Michaela: duty, loyalty and gratitude

duty and loyalty
In ‘National Identity’, his chapter in The Power of Culture, Michael Taylor explains that the Michaela Community School’s values are communitarian (p.78). Communitarianism in turn is based on the principle of self-governing small communities. The idea is that communities are essential for individuals to thrive, and in return for community support, individuals are expected to ‘give something back’. Michaela students’ obligations to the school, the wider community and the nation are framed in terms of duty.

Michael sees loyalty as a corollary of duty, and claims “The family and local community are an integral part of this, but the most logical point of our loyalty, whilst leaving plenty of room for critical analysis, should be to the nation”. He goes on, bizarrely, to frame rights in terms of possessing a passport; “As well as ensuring that pupils know that they have certain rights which are accorded to them by virtue of having a British passport, they also have a series of obligations and responsibility to their fellow citizens” (p.78). Do only people with passports have rights?

It’s clear that Michaela teachers feel a strong sense of duty toward their students. They’re committed to ensuring these young people grow into knowledgeable, civilised adults who lead fulfilling lives. But the emphasis in this book is on the students’ duty, rather than the teachers’. There are hints that’s because Michaela students tend to arrive with an awareness of their ‘rights’, but not of the responsibilities that go with them.

rights and responsibilities
Michaela doesn’t seem to think much of the contemporary emphasis on ‘rights’. Michael says that to “move away from the appalling world views and racism that have led to so much misery” is ‘admirable’ but that “embracing diversity in this country is often associated with a rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness” (p.74). And ”we have gone too far in Britain in creating a culture where a significant number of people appear to believe that rights are not always mirrored by responsibilities” (p.78).

As a history teacher, Michael must be aware of how the current focus on rights came about. For centuries British people (in common with the rest of the world) either had rights granted (or withdrawn) by a powerful minority, or they had to fight for rights, sometimes at great cost. And not always against invaders – the powerful minorities were usually distinctly British, and in particular, English. Mass education and improved communication have resulted in people becoming increasingly fed up with the focus being on their responsibilities rather than their rights, and many feel it’s time that changed.

Why would the Michaela narrative (Michaela is keen on narratives) overlook the inequity inherent in British history? My guess is that it would call into question the school’s rather hierarchical view of society and the value of the high status positions students are expected to aim for.

I agree the contemporary emphasis on rights glosses over responsibilities. It’s possible that Michaela students are taught about their responsibilities and rights, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, the school seems to have given the rights-and-responsibilities pendulum a hefty shove in the direction of responsibilities. That’s understandable, given the current climate, but isn’t going to help students comprehend their role in a democratic society.

the social contract and entitlement
Something noticeable by its absence from The Power of Culture is the concept of the social contract. That’s odd, because Michaela is keen on British culture, and the social contract is largely a British idea (e.g. Hobbes, Bacon, Locke) that underpins our constitution. The term social contract usually refers to a principle of national governance, but can be used to describe any social agreement between an individual and a group. Social contracts vary between individuals and change over time; they’re fluid, flexible arrangements that can be explicit (enshrined in law for example) or implicit (people might not be aware that there is a social contract until someone breaks it).


Why is the social contract missing from the Michaela model? I’d hazard a guess that’s because Locke and Rousseau subscribed to it, and they of course, are associated with ‘progressive’ education – a no-no for Michaela.

Michael claims “the antithesis of duty is entitlement” (p.78). I’m not sure duty has an antithesis as such, although a sense of entitlement can undermine a sense of duty. But as residents of the UK, Michaela students do have entitlements, and it’s OK to feel entitled to them; duties and entitlements can exist side-by-side. The social contract can include entitlements. In the UK, for example, all children are entitled to an education (although in English law it’s framed in terms of a parental duty). Children are entitled to a place at a state school if parents request that. The state recruits and pays teachers to provide a suitable education for those children, which brings us to another key feature of Michaela culture – gratitude.

gratitude
Michaela students are expected to express gratitude for the work their teachers and other school staff do, via verbal ‘appreciations’ at lunchtimes (followed by two claps), and via written postcards (there are examples on pp.129-30 in Iona Thompson’s chapter ‘The Culture of Gratitude’). The emphasis is on how hard teachers work, how many hours they put in, and a question from a student at another school “But isn’t that your job Miss?” is described as ‘obnoxious’ (p.125).

I think it’s appropriate to make children aware they live in a country with a long democratic tradition, where primary and secondary education are free at the point of use, and to be aware this isn’t the norm across the world. And it’s appropriate to hope they appreciate teachers’ commitment. But teachers volunteer for the job and they are paid. Students are unpaid conscripts who are required to be educated, not only for their own benefit, but also for the common good. Most students don’t have any option but to attend school, and their teachers are paid to provide them with a suitable education, so expecting students to express their gratitude formally seems a bit much.

Incidentally, I think It’s reasonable to expect students to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because most cultures use such non-costly tokens to facilitate social interaction. But everyone knows ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are tokens, and they’re are easy to use even if you actually feel no obligation or gratitude whatsoever. If more costly tokens are expected (such as ‘appreciations’ or postcards), some students will be happy to oblige regardless of what they really feel, and students who don’t feel grateful, or struggle to express themselves, will feel under pressure to comply regardless. It reminds me of the little girl being interviewed about Sunday School who said she always answered questions with ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ “because they like it when you say that”.

values, culture and knowledge
Michaela’s explanation of its values highlights a recurring feature of the self-styled ‘traditional’ teachers’ discourse. The teachers, quite rightly emphasise the importance of knowledge in education. They draw attention to the difference between experts and novices, and point out that novices don’t usually have sufficient knowledge to mimic the behaviour of experts or ask the kinds of questions experts would ask, so ‘discovery’ is often an inefficient way of learning; direct instruction is usually more effective.

In the classroom students by definition are novices, and the teacher by definition is the (subject) expert. But many traditional teachers don’t apply the expert-novice distinction outside the classroom to areas where the teachers themselves are novices. So, cognitive science has been cited to justify particular pedagogical methods favoured by traditionalists, but the ‘cog sci’ is often based on snippets of information picked up second- or even third-hand from other teachers. The ‘cog sci’ has often been just plain wrong, because the teachers in question don’t have sufficient domain-specific knowledge.

So, despite Daniel Willingham carefully presenting “just about the simplest model of the mind possible” (Willingham 2009), his model has been wrongly interpreted as representing cognition as a whole. And teachers have been diligent in debunking some educational ‘myths’ (brain gym, discovery learning, learning styles) but have blithely replaced them with others such as;

-knowledge in long term memory is ‘secure’,
-knowledge in long term memory is always available and doesn’t take up any ‘space’ in working memory,
-all schemas are ‘chunked’ so a large schema forms only one item in working memory,
-all skills are domain-specific and can’t be transferred,
-children’s brains are the same as teachers’ brains.

Teachers with expertise in English literature seem especially prone to replacing the principles of cognitive science with principles from their own discipline. So much for skills being domain-specific.

It’s puzzling why the traditional teachers have consulted so few psychology teachers or cognitive scientists. My guess is that’s partly because experts are likely to say “it’s a bit more complicated than that”, and investigating the complications would involve the traditional teachers in more work (they see learning as ‘hard’). Another reason is they’d have to re-think their model of teaching and learning.

Cognitive science is a rather esoteric area, so teachers couldn’t be expected to know much about it (although there’s nothing stopping them getting an overview from an expert, or from an undergrad textbook – traditional teachers are keen on textbooks). But values and British culture aren’t especially esoteric, and are key features of public discourse, so you’d expect a school that’s published a book about them to be well-informed about their provenance. Instead, there are whole facets missing from their model.

I fail to see how Michaela can reconcile its claim that it wants students from deprived backgrounds to improve their life chances via education, with failing to question an inherently inequitable model of society, and ignoring the British history that’s resulted in that very deprivation.

references

Michaela Community School (2020). The Power of Culture, Katherine Birbalsingh (ed.). John Catt.

Willingham, Daniel T (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass.

Michaela: colonising the curriculum?

If all I’d known about the Michaela Community School was its day-to-day routine, I’d have raised little more than an eyebrow. That’s in part because day-to-day life at Michaela looks remarkably like day-to-day life at the grammar school I attended half a century ago. What prompted me to raise more than an eyebrow is the new book from the Michaela Community School, The Power of Culture.

As far as the day-to-day is concerned it’s packed with positive practical ideas. I noted particularly;
-creating liberating pathways for students
-taking a long term view of conduct
-catching the students being good
-not expecting them to ape experts
-presenting knowledge in context
-mini introductions to practical, useful non-academic knowledge
-the outside speaker programme
-whole-class marking
-no targets
-no performance related pay
-all school staff (including admin & cleaners) being involved.

On a day-to-day level, Michaela’s methods are obviously effective. Students learn, raise their expectations, improve their behaviour and get good exam results. It’s when it came to the school’s ethos (beliefs and values) that I felt the framework began to wobble.

The Michaela ethos might reflect the pre-existing beliefs of staff, but the school also appears to have resorted to a bit of post-hoc justification for its practices. Rather than practice emerging from a coherent, thought-through set of beliefs and values, I get the impression teachers have;
1. seen ineffective or counterproductive practices or values in other schools (students learn little, have low aspirations, and their behaviour is out of control),
2. reacted against those practices,
3. tried alternatives,
4. and only then identified beliefs and values that justify the alternatives.

