Monday, 14 January 2013

Some sanity on study leave, please

Whatever happened to study leave? Cutting study leave prior to exams - a drift which has happened at different rates in different schools, but all gone the wrong way over the past decade or more - was motivated by several different reasons: one idealistic-if-misplaced, one spinelessly convenient, one exploitative - and perhaps a depressing fourth. Importantly, the agendas of developing independent learners and ending study leave are explicitly opposed, despite the claims of the cancel-study-leave-brigade that learning is improved by their actions.
First the idealistic argument for cancellation: students sent on study leave often simply don't study. They doss around. They waste time. They play games. Etc. (I don't know where this comes from. I studied hard during my study leave and so did almost everyone I knew. Slouched on the sofa with the TV in the background while I scribbled, and a pack of biscuits beside me, may not have looked entirely studious to suspicous eyes, but I promise you it was going the way I knew best for me. I still defy anyone, decades on, to take me to task on the plays of Brecht, trigonometry or the correlation between safe playgrounds and the social class of an area. And in fact a majority of my current students and tutees rail against being forced to attend "pointless revision lessons when I could be at home revising better myself.") But let's follow the argument through. "They don't study if given independence, so keep them in lessons until the last possible week / day / hour / minute before the exam," goes the mantra, "and they will do better." Well, maybe. (Actually, maybe not, not only because of the psychological issues of displacement and interference, which suggest late revision is counter-productive, but because the demotivating and distracting effects of being over-regulated may reduce home engagement: a half-engaged hour at school may prevent a focused hour at home. In addition, any teacher-led / -structured revision is inevitably useless for most of the class, and reduces student ownership of the process to zero.) What you're saying is that your whole philosophy is based on the inability of students to motivate or manage themselves, to take any initiative or show any independence, any responsibility for themselves. If this is the limited view you hold of them - what do you think will happen the moment they go to university? Or need to get a job in an astonishingly competitive and ruthless job market where all reasonable help or support has just been axed? If you view students as so ill-prepared to take responsibility for their own choices, actions and future - ye gods, what have you been doing with them for the SEVEN THOUSAND HOURS of education they have had in your institution? "It's too important to gamble with letting them study by themselves!" - No, it's SO important that they can do that by the time they reach exams that absolutely everything you do with that seven thousand hours should build towards it! Wood for the trees and all that. You aren't half as responsible for their grade performance in exams as you are for their future life prospects across the board: deep and lasting self-responsibility, not some quick fix, is the aim of schooling. School is short and life is long. Check the timeline. Scrap the revision lessons and send them home. Have a code of ethics and ideals which is longer than your immediate performance management target list.
Hordes of people right now will be reading the last few sentences and snorting with derision that I don't realise other forces are afoot. "But you can't let them have study leave," they chant in unison, "it would harm the attendance data!" Kindly unhitch your cart from in front of the horse. Tell your dog to stop being wagged by its tail. This blindly-obedient convenience ("I don't need to make a decision, some remotely-required data has made it for me") is ridiculous and merits no more comment.
The idealism is ill-judged, and the excuse of attendance data is thin: cowardly or stupid. But the significant reason for refusing to give study leave, the exploitation, is more malicious: keeping students in schools longer might be simply because ambitious careerist deputies / heads / chief education officers get to look tough by demanding more work for free out of their staff (and perhaps by pressuring students unnecessarily, too.) These people - not as rare as you'd think - tend to enjoy trumpeting how much harder their staff and students work than surrounding schools, and take pride in how much they can force teachers to hold compulsory revision sessions which pointlessly consist of demotivated teachers repeat-lecturing stuff students either know already or can't take in that way. The local press love it because it is "extra schooling" and because it keeps (a tiny tiny number of) "problem" students off the street. Politicians of all colours make press-release favourites of these leaders, just as they do of the morons who talk of teaching all through the summer holidays. As with most "do more and don't question it" initiatives, this is not value-free. Teachers did not spend May on the beach during the halcyon days of study leave now lost. They did slow down a bit and relax - to the kind of pace most normal jobs are at. And in doing so they gave themselves time to reflect for the first time in the year on issues of practice, programme design, building cross-curricular projects, how to change how they delivered courses next year. They improved because they gave themselves time to stop and think. Killing study leave kills that creative, gradual, reflective and renewing process. Impoverished practice and a lack of change and dynamism is the result. At its most extreme, heads brought forward the next school year to start in June, as soon as exams were underway for the departing year group. No time to stop and think at all. Either this is typical education management macho teacher-bullying, or (if you're a real conspiracy theorist) the aim of stopping the profession thinking was exactly the point - more unquestioning robots, please. I'm not willing to subscribe to quite such a JFK line on this but even so the result is staid and unreflective, exhausted practice, year-round. You could use the time instead, as a leadership team, to launch productive CPD and practice-sharing, and innovative projects - but that would require intelligent thinking and probably even a degree of professionally inclusive and democratic action at leadership level, wouldn't it? Nah... easier just to make them stay induring study leave...
So here's my thought, Mr. Gove - I think, presumably like you from the things you say, that students ought to learn to take responsibility for themselves in good time before reaching university or the workforce, both for their own good and that of the wider economy and society; that they and their parents are the key agents for ensuring they do their work, meet their obligations and achieve what they can; that teachers and schools should stop spoon-feeding increasingly low-grade and banal mini-chunks of information for students to be crammed with until the last moment. I agree with you on this issue at least that a student's socio-economic background isn't an excuse: everyone must step up to the plate at the final exam and be judged equally, and schools ought to be developing in students those real skills of initiative in everything they do ready for that public reckoning. I agree with you that schools should be more ambitious and devote their time with students to building the right mindset and values from day one, about independence and self-responsibility.
So I want a national dictat from central government on study leave. And no, I don't want you to ban it; I want you to make it legally COMPULSORY at all schools studying UK syllabi, in the UK or abroad. I want schools to be told that no student is allowed to be taught, mentored, lectured or otherwise provided-to, in person or remotely, by any school or any staff member of a school, from a point, say, two weeks after Easter in their exam year. All schools would be obliged to follow this prescription as simply and absolutely as they are obliged to follow any other exam regulation - and always do, to the letter, so - critics - please don't pretend it's unworkable.

