Tag Archives: Opinions

CPD and Randomized Controlled Trials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Goldacre

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

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

 

The Language of Education

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

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

The Powers That Be

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

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

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

Wordle: Ofqual

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

“we need radical improvements to the education system”

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

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

Wordle: OfSted

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

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

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

The Truth?

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

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

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

Schools

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

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

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

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

Why Data Use By Teachers is Key

I am a data geek, I make no apologies for the fact that I love a good spreadsheet and tinkering with charts. However, it seems that this is not the case for the majority of teachers. Yes data can be time consuming, it can be confusing and, in some schools, it is jealously guarded by members of SLT who pass out morsels to the waiting staff.

School Use of Data

The use of data in schools can be a contentious issue. Data is generally collected for two main purposes – for internal tracking, monitoring and diagnostic purposes, and for external purposes. Over the past 20 years, data for external consumption has become a focus, not the sole focus, but certainly it has moved into the realm of non-teaching professionals; a shift that makes many teachers uncomfortable. Kelly, et al (2010:4) found that: “staff think it is collected for external accountability purposes, but that it should be collected for internal improvement purposes.”

Parental Choice

One of the key arguments towards schools presenting their data is that it allows parents to make informed decisions about their choice of school. This view has its problems, firstly, ‘choice’ only truly exists in some areas, largely cities where there are a selection of schools with available places. Secondly, as shown by Allen and Burgess (2012), information about how a school has performed in the past is not an accurate indicator of how the school will perform in six years time, and therefore there is still a high amount of guesswork.

DfE School Performance Tables

The increased level of detail and data in the DfE school performance tables means that, more than ever, staff and managers need to be aware of the data we have in school and how it will be presented in public. This increased focus does not necessarily mean that we need to do things differently as English teachers, but being aware of the additional focus on English and Maths, for pupils of all attainment levels is key.

Although I have issues with league tables and reporting data that might not be fully understood by the consumer, I feel that, in an imperfect world, this measure helps to focus our resources not solely on those who are on the C/D borderline, and if necessary, justifies the inclusion of pupils who would not normally be targeted – not that such justification should be needed, but in these high stake days of A*-C including English and Maths the focus has been skewed – one of Goldstein and Leckie’s (2008:69) “perverse measures”. The continued tracking of these groups means we can check that all pupils are being offered support and that we are doing the best for all groups.

Data, Data Everywhere

One of the difficulties faced by teachers is the fact that the information needed for the department and the individual comes from a variety of different sources, in particular: school systems like SIMs, SISRA, FFT, school, department and individual spreadsheets. It is not surprising that for many this is ovewhealming. This disparate range of sources, and the fact that department spreadsheets often need to be created, is not uncommon in schools. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that data use in schools is not as effective as it might be, as Heads of Subject rarely have sufficient time to source and collate the information, and it takes a well trained administrator, with sufficient time, to be able to keep on top of it. As van Barneveld (2008:2) states: “large –scale assessment data were neither current enough nor aligned adequately with daily instruction”.

It is this gap between the data produced and staff need that makes many teachers reluctant to use or rely upon the available data. “Use of pupil attainment and progress data is widespread across the profession, but least so among classroom teachers” (Kelly, et al. 2010:3).

Why data is important to you

It is easy, as a subject leader, to see the importance of data, in particular lag data, when fulfilling the information needed for SLT meetings and SEFs, it is harder to see it if you are a classroom teacher. But, I want to convince you that knowing how to use data effectively is vital for all teachers.

Firstly, let’s talk pragmatically, what’s in it for you? Staff must feel confident in using data, as the new DfE Standards for Teachers, from September 2012, states that teachers must:

2 – Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils…be accountable for pupils’ attainment, progress and outcomes.

6 – Make accurate and productive use of assessment…use relevant data to monitor progress, set targets, and plan subsequent lessons.

So, based on this, it is the job of all teachers to use and understand data. It will also be very helpful to keep track of the various groups of students you teach. Being able to go into meetings knowing, for example, who your low attainers are, what progress they are making and what you are doing to ensure their progression, will make you feel more confident. What I am not saying is that you need to memorise all of this, that is where having a clear data storage system – be it a mark book or an electronic system – is key.

But, let’s be honest here, yes the standards are important to us as teachers, it forms part of our assessment and ultimately guides the PM process, but, being hit with the big stick of Ofsted is rarely what motivates teachers, and this is not the main reason we should use data. The real reason data is so important to us as teachers is as a tool to diagnose what students need to progress. This is so important, how can a student know where to go with their learning if we can’t give them some specific guidance. There are tool there to help – although APP isn’t statutory and can be a little unwieldy, it does provide a framework for assessing the students current position and guiding them towards improvement. Knowing specifically what your students need to do to improve means that meaningful feedback can be given.

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.

At the core of Hattie’s statement lies the importance for teachers to effectively use a range of data. Teachers need to have a full understanding of the available data in order to plan, teach and assess effectively. Good teachers know their students.

Overall, what has become clear through my research is that it is essential to remember that:

data in itself is insufficient; that it is the interpretation and subsequent use of data that can impact positively on teaching and learning, rather than the data itself (Kirkup, et al. 2005:102).