The lack of coherence and thinking-through is important, because beliefs and values are taught explicitly at Michaela and can have a significant impact on students’ lives. In this post I focus on a key feature of the Michaela ethos highlighted in The Power of Culture – British history and culture.

British culture
Michaela has reacted strongly against calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, as Katie Ashford explains in ‘Schools should teach Dead White Men’. Although her initial description of the aims of ‘decolonisation’ advocates is pretty accurate, I felt Katie goes on to caricature their position by citing extreme views. Some advocates of ‘decolonising’ might think ‘our society is entirely racist’ (p.59), be calling for the removal of dead white men from the curriculum (p.63), or want only black writers to be included (p.67), but most don’t. What they’re concerned about is the implicit assumptions underpinning the curriculum that can push our thinking in a particular direction without us being aware of it. They’re calling for a restructuring of the curriculum that views its content from an inclusive, egalitarian standpoint, rather than from the point of view of dominant cultures.

Michaela’s view in contrast, is that each of their students is British, lives in England, and in order to participate fully in British/English life, needs to know about British/English history and culture, a point Michael Taylor expands on in ‘National Identity’.

What is Britishness?
Michael understands why schools celebrate cultural diversity. But he claims that is ‘often associated with the rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness’. Despite this, people ‘feel British and people feel English’ (p.74). For Michaela, a sense of British and English identity is engendered by the Union flag, the Queen’s birthday, St George’s Day, ‘important national songs’ (National Anthem, Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee my Country), Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and WW1 battlefields. I wouldn’t question the importance of students knowing about those symbols, but St George’s Day is the only one that pre-dates the colonial era – which lends weight to the decolonisers’ point.

Now, I feel as British and English as the next British/English person, but what makes me feel British/English is older, more egalitarian symbols; leaders being ‘first among equals’ (a principle espoused by, amongst others, Celts and Anglo Saxons), observations such as “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (John Ball, Peasants’ Revolt, 1381) and Civil War battlefields. For me, the symbols embraced by Michaela represent a social hierarchy that has a longstanding tendency to take away people’s stuff and give it to its posh mates, something that all Michaela students need to be aware of. They need to be aware of it because Michaela points its students in the direction of the upper echelons of that social hierarchy (Russell Group and Ivy League universities, civil service internships etc).

Clearly, questions need to be asked about why those from ethnic minorities and/or state schools are under-represented in high status professions. And students from ethnic minorities and/or state schools should indeed be supported to aim high academically. But questions also need to be asked about why certain professions have high status, and why other equally important ones don’t. As a community, we don’t need only high flyers. We need people who can do the nuts-and-bolts hands-on work that keeps the country going. Many of those jobs don’t have much social cachet, but are interesting, demanding, well-paid and essential. I’m not talking about menial work here; I’m asking why farming, engineering, manufacturing, retail management, local government or nursing, don’t have the same allure for Michaela as say, wealthy bankers (p.64) or the civil service (p.115).

Unity and diversity
Michaela, with some justification, wants to shift the focus from our differences to what we have in common, from the individual to the community. But in doing so it overlooks an important principle. One of the functions of a democracy is to safeguard the diversity of individuals; to protect our liberty to live as we think fit, free from arbitrary constraint (see previous post). Human diversity isn’t an optional extra; it’s vital for our standard of living and quality of life. Communities simply wouldn’t be able to adapt or develop if we were all the same.

And although people in Britain do have much in common, we are also inherently very diverse, a point that Michael glosses over. For example, he says “language, law and custom are all concrete realities that link people from Caithness to Cornwall” (p.79). But in Cornwall you might encounter a campaigner for Cornish independence whose child attends a Cornish-speaking nursery. In Caithness you’d be quite likely to bump into an ardent Scottish nationalist, speaking Gaelic, living under Scottish law, and practising customs unique to Scotland. There are historical reasons for that, which Michael as a history teacher must be aware of, but doesn’t mention. (His chapter on teaching history is well worth reading, incidentally).

One thing most cultures throughout human history have in common, is that those with few resources have been exploited by those with more. And that doesn’t only entail some nations exploiting other nations; many have exploited others in their own community. It’s a feature shared by all cultures, and something they all end up trying to prevent. Getting students from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds into high status professions is one way to tackle inequality, but won’t effect much change if those same students are taught to revere symbols of the very system that has exploited in the past – and is still exploiting.

Michaela doesn’t seem to understand the problematic aspects of the political and social hierarchy. It’s as if the school has been so busy reacting against the prevailing focus in education on diversity, context and structural issues, it’s come up with an alternative model that ignores those factors completely.

Colonising the curriculum
There’s a good argument for students focusing on the history and literature of the country they live in, and as Katie points out there isn’t time to teach about all cultures in depth (p.70). But students don’t need to learn everything in depth. What they do need is an overview of world history and culture – from a world, rather than a British perspective.

But Michaela’s wider perspective isn’t a world one, it’s a Western/European one (pp. 53, 69, 71, 172). It’s as if agriculture, city states, administration, industry, trade, and arts and crafts didn’t exist prior to the ancient Greeks. I felt the Western/European perspective is epitomised in two sentences children are expected to learn. One is;

Shakespeare is widely recognised as the greatest writer of all time, and was a great dramatist. (p. 379)

Shakespeare is certainly considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time, but the word ‘recognised’ implies his status is a matter of fact, rather than a matter of opinion. Some ancient Greeks could be contenders for the title, especially if all their manuscripts were still in existence. And who knows what great dramatists preceded them?

The other sentence is the answer to the second of two questions:

What word means ‘the belief that there is one God’?
How were the Israelites different from the Canaanites? (p.197)

My childhood was steeped in Bible stories and my immediate answer to the second question was “the Canaanites lived in the land of Canaan; the Israelites invaded it”. But the answer students are expected to give is “the Israelites differ from the Canaanites because, whereas the Israelites were monotheistic, the Canaanites were polytheistic”. That’s certainly a difference, but it probably wouldn’t have been the one foremost in the minds of the Canaanites at the time – which again reinforces the decolonisers’ argument.

It’s possible Michaela staff are presenting students with a Western/European/British/English history and culture and Judeo-Christian beliefs from a critical perspective, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, teachers appear to accept the current social hierarchy as a given – uncritically. And the criterion for ‘success’ (beyond academic achievement) is attaining high social status rather than leading a fulfilling and useful life. That’s ironic because the criterion for ‘success’ in the street culture familiar to many of Michaela’s students, is also high social status. I’m not convinced that the principles of loyalty to the nation and giving something back (p.78) will eradicate the inequities inherent in British culture.

Michaela culture – a Swiss cheese model?

The Michaela Community School was founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh (as Headteacher) and Suella Braverman (currently Attorney General). The school’s ‘no excuses’ approach to education generated much controversy, but their first GCSE results outperformed the national average and their Progress 8 score ranked them fifth nationally.

In 2016 the school published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, a summary of the Michaela ethos, with contributions from its staff. I found it perturbing and blogged about it here . But those were early days. The school recently published Michaela: The Power of Culture, which I hoped would offer more insights into its success. I got as far as Jonathan Porter (deputy head) explaining the rationale for the school’s culture, in ‘Michaela – A School of Freedom’. I’ve had to take a break. Here’s why…

Liberty
Jonathan opens by claiming that we have a ‘romantic instinct’ that yearns for “emancipation rather than prescription”, for “a loosening rather than a tightening of the fence” (p.39). He says the romantic instinct has its origins, not in “ancient theory – which understood true freedom to mean virtuous self-government”, but in John Locke’s 17th century proposition that human beings in their natural state are ‘ungoverned and unconstrained’ (p.40). Jean-Jacques Rousseau largely concurred with Locke, and according to Jonathan, Rousseau’s views on education set out in Emile, or On Education (1762) have had a profound and detrimental influence on education in Britain.

Isaiah Berlin revisited Locke’s ideas in the 1950s. Berlin posited two types of liberty: Negative liberty that seeks to minimise the obstacles to people doing what they want to do; and positive liberty, the freedom to self-determine, which might require some input from the state. Berlin was wary of positive liberty due to the potential for state control. But Jonathan agrees with Charles Taylor that “…we cannot erase the view of positive freedom entirely, not least because our ability to exercise any freedom we might have hinges on certain ends” (p.45).

Michaela adopts a ‘no excuses’ principle for behaviour management and Jonathan sees this as grounded in the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government. His reasoning appears to be that children often make poor choices about how to use their liberty (he goes into detail about the temptations of social media), and that the ‘ancient theory’ had stood the test of time until Locke came along. Many of Jonathan’s claims stand up to scrutiny – but some don’t. Also, he tells only half the story – and the other half is important.

Virtuous self-government
As I understand it, the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government recognised that people (individually and collectively) were generally unhappy about external control, hence the ‘self-government’ bit. But self-government alone didn’t guarantee true liberty – that was possible only for those not enslaved to their passions, a thread running through the liberty discourse. That meant virtue was essential for individuals and communities to enjoy true freedom.

