Tag Archives: Education

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 did teacher training teach me?

Reflection is a key tool in any teacher’s arsenal, so with that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts reflecting on the lessons I have learnt from different parts of my teaching career. There seems no better place to start than the start of my teaching career.

I came to teaching slightly later than many do, I had left university 7 years previously and worked in a variety of jobs including finance, journalism and the military. However, in 2000 I decided to stop resisting the career that everyone I knew told me I should follow.

I applied and was accepted on a PGCE course through a SCITT in Birmingham. SCITT stands for School Centred Initial Teacher Training – this was a PGCE course validated by the Open University but based in a consortium of schools rather than a university. The course appealed to me as I would be based in schools for the bulk of my training, with one day a week of lectures and twilight sessions.

In some ways, this was a real trial by fire. We were a small group of trainees, which inevitably got smaller as the course progressed, based in some of the toughest schools in Handsworth. We would spend our time in two different schools – my two were a mixed comprehensive and a non-selective girls’ school. We were encouraged to teach before our ‘official’ placement, and expected to continue teaching afterwards, each lesson having a 2 page A4 triplicate lesson plan – to be completed several days in advance.

I had two mentors. One was bubbly, disorganised and totally supportive. She encouraged me to teach Chaucer to Year 10 and experiment with my teaching. I remember attending a parents’ evening with her. No appointments, a large proportion of non-English speakers and few of the pupils attending – it was chaos, I had no idea who anyone was and I suspect she didn’t either! My other mentor was almost the polar opposite. He was a stickler for detail, not particularly supportive and used to lock away every item of stationery – even the board pen and eraser. However, I learnt a lot from both of them.

I planned and taught lessons at all Key Stages, some went well, others were disastrous. I wrote essays, lesson plans and created schemes of work. I attended staff meetings and parents’ evenings. It was a hard slog, weekends and holidays were spent working, I barely saw my partner but eventually, finally, I passed.

So, what did my training teach me? Beyond the basics…

  • The first time a pupil swears at you is a big shock. In my first placement I had a very difficult Y9 class (why do they always seem to be Y9?). They were tough and reluctant to complete any tasks I set – I had to grit my teeth to build up the courage to come out from behind the desk. Then one of the little lovelies decided to swear at me. It was like a punch to the gut – not because the words offended me, or my feelings were hurt, but because I wasn’t sure what to do. Your normal reaction may be to swear back, leave the room, thump them – none of which you are allowed to do! I stood there like a goldfish opening and closing my mouth. However, the next time it happened the spell was broken, I knew what to do and was (relatively) calm.
  • Always check your resources. Towards the end of my third placement, with a sense of demob excitement in the air and a plan to show a video, I failed to check my resources carefully enough. For part of a scheme on satire, I planned to show an episode of The Simpsons. I had watched it before so all should be fine – but it wasn’t. I had chosen what is now etched into my mind as the ‘bastard’ episode – where Homer meets his illegitimate brother and Bart says ‘bastard’ about a million times. I had to brazen it out or it would have been all too obvious that I had cocked up. I still shudder.
  • Good behaviour needs good managers. Beyond the classroom level, pupils behaviour needs a strong and active SLT. I was based in two very different schools, both challenging but one SLT were in the corridors, they taught and the pupils knew where the line was drawn. The other school had two locked doors between SLT and the rest of the school and they were rarely seen – unsurprisingly, behaviour was much worse.
  • Take time to wind down. This is something that easily gets forgotten, but it is essential for your mental health. Every Friday we would meet up for a drink to discuss the triumphs and disasters of the week. Once a month we met up in a Chinese restaurant and ate and drank ourselves silly – it really helped.
  • Some training is rubbish. Not every ‘expert’ gives useful advice. I had to sit through ICT ‘training’ which started with how to switch on a computer. I also remember a session on behaviour where it was obvious that the teacher had not been in the classroom for years, and when he had been, it was in a selective grammar – totally unlike the schools most of us had been placed in. Take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

Teaching is a tough job and teacher training needs to be tough to prepare you. But it is worth it!

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.


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, 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.


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].

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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]

Bloom, B. S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Campbell, K. J., Watson, J. M., & Collis, K. F. (1992) ‘Volume measurement and intellectual development’. Journal of Structural Learning. 11  pp. 279-298.

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

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. New York: Routledge

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

Smith, T.W. & Colby, S.A. (2007) ‘Teaching for Deep Learning.’ The Clearing House.  80 (5) pp. 205–211.

Sugrue, B. (2002) ‘Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy.’ http://eppicinc.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/sugrue_bloom_critique_perfxprs.pdf [accessed 2 May 2013]

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.


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.

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?

MA Research into the SOLO Taxonomy – please help

Those of you who follow my Twitter account (@data_fiend) may know that I am conducting some research into the effectiveness of the SOLO taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes)  as part of my MA.

As part of my research I would like to find out the views of teachers. If you have taught using the SOLO taxonomy, even if it is a single lesson, I would be very grateful if you would complete the relevant survey below. it should only take a few minutes at most:

English teachers, please click here to take survey.

Teachers of other subjects, please click here to take survey.

All responses will be anonymous. The collated data will be used as part of my MA in Education and reported on this blog. The use of data will comply with BERA guidelines.

Thank you.

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.