Over at LKMCo…. Facilitating Subjects & The RG Group

My puzzlement over the EBacc is not new.  I have explained what it is, why I dislike the reasoning given for the subjects included, some oddities of its use, and its potential for detrimental impacts on A-Level choice.
But I’ve always believed I could be wrong. From the very outset I wanted more information about what the biases are that the universities held. I wanted to know because, at the time, I was a sixth form manager and part of my job was advising students on their best options. All I could find though were suggestions of preference, rather than actual outcomes. Perhaps the RG said they liked geography instead of economics, but did they really?  

Unfortunately no-one has yet shown me any convincing evidence that says the facilitating subjects all, and equally, will improve your chances of uni entry.
So over at LKMCo today I have published the results of a few months of emailing Freedom of Information requests to the Russell Group Universities to find the A-Levels of applicants and people offered on to courses. To an extent I found what I was looking for (facilitating subjects are not systematically preferred), but there were also a few unexpected surprises…..

TouchPaper Problem #1 – The Spelling of a 1000 Words

This is the first blogpost expanding on the TouchPaper Problems first discussed at #Researched2013

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which a person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?

This question is fraught with perils, I know, but let me explain….
In teaching we often face the issue of: “How do I do x?” So, how do I teach my class about symbolism, or how do I get Janine to use full stops properly? What would therefore be ideal is if teachers had a range of principles from which they could derive the best solution. I.e., I know something about what symbolism is, I know how such a concept typically can be transferred, and I start to craft an activity which transfers that kind of knowledge to the students in front of me. The difficulty arises in that we don’t really have many clear and well-known rules of thumb to help answer these kind of “how do I…” questions.
So, I started thinking. What questions do teachers regularly ask, and my first thought was: “How can I help my students spell?”
But it needed to be more specific, otherwise TouchPaper Condition 3 (having a defined end-point) would not be met.
So I changed the question, “How can I help my students spell the 1000 most common words in English?”
I picked the most common words for practical reasons: they are the ones they will use most often. I also suspected, although this may not be true, that across those 1000 words there would be lots of variations which would help students to start to see how spelling works.
But then I wondered to myself how useful this question is. After all, most people learn to spell – at least well enough that they can spell the 1000 most common words. As it stood it may be a problem but answering it is not really challenging. At least not ‘million quid’ challenging.
So then I thought about who find things difficult in spelling. Now Dyslexia can be debated. I know David Didau has doubted it. BUT, it is something seemingly ‘testable’ to which a ‘diagnosis’ can be made. As with anything a person may be mildly or severely dyslexic, but we can assume that most people cluster around an ‘average’ or ‘most common’ point. And if we taught that person the 1000 most words, and we did it quickly, then that would be quite something. Because not only would that student now have an incredibly useful skill, but to answer that problem we would have to do several things. INCLUDING:

  1.  Work out what dyslexia is and what it is doing in the brain
  2.  Find a way to work around or ‘with’ the dyslexia, and
  3.  Speed up those techniques so that knowledge transfer can happen most quickly.

Now, a few criticisms have been thrown my way. So let’s see if I can answer them:
What if people with dyslexia are no different to people without dyslexia in terms of the way they learn to spell? That’s fine. If uncovered this could be added to the ‘proof’, and the problem would be solved merely by answering how quickly any ‘average’ person could learn the words.
What if we find out that the shortest period is, say, 5 minutes – but it involves torturing children via electrocution (or some other equally nasty method)?  So…obviously I hope we don’t find this out, if only because the legalities of torturing children are quite clear and I don’t want to be responsible for anyone going to jail. BUT – let’s say by a miracle of chance we did work this out without torturing anyone (phew). then I’m afraid I still believe that would be a good thing to know (though obviously not do). As Matthew Hunter has said before, education research isn’t going to tell us what to value. But if we know that the quickest way to learning is through violence, then we must face that and then make an informed decision about what we will do. My hope is that we would say “Darn. Okay, let’s use that second quickest way to resolve this issue” and in doing so encourage everyone else to leave their torture instruments to one side. But being afraid of what we might find is, for me, not a reason to shirk an important problem.
Is this really about the technique rather than the shortest time and should the question reflect that?  Thing is, techniques are what we will uncover once we have figured out the principles underlying the questions above. But the motivating problem is the time, if only because it seems to me an inherently good thing to learn this stuff quickly. If you can learn a 1000 words in a week, then you could (potentially) learn a lot more in the next year or so. Why wait?! And so for me I want to stay focused, problem-wise, on the shortest time because it is motivating. In terms of what teachers would get from this being solved, however, would be all the knowledge that had to be developed in order to figure out the answer.
Next up will be TouchPaper Problem #2: How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation? Get your thinking caps ready…