Something Jonathan overlooks is that many (at least from Judea to Greece) who subscribed to the ‘ancient theory’ also believed that human beings had fallen from a prior state of grace. The human task was to remedy that fall via sacrifice, rituals, good works etc. Deities and their earthly representatives (prophets, priests, kings et al.) were usually involved. Promoting the idea that human moral status is inherently flawed, put the deities’ earthly representatives in positions of considerable power. But power structures don’t feature in Jonathan’s analysis.

Locke and Rousseau
Locke (and Rousseau) challenged the idea that we’re fundamentally sinful by nature and have to spend our lives making up for it. Instead, they proposed that whatever our moral status, we’re entitled to live our lives as we think fit, not as prescribed by social or religious institutions. Of course if we’re interacting with other people, our right to exercise our natural liberty is likely to conflict with someone else’s right to do the same, so we need some form of government to adjudicate, and some rules we all agree to comply with, to ensure a peaceful co-existence. This is the basis of Locke’s take on social contract theory, to which Rousseau also subscribed. Jonathan refers to social contract theory (p.40) but goes on, I felt, to caricature Locke’s liberty as Milton’s ‘licence’. Milton was right that for some “licence they mean when they cry liberty”, but that wasn’t what Locke and Rousseau meant. What they objected to wasn’t constraint per se, but arbitrary constraint – another point Jonathan refers to (p.40) but then bypasses.

Both Locke and Rousseau had direct experience of the doctrine of original sin being used to justify arbitrary constraint.The English civil war had begun shortly before Locke’s tenth birthday and his father served in the Parliamentary army. John was a bright lad and would have been well aware of what his father was fighting for. Rousseau had grown up in Calvinist Geneva but spent most of his adult life Catholic France, so had seen the doctrine of original sin from two very different theological perspectives. Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas about liberty were responses to major issues of their day, and were popular because the ancient theory of virtuous self-government, and more importantly its implementation, were quite evidently no longer fit for purpose.

Virtue and power
Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but even by the 5th century BCE it had become clear it was feasible only in relatively small, completely independent communities. By then, the population of Athens had grown too large for direct participation in decision-making. Thucydides recounts discussions about whether decisions should be made by only a proportion of the population, or by representatives. And recounts the disagreements over who was ‘virtuous’.

By the 17th century CE, virtuous self-government had been found by many to be a necessary but insufficient foundation for society. You don’t need to believe in a deity to believe in virtue, but if virtuous self-government is the model a society has adopted, somebody ends up deciding what’s virtuous and what’s not. And that somebody is usually whoever has social or political power. After all, ‘virtue’ has been used to justify despotism, genocide, murder, torture and slavery – none of which feels particularly virtuous if you’re on the receiving end. The early Athenians argued that nature itself showed the strong should rule the weak, but unsurprisingly many of the tribes they tried to rule objected, on the grounds that they too wanted to govern themselves.

Of course by definition children don’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to make fully informed life choices. Locke considered the mind a tabula rasa; for him, it was important to ensure children’s early experiences were positive. Rousseau in contrast, had been a student in the school of hard knocks and felt it was important for children to find out about reality for themselves. I think Michaela is right that children need guidance and support from adults, to be taught effective life strategies, and to learn self-control in order to best exercise their liberty. But Jonathan doesn’t ask who decides what’s virtuous, or what the ends of education are – key issues for Locke and Rousseau.

Arbitrary constraints
Jonathan mentions arbitrary constraints, but sees them as political constraints (p.46) rather than social ones. There’s an example in his discussion of character (p.49). He says; “If pupils at Michaela are just one minute late to school, they will receive a 30-minute detention at the end of the day. We do make exceptions, although these really are exceptions. Most days a handful of detentions will be given to pupils who slept through their alarms, didn’t pack their bags the night before, or left home late but didn’t run to catch the bus… Although we are forgiving, a future employer may not be”.

I understand why pupils should be expected to arrive at school on time – it’s inconvenient for everybody if they don’t. But one minute late? And although the school might make allowances for exceptional circumstances, it isn’t forgiving – pupils are punished for transgressions.

The justification for the no excuses approach to tardiness is that a future employer might expect down-to-the-minute punctuality. It’s true that some industries (e.g. transport, manufacturing) do operate at that level of punctuality – but in those industries lateness has direct, real-life, non-arbitrary consequences. It’s also true that many employers require employees to clock in and clock out, but they usually use flexitime, which means arriving a minute later means leaving a minute later to compensate. And many employers, particularly in the type of employment Michaela encourages its students to aspire to, don’t monitor minutes or even hours, as long as the work gets done. So what is the ‘one minute late’ rule really about? There’s a fine line between discipline and control. It was a line Locke and Rousseau were aware of but it’s not clear where Michaela’s line is.

It looks to me as if Michaela has chosen a ‘no excuses’ approach to school culture because it has certain administrative advantages, then justified that choice by appealing to authorities that support their position, such as the virtuous self-government model, Aristotle, Graeco-Roman tradition, 1000 years of history, and Edmund Burke (p.46ff). Rather than use theory from opposing authorities (e.g. Locke, Rousseau, Berlin) to test the school’s model for possible flaws, it caricatures opposing theories as responsible for licence, undermining the British education system, and allowing children unrestricted access to social media.

Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but survived for 1000 years of history largely because it was shored up by religious and secular power hierarchies with those at the top deciding what was virtuous and how far self-government extended – as  Michaela is doing. But Michaela’s students will take their place in an adult world that relies on people negotiating outcomes; at the state level, in the workplace and between individuals. Will a ‘no excuses’ culture prepare them effectively for that?

Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture work for some people and some institutions, but the ancient Athenians, contemporaries of Locke, Rousseau, and Berlin, and state education systems from Prussia to the UK, have found that they don’t work for everybody –  which is largely why those systems changed.  Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture have face value appeal, but as systems of governance they’re as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

apprentice without a sorcerer

Cummings’ essay Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities highlights his admiration for experts, notably scientists, but this doesn’t prevent him making several classic novice errors. These errors, not surprisingly, lead Cummings to some conclusions contradicted by evidence he hasn’t considered. I’ve focused on four of them.

oversimplifying systems

Cummings knows that systems operate differently at different levels, and although all systems, as part of the physical world involve maths and physics, you can’t reduce all systems to maths and physics (p.18). But his preoccupation with maths and physics, and lack of attention to the higher levels of systems suggest he can’t resist doing just that. In his essay maths is mentioned 473 times (almost 2 mentions per page) and physics 179 times. Science gets 507 references and quantum 238. In contrast, the arts get 8 mentions and humanities 16. Ironically, given his emphasis on complex systems, Cummings seems determined to view complex knowledge domains like education, politics, the humanities and arts, only through the lenses of maths, physics and linear scales.

Cummings’ first degree is in history, but he knows a lot of scientific facts. How deep his understanding goes is another matter. He opens the section on a scientific approach to teaching practice with the famous ‘Cargo Cult’ speech in which Richard Feynman accused educational and psychological studies of mimicking the surface features of science but not applying the deep structure of the scientific method (p.70). Cumming’s criticism is well-founded; evidence has always influenced educational practice in the UK, but the level of rigour involved has varied considerably. Ironically, Cummings’ appeal to scientific evidence then itself sets off down the cargo-cult route.

misunderstanding key concepts: chunking vs schemata

Cummings claims “experts do better because they ‘chunk’ together lots of individual things in higher level concepts – networks of abstractions – which have a lot of compressed information and allow them to make sense of new information (experts can also use their networks to piece together things they have forgotten)” (p.71).

‘Chunking’ occurs when several distinct items of information are perceived and processed as one item. The research e.g. Miller (1956), De Groot (1965) and Anderson (1996), shows it happens automatically after groups of low-level (simple) items with strongly similar features have been encountered very frequently, e.g. Morse code, words, faces, chess positions. I’ve not seen any research that shows the same phenomenon happening with information that’s associated but complex and dissimilar. And Cummings doesn’t cite any.

Information that’s complex and dissimilar but frequently encountered together (e.g. Periodic Table, biological taxonomy, battle of Hastings) forms strong associations cognitively that are configured into a schema. What Cummings describes isn’t chunking; it’s the formation of a high level schema. Chunks are schemata, but not all schemata are chunks.

Cummings is right that experts abstract information to form high level schemata, but the information isn’t compressed as he claims. The abstractions are key features of aspects of the schema e.g. key features of transition metals, birds or invasions.  I can just about hold all the key features of birds in my working memory at once, but not at the same time as exceptions (e.g ostrich, penguin) or features of different bird species. The prototypical features make it easier to retrieve associated information, but it isn’t retrieved all at once. If I think about the key features of birds, many facts about birds and their features spring to mind, but they do so sequentially, not at the same time. The limitations of working memory still apply.

The distinction between chunking and schema formation is important because schemata play a big part in expertise e.g. Schank & Abelson (1977) and Rumelhart (1980). Despite their importance, Cummings refers to schemata only once, when he’s describing how his essay is structured (p.7). The omission is a significant one with implications for Cumming’s model of how experts structure their knowledge.

experts vs novices

Experts in a particular field derive their expertise from a body of knowledge that’s been found to be valid and reliable. They construct that knowledge into schemata, or mental models. New knowledge can then be incorporated into the schemata, which might then need to be configured differently. Sometimes experts disagree strongly, not about the content of their schemata, but about how the content is configured.