And the result? Instant level playing field between all schools and all students, with the message: it's down to you. Instant requirement for schools to shift their whole focus - however they do it - to the development of independent study skills, self-motivation, and good planning, rather than force-spoon-feeding content repeatedly. And with the freed-up teacher time - as well as allowing some reflection, planning and thinking time - you could massively increase your three Rs direct tuition to younger students, with every teacher of every subject sent to do one-on-one literacy and numeracy support for younger individuals at more influence-able ages - or send every teacher in the country on a IT coding course, if you like - or to learn Mandarin; or triple the Work Experience opportunities for all fourteen year-olds. Or get teachers to team-teach in other subjects and learn a wider range of skills from one another. Or create a ten-week window of wider activities and enrichment for year groups remaining in school. Etc. So make study leave a fixed legal requirement with a set date for all schools. Go on, Govey. I dare you.
Of course this won't happen, and the true reason is horrific: the other, not-to-be-mentioned purpose of keeping students in classes until the hour the exam starts is social control: teachers and schools are cheaper and more effective than policing the streets, providing youth facilities or expecting parents to take the lead with their own children. People believe, but fundamentally won't be caught saying, that they think that study leave leads to students running feral in the streets of sleepy market towns, grunging around / skateboarding / nicking stuff from Tesco / terrifying old ladies and / or generally being drunk and groping one another irreverently by the Cenotaph. Far better to keep them in school until the last possible minute. Examine for a moment the premises that underpin this philosophy:
  • schools have the capacity to, and should function as, places of restraint to keep dangerous characters out of the public space - i.e. schools are prisons
  • no-one else wants responsibility for our youth - not police, local councils, employers or parents - not hard to see where the current youth unemployment figures come from, huh?
  • young people are predominantly likely to be a danger to society rather than an asset - the litany of alarm (cf James Arthur's work - now running the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at Birmingham University)
  • we don't expect schools to have inculcated any independence or focus on self-managed learning into students in all of the years they've had them...
  • ... and we're going to reinforce that negative presumption and poor practice with a constant insistence on no-study-leave which compounds all these negative messages about the function of schools and the incapacity of both schools / teachers and young people themselves
Clearly, no study leave is idiocy. It disembowels (and advertises the powerless disembowelling of) any effort towards using education to develop independent initiative in young people. What else could education possibly be for, if not independence and the building of one's own capacity to meet the world? How much more wrong could we possibly get it? And all because we think - "don't give study leave or they leave their study!" - we're doing it in the interests of students. This is the definition of spoiling them - ruining them, in fact. Like my recent post about the flawed idealism behind attendance obsession - so much for the best intentions of orthodox thinking. Until we see that student independence and development of initiative and self-responsibility is the key, national, aim, no individual school that understands the damage caused by obsessive attendance orthodoxy could risk giving a sensible length of study leave when their competitors use every minute for crammed revision and social policing; it requires a brave rejection of the vile idea that schools are prisons / daycare centres for teenagers, that attendance is all-important, and a decisive shift to making students responsible for themselves. What we need is a national ruling from the Secretary of State to make study leave compulsory. Have you got the nerve, Mr. Gove?

Attendance is not the be-all and end-all

How exactly did we subscribe to the myth of attendance being more important than engagement? One of my biggest bugbears of the last few years has been the tedious puritan orthodoxy that missing a single day of school means doing badly. I am constantly bowled over by the incredible commitment of the people who so tirelessly chase the attendance agenda but in many cases something pretty unintellectual, and indeed intellectually dishonest, is happening - and, as so often in education, it's the abuse of statistics at the root of the nonsense. Yes, poor attendance is correlated with poor attainment. But (a) the correlation is much less notable below the highly problematic low levels - down at 80%, say - so you're not entitled to automatically extend the principle and argue that 98% is likely to mean higher attainment than 96%, (b) we teach KS3 students that "a correlation is NOT a cause" - why are we then so intellectually dishonest as to pretend it is in this case? and (c) we need to aim for people to internalise the value of education, not comply under threat and bribery with policing of trivia.

Each in turn. (a) is obvious. Don't generalise from statistical truths to untruths. This is clumsy maths. We know who the kids with attendance problems are and we should deal sensitively, and time-intensively, with that. But we don't need a chart in our classrooms, we don't need to read attendance percentages out monthly, and we can stop pretending that above 95% there are any meaningful distinctions. If I did the attendance figures for my KS4 classes in the last few years there are students that lost 15% of all lessons for self-important core catch-up tuition. They still went on to get better grades than in the core lesson they were topping up - which proves (besides the questionable delivery of some of that core programme) that you can miss swathes of lessons and still get A grades. How are the attendance junkies to explain that phenomenon, then? Stop pretending 96.9% indicates the imminent collapse of a student's educational future. And the public charts and lists displayed in tutor rooms can seem a little bit like medieval liturgy, the mindless congregation reciting by rote the expected response to the priesthood's formal lines - or perhaps like state-sanctioned public bullying. This is not developing a generation who are masters of independent thought. It is breeding compliant robots who think being physically present is more significant than being intellectually aboard. Computer says no.

