (2007) ‘Differentiating instruction to include all students’. Preventing School Failure, 51 (3) pp. 49–54.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. C. (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Biggs, J. B. and Collis, K. F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York, Academic Press

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K .F. (1991) ‘Multimodal learning and the quality of intelligent behaviour’. In: H. Rowe (Ed.) Intelligence: Reconceptualization and measurement.  Hillsdale, NJ.:  Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 57-75.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1119/. [accessed 23 August 2012]

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Chan, C.C., Tsui, M.S. & Chan, M.Y.C., 2002 ‘Applying the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes ( SOLO ) taxonomy on student’s learning outcomes : an empirical study’. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27 (6) pp. 511-527

Chick, H. (1998) ‘Cognition in the Formal Modes: Research mathematics and the SOLO taxonomy’. Mathematics Education Research Journal. 10 (2) pp. 4-26

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

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Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2011) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 1: A common language of learning. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

Huang, S.-C. (2012) ‘Like a bell responding to a striker: Instruction contingent on assessment’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (4), pp. 99–119.

Moseley, D., Baumfield, V., Elliott, J., Gregson, M., Higgins, S., Miller, J., & Newton, D. (2005) Frameworks for Thinking: A handbook for teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nückles, M., Hübner, S. & Renkl, A. (2009) ‘Enhancing self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols’. Learning and Instruction, 19(3), pp.259–271. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0959475208000558 [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Smith, A. (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools. Camarthen: Crown House Publishing

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Why Research SOLO Taxonomy?

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on my MA research into the use of the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy in English. I hope that  what I write proves useful and not just for English teachers.

A reasonably obvious starting point is: why did I choose to research the SOLO taxonomy?

A quick glance at the TES or Twitter will reveal that teachers are under pressure. The need to achieve year on year improvements in results, as well as a dearth of time available, means that it is not surprising that many teachers are looking for a ‘magic bullet’– something that is effective and involves little additional work. The danger is that schools and teachers are not appropriately critical when selecting and promoting techniques in the rush to achieve the desired results.

Over the past few years a range of different ideas (e.g. Brain Gym, VAK, de Bono’s Thinking Hats) have been promoted in schools, often supported by ‘a thriving commercial industry’ (Coffield et al., 2004:118). While some of these offer useful techniques which can easily be incorporated into the teachers’ everyday lesson, others can become overly burdensome without empirical evidence that the technique actually works (Harrison et al., 2003; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Key here is the fact that, while scientific research may indicate a result as suggestive, all too often the results are distorted or overstated (Swaffield, 2009).

How many of us have sat through a CPD session run by an expensive expert, or an enthusiastic member of SLT, and questioned whether it is actually worthwhile? How many have spoken up to challenge ideas that we know are not proven, or (often more likely) sat squirming and wishing that we had the nerve to speak up? In budget conscious and results-driven schools, staff buying into ineffective techniques and strategies (physically and metaphorically) can drain money from where it is most needed.

It is, however, important that teachers are proactive in trialling and using techniques which they believe may be of benefit. Levin (2010:90) explains:

If data from students could be linked to changes known to be effective – for example, improved assessment practices or greater student choice in assignments – we might start to see some lasting and worthwhile changes in the way students experience our high schools.

It was with this in mind that I became cautiously interested when discussions  on Twitter mentioned something called the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy. Initially, it was mentioned by a small number of UK based teachers who provided more detailed examples on their blogs (Tait Coles, David Didau, Lisa Ashes).

While willing to try new teaching ideas, the key question for me is: what evidence is there that this works? A brief search of academic journals (via the wonderful Google Scholar) identified a number of articles, mostly focusing on the use of the SOLO taxonomy in geography, science or at university level (Munowenyu, 2007; Biggs & Tang, 2009; Brabrand & Dahl, 2009; Prakash et al., 2010).

I was also aware that the use of the SOLO taxonomy was widespread in New Zealand (Hattie & Brown, 2004), being linked to assessment and curriculum models, and through a number of New Zealand Tweachers’ contributions to Twitter discussions. However, it became clear that there was very little research on its use in the UK education system, and little available on its use in teaching English literature beyond blog posts and anecdotes. I therefore decided to try a relatively simple technique – the use of hexagons to link ideas. The results from this initial foray were genuinely surprising, however, could easily have been a fortuitous coincidence. Therefore, I decided to base my study on the effectiveness of the SOLO taxonomy in GCSE English Literature. I hoped to be able to demonstrate whether or not the SOLO taxonomy was effective in improving student results and clarify whether this technique was worth adopting at departmental level and beyond.

References:

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Brabrand, C. & Dahl, B., (2009) ‘Using the SOLO taxonomy to analyze competence progression of university science curricula.’ Higher Education, 58 (4) pp. 531–549.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) ‘Learning  styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.’ Learning and Skills Research Centre. Report No. 041543.

Harrison, G., Andrews, J., & Saklofske, D. (2003) ‘Current perspectives on cognitive learning styles.’ Education Canada. 43 (2) pp. 44-47

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) ‘Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis.’  Journal of Educational Psychology. 98 (1) pp. 238-246.

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

Munowenyu, E. (2007) ‘Assessing the Quality of Essays Using the SOLO Taxonomy: Effects of Field and Classroom-based Experiences by “A” Level Geography Students.’ International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. 16 (1) pp. 21–43.