The ensuing debates can go on for decades. A classic example is the debate between those who think correlations between intelligence test scores indicate that intelligence is a ‘something’ that ‘really exists’, and those who think the assumption that there’s a ‘something’ called intelligence, shapes the choice of items in intelligence tests, so correlations should come as no surprise (see previous post). Another long-standing debate involves those who think universal patterns in the structure of language mean that language is hard-wired in the brain, versus others who think the patterns emerge from the way networks of neurons compute information.

Acquiring key information about an unfamiliar knowledge domain takes time and effort, and Cummings has obviously put in the hours. What’s more challenging is finding out how domain experts configure their knowledge – experts often take their schemata for granted and don’t make them explicit. Sometimes you need to ask directly (or be told) why knowledge is organized in a certain way, and if there are any crucial differences of opinion in the field.

Cummings doesn’t seem to have asked how experts structure their knowledge. Instead, he appears to have squeezed knowledge new to him (e.g. chunking) into his own pre-existing schema without checking whether his schema is right or wrong. Or, he’s adopted the first schema he’s agreed with (e.g. genes and IQ). He admits to basing his genes/IQ model largely on Robert Plomin’s Behavioural Genetics and talks by Stephen Hsu. He dismisses the controversies and takes Plomin and Hsu’s models for granted.

evaluating evidence

There are references to the scientific method in Cummings’ essay but they’re about data analysis, not the scientific method as such. A crucial step in the scientific method is evaluating evidence – analysing data for sure, but also testing hypotheses by weighing up the evidence for and against. This process isn’t about ‘balance’ – it’s about finding flaws in methods and reasoning in order to avoid confirmation bias.

But Cummings repeatedly accepts evidence in support of one thing or against another, without questioning it. I’d suggest he can’t question much of it because he doesn’t know enough about the field. Some that caught my eye are:

  • Assuming hunter-gatherers’ knowledge is “based on superstition (almost total ignorance of complex systems)” (p.1). Anthropology that might claim otherwise, is like other social sciences, summarily dismissed by Cummings.
  • Unsubstantiated claims such as “Aeronautics was confined to qualitative stories (like Icarus) until the 1880s when people started making careful observations and experiments about the principles of flight” (p.21). Da Vinci, Bacon, Montgolfiers, Caley? No mention.
  • Attributing European economic development between 14th and 19th centuries to ‘markets and science’ and omitting the role of the Reformation, French Revolution, or Enclosure Acts (p.108).
  • Uncritical acceptance of Smith’s and Hayek’s speculative claims about the benefits of markets (p.106).
  • Overlooking systems constraints on growth – in corn yields, computing power etc. (pp.46, 231-2). No mention of the ubiquitous sigmoid curve.
  • Overlooking the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth when discussing shortage and innovation (p.112).
  • Emphasising the importance of complex systems with no mention of systems theory as such (e.g. Bertalanffy’s general systems theory).
  • Ignoring important debates about construct validity e.g. intelligence and personality (p.49).

not just wrong

People are often wrong about things and usually a few minor errors don’t matter. In Cummings’ case they matter a great deal, partly because he’s so influential, but also because even tiny errors can have huge consequences. I chose the example of chunking because Cummings’ interpretation of it has been disproportionately influential in recent English education policy.

Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths about Education (2014) takes the assumption about chunking a step further. She’s right that chunking low-level associations such as times tables allows us to ‘cheat’ the limitations of working memory, but wrong to assume (like Cummings) high-level schemata do the same. And flat-out wrong to claim “we can summon up the information from long-term memory to working memory without imposing a cognitive load.” (Christodoulou p.19, my emphasis). Her own example (23,322 x 42) contradicts her claim.

Christodoulou’s claim is based on Kirschner, Sweller & Clark’s 2006 paper ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work’. The authors say; “The limitations of working memory only apply to new, yet to be learned information that has not been stored in long-term memory. New information such as new combinations of numbers or letters can only be stored for brief periods with severe limitations on the amount of such information that can be dealt with. In contrast, when dealing with previously learned information stored in long-term memory, these limitations disappear.” (Kirschner et al p.77).  The only evidence they cite is a 1995 review paper proposing an additional cognitive mechanism “long-term working memory”.

I have yet to read a proponent of Kirschner, Sweller & Clarke’s model discuss the well-known limitations of long-term memory, summarised here. Greg Ashman for example, following on from a useful summary of schemata, says;

One way of thinking about the role of long-term memory in solving problems or dealing with new information is that entire schema can be brought readily into working memory and manipulated as a single element alongside any new elements that we need to process. The normal limits imposed on working memory fall away almost entirely when dealing with schemas retrieved from long-term memory – a key idea of cognitive load theory. This illustrates both the power of having robust schemas in long-term memory and the effortlessness of deploying them; an effortlessness that fools so many of us into neglecting the critical role long-term memory plays in learning”.

Many with expertise as varied as English, history, physics or politics, have enthusiastically embraced findings from cognitive science that could improve the effectiveness of teaching. Or more accurately, they’ve embraced Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s model of memory and learning.  Some of the ‘cog sci’ enthusiasts have gone further. They’ve taken a handful of facts out of context, squeezed them into their own pre-existing schemata, and drawn conclusions that are at odds with the research. They’ve also assumed that if an expert in ‘cog sci’ makes a plausible claim it must be true, but haven’t evaluated the evidence cited by the expert – because they don’t have the relevant expertise; cognitive science is a knowledge domain unfamiliar to them.

Nevertheless objections to the Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke model are often dismissed as originating either in ideology or ignorance. Ironic, as despite emphasising the importance of knowledge, evidence and expertise, many of the proponents of ‘cog sci’ are patently novices selecting evidence to support a model that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Murray Gell-Man is right that we need people who can take a crude look at the whole of knowledge (p.5), but the crude look should be one informed by a good grasp of the domains in question.

In 1797, Goethe published a poem entitled Der Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice). It was a popular work, and became even more popular in 1940 when animated as part of Disney’s Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the part of the apprentice who started something he couldn’t stop. The moral of the story is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Cummings has been portrayed as a brilliant eccentric and/or an evil genius. I think he’s an apprentice without a sorcerer.

references

Anderson, J (1996) ACT: A simple theory of complex cognition, American Psychologist, 51, 355-365.

Christodoulou, D (2014).  Seven Myths about Education.  Routledge.

de Groot, A D (1965).  Thought and Choice in Chess.  Mouton.

Kirschner, PA, Sweller, J & Clark, RE (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Miller, G (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Rumelhart, DE (1980). Schemata: the building blocks of cognition. In R.J. Spiro et al. (eds) Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension.  Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ.

Schank, RC & Abelson, RP (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: an Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures.  Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale, NJ.

 

 

 

Dominic Cummings on education

Dominic Cummings has become a highly influential figure. He steered the UK’s education system towards a ‘knowledge curriculum’, persuaded many who voted in the 2016 referendum that they wanted the UK to leave the EU, and is now well on the way to ensuring that Brexit gets done – whatever that entails.

In 2013 Cummings published online an essay entitled Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities. His thoughts extend to nearly 250 pages.  I had a couple of goes at reading them at the time, but was fazed by the plethora of references to mathematicians and physicists. My rusty A level maths and even more rusty O level physics weren’t quite up to checking them out.  Following Cummings’ spectacular return to public life, I scrolled past them and found myself in more familiar territory.  This is the first of three posts, on Cummings’ views of education, intelligence, and expertise.

An Odyssean Education

Cummings isn’t happy with education systems. He complains that students aren’t taught about some fundamentally important ideas, so political leaders lack them too, which explains poor political decisions. He believes the ideas could go a long way to resolving the global crises facing us, so it’s imperative they’re taught in schools and universities. He’s particularly interested in the education of people with a high IQ.

Cummings refers to Neitzsche’s distinction between ‘Apollonian’ thinkers using logical analysis and ‘Dionysians’ who use intuition and synthesis. The physicist Murray Gell-Man suggested a third group – ‘Odysseans’ – who “combine the two predelictions”, look for connections between ideas, and take a “crude look at the whole” (p.5). As Cummings puts it “An Odyssean curriculum would give students and politicians some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element” (p.7).  He’s right about the map. Human knowledge has increased exponentially over the past century, so in-depth specialisms have become the order of the day. The best anyone could currently achieve is a ‘crude look at the whole’ but that crude look is essential if we are to understand the challenges confronting us.

Cummings structures his Odyssean curriculum as a “schema of seven big areas” (p.7) sketched out on page 2:

  1. Maths and complexity
  2. Energy and space
  3. Physics and computation
  4. Biological engineering
  5. Mind and machine
  6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions
  7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes.

The essay includes 15 Endnotes on specific topics, and a reading list. In this post, I focus on education, addressed in Chapter 6.

Uniformity vs diversity

Cummings is critical of an education policy that aims for increased uniformity of achievement, based on the assumption that all students have the same potential, and would reach it if aspirations were raised and equal opportunities provided. Cummings’ model in contrast, assumes students don’t have the same potential because differences in ability are largely genetic in origin. He thinks more effective teaching will raise attainment levels for all, but will also widen the attainment gap (pp.74, 83). In my view, both models are wrong due to flaws in their implicit starting assumptions. Here’s why:

Human beings have been ‘successful’ in the evolutionary sense, in part because speech enables us to communicate complex information to each other. To survive and maintain good quality of life, everyone doesn’t need to know everything, but we each need access to the expertise of farmers, plumbers, electricians, doctors, lawyers, poets and dancers to name but few.