(b) is infuritating. Level 4 Maths students get this. When two things are correlated, it does not mean one causes another. Usually it is due to a (less visible) root cause underpinning both. In this case the root cause is obvious - disaffection with school. And don't argue that can't be measured where attendance can - if you have any competent conception of student voice, or half decent pastoral leaders and / or support, and whom you trust - detection and even rough quantification of disaffection with school is simple to assess. Underlying the most serious non-attendance is problematic disaffection - but this does not underlie a 94/96% difference. Nor, by the way, is it conducive to long-term motivation of fairly able students to push them to attend when ill, leaving them switched off in lessons and lengthening sickness periods. Intellectual absenteeism and protracted low-level ill health are massively more serious problems in our schools than the odd day off.

I should be fair to the attendance enthusiasts. By accident, the system works. Tireless tutors, year leaders and assistant heads pursue attendance figures like the leprechaun's pot of gold, and in doing so tend to have endless persuasive discussions with students which end up on the magic question - why are you not attending? By accident, they strike oil. The correlation's root cause - disaffection - is discovered and addressed - but they themselves, as well as the students, remain trapped in the illusion of the correlation - that it is the attendance itself that matters. It is not. That's just a symptom. Go to the cause and bypass the surface feature. Meanwhile, it is becoming harder and harder to run meaningful school trips for the engaged as even students come to think they cannot afford a single lesson off.

Which leads us to the idea of internalised values. (c) is valid but I'm not going to dwell on it. I strongly believe that - and as a psychologist could write reams of evidence for why - token economies of bribery and threat are anathema to the long-term acquisition of internalised value-based independence in education. But I don't want this to be the thrust of my argument, because the other two claims - that there is an ignored root cause, and that attendance is only a real issue in a tiny proportion of cases - are more important. All this is without detailing much further the fact that an obsessive focus on attendance has massively increased the number of clearly sick children coming into my classroom, pale and sweaty, and sneezing all over other children just so they can get a Mars bar and a certificate at the end of term. It's like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme: treat the troops better and use some common sense.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Initiative vs systems, and how the Nelson touch is lost

This will be one for the military history fans - but please don't stop reading there, the 90% - bear with the analogy. I hope it will be revealing.

Several former colleagues at the moment are reflecting on the frankly depressing turn their school has taken. Whether it's the effect of brutal cuts, the Gove-driven nonsense that's causing rigged-down results / unsuitable EBacc pressures / ever-upward pressure on "minimum" standards at GCSE, the pressure (and the cottage industry in how) to get "from Good to Outstanding" or the increasingly defensive behaviour of a Head who's newly discovered that running an Academy means not just freedom but sole legal responsibility too and has become ultra-conservative in response - I seem to be hearing a string of misery from friends old and newer. And after a while it became clear that there is a common root cause of sorts: fixed standardisation, the great evil of a decade ago, seems to be making a full-blooded Slytherin comeback right now.

We'd nearly learnt to slay this dragon. The Blunkett literacy / numeracy era deserved the lauding it received in raising baseline standards; but it topped-out early, plateauing once the (small) number of inadequate or lazy teachers had been pulled into line or moved along elsewhere; beyond this, it was clear by the start of the last decade that a residual block existed that couldn't be improved by more of the same ultra-systematic model of all teachers being required to work from an identikit script. The interested should read Michael Fullan's various writings from early last decade on the importance instead of capacity-building across the system - all teachers needed nuanced understanding, a range of skills, and innovative and responsive mindsets in order to break that plateau barrier.

And it looked for a while as if the supertanker had turned. The revolutionary and liberating message of people like Paul Ginnis (an excellent INSET provider this year at my school) began to gain popular momentum among not just the teachers who had admired him for years, but also the leaders who needed to direct daily change in practice in their schools. Formative assessment, beginning with the famous Black & Williams paper, began to gain widespread interest, and even understanding, in instructing us to assess less frequently but more powerfully, and for the explicit, and usually ungraded, purpose of improvement. We briefly realised that value-added might even need social context as well as raw data for a while. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, no man for liberal ideals or anything resembling teacher freedoms, recently stated that there is no one model of the outstanding lesson. A kind of hopeful individualism and contextualism began to bloom in schooling.

Yet if experiences I'm hearing about recently are anything to go by, we're witnessing a resurgence of the old bureaucratism, a counter-reformation back to the old standardisations and classroom scripts for "good learning." Much of the current pressure on teachers is phrased in the new language - learning not teaching, formative feedback, differentiation, variety, student-voice or student-led - but is throwback-prescriptive, ultra-dogmatic and often inaccurately or dishonestly abuses recent research breakthroughs, cherry-picking what suits and blankly reversing them where the politics differs: you must mark this way; your lesson must be structured thus; this proforma must only and always be used; all reports will be between X and Y words in length and tone; right down to the words and comment structures you must use not merely in written feedback but in casual oral interchange with students - everywhere the fixed and centrally-dictated script seems to be achieving an ugly resurgence. It's like a horror movie franchise where the beast just won't die.