References

Allen, R. & Burgess, S. (2012) ‘Why The New School League Tables Are Much Better…But Could Be Better Still’ CMPO Viewpoint. http://cmpo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/why-the-new-school-league-tables-are-much-better-but-could-be-better-still/ [accessed 30/01/12]

Goldstein, H. & Leckie, G. (2008) ‘School League Tables: What Can They Really Tell Us?’ Significance. June 2008 pp. 67-69

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

Kelly, A., Downey, C., Rietdijk, W. (2010) ‘Data dictatorship and data democracy: understanding professional attitudes to the use of pupil performance data in English secondary schools’, CFBT. http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5417_DataDictatorship_web.pdf [accessed 27/01/2012]

Kirkup, C., Sizmur, J., Sturman, L., Lewis, K. (2005) ‘Schools’ Use of Data in Teaching and Learning’ NFER, http://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/SUD01/SUD01_home.cfm?publicationID=161&title=Schools%27%20use%20of%20data%20in%20teaching%20and%20learning [accessed 27/01/2012]

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

Van Barneveld, C. (2008) ‘Using Data to Improve Student Achievement’ What Works? Research into Practice. Research Monograph 15. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/whatWorks.html [accessed 27/01/2012]

The Exam Season – A Plea

This is a bizarre time of the year. The majority of the controlled assessments are done, there is the usual scramble for those who arrived part way through Y11 or refused to complete work to have a finished folder. Students are demanding revision sessions where they expect their teacher to impart pearls of wisdom, while they sit passively, or don’t show up at all. Rivalries between departments reach breaking point as the key marginal groups are pulled in multiple directions at once. The whole thing seems to create a sense of sliding down a massive helter-skelter with nothing to stop you.

This is also the time of year that teachers become wild around the eyes with the pressure of too many tasks in a finite amount of time. The only thing keeping us going is the thought of a little gained time to tweak and improve for the next year.

However, this is also the time of year that two very different groups seem to go out of the way to make things as difficult as possible.

Exam Boards and Estimated Grades

At this busiest of times, and I know that those with a negative view of teachers will no doubt scoff, we have marking and annotation of coursework samples, preparation of in class and after school revision sessions. I just don’t understand why the requirements of the exam boards are quite so onerous.

I deal with KS4 English, currently made up of 3 different qualifications being taken by 240 students. I have to enter coursework marks, estimated grades for those marks, estimated exam grades for each module and for the qualification as a whole – this amounts to almost 3000 separate entries, either numbers entered onto a website or little boxes on an OMR sheet being coloured in.

Why? How much of this is actually necessary? If the students are taking the exams that is the grade that will count, not a ‘best guess’ from a teacher, why ask for estimated grade for coursework when I have already given you the actual mark I have given it? Surely my time as a teacher is best spent in the class or preparing excellent lessons?

The Press

However, the group I feel is most distructive at this time are the press; each year as the exam season looms, we see multiple stories about how easy the exams are, how they are dumbed down, how it is all teaching to the test (occasionally spiced up with an ‘aren’t teachers awful’ piece).

Now, I am not going to focus on the bracketed point – there are enough blog posts that have dealt with that issue, and I am sure there will be many more – my real concern here is the message we are presenting to those taking the exams. Those who rarely have a voice in the face of all of this criticism.

For the brighter, keen students, there is the pre-exam slap in the face: all your work is pointless, anyone can pass these exams as they are so easy, talk bandied about of ‘easy’ or ‘soft’ subjects…it is pretty demoralising to hear. Every year we loose one or two to ‘why bother then if they are so undervalued’, or those who fall into the trap of believing the hype and doing little work.

Yet the most destructive impact is on those at the other end of the scale; the students who don’t find school easy – whether it is because of home or social issues, low literacy levels, SEN. How much more distructive is it if you have worked your way to an E or a D grade, if you have tried your hardest, revised and then hear sneering news reports that say anyone can get a C grade or above? Or that vocational subjects are pointless? How hard is it to get those students motivated in the first place? To get them into school on a regular basis (any trawl through school data will show that lower ability groups have worse attendance, on average than those above)? To build their confidence that taking the exam is worth while, that there is a chance that they will achieve that magical C grade? How much more damaging are these stories and comments  to our most vulnerable students?

A Plea

So my message to the press, and politicians looking for a quick story or a memorable sound bite – please think of the impact your words have, exaggerating the negative and twisting the positive does not help the students you claim to be most concerned about. When we look at how other successful countries (and we are a successful country) organise their schools  and exam systems, we should also look at the press and Government messages in those countries, do they run down their own exam system, fill their papers with stories of how bad the teachers are and how easy the exams have become?

Teacher bashing has always been a popular media topic, and I am sure it will continue to be so, however, we chose this career, many of us choose to stay despite working in challenging schools and coming across soul destroying situations and choices – but ultimately we chose this career because we want to make a difference.

However, the students you denigrate with these stories have no choice. They have only one chance at being a Y11, they can’t control whether they attend a privileged private school, an outstanding school, an inner city school. This is their opportunity to do well, and having large parts of the population criticise and downplay the massive effort that most of our young people put in does not help. Unfortunately, many of our most vulnerable listen to that message and think what is the point.