Gove's US guru warns against too much testing in schools

Roger Titcombe's picture
This short article in the Guardian (29 Dec) is about the profound dangers of Gove's educational ignorance.

The most telling sections are a quote from Gove insisting that pupils must, "first have a sufficient grasp of the basic subject, something best achieved by repeated drilling."

Further clarification is provided by 'a DfE spokeswoman' who speaks of the need to, "hold student's attention and fix concepts in their minds."

In my New Statesman article I refer to the following well known quotation from Vygotsky.

"a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level"

Gove's statement and that of the DfE, with its notion of 'fixing a concept in the mind' are pure Skinner behaviourism, long discredited by mainstream learning theorists. And there lie the deep roots of what is wrong with the English education system. Those in control have too much power over schools and no understanding or interest in how children learn. To Gove and his forebears, Balls, Blunkett, Blair, Baker and Thatcher it is all straightforward common sense.

As a science teacher in the early1980s the science department staff workroom of my comprehensive school would routinely be alive with discussions about how to get students to understand difficult concepts in science and all the teachers were familiar with the learning theories of the time. There was (and still is on the increasingly rare occasions such debate takes place) consensus about the developmental nature of cognition in the learner and the stage nature of its growth. From Piaget we get a combination of age related growth of cognitive sophistication combined with further growth resulting from the experiences of learning and the cognitive dissonance arising in the learner as a result of subconsciously matching personal mental schema against real world phenomena and problems. Our science storerooms were packed with the brilliantly designed practical paraphernalia of Nuffield science all designed to confront students with profoundly counter-intuitive personal experiences of (for example) Newton's Laws of Motion. As teachers we knew from years of classroom experience and debate with colleagues the truth of Vygotsky's statement about concept formation and the futility of trying to 'fix a concept in the mind' of a learner' if the cognitive processes of that mind are insufficiently developed to be able to make sense of any concept at that developmental level.

Vygotsky gave us teaching methods for enhancing the cognitive development of learners through structured talk, primarily with peers but also with the teacher. He established the key role of social interaction at a personal level in such cognitive development. Mortimer and Scott further developed this approach at Leeds University as set out in their book, 'Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms', Open University Press 2003.

Of course facts can be 'learned' by drilling but concepts cannot be 'fixed in the mind' by such methods. Familiarity with key facts is of course essential but this is a natural outcome of effective learning not a prerequisite for it. It takes a deeply corrupted exam system to fail to discriminate between shallow and deep learning.

The chief theorists and practitioners in all this are Philip Adey and Michael Shayer (Kings College, London), famous for their 'Cognitive Acceleration' teaching strategies developed through more than 30 years of outstanding work, all largely ignored by successive governments as 'barmy theories' or 'complicated nonsense'. The result in 2012 is, bad education captured by international tests like PISA and others, and the title of the new book by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon (Ed), Open University Press 2012. This really is a brilliant and highly recommended read.

And the point of this post? To bemoan the substitution of debate about how to develop concept formation and enable students to comprehend and manipulate difficult ideas, with 101 variations of 'business-and-management-babble' given credence by the stupid imposition of a statistically nonsensical league table driven competitive market onto the English education system.

I make no apologies for my science teacher background, but as Adey and Shayer showed throughout their careers and as described in their book, 'Learning Intelligence', Open University Press 2002, developmental approaches work and are applicable to all subjects and to students of all abilities. We can and should argue the technicalities and contributions of other learning theorists but what I have set out here is foundation, mainstream learning theory, increasing rarely surfacing in English education politics, but clearly understood in the countries whose education systems are leaving ours behind as we drown in the tedium of reinvented drill and practise behaviourism.

An appreciation of the Principle of Archimedes, although also profoundly counter-intuitive and widely misunderstood, is essential to the design of iron ships, so why is it OK for Gove and his like to redesign our education system from the standpoint of free market dogma and the comparable educational ignorance bequeathed by New Labour?
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 09:58

Thanks for this Roger. I can now see where you're coming from in your critique of a previous post I did on the IPPR's research that indicated that the Labour Party narrowed the attainment gap much more fully. What you say really chimes with me as a teacher; Alexander's "dialogic teaching" has helped me put talk at the centre of my teaching, and his ideas are based on Bakhtin's and Vygotsky's. I really agree with this comment: "And the point of this post? To bemoan the substitution of debate about how to develop concept formation and enable students to comprehend and manipulate difficult ideas, with 101 variations of ‘business-and-management-babble’ given credence by the stupid imposition of a statistically nonsensical league table driven competitive market onto the English education system." It seems that constantly policy makers put in place things that miss the point of teaching, that put a straight-jacket on teachers, blinkering them to how children learn.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 23:38

Francis can I possibly challenge you to focus in pinpointing which changes helped to narrow the attainment gap rather than just saying it was the Labour Party? I just think it would be a much more useful conversation.

So for example the 'Excellence Cluster' strategy was highly effective in supporting schools which were in danger of becoming sink schools in maintaining their provision for their most able students to ensure there wasn't a sudden exodus of the middle classes.

It's also worth trying to analyse the impact of innovations in technology which took place between 1997 and 2010.