And so, to mix metaphors, to war. Not literally - just for a better analogy. Let's start with Nelson. Even the historically-disinterested will have a general inkling, courtesy of a large slab of real estate in central London, of the national idolisation we (rightly) give to old Horatio. (We quite literally put the man on a podium. Hats off to him.) He was famed for what has for two centuries been called "the Nelson touch." It meant not merely an ability to inspire faith, loyalty and tremendous endeavour from his men; it meant an uncanny skill of leadership to develop in those under him an incredible capacity to mirror his own genius, to think with equal skill, daring and innovation, and to engage effectively with the task in hand, independently of command or system of instruction, no matter what the time, place or people to hand. He regularly referred to his captains as his band of brothers and not merely did all show remarkable commitment to the cause, but almost all went on to be excellent admirals in turn, such was the calibre of Nelson's leadership. He spent swathes of time discussing tactics, options, scenarios and approaches with them, but these were no delivered lectures; his engagement with them, enhancing them, was on terms approaching social equality for the era: he was interested in their desire to speak freely, their potential to each respond to an emerging situation skilfully, rather than being set on indoctrinating uniform procedures.

Evident in battle after battle throughout his career, this obsession with building capacity and freedom of action is best evidenced at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798, with the utter destruction of a larger French fleet. Anchored alongside the shore to force the more veteran British fleet to engage on one side only, the leading French captain had left just a little too large a gap inshore of his ship. Without instruction - and in abject defiance of "play it safe" usual naval practice - Captain Foley of the Goliath, seeing the narrow gap, decided to seize the opportunity and take the risk. He found the line, cut under the French vanguard, and swung sharply to attack the second ship in line; the following captains showed equal independence of judgement and followed him - again without a word from Nelson - to undercut too and engage the first and fourth French ships. From a central command perspective, chaos ensued, as each individual British ship spontaneously selected and aggressively pursued an opportunity to approach their focus with excellence and complete freedom of manoeuvre. Nelson essentially gave no commands, and no system was followed - in fact systemic thinking was roundly ignored by all the British captains - and complete surprise and success followed. The following British ships swung to port early to engage the opposite side of the French line and even the later ships, recognising that the front of the French line was now trapped and overwhelmed, again independently decided to make best use of themselves further down the French battle-line: the battered Bellerophon valiantly placed itself, massively outgunned, against the French flagship and another battleship, in order to delay or prevent the involvement of the French centre before the front of their fleet could be reduced. From an apparent chaos of independent action emerged compelling evidence of the power of giving your subordinates freedom to think and act independently.

Consider for a moment the implications in terms of leadership, action and capacity this required, and what this might mean for leaders of teachers in schools. You would not merely have to ensure your staff were fully motivated to participate entirely in all things at all costs. You would have to have any and all of them willing to take risks, make decisions without reference, often in exploratory ways counter to easiest or most common practice. You would need them each individually to make the choice they thought was best in every situation, not the one suggested by a written document or theory of best practice; you would spurn formal, especially written, policy or the idea of suiting Admiralty / inspectorate theorists sat in distant armchairs. You would need to encourage people to embrace certain kinds of chaos which offer the chance to overwhelm plodding system-driven thinkers like the anchored French line. You would measure your success as a leader by how little you needed to instruct, not by how clear your instructions were; you would measure your team's success by how many different routes of action they were capable of, and spontaneously chose and used well, not how standardised and "consistent" their practice was. You would value those who unquestioningly took on difficult tasks unlikely to succeed, in the best interests of the whole, rather than criticising their performance in the face of impossibility. You would foster the ability of those band of brothers like they were your heirs, not your staff or servants. And so effectively did Nelson do this all the time that at Trafalgar, his last, great, mortal, victory, he explictly decided to challenge the massively numerically superior combined French and Spanish fleet by sailing - in direct contravention of theory, orthodoxy and authorised naval practice - straight into the allied flank, because when this caused the disintegration of the enemy's fleet order, his far more skilful and independently-minded captains would thrive in the resultant free-for-all. He knew that by shaking things up, and developing independent action in all your subordinates you can defeat any odds: how's that for a moral for schools? Someone ought to write that on a badge somewhere in Latin. Try picturing as a head what that would mean in your school - or as a teacher in your classroom.

The naval analogy isn't done, I'm afraid, because the comparative story, a century later, is the great lost opportunity of the Battle of Jutland, at which the British Grand Fleet could have sunk the majority of the German High Seas Fleet and possibly hastened the end of World War One dramatically - but let this prize slip through their fingers as a result of total lack of initiative and rigid centralisation of command which discouraged all innovation or initiative: in a well-intentioned but woefully-misguided desire to (impossibly) codify the Nelson touch into universal practice, the Royal Navy killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So keen were they to mimic a handful of Nelson's tactical choices that over the intervening century they had written it all up in gospel instruction books of best practice that all captains were to follow at all costs, centralising decisions and standardising all professional practice. (The observant will notice without further detail the risks to teaching. This is the terrible temptation of all schools trying to move from Good to Outstanding - "if only we all did things a little bit more to one model that once worked somewhere else, with everyone doing the same thing, we'd triumph.") To cut a long story short, Jutland was a story of the larger British fleet cornering the Germans and trying to cut them off from home. Twice they nearly succeeded - twice in the dark and fog the Germans managed to turn away. The British Admiral Jellicoe, accurately second-guessing his opponent's line of escape, manoeuvred to the south and east of the German fleet - and successfully cut them off from home once and for all. And here is where it the futility starts.