What enables populations to adapt to changing environments is genetic diversity. And genetic diversity produces people with the diverse abilities, aptitudes and interests that enable communities to adapt to changing circumstances. Communities thrive, not because of their uniformity, but because of their diversity. A good general education is important for everyone because we each need to know how the world works, but the last thing we need is for everyone to be the same.

The diversity does indeed mean that improving teaching would result in larger gaps in attainment – but only if you measure attainment on a linear scale such as exam results or IQ. Cummings is right that we desperately need people with high IQs who can do the maths required to model complex systems, and politicians who understand what’s being modelled. But our society couldn’t function if it consisted entirely of people who were a whiz at complex equations and/or political decision-making; we need people with a wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests to make life sustainable and worth living.

Uniformity appeals to policy-makers because one-size-fits-all policies look like they’ll save money.  A diversity narrative is often used to make uniformity more palatable. But diversity in communities doesn’t only make life more interesting and colourful, it’s essential for our biological and economic survival and well being.

Aptitude

Genetic diversity provides communities with the wide range of abilities, aptitudes and interests they need to thrive. Ironically, the suitability of an education to aptitude (what someone is good at) has been embedded in English education law since at least 1944, but has received scant attention since the advent of the national curriculum and standardised testing.

Paying attention to aptitude doesn’t mean every student needs a personalised education programme, nor that schools should undertake vocational training. But developing the inherent qualitative variation in aptitude would mean the ensuing quantitative variation in exam scores became less important. Gaps in academic achievement matter only to societies that accord a disproportionately high status to professions requiring academic skills.

For example, doctors and lawyers are generally well paid and have high social status. The pay and social status of train drivers and electricians is generally lower. But train drivers and electricians are no less essential to a functioning community. Cummings lauds scientists, and is pretty dismissive of doctors and lawyers, but the people who maintain the complex infrastructure of the developed world don’t feature at all in his model of education, other than often being on the wrong side of the IQ bell curve.

Cummings’ proposals

To fix the problems with the education system, Cummings proposes (pp.69-83):

  1. Largely eliminate failure with the basics in primary schools
  2. Largely eliminate failure with the basics in secondary schools
  3. A scientific approach to teaching practice
  4. Maths for most 16-18
  5. Specialist schools from which all schools (and Universities) can learn
  6. Web-based curricula, MOOCs, and HE/FE
  7. Computer Science and 3D printers: bits and atoms, learning and making
  8. Teacher hiring, firing and training
  9. Prizes
  10. Simplify the appallingly complicated funding system, make data transparent and give parents a real school choice.

Most of his criticisms of the education system are valid ones, but criticism is the easy bit – it’s more challenging to come up with alternatives. Cummings generates ideas like they’re going out of fashion, but almost invariably overlooks context; notably what caused the problems, and the implications of his ideas being implemented. Here are some examples:

Maths     For Cummings ‘the basics’ are English, Maths and Science, with Maths the sine qua non because it provides the ‘language of nature’ (p.63). His proposal that 16-18 year-olds continue to study ‘some sort of Maths course’ (p.75) was implemented in 2015 in the form of students being required to re-sit Maths and English GCSEs if they got lower than a C grade. As far as I’m aware the scheme wasn’t piloted, placed a huge burden on an FE sector already pared to the bone, and many students found their career plans stalled due to an arbitrary and unnecessary requirement.

Reading     The UK’s achievement in reading is contrasted with that of Finland (p.69), but overlooks the fact that Finnish orthography is highly transparent (almost 1-1 correspondence between graphemes and phonemes) whereas English orthography is highly opaque.

Specialist schools     Cummings has high hopes for specialist schools (pp.75-77) but doesn’t mention their introduction in the 1988 Education Reform Act, or that under New Labour most state secondaries became specialist schools. Evaluations showed the consequent small improvement in exam results was as likely due to the additional funding, rather than specialist status as such. There doesn’t appear to have been a subsequent surge in superb scientists or brilliant politicians.

Teacher hiring, firing, and training     For Cummings “real talent is rare, mediocrity ubiquitous” (p.81). He would recruit academic high flyers, pay them well, get “roughly averagely talented teachers” to use Direct Instruction scripts and allow head teachers to sack the ones who still didn’t make the grade. He doesn’t mention working conditions or why teacher retention is so low.

Cummings also claims “managing schools is much easier than being a brilliant maths teacher and requires only the import of competent (not brilliant) professional managers from outside the education world” (p.83).  The transferable management skills hypothesis has been widely tested since the 1980s and been found seriously wanting.

Lectures     We’re told “students remember little from traditional lectures” (p.72). That might because traditionally, lectures formed only the framework for the students’ learning. Traditionally, students were expected to do further reading. And the ‘proven’ Oxbridge tutorial system is not as Cummings claims, limited to Oxford and Cambridge (p.78). It’s been in use in every university I’ve been involved with from the 1970s to the present. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

Funding     The education funding system certainly needs rationalising, but costs vary across geographical areas, so who decides what a “flat per pupil amount” with “as few tweaks as possible” (p.81) means?

Parent choice     The other things described above … could be done even if one disagrees with the idea of a decentralised system driven by parent choice and prefers the old hierarchical system run by MPs, Unions, and civil servants” (p.83). Cummings appears completely unaware that the ‘old hierarchical’ system was decentralized and run by local authorities, school governors (including parents) and head teachers. And would probably have stayed that way if it hadn’t been deliberately centralized relatively recently by the Thatcher and subsequent governments.

Data transparency     Few would want to “define success according to flawed league table systems based on flawed GCSEs” but if “private schools have defined success according to getting pupils into elite universities” (p.82) where does that leave the bulk of the population? We’re not all going to get into elite universities – if we did, they wouldn’t, by definition, be elite.

Scientific evidence     Cummings is right that an evidence-based approach to education is vital, but has a touching faith in randomized controlled trials (RCTs) (p.64). The medical community’s objections to RCTs was not, as Cummings claims, because their expertise would be challenged by data, but because individual patients don’t always share the features of a large population. The same is true for school pupils.

Cummings follows Feynman in accusing educational researchers of ‘Cargo Cult’ science – mimicking the surface features of scientific research but not applying its deep structure (p.70). Regrettably, deep structure is noticeable by its absence from the hotch-potch of findings about cognition, lectures, tutorials, testing, genetics and IQ that he proposes as an alternative.

Sub-system optimization

Cummings repeatedly does what systems theorists call subsystem optimization at the expense of system optimization. A bit of a tongue twister, but it’s a simple and common phenomenon. The components of systems, by definition, are linked to each other, so tweaking one part is likely to result in changes to another. And improving part of the system can sometimes have the effect of making things worse overall. If the components of a system are loosely coupled (weakly connected), the impact might be negligible. If they’re tightly coupled (strongly connected) the impact can be substantial.

Cummings should know this because he devotes an entire section to the features of complex systems (pp.17-21), but appears have filed complex systems under ‘mathematical modelling’ rather than ‘public policy’ in his mental directory. He doesn’t apply systems theory to his own proposals, even though he recognizes many poor political decisions are made because politicians don’t understand how complex systems work.  A similar criticism can be applied to his thoughts on genetics and IQ, the subject of the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tell-’em-and-test-’em

I’ve just re-read John Holt’s How Children Fail and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It was instructive to read them in tandem.

Holt’s book is a reflection on his observations of children learning (Maths mainly) in the US between 1958 and 1961. I read it a couple of decades later during a PGCE course.  My first take on How Children Fail was that it was a series of fascinating insights into children’s misunderstandings of abstract concepts. My own Maths education in contrast – in a primary school that would have delighted Lady Plowden – was all about grasping concepts.

I re-read Holt’s book when my children were young. What struck me second time around was his use of concrete objects, notably Cuisenaire rods, to get abstract concepts across. As an Infant, I’d been introduced to Cuisenaire rods, and found them utterly confusing – fingers were far more helpful. I was a somewhat synaesthetic Infant; each finger not only represented a number, but also had a distinctive colour. The Cuisenaire rods were different colours. Fingers were also faster. You could work out 5+3=8 in about a second on your digits, but it took significantly longer doing trial-and-error matching à la Cuisenaire.

One of my children had real trouble with mathematical concepts. And with Cuisenaire rods, fingers, number lines and number sentences. The breakthrough came with the excellent Murderous Maths series. He was very keen on narrative, and found he could understand mathematical concepts explained via a story. He also discovered that if he pictured numerals in his head, they didn’t ‘move around’ like they did on paper. (We later found out he had a visual problem – convergence insufficiency – that explained all the visuospatial issues).

What stood out from my third and recent reading was how Holt deconstructs a child’s problem with a concept into its cognitive components. His description of Dr Caleb Gattegno teaching teenagers with severe learning disabilities (pp.98-101) is profoundly moving. Few teachers would have begun with the absolute basics (how patterns repeat) and few would have persevered until the students understood the patterns.

Holt and Lemov

Holt was born in 1923 and had experienced what he called a ‘tell-’em-and-test-’em’ education (p.151). He, his peers, and his teachers, learned how to game the system. Here’s Holt on a teacher giving his class a list of topics to cram for prior to college Board exams. “We got credit for knowing a great deal about ancient history, which we did not, he got credit for being a good teacher, which he was not, and the school got credit for being, as it was, a good place to go if you wanted to be sure of getting into a prestige college. The fact was that I knew very little about ancient history; that much of what I thought I knew was misleading or false; that then, and for many years afterwards, I disliked history and thought it pointless and a waste of time.”