If you lump it together as being Labour it's wrong because some of it was and some of it wasn't and it's also not as useful as actually trying to go a level deeper.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 11:31

There's an interesting response to Gove's speech in which he referenced Willingham on Willingham's blog. Willingham says he thinks Gove got the science right BUT criticises him nevertheless:

1 People enjoy problem solving and feel pleased when their thinking is successful. Yes, says Willingham, BUT he's not certain that passing exams is an example of "successful thought" (Gove said it was).

2 Background knowledge is critical for higher thought BUT Willingham quibbles with Gove's use of "memorisation" which, Willingham says, is a poor way to learn new information: "to-be-learned material" should be "embedded in some interesting activity so that the student will be likely to remember as a matter of course".

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 11:39

The difficulty arises when "knowledge" is reduced to only those facts that are explicitly taught or memorised through rote learning. Yet knowledge can be acquired through other ways including experience (how else do very young children learn things?), experimentation, talk and practice. And talk is crucial - thinking is crucial. Knowledge alone isn't enough.

Willingham (see above) thinks Gove understands this because Gove said exam preparation shouldn't be mere drilling "but rather should happen through "entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths."

Willingham admits he knows little about English educational policy. He would, therefore, miss the nuances. Although Gove gave what on the face of it was a defence of liberal education, his emphasis was on exams NOT education in its widest sense and the "striking patterns" Gove mentioned were not for education as a whole but focussed on one goal: passing exams.

And Gove's idea of exams is the sudden-death, end-of-course written test against the clock. Such tests have their place but they are not the only way of finding out what pupils know, understand and can do. At their worst, they test only what pupils know sufficiently well enough to pass the test.

That isn't deep learning.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 13:20

"The difficulty arises when “knowledge” is reduced to only those facts that are explicitly taught or memorised through rote learning. Yet knowledge can be acquired through other ways including experience (how else do very young children learn things?), experimentation, talk and practice. And talk is crucial – thinking is crucial. Knowledge alone isn’t enough."

I think much depends on what children experience and who they talk to. My objection is mainly aimed towards Robinson's idea that children learn more about a subject from each other than an expert in that subject like a teacher. What knowledge can one expect to acquire about a subject from an equally ignorant peer?

Theoretically I'm not against children discussing my subject as long as they have the knowledge to talk productively to begin with - that is where the teacher comes in. Practically I am against widespread use of peer discussion since many children are not motivated enough to partake in such activities sensibly.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 13:35

Exactly, Leonard - "that is where the teacher comes in." Talk can be guided so that pupils can join in sensibly. Just letting pupils loose with some vague directive to "discuss" would be as unproductive as, say, giving them musical instruments and saying "play a tune". There must be some sort of framework and purpose eg feeding back, producing discussion summaries, listing key points, explaining something in a way that, say, a younger child could understand, planning something (eg in business studies pupils could plan a marketing campaign, or actually run a mini-enterprise; in English it could be staging a performance).

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 23:58

Hi Leonard,

There are three main reasons I used peer-to-peer (pair and group) talk in my classroom and why I encourage my trainee teachers to experiment with it and reflect on it and they are:

1). When a student is forced to explain their thinking out loud and to try to convince someone else of its logic they become much more able to mentally manipulate, criticise and move on from their current thinking. It's almost like they 'put their thoughts outside of themselves' and can then have a good look at them. There's only so much of that I can do with them as one teacher in a large class so I encourage peer-to-peer talk time as it gets a lot more of this done.

2. If a student can do something in one way they will rarely bother to look for another way of doing that thing. It's a human trait! When I get students explaining their thinking in groups I use snowballing (think, pair, share etc.) to ensure each student establishes their own thinking and they then explain it to each other and they have to tune into the differences between their strategies. By getting them to engage with the variety of ways different people think through the maths they develop firmer and wider foundations which will better support their thinking at higher levels.

3. When I'm trying to change the culture of a class of students or of some students with a class from being passive and engaging in the most shallow way possible with the teaching on offer into one where students are engaging much more deeply with the teaching and are challenging and connecting everything, I often use group talk as one of a variety of strategies which are effective in achieving this change (from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset). If I do this for a while I find that when I go back to teaching without peer-to-peer talk students get more out of it.

For me it's never been - group talk OR teacher talk. Group talk is about other things.

Leonard James's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 15:56

What your describing is the sort of thing typically described as good practice by consultants and gurus in schools today. More than anything else the practicalities are what I take issue with here.

- Even with a framework students will need to refer to some source of expertise in order gain knowledge - I can think of no source better than a good teacher so why try and repaint teachers as facilitators.
- There simply isn't the curriculum time available for many of the extended learning activities you are suggesting.
- Behaviour means that many of these activities are impossible to run effectively with certain groups.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 00:45

I'm perfectly aware of the theoretical benefits of peer discussion. My objections are aimed at those who seek to undermine teachers by removing teaching from the classroom completely and those who ignore the practicalities of running peer discussion activities in tough schools. I don't recall advocating a situation where peer discussion in never used so your points about "group talk OR teacher talk" seem to be addressing a strawman. Finally I remain unconvinced about point 3 - I've often found that unmotivated children are more passive with each other than with me.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 16:51

Leonard - I have not tried to "repaint teachers as facilitators". I agree - there is no substitute for a teacher, one that is properly-trained and competent. And these activities don't have to be "extended" (see Roger's post below).