Obsessed, in the century since Nelson, with the importance of no-one making a mistake, every British captain was programmed with a long list of how not to exercise initiative, and permitted only limited space for decision-making - the exact opposite of Nelson's approach - as the Royal Navy became more fearful of defeat than keen for victory (Churchill famously warned of the danger that only the navy could "lose the war in a day".) But fear is paralysing, and faith - so evident in Nelson's approach - harder. In the same way, schools - even those Good or better, or newly-converted academies suddenly with no backstop or external support - seem more obsessed with the risk of inspectors or lawyers finding fault than with the possibility of unleashing potential and exploring change and opportunity.

And so it was at Jutland that the German fleet escaped. Jellicoe's guess about the enemy's likely route home was accurate; and the Germans were forced to cut sharply across the line of small ships at the rear of the Grand Fleet to try to break through; but although the British destroyers exchanged fire with the German capital ships and responded as individual units exactly as required by policy, not one of them took the initiative of notifying the rest of the fleet or showed leadership in developing a new, localised, response to the developing situation. The British battleships, superior in number and firepower, sought vainly ahead of them to locate the enemy that was simuateously passing through the rear of their line undetected. It is an abject lesson in what happens when you remove all capacity for independent action and insist on blind policy and a fixed line of battle with commands emanating only ever from a flagship far distant from the real action. Jutland is a study in wasted opportunity - where fear of defeat meant missing victory for mediocrity. It is impossible to imagine Nelson's adventurous subordinates making such an error, given the freedom, trust and right to experiment which he permitted them.

My protest - in case anyone's missed the hammering unsubtlety of my analogy so far - is that most, good, teachers, should be left alone to explore, rather than be forced to work like others (or worse yet, to a shared, nonsensical mean teaching style which suits almost no-one.) But this is not the protest of some downtrodden union rep seeking relief. This is about excelling. I don't think teachers should be left alone because it would be nice for them, but because it works better in educational terms. Encourage teachers to share, to collaborate and innovate, to explore. Classes and teachers and schools and students are all different and the formula needs tinkering all the time - and no-one is better positioned to do that than those in that classroom all the time - certainly not those more distant. Review how exploration and liberalism helps standards after the fact. Don't regiment before it or you kill progress.

I maintain that there are broadly two types of teacher and school-leader - those who build capacity, with all the risky trust and appearance of chaos that can require - and those who command by dictat; and the long-term superiority of the former is clear. The lessons of industry, military history and artistic innovation - let alone educational research - do not suggest that rigid central policy (by government of schools, by school leaders to their staff, or by teachers to students) is effective in the long-term. We need more of the Nelson touch and less of the Jellicoe; we need more faith in possibility and less fear of failure. We need to celebrate classrooms' incredible differences and experiments, not their standardisation and tedious consistency. This is a human industry, not a machine-tooling one, and it responds to human desires to explore, vary, and connect, not to precision-gauge systems of measurement. It is difficult to imagine an industry less well-suited to Henry Fordesque production line automation. And yet in many schools, it is hard to imagine how we could create a more clear-cut contradiction between the values we proclaim - of individuality, differentiation, excitement and variety - and the monotone cookie-cutter systems we put in place. We preach potential and then pack the lid down on the sardines - with teachers even more than students. It is mind-boggling to understand how a profession as well-educated as this can be more simplistic or outdated in our organisational choices, our management styles and our use of unnecessary documentation. Jutland-like, we continue to sail through the dark and fog, crossing the battle lines in blind robotic order and missing crying opportunities to engage since we feel "unauthorised" to adopt new ideas. The risk-taking dynamism, freedom of manoeuvre and resultant devastating, incredible success of Aboukir is not merely missing from most of our schools - it has been purged, and we are the worse for it. If you're a school leader, try sitting down today and listing three things you could eliminate to aid this building of capacity - and three things, or people, you ought to trust more, and encourage to experiment. Hover on the moment Nelson must have felt watching Foley swing unexpectedly to starboard, on his own initiative, to the dangerous line inside the anchored French ships, rather than the regulation line on the seaward side; you can't help feeling he had a wry grin of approval at the daring and intelligence of his subordinate. You doubt Nelson had asked him to write a detailed lesson plan first on a shared official proforma.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Sophistication, smugness and sampling it all

I've had an awesome first day back today with an INSET led by the rightly well-known and -regarded Paul Ginnis (, @paulginnis) and a number of the materials and examples he showed us set me thinking and offered something new - as good INSET ought, but so rarely fails, to do.

Over the past year I've been trying to be adventurous with one particularly trailblazing set, a mixed-ability year 10 Psychology class with a great attitude to learning. The adventurousness has taken two forms - firstly, essentially no written work (see my prior blogpost or the Guardian's shortform of the same), and secondly - and what I'm going to focus on here - a heavily experimental, practical, group-working, out-of-the-classroom-much-of-the-time approach. I've been incredibly impressed, feeling very optimistic about their results all summer, and a class median of B on GCSE papers sat in year 10, and including 3 A* grades in a class of 14, has affirmed the quality of their learning and the energy and commitment they have brought to it. But watching Ginnis's presentation today has made me wonder if I'm so busy being pleased about the new ideas I've already tried that I'm not embracing others I might be starting to experiment with too. Let me start with the thing I think I'm doing well - for the purpose of showing it's not enough in itself. Like all alternative approaches, there's plenty of other people in other places doing it - even if you didn't know the name it has come to be known by in training circles. I've just always thought of it as practical or research or experimental work in Psychology, but Ginnis's labelling of it as "Problem-driven learning" is fairly neat. The idea is to start with the big question, allowing intrigue, interest, and desire to solve to drive the engine of the content learning. In practical Psychology lessons, this takes the form of asking them, on a given syllabus topic, what they'd like to know about it, how they'd like to research it - what evidence would they want to go after, what big question answer? Why do boys and girls do differently on this? What else do they think differently on? Are there set meanings to set forms of body language? How would we find that out? Three weeks down the line we often have some compelling data and clear conclusions after designing and executing experiments real researchers have been impressed with. I watched the Gifted group of this class of 14-year-olds report one of their self-designed projects to first year university psychologists this year, who were gobsmacked by how outclassed it made them feel. The big problems and the big picture and so motivating that they set in context how easy much of the related curriculum material is - so students tear at a rate of knots through the specified curriculum as mere foundation work to explore what they really want to know about at a higher level. Although most marked at the top end, the benefits have been clear across the whole ability spectrum.