Doug Lemov was born in 1967, soon after Holt’s book was published.  He struggled with school, due largely to social issues, but got to college and became a teacher. At which point he says “I was part of this educational system that was this great, giant ship that didn’t do the things it said it was set out to do.

After an MBA at Harvard (where he picked up more ideas about teaching), Lemov became a director of Uncommon Schools, which manages 53 charter schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Teach Like a Champion was published in 2010.  It’s jam-packed with practical tips for teachers – as is Holt’s. Lemov is deeply concerned about schools not doing their job and students failing to learn – as was Holt. He takes a step-by-step approach to teaching – as did Holt. But that’s where the similarity ends.

A significant difference between Holt and Lemov is how they frame those challenges. Lemov is about teaching, Holt is about learning. Lemov breaks down tasks into instructional steps, Holt is interested in the steps involved in students understanding concepts. Lemov is about controlling students’ learning, Holt is about them controlling their own learning. Lemov wants students from underprivileged backgrounds to have the knowledge that will enable them to ‘compete in college’ (p.39). Holt questions the quality of the knowledge of students from a tell-’em-and-test-’em system.

Both writers have concerns about schools that don’t succeed in educating children, especially those from deprived backgrounds.   Holt wants the children to understand important concepts, because the concepts will be important in later life.  If I’ve understood correctly, Lemov’s model involves providing children with the knowledge they need to get a college education, because that’s a gateway to better jobs, higher pay and could eventually bootstrap entire communities to a higher standard of living and better quality of life.

At first glance, Uncommon Schools appear to be pretty good at this. 99% of their students who graduated high school were accepted for college places, and 76% of those either graduated college or were on track to graduate. There’s no doubt that charter schools have improved high school graduation rates, but the picture is a mixed one, and I couldn’t find data on what proportion of Uncommon Schools students graduated high school.

A college education can open up many opportunities, so there’s some justification for the view that a school’s job is to do to get as many students into college focusing on students who engage and work hard. But that’s a very narrow view of education. Two rather telling phrases about college caught my eye in Lemov’s book.

no opt out

In the first, Lemov describes an Uncommon Schools Key Idea No Opt Out – ‘A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer ends with the student giving the right answer’ (p.31). The ‘sequence’ involves other students or the teacher providing the right answer, and the original student being asked the question again. In one example a student fails to read the word performance. Another student reads the word and the first student is asked to read it again. Lemov comments ‘it’s probably not worth the time to break down the error as the decoding skill the student struggles with is less closely related to the day’s objective. That said, [the teacher] has still firmly established a strong accountability loop. Lemov concludes ‘This ensures that everyone comes along on the march to college’. I’m sure Uncommon Schools would address the student’s issues with decoding, but the focus appears to be on the student’s accountability for their own learning, not on Holt’s focus – what might be posing an obstacle to it.

right is right

Another Key Idea is Right is Right, which involves using technical vocabulary. In the example given by Lemov, volume is not ‘the amount space [sic] something takes up’, but ‘the cubic units of space an object occupies’. This had me scratching my head. Cubic units are a quantification of volume, not volume per se. Also, gases have volume, but whether a gas could be described as an ‘object’ is debateable. Lemov comments ‘This response expands student vocabularies and builds comfort with the terms students will need when they compete in college.’

‘When they compete in college rather than ‘when they are in college’ seemed a rather odd way to frame college requirements. Over the past few decades of course, competition has been an underlying principle of economic policy in the developed world due to an assumption that it drives up quality. Competition can drive up quality if the competitors compete on quality. But it’s pretty clear they often don’t. The alternatives include underbidding, cheating, lying, bribing, gaming… whatever it takes to ‘win’. The sort of thing Holt describes about his college entry process.  Competition also wastes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources that could be more effectively deployed via collaboration and co-operation. If competition produces winners, it also produces losers, and being a loser can in itself create problems.

Lemov’s world is one where there are right and wrong answers. And the right answers (even if they’re questionable, as in the definition of volume) are what allows you to ‘march to college’ and ‘compete’ in it. Lemov clearly wants as many students as possible to get to college. What isn’t clear is what happens to students who can’t or won’t comply with the Uncommon Schools approach to teaching and learning, or those who find that knowing the right answers isn’t enough at college or in later life.

Those are the students Holt is interested in. The ones who, try as they might, just don’t ‘get’ key concepts, but have figured out how to give the ‘right answers’ (popular strategies included letting a teacher or another student answer first and copy them, or to read the teacher’s body language for cues). Holt is also interested in the students who get to college by giving the right answers but have no proper understanding of the subject or interest in it.

Tell-’em-and-test-’em was widely used in early mass education systems. But many students, like those Holt observed, didn’t grasp what they were being told and tested on. In response during the post-war period, child-centred approaches became increasingly popular, and then began to lose touch with a fundamental feature of education – knowledge. The completely reasonable antipathy to learning entire lessons by rote morphed into avoiding learning anything by heart. Objections to being fed lists of facts turned into objections to learning factual information. The necessity of acquiring higher-level skills transformed into acquiring higher-level skills only. It’s not surprising that teachers who didn’t experience tell-’em-and-test-’em MkI are advocating tell-’em-and-test-’em MkII, but those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and Holt provides a vivid reminder that tell-’em-and-test-’em isn’t enough.

references

Holt, J (1965).  How Children Fail.  Penguin.

Lemov, D (2010).  Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass.

 

 

 

Rousseauian nonsense revisited

A few days ago Greg Ashman released the proverbial cat amongst the Early Years pigeons with this tweet:

greg gibb

Early Years practitioners were a bit miffed and responded robustly; there were several requests for more detail about the ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Greg obliged in a blogpost.

He opens with a paragraph on Rousseau’s ‘work of fiction’, Émile. He goes on to contrast guidelines requiring the avoidance of formal teaching in Early Years, with evidence for its efficacy, referring to Geary’s theory of biologically primary and secondary knowledge, and  advocates a balance between play and formal teaching. Many of Greg’s posts are informative and constructive, but this one left me feeling uneasy.  I’ll start with the ‘Rousseauian’ element.

Rousseauian

Émile is indeed a ‘work of fiction’ in that it’s written as a novel – and a rambling, sometimes rather incoherent novel at that. Voltaire was typically scathing. Following its publication, Rousseau’s books were banned in Geneva and France and he went on the run to avoid arrest. Obviously, the strength of this reaction wasn’t simply down to a poor writing style or his advocating following a child’s interests.

What Rousseau challenged in Émile was authoritarianism. He’d grown up in Calvinist Geneva, later converted to Catholicism, and had seen the impact on children who’d been educated under both systems. He’d also seen the children of peasants and artisans, who lacked a formal education but were often more contented and self-assured.

Calvinism and Catholicism both used the idea of original sin to justify a strict approach to child-rearing and education. Rousseau argued that despite sin, Nature remained God’s creation. If God created children to develop in the way they did, it made far more sense for education to go with the child’s God-given nature, than to go against it.

In one section of Émile, “The Creed of the Savoyard Priest”, Rousseau abandons his novelistic approach and tackles Descarte’s model of reason head-on, in an insightful essay setting out the questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions, that perplexed the thinkers of his day. It was the only section Voltaire thought worth publishing.

But you’d never know that to read Greg’s impression of ‘Rousseauian’. Instead he highlights a ‘central tension’ in ‘educational progressivism’ where Rousseau acts as a puppet master ostensibly following Emile’s interests whilst manipulating them behind the scenes. That tension exists only if your model of education is that it must be either adult-led or child-led. In Rousseau’s framework, the child needs to learn certain things about the world, but can do so in a way that makes sense to them. There is no tension because the teacher and the child are working together; not either/or, but both/and.

Émile is about a one-to-one education and some teachers would argue that it’s impossible to teach like that in a class of thirty children. It probably would be unworkable in a normative education system that ‘expects’ children to know specific things at a specific age, but Montessori schools have been using this approach successfully for a century, and a variant worked well at the primary I attended in the 1960s – class sizes 16 (5-6s), 24 (7-8s) and 35 (9-11s).  What Greg means by ‘Rousseauian’ is essentially a caricature of what Rousseau was saying.

Nonsense

I agree that there’s a lot of nonsense in education, and Early Years is no exception, but what Greg refers to is an antipathy to ‘formal learning’ embedded in government guidelines, contrary to the evidence supporting ‘formal teaching methods’ in developing the foundations of academic skills.  What he appears to be saying is that Rousseau came up with a daft, inconsistent idea about education, and Early Years teachers are told Rousseau was right, so they should avoid formal learning as it could be harmful.

This is again a caricature. Anyone who’s taught young children will know that a major obstacle to them acquiring academic skills is their immaturity. They have immature visual and auditory discrimination, motor control, impulse control, social skills, and awareness of how the world works. Those skills develop very effectively through play (you can see it happening), and Early Years settings almost invariably use directed play to help all children develop the skills they’ll need. There’s no tension in the play being directed, either via instruction or setting up a particular environment, because what the teacher and children do is complementary.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some early years teachers advocate undirected play and/or feel that any hint of formal learning is harmful, but my guess is they’d be few and far between. Most early years teachers use formal teaching, but it might look different to what Greg envisages. How effective is formal teaching until children can control their arms, legs, fingers, tongue, attention, bowel and bladder?