Prakash, E. S., Narayan, K. A., & Sethuraman, K. R. (2010) ‘Student perceptions regarding the usefulness of explicit discussion of “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome” taxonomy.’ Advances in physiology education. 34 (3) pp.145–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20826769 [accessed 6 March 2013]

Swaffield, S. (2009) ‘The misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity.’ Work in progress paper. AAIA National Conference. Bournemouth. 16-18 September. http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/lfl/current/papers/swaffield_aaia09.pdf [accessed 30 March 2013]

Performance Related Pay – Divide and Conquer?

Mr Gove‘s plan to introduce performance related pay has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. @oldandrewuk‘s excellent blog post gives some well explained reasons why the plan is not a good idea. These are my thoughts on the subject.

The Truth About Teachers’ Pay Scales

Whenever the topic of teachers’ pay is written about in the press, annual pay progression is mentioned. Yes, in the early part of their career, teachers generally receive a pay increase each year – up to point 6. Then, providing they pass threshold, they move onto the upper pay scale spending two years on each of upper 1 and 2 before reaching upper 3. So, assuming a start on point 1 of the main scale, that is 10 years of pay progression and then nothing unless you move into management. Potentially, if you start teaching at 25, that could be 30 years without a pay rise – hardly the year-on-year increase we keep reading about.

Does Mr Gove’s new plan for pay intend to change this? If so, schools’ already overstretched budgets are going to have a real problem – and some difficult choices to make. If not, is the assumption that all longer serving teachers will move into management or leave?

How will performance be measured?

This is the big question. Who will measure your performance as a teacher? What criteria will be used? What right to reply will you have? Imagine the following, fictional, situations:

  • It is your annual pay/performance review, you are told you won’t be moving up the pay scale as you don’t teach any exam classes and therefore there is no effective way to determine whether you made sufficient progress.
  • At your review you are awarded a pay rise – what your manager doesn’t realize is that your KS3 results are a work of fiction – you boosted every student by a level knowing that the department head was so busy with GCSE that they would not have time to check.
  • You and your head of department don’t exactly see eye to eye. At the start of the new year you find yourself with a timetable filled with every difficult class available. When you don’t receive a pay rise you decide to take the school to a tribunal for unfairly damaging your chances.
  • Due to timetabling issues you find yourself sharing several classes with a weaker teacher – their  poor teaching means that you won’t get a pay rise.
  • The head holds a whole school meeting. They explain that, as the school budget is less than expected, due to falling intake at 6th form, no one will be receiving a pay rise – the only other option would be redundancies.
  • You are an experienced teacher with a good reputation. You spend a lot of time creating excellent class resources, which you share with your department. Another teacher in your department has less challenging classes, they use your resources, rarely create any of their own and never share them if they do. They receive a pay rise and you don’t – you decide that you will no longer share any resources and will work only for the benefit of your own classes.
  • You have worked yourself into the ground with a challenging group. You planned excellent lessons, offered after school extra tuition, did everything in your power to help the class . Your head is apologetic, although you have had excellent lesson observations you won’t be receiving a pay rise. It turns out that the class did not achieve their 3 levels progress – Student A refused to write anything on their exam paper; Student B slept through the exam as they had been playing their X-box until 3 in the morning; Student C didn’t turn up for the exam – their mum explained over the phone that she couldn’t get them out of bed; Student D tried their best but, due to a range of learning difficulties, they were unable to make 3 levels progress; Student E was a school refuser who had not been in school since January, but they are still on the school roll so count towards your figures…and so on.

Obviously, these scenarios are fictional, but chances are that some of them sound familiar. Issues similar to these may be the reality in schools at the moment but, as frustrating as they may be, at the moment they are unlikely to affect your pay.

Students Are Not Products

The increasing tendency to apply business models to schools seem to forget the key point – students are not products. Even if you are a brilliant teacher, if the student does not want to work there is little that you can do. Contacting home, setting detentions, referring to senior managers may work, but equally may not.

In business there are a number of things you can do to promote sales, for example: offer incentives, reduce costs, lower prices. It is hard to translate these into teaching – should we offer students financial rewards for working in class? From our own pocket? Make the exams easier so they pass? Only make them take subjects they like? It is not so clear cut.

Why is Mr Gove Doing This?

In part, I think that Mr Gove is trying to make a name for himself – in a party that supports privatization, it would be a coup to manage this with schools.

Secondly, by taking away many of the terms and conditions, teaching becomes less attractive to qualified staff and therefore it will be possible to hire unqualified, cheaper staff. This would make the education ‘business’ more likely to make a profit and therefore more attractive to investors. Unqualified staff may also be less likely to challenge the Secretary of State.

Finally, performance related pay creates competition and therefore divisiveness – in education the ideal is that we all do our best to help our students do their best. By setting staff against each other for pay, perhaps Mr Gove hopes that teachers will not work together, that unions will lose members and that he can divide and conquer?

Pay Is Not The Real Issue

Although this is a post about performance related pay, pay is not the real issue. Most teachers will say that they are not in the job for the money; there are other motivations at work. However, why is it wrong to want to be paid a reasonable amount for a tough job that (currently) demands a degree and a postgraduate qualification? I don’t see lawyers, architects and doctors being criticized in this way.

In this country, rightly or wrongly, pay often confers status and respect. If you don’t believe that, look at how many times calls to curb the enormous bonuses of bankers are met with the claim that we can’t because they will leave the country. They are somehow immune to any cuts, even when they business they work for is making a massive loss. By repeatedly attacking teachers’ pay and conditions, Mr Gove appears to be sending out the message that the profession is not valued in our society. That education, and a qualified and motivated teaching profession, is not key to the success of the country. Sadly, this attitude will cause damage which will affect generations to come.