So why am I so dissatisfied with this practice, then? Both senior colleagues and trailblazing peers with whose own innovations I am impressed have remarked positively, and the results have been impressive - and I was never under any impression that I was doing something no-one else was attempting, only something rare - but watching Ginnis talk through a whole range of innovative approaches, it strikes me that I'm doing little or none of this other stuff. Scoring one goal, even a spectacular one, doesn't win the match; one swallow does not a summer make and all that. Worse yet - and here's the crux - the very same peer colleagues with whom I have mutually-supportive conversations about our respective innovations are in many cases doing these things already: that's their innovation, as mine is mine. We've shared one another's trailblazing in moral support terms but actually not really learnt from one another, not cross-implemented. I'm great at problem-driven learning; but I don't flip the classroom (provide online resources teaching theory, then using classroom time to do, close-supported, conventional "homework") very much; I rarely reverse (exploratory work first, theory in retrospect.) Suddenly it strikes me that using - depending on - one such innovative technique is intellectually lazy and potentially low-geared in teaching terms. If you are a model classroom-flipper - if you design brilliant theory material for them to pre-access - you would be even better if you were a reverser (in the Ginnis terminology) too: if you allowed the exploration work first, you could be crafting more apt flipped materials as you saw them struggle and fail with certain concepts as they went. If like me you always provide good opportunity for problem-driven learning at the end of the unit - a kind of reward for rattling through the content to get to the big stuff - why always do it in that order? Couldn't I start with the briefest covering of the topic area, invite the problem-driven project work to happen there at the start, and be doing a kind of reversing at the same time? Couldn't I be used that coaching time, with a randomly withdrawn group, to create the flipped material as others completed experimental work to a university standard? (I'd have a link to YouTube to show you that here - if I was doing this, which I'm not - yet!) And there are a dozen more techniques, so work out your own unfulfilled combinations of game-like / theory of fun, choice, externalised teaching and so forth. The point is the more you innovate, the more you enhance each innovation; as each trick is mastered, add other layers. And I've not been doing this, it suddenly strikes me, with the best class I've had in years.

Now the school year is hard, long, and the longer it gets, the harder; and the defence of my failure to innovate further or pick up yet more new ideas is (a) it's a big ask to keep reinventing yourself all the time and (b) most teachers would be pretty impressed with those two big changes to my practice at the same time anyway (dare I breathe that many teachers might need to try both a bit more?) But this will not do. Even if it is not smug being proud of taking, and making successful, approaches which are new to you and relatively new to the school - I hope it's not - you can't stop at one or two changes which work. The most common death of good initiative and research evidence is when it is robotically systematised, so I don't want everyone forced to try my approaches; the next most common abuse of a good idea is when teachers attempt too many changes at once, and either mangle all of them, or develop an overload aversion as a result of the stress resulting and therefore reject and allow to lapse developments in their practice which they'd have naturally embraced given a more organic route of change. But I'm not talking about these (depressingly regular) cases: I'm talking about changes I have chosen to make and explore myself, supported by a flexible and interested Senior Team, on a timescale of my choosing. And that flexibility, combined with this good INSET (and, dare I say, a long holiday) have made me the one who decides that's what's going on already may be fine, may be great, but it's not good enough - something new and more is needed. I don't know yet what it will be - flipping more consciously, reversing more often, adding better visualisations, video work, or quiz- or mystery-like components to the learning I oversee - but something will come out of this. It's not enough to be good and adventurous at just one or two things. Reinvention needs to be lock and stock, as well as barrel.

There's no magic wand about it. Constant self-refreshment and renewal is difficult in most lives and especially hard in an emotionally-draining field like teaching. Too much INSET and training in schools is suicide-inducingly procedural or (perhaps worse) a masquerade of inspiring "practice-changing" developments whilst being at best third-rate recycling and more commonly packaged orthodoxy in demoralising management speak. Real vision about change, real energy to motivate expansion and experimentation, and real examples of success making new ideas work in a breadth of contexts - this is rare, delightful, and frankly surprising. So, Bravo, Mr. Ginnis. I'm switching the congratulations to you because my best class and I have had our pat on the back already this year, both in the form of enjoying the learning and getting strong results from it; it's time for us, and from my point of view, me in particular, to question, challenge and extend anew - to not just rest on the laurels of one effective innovation I think my classroom is leading in - but to start experimenting with the others too; others where I know, if I'm honest, that I've known about but failed to try. Onward and upward - just where good INSET should send you. And Headteachers and Principals everywhere, remember this: you get about a fortnight once a year, about now and not again, to invest this training time in inspiration and daring propositions rather than house business - keep its use to that purpose, and see the gain. Give leeway and foster innovation in your staff and they'll find those new successes you are hoping for. What's next?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are you writing for?