If the curriculum is so crowded that there is no room for deep learning then there is something wrong with the curriculum. We have to ask ourselves what education is for. Is it to cram as much curriculum content into pupils so they can pass exams? Or is it to give them a rich educational experience?

The tone of your reply was somewhat dismissive - "the sort of thing typically described as good practice by consultants and gurus". In other words, it's not "good practice" really because it's only promoted by charlatans. If so, then a large part of my teaching (English, business studies, IT, PASE) was not "good practice" because it contained much of the discussion work I described above.

One example from business studies (note: internet not available at the time). Time scale: 2 lessons

Lesson One: pupils in small groups had to decide on a marketing strategy for baby milk in a developing country. They were given different methods (eg TV, radio, print, free samples) with costs and background info of the country (illiterate population especially women, few TVs, but lots of village radios). Each group had to present their strategy to the rest of the class (some even made up radio jingles).

Lesson Two: Each group received a letter from the country's Ministry of Health telling them that babies were dying because mothers couldn't afford the milk, were making it incorrectly or unhygienically (no fridges, unclean water and so on). The groups had to decide what to do.

This wasn't just a lesson in marketing but brought home the ethics of business and the international rules that govern such marketing.

I could have just told them, of course, but it wouldn't have been nearly so effective.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 17:16

Leonard - You and I need a longer discussion than would be appropriate in this forum. I don't advocate 'teacher as facilitator'; the role is much more active than that. However you can't force learning on anybody. 'You can take a horse etc.' All learning is a personal choice of the learner whether the teacher likes it or not. Yes curriculum time is an issue but pounding through loads of content that doesn't result in or involve student engagement is a waste of everybody's time and a recipe for alienation. As for poor behaviour there is no quick solution, but the starting points must always be quality relationships and quality teaching. The English education system results in pressures on schools that mitigate against both. Heads or now more likely 'Executive Principals' operate in a 'command and control culture that is passed right down the line to the poor kids on the end of Goves's 'drilling' and 'fixing in the mind'. This is a further dimension of the broken system (sorry Janet) that will not be mended within the marketised league table structure. Sorry to be negative, but I can't avoid this conclusion that Janet chides me for. The hope must lie in Labour developing a real alternative informed by the educational expertise and experience that resides in the best comprehensive practice of the pre-league table era, together with genuinely fresh new ideas (not more corporate-business-competition-management-babble). Happy New Year everybody.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 15:49

"don’t recall advocating a situation where peer discussion in never used so your points about “group talk OR teacher talk” seem to be addressing a strawman."

Then what is your argument Leonard? You seem to be arguing against a situation where the teacher doesn't do anything and just leaves the children to chat. I put it to you that the straw man is your creation.

Re: point 3. I've done it so I know it can work but I accept it may not always work and hence referred to it as being one of a variety of strategies to try. Often with such groups it's necessary to try several strategies and it often seems to be part of the nature of the situation that the first few strategies you try fail, simply because such students are used to resisting being deeply challenged.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 17:24

Janet - I thought 'breast is best' especially in developing countries - no marketing needed, it's free. Hopefully this is the conclusion your students would have come to!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 09:50

Roger - I actually agree with you about the negative effect of league tables. My qualms about calling our education system "broken" is that this description is used by Gove et al to justify a radical overhaul (ie privatisation via academy conversion) and the deprofessionalisation of teachers.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 00:17

Janet you've just denied that you support the section of the educational establishment that seeks to undermine teachers and then proposed a lesson that features no specific input from a teacher.

The activities might be useful if a teacher had established what the students know already and had moved them forward by introducing some new ideas. Without this one groups strategy may simply represent what they already know and nothing has been learnt while another may lack the knowledge required to even start the task and they will be just as likely to learn nothing. It just seems like a very inefficient way of broadening people's horizons.

That said I share your concerns about the system but it is what it is and encouraging teachers to use impractical and/or damaging methods isn't the way forward.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 16:59

Leonard I do respect your level of interest so I'll expand on 'I've done it'. Obviously it's not an easy think to do so I think my comment will be more credible if I do.

In maths children become passively engaged when they are taught to do rather than to understand maths. So for example when dividing by fractions they may be taught to turn mixed numbers into top-heavy fractions, turn the second fraction upside down, multiply the tops, multiply the bottoms and simplify the resulting faction. To get them properly engaged I have to revisit things like this and get student questioning and properly understanding things.

I developed tasks such as this one which I describe in my blog ( which forced students to try and explain their own thinking to each other so that they could begin to access the underlying visual and axiomatic structures which make sense of their rote methods. These tasks only worked because there was substantial group talk time. I had to challenge them to try to express their own thinking and to engaged with the similarities and differences between their own and their peers.

What I was left with, after a while, was a majority of students who worked with substantial independence and confidence whatever the style of teaching. They were deeply motivated to challenge, understand and connect everything they were presented with. They would work happily in groups from good textbooks with answers - helping each other when they were stuck and asking me as a last resort when necessary. But some students still responded much better to applied, embedded and rich tasks.