On cheating: in coursework and exams

By PaulyMy Guardian piece this month is on cheating and the temptation teachers face in both coursework and the exam hall to bend the rules.
Despite what the commenters think, none of this is based in fantasy. I haven’t even used the most egregious examples. As another commenter pointed out, what happens in some places is far worse.
I’m also not saying that cheating is widespread, justifiable or ‘allowed’. What I was pointing out is that:
(a) the exam boards do not always help teachers make good decisions, and
(b) if you do find yourself in a situation where you want to whistleblow (as this commenter did) then it is not straightforward. The processes are often hidden and even now I have no idea what assurances would be given – either to students grades, my anonymity, people’s jobs.
That so many people have reacted with a chorus of “this is absolutely ludicrous” bothers me intensely. Not because I worry about being lampooned, but because that sort of collective blindness is insidious. Imagine if you’ve read this piece, and then you DO see someone dropping keywords into an instruction speech – are you likely to speak up knowing that the most common reaction is going to be a dismissive “I’m sorry but never in twenty years have I seen this happen”? Even if you’ve never seen cheating, that people are acting so incredulously suggests a form of cognitive dissonance which is precisely what will enable cheating to continue. We sometimes don’t see it, because we don’t want to.
Anyway, I shall continue to monitor the comments, follow-up blogs and conversations. And, as per last month, I’ll round everything up in a “What we learned” post in a couple of weeks’ time.

What I Learned From Writing About Grammar Schools

My Guardian piece last month was about the assumptions of school systems with ‘selection by ability’ – e.g. grammar schools or private schools giving scholarships via common entrance exams.
I wrote the piece as an experiment. Whenever I read about selective education the debate invariably descends into several choruses of “I went to one, so they’re great/ I didn’t go to one, so they’re terrible” followed by a verse of “what about those of us who went and hated it?” However, I genuinely believe the most important question is not whether or not grammar schools should exist but whether or not they should exist over and above other systems for improving social mobility.
Hence, I posited the notion that instead of selecting solely by ability – grammar or private schools could randomly take 25% of their intake from among the most needy students. OR, I posited, we could institute a policy that anyone currently attending a failing school be offered an immediate free pass to the school of their choice, as way of compensation. Each of these systems has problems – but the consequences are no better or worse than selection by ability, so why have these sorts of policies rattled the middle classes in the countries where they are occurring? In my view, the reason why people want to select by ability is because they believe that bright children are somehow more valuable and therefore should have greater protections from the ‘difficulties’ of comprehensive education.
But what did the people who responded to the piece think?
First, a lot of people involved in the selective sector felt I was wrong to say sending intelligent children to a certain school is done because we think they are more ‘valuable’ and should ‘escape’ mixing with the less precocious. They argued that parents make choices based on a range of factors. This is a fair point, but that’s essentially a debate about private versus non-private, whereas my point is why independent and grammar schools select by intelligence. An open choice about how to spend your money is one thing, but I don’t see how to justify the school selecting by ability unless we believe certain children are more in need of an ‘escape’ (or that we like some children more than others).
Second, there was concern that teaching less ‘intelligent’ children with more intelligent children would be demoralising. Intuitively, I can understand this. If you’re not so sharp at English, then being put in a room with people who are very good at it might feel intimidating. But I’m not sure I’d feel any more motivated if I was put in a separate school where I knew this was the school for “the less bright people” and that even if I worked incredibly hard, even if I got to the top of this ladder, I was not going to “the bright children” school. If people want to go down this sort of ‘demoralisation’ road it would seem more sensible to advocate for setting/streaming within a mixed-ability school than to argue in favour of selection by ability.
Third, some people were thrilled because they thought I was advocating a return to assisted places. I was not. At least, not at first. However Charlotte Vere, Executive Director of the Girls’ School Association, got into a conversation with me on Twitter and said that she would happily agree to a return to government funding places even if the places were assigned randomly as per the India system and not done on ability. This caught me out. I was convinced people in charge of selective schools would be against the proposal. But she wasn’t the only one. Quite a few private school heads said they would be willing to accept a wider range of people if the government went back to stumping up cash.