We ask students to write all the time but rarely ask why. The Ken Robinson enthusiasts among you will claim there's an outdated Victorian model in place; other liberals will argue it's all about teacher accountability and not quality. System technocrats, especially in English and Maths, will claim it embeds and proves attainment of learning objectives for e.g. Assessing Pupil Progress, while traditionalists will argue that it's all about the (lost?) basics we need to go back to; with raised eyebrow a few cynics will tartly observe that it's to keep students quiet for a certain proportion of the lesson and force some individual thinking in a generation that talks well but lacks attention span.

All have some truth to them. But try this: it has two wildly different and conflicting purposes. What if we needed students to write for a limited, very traditional and strict purpose - because exams are written and so will very many decent jobs be - and separately, for a wider, more idealistic purpose: because it's the ultimate method of exchange of ideas in depth, of skilled argument and reflection, condensed to a tight form? If they were true, we'd do two different kinds of writing, and neither of them might look that much like the broken-down spoon-fed short written exercises now so common across all subjects: first, we'd much more commonly use formal test papers to acclimatise students to (and quite insistently use well-supervised peer marking to measure progress on) exams - slightly dull but precise and necessarily regular - perhaps even weekly. And beyond that, we'd let written tasks have pretty free rein, and encourage students to be as ambitious, free-thinking and wide-ranging as possible in writing. What that would mean is freeing up most classroom time outside of the revise / test / peer-mark cycle to be about group project work, self-directed learning (flip the classroom here if you like), talk and flexible deadlines; and we'd make the recording of this learning in written form a highly flexible range of outcome options - for students to write what, and when, they like, to show the world what they have learnt and now understand or can do. In other words, we'd do more exam work, and almost all writing beyond that would be on student blogs. Because a blog isn't telling your teacher or your parents you are ticking boxes in the subject: it's showing the world you get it, and want in on the global discussions about it. So I've spent the past few months with GCSE and A-level classes doing absolutely no writing at all beyond sample tests and student blogs.

What I've found is that the most powerful and compelling reason for asking students to write for an entirely public audience is this: they realise how high that bar is, and can be initially intimidated about the prospect. But that removes all apathy or sense that the writing is a humdrum task - that perennial cry of "What's the point?" disappears at a stroke. Asking all students to write their own blogs as their learning unfolds and interlinks empowers the teacher to be more supportive because they're less tied to the bureaucratic side of the process; it raises the challenge level; it enables IT-skilling though confirming the message that "content is king"; it enables good differentiation; students can easily personalise their work; it lets them see their own progress; it promotes limited and purposeful writing and means more productive and accelerating talk time in learning rather than rote writing tasks.

The breadth of results has impressed me. Students have collated and commented on topical news, explained practical implications and real-world examples of syllabus phenomena, made "Comment is free" type posts detailing their views on issues, written up experiments in thorough detail, published data they have either researched or sourced elsewhere and linked it to other topics, and commented skillfully on one another's work. And if, as the best have done, they write professionally in the public domain already as teenagers - which top university Admissions Director wouldn't offer them a place on a degree course of their choice?

There are a powerful range of practical advantages to student blogging over other written forms. Composing complex written arguments with IT is better than on paper - you can adjust planning as you go, cut-and-paste as your argument develops; add in the online capacity to link-reference other webpages (the teacher's or peers' blogs, news stories, resource pages) as you construct the argument and you have a really punchy way to create a detailed and well-argued viewpoint. The range of interfaces, appearances, skins etc associated with public tools like Blogger and Wordpress professionalises the appearance of students' work and they rise to that implicit reward with serious attempts to write in depth: seeing your work given impressive profile and knowing the world is only a click away from reading what you think is considerably more motivating than continuing to write longhand in that dog-eared exercise book.

Feedback, groupwork and a visible papertrail are all effortless gains in this model. Display student work for class discussion, comment in reply to students' posts to give feedback; set homework for them to make short comment critiques on one another's blogposts; give project tasks requiring them to read multiple peers' work and synthesise an overview post with linked references. No hassle passing exercise books around / taking other students' work home to peer-comment on (and losing it); all their blogs are linked to from my own as class teacher. They can review across classes and year groups. They can also find resources on my blog or by following a dedicated Twitter feed. Line managers wishing to check my classes' work can trace to the minute what tasks were set, what resources provided, what reminders given; to the minute they know the time students posted their work in reply, commented on or fed back to one another, and can see if and in what way I've provided further feedback; an email papertrail confirms further support where needed - all without leaving their desk. (By the way, I'm not intimidated by this intrusive rise in monitoring capability. I do my job well and want my students to feel that accountability isn't something to be scared of either. In return, I give students, and expect from my SLT, considerable flexibility in using this powerful system: don't be bureaucratically nit-picking about timescales or exact procedures; stick to the big picture of whether the student is engaging and developing.) This is all massively more powerful, and infinitely easier, than collecting exercise books for monitoring and restricting peer-feedback to within the classroom, and a source of far less hassle and conflict than fixed small-scale written homeworks with exact deadlines. Furthermore, parents can easily be directed both to any information they need to help and (should they complain) to the evidence of what their child has both received and achieved - and to comparative students' work from within the same class. This forcefully and positively shifts the onus back onto the student to self-manage and the parent to monitor - where it ought to be - so I can remain a lead learner on tap as a resource for the motivated, and an aid to the struggling, more than a policeman of small-scale paper-based tasks.

Of course, there are a number of "I wouldn't risk that" concerns with student blogging, but none justify avoiding it: my aim is not to tell you that it is problem-free, but that its problems are essentially no different to any conventional learning medium. Most terrifyingly for the luddites and senior leaders, the risk of defamatory or provocative remarks exists; but this is a behavioural issue, not a technological one. It's no different to the risk of a student in uniform mouthing off at the local shopkeeper, or a student on stage in the school play "going off on one" - we fear these things, but they rarely ever happen, and are behaviour issues to be addressed like any other, not technological issues. Don't deprive all of an exciting outlet because of fear of a remote possibility of misuse by a tiny few. (In fact, the very public exposure of allowing students to blog about classroom activity is a sign of trust to which students rise admirably. And I advise a common sense approach to online courtesy and standards, not another wordy policy with fixed rules. Like most issues of morality / community consensus, discussing them if problems arise is a good opportunity, not a delay, and enriches understanding. I've had no problem all year with this.) And anyone who's ever managed a Facebook-centred incident in school will know the useful incontrovertability of screenshots as proof. Policing this kind of misbehaviour, if it does occur, isn't so hard. And if you really want you can require them to give you editing rights on their blog (I don't want to, but it's easy if you insist.)

Others worry that some student work is too weak for this medium and will make the school look bad or the student feel demoralised. But we put all our students' work on display boards, don't we? And we claim to care about the progress each makes over time - where better than a blog to show that flow of development? Student bloggers are not meant to be the finished article as writers (I'm not sure most professional bloggers are...) and what we're looking for is for them to strive to emulate, and participate in, a global community of discussion, however fledgling their efforts. Support the weakest closely but don't hold back for that reason: all should be told they're worthy and able to attempt it, that they have a right to their views - and that they too must try to meet a standard of excellence if they're to draw readership.

Plagiarism is also a problem, but surprisingly less online than offline. I've had one incidence of this all year (that I know of!) - a direct lift from the textbook. A discreet, firmly-worded private email explaining copyright law to the student (copied to the parental email) and a brief non-naming public reiteration to the whole class of how this was both a legal problem, a disciplinary issue and (worst of all) just poor character, effort and engagement - the post swiftly disappeared and the problem never occurred again. In group work, groups can share and co-write sections and use them across multiple blogs - they're just asked to make clear when they do this.

Use of strong language (to make a point, rather than directed use designed purely to offend) is a moot point. I have a philosophical position that this should not be stonewalled in public discussion, and it is not the place of a school to ban it. I allowed A2 Sociology students this year to use it in political posts; tellingly, they did so freely in early posts, but then its use fell away - strong language sometimes has a place that cannot be replaced (often it is critical in satire, for example) - but its casual use disempowers it and makes the writing appear lazy and ill-thought-out. The students themselves ended up reflecting that they should choose words better and not so easily. "You don't hear Polly Toynbee saying 'What a dick' in her articles, even though she clearly thinks David Cameron is one," asserted one perceptive wit, to general agreement. This is not a conversation teacher training prepared me for, but I'm glad it happened; and I think those students are better writers now for learning, with freedom to choose, how to make words have their most powerful effect. Of course, language is a thorny issue, so I share this story without wanting to impose the advice.

The last major concern is Child Protection but this ought to be shrugged off. Certainly older students are far more risk-savvy online than the press moral panic would have us believe; they all use Facebook all the time so telling them blogging isn't safe is laughable to them; and a glance at educators' Twitter accounts would reveal numerous links to excellent webpages, class blogs, and Twitter accounts being run for / by / with students down to primary age. Teach e-safety once and well, and take firm action in the rare occasions there is a genuine problem - but don't lock your kids away from the world. My students were delightfully amazed and excited to discover postgrads in Germany, travel writers in South-East Asia and Occupy activists in the US liking, commenting on and following their blogs. There is a world of engagement out there - let's get in touch!

None of this is a unique experiment. It's part of a broader, slow, piecemeal colonisation of this new frontier of IT-led learning. I see strong similarities of aim and approach with excellent initiatives like inter-school Quad Blogging, class blogs with multiple student authors, forum debate pages, increasingly commonplace teacher-written content blogs (please get off VLEs, they're depressingly clumsy and archaic alongside a blogging / tweeting class system), and the habit of using class tweets to see if the world responds. These great initiatives all share the same aim - to get students facing out to the world of interaction - and I'm heartened but (as a secondary specialist) faintly embarrassed that so many are primary-led. The system I describe is one I use with year 10 through 13, and hopefully provides a complement to primary excellence of blogging use; adapt and use as you see fit. Or contact me to discuss it via Skype - how's that for useful CPD!

So where now? Our first year of use has been rewarding and engaging for students and myself, relatively problem-free, an example which other subjects in the school have now started to follow, and intriguing. I am genuinely confident it has enhanced students' enjoyment, their writing skill, and their university prospects. Our use has been a bit hit-and-miss - but that's what a trial is for, and I go into year two with a clearer idea of the advantages, limitations and required timely guidance in asking students to write for the public forum. Next year I'll provide even more exemplars, flowcharts of thinking-to-writing processes, more emphasis on image and use of video, perhaps some spoof too, instead of all serious (to satirise something you have first, by definition, to understand it); and I may use more written feedback on blogs, as well as oral formative comment and discussion in class. I've not come across other KS4/5 student blogging programmes but I'd welcome the chance to collaborate and I'd encourage others to try this. Remember what learning is for - to enrich and connect our understanding of things. Remember what writing is for - to share what we see, think and believe, and invite response. Remember what schools are for - preparation to enter a wide world of possibility. And as Durrenmatt said: "A writer doesn't solve problems. He allows them to emerge." Who wouldn't want their exploratory classroom to look like that, and their students to live and learn that way? Get all your students blogging and you will see how exciting exploration can be.