Monthly Archives: October 2017

Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

Iglobe‘m not usually a big fan of international comparisons, or borrowing policy from more successful jurisdictions. This suspicion has been made much more acute by the egregious policy cherry picking carried out by lobbyists, politicians (from all parties) and academy leaders over the last decade. Such cherry picking can be seen in Nick Gibb using the UK’s PISA results from 2000, despite being repeatedly warned of their statistical doubtfulness, along with his use of Tim Oate’s flawed comparative policy paper on the use of textbooks in order to push ‘Singaporean’ maths methods.

Finland is a great example of how commentators, politicians and teachers across ideological divides can simultaneously cite Finland’s lack of a national inspection regime, and it’s history of having a robust inspection regime as the main cause of its success. Nick Gibb for instance talks about Finland when it comes to textbooks (Finnish teachers like to use these), but not the late start or lack of setting or streaming, or indeed the university-based initial teacher education system.

So, it was with a bit of reluctance that I started to read ‘Cleverlands‘ – possibly with the same heavy heart that some pupils approach their increased homework load implemented by a keen-as-mustard MAT executive head after a Singaporean study tour.

I need not have worried. This book was a really interesting read, and not always a comfortable one. Sometimes I found my ideas challenged by its findings, but I never felt as if this had been done through the creation of a progressive ‘straw man’, as sometimes happens when I read self-consciously iconoclastic edu-commentry.

Crehan has an amazing eye for detail, but uses this in order to give us the big picture about each of the jurisdictions she visits. Rather than focus on one classroom practice, or one aspect of the educational system that fits her ideological world view, we are given a tour of the educational and relevant cultural landscape in each place. Synthesis has to wait until the end, and even though there are lessons that we can learn from comparison, Crehan is careful to warn us that we cannot just import policies from a different culture and expect them to ‘work’ here. Really refreshingly she also asks whether we _should_ import some policies merely in order to move our PISA scores up.

Of course my own ideology had me nodding along in some passages. Of course I agreed with the parts that argued for the strong role for universities and the importance of subject pedagogical knowledge for the induction of new teachers, and of well-constructed early years education that isn’t seen merely as ‘easier primary’ or ‘easier secondary’ curriculum and teaching methods. I also bristled with frustration at the anecdote about the author being asked by a friend at the DFE about the lessons she had learned on her travels, and how the policy commitment to school-led ITE meant how the conversation fell on deaf ears.

What I found really challenging, and interesting, was the sections on Singapore and Shanghai, and the thoughtful analysis of attitudes towards repetition and practice in the chapter on ‘the Paradox of the Chinese Learner’. This chapter forced me to reflect on the way that memorisation can be used in the classroom – a task to get done, or perhaps a way of enabling students to use items of knowledge in exam responses that will enable them to get higher marks or grades. Rote learning has a bad press – and perhaps deservedly so. My only recollection of this being used in my own education was by a terrifying teacher at primary school who regularly terrorised us for not being able to recite out times tables. Memorisation and rote learning also perhaps carries some folk memory of the ‘payment by results’ system which seems to have raised standards in the second half of the 19th Century by preparing pupils for examinations during inspections The system fell out of favour as people feared it encouraged teachers to Gragrind unconnected and therefore meaningless facts into children’s brains.

The paradox is that, despite a heavy emphasis on repetition and memorisation, Chinese students consistently outperform others in the PISA tests. Cleverlands draws on studies from 1996 to suggest that perhaps the West might have been doing memorisation wrong (Watkins 1996) by drawing a distinction between ‘rote’ learning, which is ‘shallow, mechanistic, with no attempt at understanding’, and ‘repetitive’ learning which ‘involves deepening your understanding through deliberative repetition, paying attention to the features of whatever it is you’re repeating’ (p.185).

There’s so much more to this book however. The discussion and development of ideas on motivation are also fascinating – helping us move away from a crude ‘intrinsic -v- extrinsic’ model towards one that recognises that extrinsic motivation can nonetheless reflect our own goals and aims – and thus that not all kinds of ‘extrinsic’ motivation are negative or ‘bad’ for learning.

For a really interesting thoughtful and well written journey around the educational landscapes of the world, I can’t recommend this book enough.

http://www.ehs.org.uk/press/education-funding-in-victorian-britain-payment-by-results-boosted-pupil-achievement

Watkins et al (1996) The Chinese Learner: Cultural, Psychological, and Contextual Influences.

 

Michael F.D. Young, Graduate Teachers and the Hero’s Journey

Just over a year ago I started reading books that I thought I wouldn’t agree with. One of those books was E.D. Hirsch’s ‘Cultural Literacy’, and although I didn’t agree with it (as feared), I will  be forever grateful that it did lead me to read Michael F.D. Young.

One of Young’s central arguments is that educational purposes, the acquisition of powerful knowledge being the most important, are disrupted by the instrumentalism that drives policy makers’ interventions in education.

Over the last few years I’ve come to see that these instrumentalist motives had converged with many of the progressive ideals that I hold – that education can emancipate, that it can be a route to a ‘good life’ (in the broadest terms).  The effect of this has been to drive pupils into ‘vocational’ pathways that deny them access to the knowledge that can really change lives, but has also been reflected in curricula that could easily lead to this knowledge being de-emphasised, and too much value being placed in teaching ‘exam skills’ or ‘subject skills’ (sometimes it was difficult to see the difference between the two).

The threat to the academic curriculum therefore has many sources – no doubt a crude constructivism in some PGCE courses contributed to this. One of the most valuable (and perhaps most uncomfortable) truths that twitter has taught me is that not all university-based PGCE courses were as good as the one I took, and those which my colleagues @LTUPGCE run.  Too many anecdotes about generic and ‘skills only’ training suggest that many new teachers were not forced to think about the nature and value of their subject knowledge or subject pedagogy as my PGCE peers were.

This week is has become clear that the short-term instrumentalism which drives the government’s initial teacher education policy is one of the sources of threat to an academic curriculum.  Instead of rising to the challenge of the teacher-shortage (let alone admitting the role of recent ‘disruption’ to the ‘market’ of ITE in creating that shortage), the DFE has ducked it by proposing that non-graduates be allowed to join the teaching profession.

The same Government that trawls through international comparisons and research evidence in search of policy about pedagogy and school system reform is ignoring that on the preparation of new teachers in high performing jurisdictions and opting for the go-to response of the market: de-regulation.

Young suggests that ‘knowledge about the world, if it is to be the basis of the curriculum, refers to concepts that take us beyond […] the contexts in which we find ourselves’ (2008:95).  In other words, the school curriculum should not teach pupils things that they will meet in their everyday existence, it should transcend the everyday and bring knowledge that takes them ‘beyond’ it.

Perhaps this should also apply to the teachers who hold and teach that knowledge. Teachers represent the world outside of family and community – even (and perhaps especially) if they come from that community. Teachers should represent the educated life that knowledge makes possible, and which they seek to promote.  To do this, they need the knowledge and experience that comes with communication with the outside world.

This does not mean that teachers should not work in the communities that raised them – I know brilliant teachers who work in the schools that taught them their GCSEs, to which they have returned to give something back. The point is that these great teachers have all been outside the communities.  This might be in body and mind, spending 3 to 5 years living away at universities in other towns and cities, meeting other people, experiencing other perspectives.  It might be in mind only – studying to degree level at home or in the local university a subject which itself takes them out of the context in which they were raised.

This hero’s journey gives them far more than the sufficiency of subject knowledge that will enable them to pass on the stuff in a specification or deliver a school curriculum. They return with a kind of ‘elixir’ something that can help transform the lives of the pupils they teach.  This is the broader view of the world that stepping out into it brings, as well as an example of someone who did that and brought themselves into a new relationship with the world.   What I fear will be the end-point of a policy like this is the rise of the apprentice-pupil who never leaves their community in a meaningful way, who can teach the textbook but not write a university reference, who has never read Marx or met a Mancunian, sat on a frosty roof and listened to someone’s dreadful poetry, asked a question in a seminar, argued with a lecturer or packed their stuff into a bag and left their home town behind, for a bit.

 

Young, M.F.D (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back in: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education