Criticism of ideas

Greg says his original tweet was ‘criticism of ideas rather than people’, and claims ‘many responses to it were of a personal nature’ implying that he wasn’t entitled to an opinion because he’s not an Early Years teacher. He says he would welcome opinions on secondary maths teaching and if people are wrong, will happily point out why they are wrong. All very reasonable, except that…

  • I’m not clear how “there’s a lot of Rousseauian nonsense in Early Years” is a ‘criticism of ideas’. To me, it looks more like a throwaway comment that indirectly impugns both Rousseau and Early Years teaching without explaining why. Which appears to be a bit ad hominem itself.
  • The responses Greg screenshots don’t question his entitlement to an opinion. Instead they question is his entitlement to sling mud at Early Years teachers without explanation.
  • The responses were pointing out why they thought he, Early Years teacher or not, was wrong.

Greg’s blogpost offered him an opportunity to justify his comment about ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Turns out it’s based on a caricature of Rousseau and of Early Years teaching, and any complaints about the comment, regardless of their validity, are treated as ad hominem.  Is there any hope for constructive debate?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.

modularity

The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only hotly debated interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of folk systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.

intelligence

In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of… school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a folk construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.

motivation-to-control

The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their individual control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead – strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that problem solving of the type used by Darwin and Wallace requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Darwin, Linnaeus, Owen and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. So each of them had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced their problem- space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively ‘biologically primary’; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via ‘biologically secondary knowledge’ (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p.173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, although Geary’s evidence is not always contentious, sometimes his conclusions are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The surveys were two studies, the American schoolchildren 865 elementary school students, the attitudes and preferences were competence beliefs and task values, and the academic areas were math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to generalise the results, overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.

conclusion

I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?

references

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

 

 

Home education: the consultation

I’ve just submitted my response to the government consultation on home education (closes 2 July). The consultation documents (a call for evidence, and proposed guidance for local authorities and for parents) are the most poorly drafted I’ve ever seen. Home education is an obscure area of the law. Here’s why I’m interested…and why you should be too.

it’s confusing

Home education is described as ‘elective’ because parents choose it. There wasn’t much choice in our case. One kid wasn’t well enough to continue attending school, but the local authority (said it) couldn’t provide home tuition because the consultant couldn’t give a date for return to school. School provision for the other fell apart after the school’s brilliant SENCO left and we couldn’t find a nearby suitable alternative.

When we started home-educating, the LA offered a visit from an ‘adviser’. I accepted – I did have a few SEN questions.  But the ‘adviser’ said he couldn’t advise because home education was my responsibility; his job was to assess the suitability of my provision. He arranged for a colleague with SEN experience to visit. The colleague was willing to advise, but his advice contradicted that of the occupational therapist. I didn’t accept any more home visits.

My local authority isn’t the only one confused about its duties towards home-educated children. At least two sets of government guidelines have been issued to clarify LA obligations, the most recent in 2007. In 2009, the then Labour government commissioned a review of elective home education by Graham Badman, newly appointed chair of Haringey Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. (I’ve blogged about the political background to the Badman review here.)

it’s the law

The current legislative model for home education starts with an education suitable for the individual child. Parents have a legal duty to cause their child to have such an education (s.7 Education Act 1996) – wherever it takes place. LAs should make enquiries ‘if it appears’ a child isn’t receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) EA 1996), and must make arrangements for identifying children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996).

In other words, parents are assumed to be complying with the law unless there is evidence indicating they might not be, at which point the LA can take action. This model is commonly applied in respect of other legal duties for individuals (e.g. taxation, vehicle registration). It’s not watertight – no model is – but it’s the most effective approach we’ve found to date.

Graham Badman’s conceptual model of the legislative framework was different. He saw home education as requiring a ‘balance’ between the parent’s and the child’s rights. But parents don’t have a ‘right’ to home educate, they have a duty to provide a suitable education. And legislation has to take into account the interests of different parties within the existing legislative framework, not to ‘balance’ rights regardless of the framework.

Badman’s conceptual model was way off the mark, but at least he explained it, and his recommendations were internally consistent with it, even if they were at odds with the legislative framework. The new proposals are all over the place.

why consult?

The consultation was prompted by “lacunae or shortcomings in the current legislation which have been drawn to the department’s attention by local authorities and by local children’s safeguarding boards” (2.3)*, i.e. organisations experiencing ‘confusion’ (2.3e), being involved in frequent disputes with parents (5.4), and for whom the previous guidelines had to be written. Despite very diverse views about legislation amongst home-educating families, there’s no indication they were involved in framing the consultation documents.

Local authorities’ main concerns are:

  • Home-educated children being radicalised.
  • Children attending unregistered schools under the guise of being home-educated.
  • LAs being unable to identify children not receiving a suitable education unless they know the identities of home-educated children, can find out whether or not a child’s education is suitable, and can monitor it regularly.
  • Home-educated children might be at risk of harm.
  • Some parents “willing and able to be fined repeatedly can continue unsatisfactory provision of home education indefinitely” (L6.20).

The focus of the consultation documents is on compiling registers of children and the sanctions that can be imposed on parents who don’t co-operate with the local authority, rather than on how best to ensure all children get the suitable education defined in law.

Proposals for change include;

  • compulsory registration of home-educated children
  • regular monitoring
  • LAs should have access to the child
  • LAs should know the views of the child about home education
  • not receiving a suitable education constituting a safeguarding issue.

The first three proposals have long been on the LAs’ wishlist because LAs believe those measures will pick up children not receiving a suitable education or at risk of harm. There is no evidence to support that belief. In fact, any evidence was noticeable by its absence from the consultation documents.

absence of evidence

Local authorities frequently see the majority of children getting a perfectly adequate (often very good) education in schools. They rarely see the substantial number who end up not attending school, in pupil referral units (PRUs), or being educated at home.

They also see a very small number of shockingly memorable cases of children educated at home who are neglected or abused. What they don’t see is the large number of home-educated children who get a perfectly adequate (often very good) education at home, and are completely safe and well.

I can’t find figures for the number of school attendance orders issued by local authorities – which suggests it’s very small. Fewer than 0.4% of home educated children had child protection plans in 2009 (see the parliamentary exchange about that here ). And in none of the cases of neglect or abuse cited as examples of the risk to home-educated children, have the children been previously unknown to the authorities. In fact, in several of the cases cited by the NSPCC, the failure of the authorities to follow procedures properly contributed to the harm experienced by the child.

If you don’t have evidence of the extent of a perceived problem, or of the effectiveness of your proposed solutions, your argument is based on speculation, and speculation knows no bounds. As a consequence, the consultation documents:

  1. cherry-pick human rights

States that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or are party to the European Convention on Human Rights must have regard to all the Articles when they legislate – not just those that support recommendations governments happen to think are a good idea. The Articles about a private family life weren’t mentioned.

  1. ignore legislative principles

Even when human rights conventions were a mere twinkle in the eyes of politicians and lawyers, UK law enshrined principles such as the presumption of innocence, protection from undue state intervention, and reliance on evidence. The consultation documents blithely ignore all three.

  1. change the wording of the legislation

Some legislation is cited inaccurately in a way that changes its meaning e.g Part V Children Act 1989 (L7.8) – the ‘reasonable cause’ threshold.

  1. extend the original scope of the legislation

For example, the duty to make arrangements to identify children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996), is turned into a duty to find out whether or not a child is receiving a suitable education, exceeding the ‘if it appears’ limitation imposed by s.437(1).

  1. cite irrelevant legislation

For example in L9.4c, s.13 EA 1996 (availability of primary and secondary education) and s.175 EA 2002 (general duty to promote and safeguard children’s welfare). Some legislation is referred to despite being described as irrelevant e.g. s.17A Children Act 1989 (L10.2).

  1. conflate education and safeguarding

Despite warning against conflating education and safeguarding, which are distinct issues in law, section 7 of the guidance for LAs and section 5 of the guidance for parents proceed to do precisely that. These very muddled sections appear to be the result of LAs wanting a way to deal with the small number of parents mentioned in L6.20.

  1. assume average is normative

Requirements and advice for schools are cited despite being irrelevant to home-educated children e.g. L9.4. Children vary widely – they are not departures from the ‘average’ (L9.4e).

  1. focus on bureaucracy

The focus of the law is on an education suitable for the individual child. The focus of the consultation, in contrast, is on compiling a register of children not receiving an education suitable to the average child, and on compliance by local authorities and parents.

  1. offer sanctions not support

The consultation emphasises sanctions that can be imposed on parents who fail to co-operate with LAs. Significantly it does not propose a statutory duty for local authorities to provide advice and support for home educating families. This calls into question the claim that children receiving a suitable education is a local authority’s chief concern.

take home lessons

Whoever drafted the 2007 EHE Guidelines understood the legislation, its purpose and the principles behind it. The current consultation documents appear to have been drafted by someone who sees legislation as being about people’s views; and whoever cites the most pieces of legislation bearing a superficial resemblance to their view, wins.