To me, this changes things. The reason why I never liked assisted places was that you effectively took students who were already going to do fine in the education system, who were reasonably cheap to educate and then gave them (and their cash) to schools that didn’t need improved intake. If private schools were willing to take a % of pupils from within the neediest categories these arguments start to fall apart, and all I would be left with to oppose the argument is (I think) a sort of fundamentalist hatred of private schools. But I don’t have one of those. So I’m in a quandary, and (as ever) I’m still pondering.
Skip to the end…
So what did we learn? Well, it seems it is possible to have sensible conversations about grammar schools. The comments on the Guardian were generally helpful and interesting. The twitter conversations were incredibly powerful. People from all political sides agreed and disagreed with me, but points were thought-provoking and have put me near a new idea about assisted places, even if it’s one that still makes me uncomfortable.
I also learned that if you want to slay sacred cows you must give alternatives. It’s no use saying “I don’t like grammar schools” or “booo to private education” – if you want real debate, throw out some new ideas and debate those. It’s less personal and it brings people together because they have to collectively decide if the new thing is better, rather than desperately clinging to a defence of their old position.

Releasing the TouchPaper Problems

fireworkThe TouchPaper Problems are haunting my dreams.
Before last Saturday’s presentation about the Problems, I already wrote 7 questions – two of which I revealed in the talk. To decide on them I thought back to the problems that frustrated my own classroom practice and the times when I wondered: “How the heck am I going to do x“.
But I didn’t just want any questions. I wanted problems that would reveal knowledge useful to anyone in education  – whether teaching 5 year olds in a sleepy Cotswold valley, or at-risk 16 year-olds in Bradford. There’s also the problem of subject specificity. Right from my first discussion about the TouchPaper Problems people have been asking if there are different priorities for maths, or science, or drama. And this week Mike Cameron asked to the complex by pondering if we need a periodic table of students before we can answer such questions.
These are all great points, and I’m not averse to any of them. Maybe we need subject-specific problems. Maybe a periodic table would be useful.  But today I’m keeping things simple.
So here are the problems I wrote 10 days ago. Slightly adapted, admittedly, but still generic and (I think) solvable. There is more to each one than meets the eye, so next week I will blog the thinking behind them. Until then, I’m sticking them out there in the world. It’s a first lighting of the TouchPaper, if you will. Enjoy!

The TouchPaper Problems – Version 1

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which any person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?
  2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorization, (d) creation?
  3. If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?
  4. What determines the complexity of a concept?
  5. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?
  6. What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?
  7. What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?


Slides from ResearchEd2013: An Intro to The Touchpaper Problems

Presenting at yesterday’s ResearchEd2013 was a terrifying, thrilling, exciting experience. The day has already been encapsulated by others so I won’t tread that ground here (see Sam‘s and Debra’s blogs for more), but I can wholeheartedly say it was a unique experience and that the quality of thinking in education at present is inspiring.
That said, I think we must start pulling together what feels like very disparate strands of edu-research and one way to do this might be creating a list of 7 educational “problems” that we most need to solve.
These problems should be:
* Focused on cognitive or social development
* Require the solver to undercover ‘principles’ rather than just create an invention, and
* Have a defined end-point
It is hard to write problems like this. It’s really hard. But I think we should try.
At present I do have a list of 7 (two were mentioned in the talk – see below) but using feedback from this weekend, and the #touchpaper problems people have subsequently tweeted, I am going to hold on and release the list at the end of the week for further debate (it took Hilbert a year to write his, so these are only a first draft). I therefore encourage people to keep thinking and throughout the week notice if any problems you face fit this criteria – and let me know!

In the meantime, below are the slides and a handout of my talk: