My Guardian column this month slays the assumption that grammar schools and assisted places are the ‘only’ or best way of improving social mobility.
The piece was tough to write for two reasons. One, it’s hard to make arguments clear and water-tight when you only have 700 words. And two, talking about grammars/assisted places is notoriously perilous because of the nostalgia, jealousy, gratefulness, resentments, evoked among people who had their own schooling impacted by academic selection.
Still, I wanted to write about it because it’s a debate that turns up regularly, and when we do have those debates, they need to be honest. I’m aware that people have differing views, and that I won’t have considered these, and therefore I can’t just claim what I think as ‘honesty’. Hence, over the next few days, I will be pondering the views people give about the piece. Already last night people were asking questions, making good points on Twitter (special mention to @ZannaTweets for her knowledge about the Indian system), writing in the comments on the Guardian. Even if I’m not responding to individual comments, I am reading everything, and though I’m unlikely to change my views entirely over the next week, my plan is to write a “what we learned” post summing up the useful insights from both sides.
With no #blogsync over the summer, I’ve not written anything ‘classroom-y’ for a while. So I thought I’d share this tip while awaiting the September blogync topic. One of the problems of my first year in teaching was getting students to do homework. More specifically, I struggled keeping tabs on students who didn’t do the homework, which meant I didn’t give consequences for failing to turn it in, which then meant I got even fewer pieces next time around.
In my second year I therefore devised a plan. First, I gave out all homeworks on brightly coloured pieces of paper that students wrote on and turned back in. All my classes started off with a silent individual task. I therefore instilled in students that at the beginning of homework hand-in day they put their brightly coloured paper on their desk before beginning their individua lstarter task. That way I could quickly glance around the room and quickly see who did and did not have their homework out. Anyone without their brightly colourer paper had a ‘homework excuse note’ dropped on their desk. This was to be completed immediately.
At an appropriate time during the lesson, I would then go around and collect a piece of paper from everyone. You either handed in your homework, or your homework excuse note. That was your choice. No “But miss I just need to get my usb…”, no “i’ll bring it at break”. If you had something to say, you said it on paper, or otherwise you gave me the homework. Even if students didn’t have a reason, I would ask them to write “There is no reason” and then take that from them.
If a child managed to get their homework to me before the end of the day (most usually after lunch) I would let them fish their excuse note out of my file [I had a box file for each class where I kept the homeworks] and then replace it with their work. Otherwise, the excuse note stood.
Before going home, I checked through the homeworks and marked in my gradebook who had not done it and then sorted out consequences accordingly (as you’ll see on the slips, I used ‘credits’ and detentions). As with my detention system, the main benefit of the homework excuse note is that the students must write down their excuse. Doing so means (a) they are less likely to lie, and (b) you have a permanent record that you can show to parents/department heads if necessary. Having everyone hand in something on the day also meant I could keep an easier record of who was absent. If I didn’t have anything then I knew a student hadn’t been there and this made managing my records much easier. In general, it worked like a dream. But a word of warning: With my two KS3 classes (I mostly taught GCSE) I didn’t give homework regularly and hence I was less consistent with its enforcement and the whole thing was less effective. The system is reliant on you making the whole thing as routine as possible. For the first few weeks you need to reinforce all its parts (the coloured paper, the notes, the handing in). Also, you always-but-always must implement the consequences. Do it relentlessly for a few weeks though and the benefits will pay off. After a while it became automatic with my Key Stage 4s (so automatic that the kids would try and circumvent it “why do i have to fill this in, why not just give me a detention slip now?”) and gradually the homework rate went up and up and up. By the end of the year there were students religiously handing in homeworks who I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get any from.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in New York meeting people involved in education. The result of what I found is described in my latest LKMCo post here: What If Everything You Thought About Education Was Wrong?
In the piece I describe how watching a prescriptive form of teacher training, plus conversations with charter school and tech advocates got me thinking about my own views. One of the things I kept trying to do when meeting each person was finding information that disconfirmed my usual beliefs. Humans are adept at psychological tricks that keep proving how right we are, and it is much easier to assimilate ideas into our pre-existing views than it is to disrupt them. However, I had the good fortune at the beginning of my trip to read a book by Samuel J. Freedman called “Letters to a Young Journalist” in which he describes the importance of grey matter – and not just the brain cell variety.
Freedman points out that issues involving humans are often complicated. For example, when covering a story about the rights of immigrants to have their children be taught in a way that keeps their home language alive, Freedman could see their point. On the other hand, he also understood teachers who argued that for every minute a child is not learning in English they were likely to be falling behind in the testing stakes (US tests are always in English) affecting their future education and employment choices. Justice was on the side of the parents, equity on the side of the teachers.
This doesn’t mean we can get away with a “let’s just say everyone is right” approach. As a recent blog by AndrewOld pointed out: at some point in education we have to make actual decisions – will we worry about kids being smarter or being happier? Will we teach generic skills or will we focus on factual knowledge? Even if we say “let’s do both” the finite amount of time that schools have for teaching mean we must prioritise. E.g. If making you memorise spellings for an hour every morning will make you smarter but miserable, do we do it or not?
But what New York did suggest is that it’s worth listening to as many alternative reasons as you can, and listen in a way that attempts to disconfirm your belief. So: even if I think that pushing children to revise for as many hours as possible is hideous, it is still worth genuinely listening to those who do it – to find out why they think like that, to find out the consequences of the situation, to find the evidence that corroborates what they say. After all, it’s unlikely that all the evidence goes against them. Few people are that easily fooled.