I'm not saying this is the only way to do this but I don't see many other teachers confidently claiming their students were showing the same mathematical techniques LiPing Ma described Chinese students showing in the classic comparison of US and Chinese maths teaching.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 17:29

I'm not suggesting that progressive educators do nothing I'm suggesting they doing the wrong thing. In most schools the lesson described by Janet will result in children chatting about their social lives rather than the work.

Let me guess one of the 'several strategies' that you use involves rules and punishing students who break them?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 17:37

When students are engaging their whole brains in analysing information according to everything they already know and connecting it up with what they already know, it is quite common for them to go off task some of the time. This is not detrimental to learning, it is just a part of powerful learning.

It's a huge problem for education that people who don't understand what is going on tend to judge any situation where some students are off task as involving unsatisfactory teaching.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 18:34

Leonard - "I’m not suggesting that progressive educators do nothing I’m suggesting they doing the wrong thing. In most schools the lesson described by Janet will result in children chatting about their social lives rather than the work.

Let me guess one of the ‘several strategies’ that you use involves rules and punishing students who break them?"

Now you really are worrying me. How do you know what would happen in "other schools"?. You couldn't be more wrong about this. How many other schools have you taught in? If you really believe this then the answer is 'not enough'. I now have to tell you very firmly that "rules and punishing students who beak them" is not a learning strategy. It is a managing behaviour strategy and one that, when deployed in the absence of effective teaching, not only doesn't work, but makes student behaviour still less likely to result in any effective learning. Punishments can certainly affect behaviour (often in unpredictable ways) but they can never result in learning except in the shallow behaviourist sense of learning how to avoid being punished. How does this learning through punishment work? Do you need mild punishment to get kids to learn easy stuff like, say, chemical symbols for elements, but really heavy punishments to get them to understand say, the mole concept (needed to use chemical equations in a quantitative rather than a descriptive way)? I do hope you are not going to say that 'rewards' would be any more effective in achieving the latter. Passive obedience is not very effective either. In order to learn, students have to engaged. This means they have to be active in the process and by this I do not mean doing as they are told!

I don't think you get this do you? This is why learning theory is so important for all teachers to have studied and understood.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 15:11

Leonard - Peer to peer discussion has to be about a problem; depending on age and level, but most effectively a real problem that children can see, hold and experience with their senses. In Chapter 3 of 'Learning Intelligence', an example is given of a KS1, Y1 lesson in which the children were asked to sort plastic animal models. There were only dinosaurs and mammoths. All the dinosaurs were green but the mammoths were of different colours except for one that was also green. The teacher provided each group with two wooden hoops into which to divide and classify the animals. The children readily agreed that all the green dinosaurs should go in the same hoop. The problem was with the mammoths and in particular the green mammoth. Which hoop should the geen mammoth go into; with the green dinosaurs or with the mammoths?

This is a rich learning scenario that spontaneously encourages much peer to peer discussion and argument. Here the skill of the teacher comes in to provide the essential 'scaffolding' and order into the discussions. In the actual trial lesson many suggestions came forward.

Getting some more green mammoths so the green mammoth wouldn'd be on its own in the mammoth hoop.

Putting the green mammoth on its own outside both hoops.

Putting the green mammoths in the gap between the two hoops.

Putting the green mammoth in both hoops by making the hoops touch and balancing the green mammoth on the boundary where they touched.

Overlapping the hoops and putting the green mammoth on its own in the overlapping part. Now the green mammoth is with the other mammoths and its green dinosaur friends. Problem solved!

Such a lesson could well take a long time, in fact the longer the better, so long as all children remain engaged, and they can be so engaged if the teacher is sufficiently skillful.

Adey and Shayer would argue that this was a cognitively developmental lesson to be valued as such in its own right. The primary aim was not not to learn any facts about dinosaurs or mammoths or to teach 5 year-olds about Venn diagrams. My only criticism would be the choice of mammoths and dinosaurs that might imply that mammoths are a kind of dinosaur or that they lived at the same time, but I think that this is a problem for my sience teacher mind not the children! I have used a version of this with much older children but using Lego bricks.

For me this is also an example of the teaching of Daniel Kahneman's 'Slow Thinking'. I might be the first person to recognise the profound pedagogic implications of Kahneman's work.

My second example is from KS4 science and I have conducted this lesson hundreds of times, always with time-devouring success in terms of engaging the class. Each group of students (3 - 5 is best) has a small, flat plywood beam with the centre marked across with a line labelled '0'. The beam is then marked in about 5 equal divisions (about 1 inch apart) each side of the centre and made to balance on a triangular wooden fulcrum. Each group is then encouraged to explore the large numbers of ways in wich the beam can be made to balance using identical small metal weights each with a narrow gap from the centre to the edge used to place the weight accurately over a line on the beam.

The problem set by the teacher is, 'what is the rule for arrangements of weights that result in a balanced beam?'. It soon emerges that both the number of weights and the distance from the fulcrum are important, but how?

More peer to peer discussion then takes place aided by 'scaffolding' interventions from the teacher.

Then the teacher gives out blank tables with a diagram of the beam at the top and below spaces on the LHS and RHS of the fulcrum (0) labelled 1 -5. The students then complete each row in the table with numbers of weights in different positions that produce balance. At the far left and right are blank columns used later to write in the total moment (hope I haven't lost you here!).

The result is both deep learning of the Principle of Moments combined with general cognitive growth (and more practising of Kahneman's Slow Learning).

Another time-devouring lesson of full-on student concentration and engagement results, with a knackered but exhilerated teacher at the end.

This is like an Oxbridge type student seminar but with a whole class divided into parallel seminar style student groups each led by an elected student spokesperson. It is pure Vygotsky in action.

This is what I mean by peer to peer talk and discussion. How to set up such lessons is what teachers should be discussing in their work rooms preferably across subject departments.

This general approach can be replicated in all subjects, not just maths and science. There are more examples in 'Learning Intelligence'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 11:22

Janet - The English education system is broken and does need a radical overhaul, but not of the sort prescribed by Gove. We need a new Education Act that provides local control of schools, uniform status and system of governance of schools with common admissions policies designed to provide (as far as reasonably possible) balanced intakes, national refutation of the false idea that aggregated pupil exam results are a valid indicator of school quality (without this even small ability imbalances in intakes will continue to corrupt parental preferences), reprofessionalisation of teachers and the abolition of OfSTED, to be replaced by a newly created schools HMI independent of government led and staffed by experienced ex teachers and informed by university education departments also independent of government.

Labour will be devising its education policy for the next general election during this year. How much of the preceding is currently in Twigg's in tray? Not a lot I would guess, therefore we have a big job ahead of us. The starting point is for us to stop defending the present system, while acknowledging the good work of many teachers and schools in doing their best in a rotten system.

Ingenue Guv's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 21:58

May I add we need a nationwide Knowledge Management system for sharing best practice amongst schools. Only a few months into a role of Governor and I despair of the lack of advice available on truly effective practice to address EASL children/parents and attendance issues across all cohorts . It seems that best practice is just as much a commodity in the public sector as it is in the private sector. The D of E website trumpets "The Taylor Report" which claims to address school attendance ; i was truly shocked to find that all it offers is generalised recommendations for changes to the statutory and punitive processes ; there is no acknowledgement that vulnerable parents exist and what pastoral measures should be taken to support these families. Your posts have been far more helpful and have set me off on a laymans odyssey into whether cognitive dissonance theory could be used to change the attitudes of parents to understand that valuing their child means valuing education.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 22:22

"Your posts have been far more helpful and have set me off on a laymans odyssey into whether cognitive dissonance theory could be used to change the attitudes of parents to understand that valuing their child means valuing education."

Where has your odyssey taken you?

Ingenue Guv's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 23:25

Not far yet as had to divert to reading "troubled Families", "Top 100" and "common Assessment Framework" documents and searching Council websites for findings of their education scrutiny boards . With no decent reports or data to be found about what is actually achievable in inner city schools I am currently manually trawling the D of E performance tables for the National Support Schools with a similar demographic to see what they achieve then their websites to see how they do it . I have a list of phone numbers all ready come 7th January to contact their learning mentors to further question/pester how they tailor strategies to the different cohorts of parents. I have outline design to introduce a "Parents as Partners" strategy following an "Engage, Empower,Empathise" ethos which I need to get approval from the school with hopefully a roll out to the cluster. I also need to look at how to procure pro-bono translation services to prepare standard letters in the 30 languages across our cluster of schools (hopefully via a volunteering initiative at the University). I need to find out what the Sure Start Centre is doing to promote a commitment to attendance from an early age. errrrrr that's it so far... might pop a note through to Messers Gove and Taylor suggesting they actually published something to promote attendance and understand non-attendance rather than just pat themsleves on the back for making the bludger sticks bigger.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 00:05

Are you aware that we have the kind of knowledge management system you're talking about in maths education? It's the NCETM:

It was supposed to be a prototype for this kind of think but Gove stopped all that and shut down Becta, completely disabling our expertise in this area at a time when the world has sped ahead.

I worked for a while with the NCETM and came to understand the concepts of what was changing there. During the cultural revolution I've continued to work completely alone to try and research both what's happening and what's possible.

This part of my blog describes what's now possible in terms knowledge sharing (in components - I can't see it becoming integrated and functional on a wide scale until we have some vaguely sane policy.

At the same time I've been working with the US education initiatives on networking teachers.

If you put the NCETM with my blog and the US stuff you can see the brave new world which could be ours.

But you're right, it doesn't exist. We're spending every last penny melting teaspoons to make steel instead.

But from my personal experience, when I started with MyMaths (circa 2007 when the put in the individual tracking system which made me able to see students work and progress in real time online and let parents see it too) we suddenly had an amazing tool which was a focus for really constructive conversations.....

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 00:07

ooops - didn't give the link to the relevant bit of my blog. It's here:

Michael Shayer's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 12:14

I don't know why Leonard seems to think that our CA teachers are somehow substituting pupil talk for the expertise conveyed by a teacher that is competent in his/her subject. In fact, in order that children can be 'discussing my subject' it is essential that they are introduced to the knowledge they need 'to talk productively to begin with'. This doesn't ask less subject expertise from the teacher: it demands more (which may go to explain the reluctance of some secondary teachers to do the work needed). Thus the lessons are structured in such a way that pupils encounter— not the knowledge —but better, the contextual situation that the knowledge will interpret at a deeper level. Take 'control of variables': when the National Curriculum came in many teachers saw a way of 'teaching ' it: 'Keep all the variables the same except the one you are interested in'. Result: Yes they apply that, sometimes successfully to their KS3 questions, but more often unsuccessfully because they don't know which variable to keep the same. So the CASE activity goes with glass and plastic tubes, that vary in length, width and material. The teacher gives them the materials and asks, Can you find out the factors that are responsible for the pitch of the note when you blow across the end? In small groups they compare the tubes in pairs, recording the results, trying to think what they mean. Occasionally the teacher may come to a group and just ask the question, What is your plan for doing the next experiment? In the final 10/12 minutes of the lesson each group is asked to present their solutions and what is their proof. In order to chair/manage pupil discussion throughout the lesson the teacher has to know all the ins and outs of how both to control variables and exclude irrelevant ones: the pupils are no longer 'ignorant peers'—they are in direct experimental contact with the grounds of the knowledge, and they often encounter and deal with questions that may never have occurred to the teacher to help them with. They construct their knowledge collaboratively and it is much the deeper for that.
It may help thinking here to cite Daniel Kahnemann's 2011 book: Fast and Slow Thinking. He distinguishes between System 1 thinking that accounts for all the features of the described world that one uses as the basis for actions—including learnt skills involved with those features that are now just unconsciously operated (Fast Thinking) and System 2 (Slow) thinking. In the lesson cited nearly all the activity is System 2—reflecting; generating possible explanations; planning how to test them etc. But the end result will be a System 1 strategy of 'controlling the variables' that can instantly be applied to any new context: what has been added to the teacher-taught unthinking 'Controls' System 1 strategy is now the ability instantly to distinguish in any context between the variable of interest and those that may be causative, and how to investigate..

CASE: Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 01:11

You seem to have substituted the words 'consultant' and 'guru' with 'CA teacher'. Nearly all of the consultants and gurus I know haven't taught for years (which is a large part of the problem) so I think you're addressing a strawman there.

Also I'm not sure why knowing what variables to control in a musical tube experiment or knowing what a control variable is means that children can instantly identify control variables in an original situation they have not encountered before - say a photosynthesis experiment involving pondweed. It seems far more plausible that some background knowledge of photosynthesis is required as well - if I remember correctly Willingham's work supports this explanation.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 13:57

Leonard - I don't think you are going to be pursaded by any arguments on this forum and you have every right to your views. I hope this kind of discussion is encouraged and takes place in your school, but I suspect it is all too rare. However to return to the 'control of variables', we need to think about levels of knowledge and understanding. I think Bloom is still very helpful here 60 years on. The 'basement' level of the Bloom pyramid of cognitive abilities is 'remembering' ie knowing 'facts'. If a student is drilled to memorise that variables 'need to be controlled' in any particular experiment simply as a 'fact' to be remembered then you are indeed correct that the understanding would not readily transfer to other contexts. Such transfer involves some concept creation of an abstract nature and in CASE this is called 'bridging'. This means applying new understanding to other contexts. It could be called ‘lateral thinking’. Pupils need to be encouraged to see links not just with other experiments in the context of science but with other subjects and disciplines. Such activity is clearly at least 'application', a Bloom level above 'remembering' linked to ‘Creating’, ‘Synthesising’ and ‘Evaluating’ that characterise the top two Bloom levels. 'Facts' alone therefore imprison students in the Bloom basement of educational development. If you are right that students doing the 'pitch of tubes' investigation cannot transfer 'control of variables' to other investigations and contexts then this implies that the principle needs to be 'redrilled' in every new scenario informed by new scenario specific facts each time. This is nonsense. Of course 'control of variables' transfers but only if it is NOT taught as a fact but developed as a concept (see Vygotsky). The context I would use as an illustration is a common medical one. Assume your doctor has prescribed two drugs for you on a 'belt and braces' principle because he/she wants you recover quickly and both drugs have been shown to be efficatious but work in different ways. You don't get better and go back to the doctor who suggests trying a third drug. You say, "fine, I will stop taking the first two, and try the new one". The doctor says, "No we have to make one new intervention at a time, you are suggesting three interventions at once." I believe a student having carried out Michael's CASE investigation would be much more likely to readily understand this than just having been told that,"you must control the variables in an experiment".

I also wish to return to your theme that 'many classes are too badly behaved for such teaching to be possible'. This may be the case so what should be the strategy of the teacher? Teachers having problems with classes is a common scenario. It is an experience every teacher has had. My advice would be specifically to adopt the interactive style of lessons you decry. This approach is intrinsically absorbing to the students and highly motivational. It provides all sorts of opportunities for the teacher to interact positively with the class and for students to interact positively with each other.

Of course the school ethos matters hugely. If students are used to such lessons in other classes they will more readily respond positively in the lessons of the teacher having the problem. Initially a bit of team teaching with an experienced practitioner alkongside might also help.

My initial post certainly started something. My deeper argument is that this 'something' is the essential meat and drink of a healthy education system. We need more of it and Gove and Twigg need to join the forum.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 01/01/2013 - 23:34

Roger I just wanted to say that I recognise the world you describe absolutely from my vantage point in maths education.

This was the world of education I joined - where the heads of maths were the people who'd been discussion all these issues and other deep ones (such as the role of sleep in learning) together for years in the practical context of there work. I found the people who operated in this way were personally inspiring to me in every way (as people as well as as educators). These were the people who could easily transfer between the classroom, academic, policy and publishing roles should they wish to and who could command respect whether they went - not by force but by simply chatting to people as they were and helping them to understand themselves better.

Their maths classrooms were full of the brilliant Shell Centre teaching strategies and Dime materials and booklets designed to nourish the mind with real experiences and to make the need for and nature of core concepts obvious.

Michael - In maths we have (had) CAME. Cognitive Acceleration through Mathematics Education

I've spent my career watching the teachers who inspired me being bullied, demoted and removed from classrooms by young and ignorant heads who have no idea what they actually do but need to come up with numbers of people they have 'removed in order to show improvement'. They are virtually all gone now. I know them still and they inspire me still but they are all out of education. And I won't go back because I know that the career expectancy of a head of maths whose thinking isn't immediately transparent to someone with no relevant is experience and who doesn't focus entirely on very narrow and inappropriate targets is extremely low and I'm just not prepared to go there. Why should I be relentlessly be treated like dog poo by a system run by arrogant and ignorant people who think they're doing society a great favour by getting rid of all the people who are brighter than they are? To be a head of maths in a school in very challenging circumstances you actually needs support from the people who manage you.. and your managers need support too. If you relentlessly brutalise them they will go under. This does not mean they were failures as our politicians like to believe. This means that atrocities are being committed. This fact is so blindingly obvious to anyone who's actually worked in education and such an incalculable complexity and unreality to the twits we're relentlessly dictated to by.

Oh - it's nice to have someone else here who understands my world.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 01:20

Hang on I'm pretty sure that you were boasting on another thread about your students exceeding their target grades despite your school being in special measures. If you are meeting your targets why would the managers you describe want to give you any hassle?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 10:06

What managers? I had excellent managers but they were cleared out by the 'process of improvement'.

You end up left with 'executive heads' who come in part time to implement the ludicrous recommendations of HMI and absolutely no idea what you're doing. When people don't know you they have no idea how to support you so they don't and if you're repeatedly assaulted as a results of decisions they make (as directed by HMI) it's in their interest just to get you to leave quietly rather than to stay. They can be brilliant heads at their own school and nice people but that's what happens.

If you work in the real world of education and talk to lots of teachers through your professional associations and union they you will know all this Leonard because this kind of reality is widespread.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 07:35

Leonard (reply to your post 2/01/13 12.17am - no reply button). In the business studies lesson I described (31/12/12 at4.51pm) the teacher had considerable input. First, the pupils already knew the 4Ps of marketing and had investigated how these applied to well-known products (more purposeful talk). I had to produce information sheets costing various marketing strategies and provide background information about the fictitious country. Then I had to explain what I wanted the pupils to do ie devise a campaign for marketing baby milk formula in a developing country and present their campaign to the class.

Before the second lesson I had to prepare the "letter" from the country's Ministry of Health giving fictitious figures for the country which also contained the real statistics of baby milk death that were available at the time from WHO. The groups were then asked what they should do.

The following discussion was chaired by myself.

No teacher input? As you can see, the lessons were structured and managed. I did not sit back and let the pupils get on with it.

I did these two lessons several times and they always had a profound effect on the pupils. They emphasised how a pursuit of profit can sometimes override ethics and have devastating effects. I'm sure they were far more effective than merely telling the pupils this fact.

I've been retired several years now but it seems that such lessons are still essential.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 08:39


Preparing resources and managing activities where 'groups decide what they are going to do' and chairing a discussion do not require a teacher. All we're left with is that the students learnt what the '4Ps' are at an unspecified point but even here it is hinted that the expert in the room guided the discussion from the side instead of contributing to it.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 09:53

Leonard - of course the expert (the teacher) guided the discussion. Everything is to be gained by the groups, rather than the teacher (the authority) deciding what they are going to do. This leads to a deeper discussion of underlying themes.

The word "education" comes from "educo" meaning "to draw out". Socrates said, "I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think." The two lessons I described were designed (by me, the teacher) to make pupils think - to think not just about marketing but ethics, exploitation, consequences of particular courses of action, and so on. Reducing the lessons to a focus on the 4Ps of marketing is to miss the point. If, as you say, "all we're left with" is knowledge of these 4Ps then the lessons would have failed.

Leonard James's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 10:22

"Leonard – of course the expert (the teacher) guided the discussion. Everything is to be gained by the groups, rather than the teacher (the authority) deciding what they are going to do. This leads to a deeper discussion of underlying themes."

This seems like a rather contradictory statement to me and it is not obvious why letting groups decide what to do will automatically lead to a discussion of the themes you a want to talk about. Inevitably you'll have to step in and steer the students towards what you want which seems inequitable if you have explicitly let them set the direction of the lesson.

"The two lessons I described were designed (by me, the teacher) to make pupils think – to think not just about marketing but ethics, exploitation, consequences of particular courses of action, and so on. Reducing the lessons to a focus on the 4Ps of marketing is to miss the point. If, as you say, “all we’re left with” is knowledge of these 4Ps then the lessons would have failed."

