Performance pay, personal pupil projects and Piaget

rogertitcombe's picture
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There are a lot of like-minded bloggers currently making very interesting and significant contributions to the English education debate. This is my attempt to make some connections.

My first example is this post from 'disappointed idealist'.

I very much warm to disappointed idealist who often comments on LSN. I note that her by-line is 'Ranting from the chalkface'. My chalkface days are now twelve years behind me, so my by-line could be 'Ranting from retirement', but there is a lot we can all learn from disidealist.

This post of hers (I don't know why I am assuming it is not 'his', but apologies if I am wrong) is an absolute gem, because it casts light on one of those 'common sense' assumptions that everybody takes for granted: that the GCSE performance of a student in your class is largely down to you, the teacher.

Disidealist's analysis shows that this 'common sense' assumption is completely wrong, as are so many other 'common sense' assumptions in the world of education and elsewhere. See Section1.6 in 'Learning Matters' and also 5.6 for an intro into the work of Daniel Kahneman, probably the world's greatest current debunker of false 'common sense' assumptions.

Disidealist shows that the success of a student in any subject could actually be largely a result of the teaching in other subjects, or even no formal teaching at all.

Disidealist found that in a particular year the History GCSE results of her class were much poorer than in the previous year in both absolute and relative terms. Other subject's results had not so declined. In this PRP driven culture, any teacher for whom this happens is right to worry; there may be consequences for their family finances.

So disidealist carried out a very thorough student centred study of the school's Y11 results and discovered that to a surprising degree, students performed similarly in all their GCSE subjects. She found that the pattern of recruitment into her option History class was different from previous years and that this is what had led to the poorer outcomes. How could she be sure this was not just an excuse on her behalf? Because in general the students that performed poorly in her subject tended to perform poorly in other subjects as well, and vice-versa.

This is actually the normal pattern if you look for it. In my headship school we had Y7 CATs data for all our students. Every year we listed the Y11 students in Y7 CATs score order and followed each name with the GCSE results for each of the subjects they had just taken. The close correlation (there were of course individual exceptions as disidealist points out) between CATs scores and general GCSE performance is well established, but so is the pattern that students tend to perform similarly in all their subjects.

This blows apart the basis of PRP in schools. It is a really significant piece of work by disidealist, up there with Henry Stewart's debunking of the school improvement claims for Academies.

It makes the vital point that the progress of all the students in a school is far more dependent on staff teamwork than it is on 'star teachers' that need to be incentivised through PRP.

See Section 5.12 in 'Learning Matters' for more reasons why PRP for teachers is a really bad idea.

Next, take a look at the work of Debra Kidd and this article in particular.

This is about the power of self study and refers to the work of Professor Sugata Mitra, which is discussed here.

This is not about nerdy loners. Self study is probably a misnomer because it is more likely to mean self directed study than learning in isolation from others. It suggests that the most influential and powerful learning interactions are not necessarily between a teacher and the students in the class that she is 'delivering' the curriculum to. In fact it is the 'delivery' culture that is the problem and the barrier holding back possible much greater rates of student development.

I realise there could be dark side to this. Self study could lead to vulnerable teens running away to join ISIS or falling prey to paedophiles. This is why students should not just be encouraged to seek out personal learning journeys, but such a culture has to be mainstream, to be shared with adults and peers and brought within schools and homes.

This is how Debra Kidd puts it.

" Despite what the traditionalists may tell you, kids teach themselves stuff all the time. And they retain it too. The problem for us as teachers is that too often we don’t find out what it is they know because we have already decided we’ll tell them when we’re ready. And the other is that often the stuff they’ve learned is not what’s on our syllabus. It may be that the child has mastered the complexities of a computer game we know nothing about. Or it could simply be that the content doesn’t match our curriculum structure.

"What Professor Mitra’s research reminds us of is the amazing capacity of children to learn, retain and perform when they find something they are interested in or when it is presented to them in a way that allows for autonomy to grow. When we listen to those who say we should have a core curriculum, controlled and delivered by teachers through direct instruction, we ignore this potential. We reduce a child to recipient rather than investigator. That’s not to say we should just have a system in which kids sit at computers without teachers. A teacher’s role is vital in identifying the gaps and fixing them; in directing children towards necessary areas of learning that they might not be interested in, or aware of. It is vital in building and securing articulacy, communication, relationships and trust. But if we do this in a controlled way, with little attention paid to the needs and existing interests of the children in front of us, we are in danger of reducing their education, not enhancing it."

So what has this got to do with Piaget? Well everything, and not just Piaget, but all the other educationalists mentioned in Part 5 of 'Learning Matters' and many others besides.

The key idea of Piaget is the development of a universally empowering cognition. Some of this is natural age-related genetically programmed unfolding, but if given the opportunity it feeds voraciously on both learner-problem interaction/enquiry and the development of metacognition on the part of the learner.

Metacognition is simply the awareness of ones own cognitive processes combined with developing the ability to both express and interact with the parallel processes taking place in the minds of fellow learners. (This is where Vygotsky comes in).

Why disidealist discovered what she did is because growth of cognition is universal in terms of its application. All too often in our results-focussed schools, students may not be able to cope with cognitive challenges beyond their current level of development, leading to boredom and alienation. See the cover of 'Learning Matters'.

However such development can be progressed in all subjects if they are taught within the culture of the 'growth mindset'. This references Dweck and fellow contemporaries, but builds on the platform created by Piaget and Vygotsky that was so firmly reinforced by Shayer and Adey.

What Debra Kidd and Professor Mitra celebrate is the ability of students to accelerate their own cognitive development through self study.

See especially Sections 1.9 and 5.2 of 'Learning Matters'.

So just as insightful bloggers Disappointed Idealist and Debra Kidd are making significant complementary contributions, along comes Leah K Stewart with her own angle on the possibilities for student learning through raising themselves by their own cognitive boot straps. See her ‘Beyond the Box Education’, which is a virtual after-school club for teens creating their own education and futures at

At the same time we have the LSN articles of Joanne Bartley and Sarah Dodds, whose pleas for ideas on how to support the principle of a 'good local school for every child' in their areas are deeply relevant.

Perhaps all is not lost if there are so many of us making such strong cases for change in the English education system.
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