For many children, home education is their last shot at getting a suitable education. If there’s evidence that home education is causing them significant problems, let’s see it. If there’s evidence to support the proposed changes to the law, let’s see that too. And consult on that, not whatever local authorities think would make their lives easier regardless of the impact it might have on local families.

If the Department for Education can produce consultation documents as poor as these in respect of home education, they can do it for other areas of education too.  Parents of children with SEND, beware!

 

*References in brackets are to the consultation document. References prefixed L are the proposed guidance for LAs.

Bold Beginnings – could do better

Bold Beginnings, an Ofsted report on the Reception curriculum, was published at the end of November. It caused a bit of a stir among Early Years teachers. I thought they might be over-reacting, an understandable tendency developed in response to endless assumptions that the children they teach ‘just play’. Last week, an open letter with over 1700 signatories questioning the report’s conclusions was published in the Guardian. An article in response wondered what all the fuss was about. So I read the report. Here’s what I thought. References in brackets are to the paragraph numbers.

The report was commissioned as part of a review of the curriculum. 41 primary schools  judged good or outstanding in their last Ofsted inspection (86) were visited and asked to complete an online questionnaire.

implicit assumptions

The first thing that struck me was the implicit assumptions on which the report is based. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things.   For one thing, they’re assumptions; no one wheels out evidence to support them – and sometimes there isn’t any supporting evidence. For another thing, they’re implicit – no one spells them out, so they’re easy to miss. Sometimes the people making the assumptions aren’t aware that they’re making them. Here are three.

falling behind  

The first implicit assumption appears in the first paragraph. It refers to the “painful and unnecessary consequences of falling behind their peers” (p.4). I find the idea of children ‘falling behind’ baffling. Falling behind what, exactly? The school population is, like any other large population, very varied. And then there’s the age range. Expecting the youngest children in a Reception class to be at the same level of attainment as the oldest, flies in the face of everything we know about human development and population statistics.   Then there’s “in 2016, around one third of children did not have the essential knowledge and understanding they needed to reach a good level of development [as defined by government] by the age of five” (6). Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would expect 50% of children to be developing more slowly than average in a large population. The assumption that children can ‘fall behind’ and should ‘catch up’ is made by an education system designed around administrative convenience, not the educational needs of children.

increased expectations in Year 1

Reception and Year 1 teachers agreed that the vital, smooth transition from the foundation stage to Year 1 was difficult because the early learning goals were not aligned with the now-increased expectations of the national curriculum.” (p4 §8) The national curriculum isn’t a Law of Nature or Act of God. It’s a system designed by human beings. There is no reason why early learning has to adapt to expectations for children in Year 1. Year 1 expectations could instead adapt to early learning. The report complains “there is no clear curriculum in Reception” (p5 §3). There’s no reason why a clear Reception curriculum shouldn’t be developed, but the current lack of one might be because many children in Reception classes are below the statutory education age.

the curriculum

A third implicit assumption runs through the entire report. Despite the review being of the curriculum, the focus is relentlessly on reading, writing and mathematics – all fundamental, but only three of the skills children need to acquire to access a broad curriculum and understand how the world works.

Bold Beginnings appears to have been written by someone with little knowledge of what is taught and learned at the Early Years Foundation Stage. That might have been a deliberate choice to avoid the bias towards play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning perceived by some headteachers (81), but it resulted in an impoverished analysis. The focus is on reading, writing and mathematics rather than the curriculum; play is mentioned numerous times but not discussed in detail; and the purpose of  education appears to be GCSE grades.

the three Rs

Schools are supposed to be places where children learn, and for Reception age children there is much to learn. About physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geography, history, music, art and drama. I’m not recommending formal subject areas for 4-5 year-olds, but found it mystifying that the report makes only a passing reference to ‘science and the humanities’ (13) and ‘music and science’ (21).  The report’s author doesn’t seem aware that at this age children are forming basic concepts about solids, liquids, gases, plants and animals, maps, timelines, rhythm, melody, art materials, scripts and roles, that form the foundation of later learning (Rakison & Oakes, 2003).   Instead, the author sees reading, writing and number as “the building blocks for all other learning” (7), completely overlooking all the learning children do that doesn’t involve reading, writing or numbers.

Although speaking and talking are mentioned in passing, language skills are seen in terms of their contribution to reading and writing (p4 §3) not as an end in themselves. Reading and writing are crucial skills, but the report overlooks the amount of spoken communication that goes on between human beings at all levels.

The report’s author is a big fan of systematic synthetic phonics, but I felt painted themselves into a corner when discussing children’s books.  It makes sense for reading schemes to introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) one-by-one, as the report recommends, to secure children’s knowledge and build up their confidence. Books with unfamiliar GPCs are cautioned against because they encourage children to use other strategies, such as guessing (53, 54). But it wasn’t clear how parents or teachers could avoid this if they read a wide range of stories to, or with, children.

And then there’s the mathematics. What’s actually discussed isn’t mathematics as such, or even arithmetic. It’s number. Number is obviously a foundational mathematical skill, but I couldn’t find any reference to shape, spatial relationships, or operations – all foundational mathematical concepts that most 4 year-olds are beginning to get to grips with.

play

The report mentions play numerous times but its role is seen as “primarily for developing children’s personal, social and emotional skills” (p4 §5). There are many references to teachers knowing how children learn through play, but what they know seems to be a mystery to the report’s author.   There’s a rather breathless account of children dramatizing the Three Billy Goats Gruff (35), suggesting that inspectors weren’t very familiar with an activity that’s probably been a feature of every nursery and infant class since at least the 1930s.

achievement

The report appears to see achievement solely in terms of succeeding at the tasks set by schools, rather than in terms of children getting a good knowledge and understanding of how the world works.   For example “The research is clear: a child’s early education lasts a lifetime. Done well, it can mean the difference between gaining seven Bs at GCSE compared with seven Cs.7”(5).  Leaving aside the fact that the reference refers to 8 GCSEs not 7, and that a correlation doesn’t indicate a causal relationship, framing the importance of education solely in terms of GCSE results is troubling. The author of the report doubtless got at least 7 B grades at GCSE, but that doesn’t appear to have equipped him or her with adequate research skills.

the research

Ofsted do not appear to be aware of the impact of their own inspections. For example, the statutory moderation of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile comes in for some stick, one complaint being “a moderator expected to see three pieces of evidence for every separate sentence within the early learning goals” (77). I vividly recall my son’s Year 1 teachers complaining about the insistence of Ofsted in their previous inspection on exactly this. (My son wasn’t very happy about it either, asking why, if he’d shown he could do something, he then had to do it again.)

Then, in Annex B, we have the online questionnaire sent to schools. Q1 doesn’t have an ‘other’ box for anyone completing the form who isn’t a head, early years or reception teacher. And in Q2 there’s an elementary error that most primary school pupils would know to avoid. The narrow focus of the report is clear in Q12. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an Ofsted questionnaire cause raised eyebrows. One teenager thought a questionnaire sent to families “looks like it was written by a Year 7”. It did too. I’d expect better research skills from a regulatory body.

the narrative

Bold Beginnings isn’t an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Reception curriculum. Instead it propagates a particular narrative that goes like this: 1) Because the long-term outcomes are better for children who attend pre-school provision and attend it for longer, and 2) because teachers at good and outstanding primary schools believe that formal education begins in the Reception year, that 3) the Reception curriculum should be shaped by the increased expectations for children in Year 1, and 4) that reading, writing and number need greater emphasis, it stands to reason that formal education should start in Reception, be shaped by the Y1 curriculum, and should focus on reading, writing and number. But the narrative doesn’t hold water. Here’s why.

1) Research (Sylva et al 2014) indicates that long-term educational outcomes are better for children who have attended pre-school provision, and attended it for longer. That’s the current informal provision. The research doesn’t support the assumption that the earlier formal education starts the better. As far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that starting formal education later (in some countries age 6 or 7) has a detrimental impact on long-term outcomes.

2) “Nearly 95% of the school staff who responded to Ofsted’s survey questionnaire believed that Nursery and/or Reception signalled the start of school. Leaders clearly believe that the moment a child starts attending their school, in whatever capacity, their educational journey has begun. While Year 1 may be the official start, it is clear that the Reception Year is more commonly recognised as the beginning of a child’s formal education” (3). That’s interesting, but an education system shouldn’t be designed around beliefs, whoever holds them. Initial teacher education (ITE) tutors come in for criticism from some headteachers for their emphasis on play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning (81), but the ITE tutors’ beliefs, however strongly evidence-based, don’t play any part in the Bold Beginnings narrative. The word ‘believed’ is used 14 times in this report. That’s probably 14 times too many.

3) There’s no reason why the EYFS curriculum shouldn’t shape the Year 1 curriculum, rather than vice versa.

4) There’s no reason not to improve reading, writing and mathematics in Reception classes, but they are not “the building blocks for all other learning” (7) and the report ignores the vast number of other building blocks routinely developed by Early Years teachers.

conclusion

This is not a well-researched, objective assessment of the Reception curriculum. The research is inadequate, the evaluation of evidence leaves much to be desired, and the recommendations are based largely on the beliefs of teachers in a sample of 41 schools. Ofsted should be leading the way. Instead, they are falling behind.

References

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.
Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj, I,  & Taggart, B (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) Project. Department for Education.