You are far more likely to grasp the ethical issues surrounding a given context if you know a lot about said context. I'm not convinced that children are sufficiently equipped to discuss the ethics of this context beyond a superficial level which begs the question - why do it? Surely a more productive activity is to make them smarter so they are better equipped to think about ethical problems in the future.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 10:45

"I’m not convinced that children are sufficiently equipped to discuss the ethics of this context beyond a superficial level which begs the question – why do it?"

The activity is carefully structured to prompt students to explore for themselves the type of situation where these ethical questions are relevant so that the teachers can then relate the issues to experiences the students have engaged with.

Hence you can take a group of students who are not sufficiently equipped to discuss difficult concepts to a point where they are ready to discuss them. Actually discussing and clarifying the ethical issues could come during a teacher chaired or directed who class plenary. But even that is not necessary, the teacher could move from group to group engaging with and steering the conversation so that important insights are developed. They could then consolidate, clarify and contextualise this issues in future lessons.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 13:27

Rebecca - thank you. I couldn't have put it better myself. The two lessons were carefully constructed. At first, the groups approached the task as a fun consolidation exercise. But when given the "letter" describing the severe consequences of their marketing campaigns they were shocked. Until that moment they'd had no knowledge of the deaths caused by inappropriate marketing of baby milk. Leonard seems to think they needed this information beforehand - this would have lessened the impact considerably.

And Leonard seriously underestimated the ability of these 15 year-olds to discuss this issue. Their response was profound.

These lessons also paved the way for future lessons on how advertising should be "legal, decent, honest and truthful" including statutes and judicial precedents such as Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. Great stuff.

Michael Shayer's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 13:48

Clearly there is no moving of Leonard from his chosen position. But science teachers may like to know of a publication still available from the Association for Science Education: From CASE to Core Science, Reed Gamble & Michael Shayer. Twelve teachers were invited to generate science lessons involving CA principles and class management: those which subsequently were found satisfactory in the classroom/laboratory were selected. One of them was in the context of photosynthesis. Of course each learning context has to be approached through the relevant, context-related knowledge. As the poet William Blake wrote: "The General Good is the plea of the Scoundrel, Hypocrite and Flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars."

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 16:38

Thanks, Roger, for reminding us of Dickens's "Hard Times". The schoolboy Bitzer knew all the facts about a horse: "'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth..." and so on. But he didn't know how to ride or care for one.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 07:58

"Britain's education system is being tested to destruction. A dated management dogma drives Michael Gove's education reforms, not evidence of what works."

That's the opinion of David Priestland in the Guardian, 2 Jan 2013:

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 08:49

This is a really important article with spot on analysis of the failures of imposing artificial quasi-markets onto the public sector. The same disaster is wrecking the NHS.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 10:34

What is Roger?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 11:40

The Guardian article Janet refers to in the above post. Sorry!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 11:53

Hmmm. It makes some elegant points but it misses things too. It only covers some aspects of the problems quasi-markets create for the public sector.

For example it misses the wider damage encouraging the mass movement of primary aged children out of their communities is doing to society (let alone the environment given all the transportation involved).

It misses the issues of the complexity of the regulation required to ensure the quasi-markets do not become self interested.

It could explain with much more depth and clarity the damage forcing vocational teachers to behave as competitive marketeers does to their functioning as teachers.

It doesn't touch on the costs involved.

and so on. :-)

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 20:22

Rebecca (no reply button)

"When students are engaging their whole brains in analysing information according to everything they already know and connecting it up with what they already know, it is quite common for them to go off task some of the time. This is not detrimental to learning, it is just a part of powerful learning."

The sort of chat I had in mind is entirely unrelated to Maths and Science - unless of course you think like who shagged who in the park or who is a skanky bitch is related to your Maths lessons.

"It’s a huge problem for education that people who don’t understand what is going on tend to judge any situation where some students are off task as involving unsatisfactory teaching."

I am starting to wonder if you consider any activity within a classroom to be unsatisfactory. Where do you draw the line?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 20:28

I draw the line if the chat is abusive or similarly inappropriate or uses offensive language, if students don't return to task when I ask them to or if they don't get a reasonable amount of work done.

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 20:59

The tougher the school the more likely it is that students who are encouraged to talk to each other or work in groups will do one or all of the things you over the line you have drawn. You've got to acknowledge that right?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 05/01/2013 - 21:12

I worked in a sink school in a deprived area. The maths department was failing because the teachers had been forced to used traditional teaching techniques with classes with severe behaviour problems and wide spreads of ability. It was a disaster. You can't get kids who are severely disaffected to sit down and shut up through lessons many of them find too easy and many more will never understand.

I transformed thing and re-engaged the kids because I did a lot of teaching in ways which were meaningful for them.

Students continue to step over the boundaries I set for them. Children who come from our most deprived homes and estates do that especially in the kind of circumstance I was working in where virtually all the students from functional homes had moved to other schools. Teachers learn to understand the particular ways in which students step over boundaries and to read what they mean.

The problems came and continue to come when idiots who have absolutely no idea what really good teaching is like come and judge teaching according to their experiences of what is best practice in schools where many of the children have supportive families and most children arrive well nourished and rested. They often give stupid directions which cause horrific behaviour problems.


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