Category Archives: HE

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

Writing to Argue

writingMy undergraduates are unwilling to argue, in person, or in writing. Their essays are often surveys of a scene, descriptions of a landscape. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a survey if that’s what you’ve been asked to do – but I want my students to have an informed opinion – and to have practised the art of coming to an opinion – so that they can work out when it’s necessary to change their minds about something.

So, in order to do that we’ve been presenting arguments.  This is something that I have done in the past with AS students who have often struggled in the change from more descriptive answers at GCSE to the direction and argument of an KS5 essay.  The discussion that follows will clearly show that my thinking is often influenced by my practice as a history teacher and the professional literature in Teaching History journal from the HA, or books written by teachers or academics such as Christine Counsel.  As I am still new to HE – I’m painfully aware that there is a body of evidence and practice which I’m starting to explore. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you think I should really know about something that I don’t – please feel free to let me know!

We’re coming to the end of a module that I’m teaching on “Special Educational needs and Inclusion” which has focused on the history and conceptual underpinnings of ‘inclusion’, and the tension between this and ‘differentiation’. Part of the assessment is for the students to write a short essay on an aspect of inclusion – they have a choice of questions, but each one requires them to come to an informed judgement.

The issues:

My students see essay writing as a kind of complicated obstacle course.  They like to tackle each part as it comes to them,  instead of lifting their heads to the horizon.  This leads them to focus on issues such as ‘how to write a good introduction’ or what should go in a ‘good paragraph’. I’ve been trying to encourage them to see an essay as a way of communicating with a reader – and a way of persuading that reader.

I’ve also noted that these undergrads have trouble differentiating between the big and little points of their developing argument – and will often conflate these, meaning that the paragraphs they write are sometimes ‘scatter gun’ – they will cram in all the things that they can think of to do with the topic in the question – rather than attempt to actually answer it.

I suspect that these students have not seen enough examples of academic writing, and have not spent enough time considering the style of different academic writers, let alone their own.

These are the issues I perceived from the other pieces of writing that they have done for me before this module, and from their directed task submissions.

One Line Answers

They had a choice of essay titles for this module – and in order to make them read these carefully (so that they’re not tempted to ‘do’ the one that they recognise some key words from) they were asked to look down the list and then spend 5 minutes drafting a one line answer to the question.  I explained that this was the kind of answer they might give if someone asked them a question like this on the bus, or in discussion with friends.

Model Answers

We then looked back at some model essays written in response to questions that were asked on the module the year before.  These were different from this year’s question.  I wanted them to be clear that they were reading good academic writing – not ‘good answers’ to the questions. They were asked to use highlighters to look for examples in the text of the following things:

  • Points – things that this person writes that moves on the argument in their answer to the question
  • Evidence – things that are used to support the argument that this person makes.
  • Evaluation – places where this person makes a critical point, or a judgement or weighing up of an approach or idea.

They were also asked to work out what the writer’s ‘one line answer’ to the question might have been.

A multi-faceted ‘One Line Answer’

When they’d done that, and following a discussion of some of their examples, and of the ‘one line answers’ from the model essays, I asked them to look again at their one line answers, and to re-write them, using the following words if they could:

  • However
  • But
  • Only
  • If

I wanted them to learn that their one line answer could contain a more nuanced line of argument, or perhaps an acknowledgement of another perspective or even some indication of how universal their ‘one line answer’ was.

Presentations

I also decided to ask them to present their plans as part of one of their directed tasks, using a template which acts as a kind of ‘speaking frame’.   They presented these arguments in support of their ‘one line answer’ to their peers. Their peers were then encouraged to ask questions that will help them understand the argument that is being made.  I was hoping that this would act as a kind of dry run for writing the assignment itself, in that it would help them clarify their ideas.  wanted to see if their role as presenters of an argument would help them become writers of an argument.

How’s it going?

Not bad – the sessions in which we looked at ‘model’ essays were very interesting – there’s still some work to do in helping them see what the ‘big points’ are in models of academic writing.  I’m also having to think quite carefully about the kinds of things I want them to read – academic journals often are not full of ‘essays’, and ‘education’ undergraduate textbooks on these topics are often quite descriptive. I think that getting them reading more pieces of writing in which people have made and sustained arguments is the key way in which they will understand how this works.

During the presentations it was clear that whilst many had now made the leap from ‘survey’ or ‘everything I know about’, and were starting to think in terms of ‘what’s my argument’, some of these students were still hesitant in making definite and confident choices in selecting evidence or ‘little’ points to support these arguments.

Overall the level of writing has improved across the group.  Many more of these students are writing in shorter, much more focused paragraphs – even if they have not yet made the leap to argument.  Those that have made that leap are often writing sharply focused sections in support – though sometimes this is not sustained throughout.  Those that engaged more wholeheartedly in their presentations tend to be those who have gained the most in these improvements.  Next time we do this I’ll ask for permission, before we start the process, to share their work online – so that I can us it more precisely here.

Undergrad Day

17303176035_035cd2da96_zToday is undergraduate day. I’m teaching a module on SEN in the secondary school to my undergrad PE and Secondary Ed students in May, and I want to be well prepared. I read an interesting study by Benjamin Bloom earlier in the year (1984) about ‘Mastery’ and his attempts to solve the ‘2 sigma problem’, i.e. the 2 standard deviations in increased attainment that he found between pupils taught in ‘conventional classrooms’ and those who were instead ‘tutored’ one to one or in very small groups.  I think that aspects of this study can help me with my students.

This study seems to be one of the original studies that informed the current vogue for ‘mastery’ approaches in teaching and assessment. The recommendations are for iterative cycles of formative testing which allow a student to reach the desired ‘mastery’ level of attainment. I’ll not go into that now (perhaps I’ll plant a seed in the ‘post-garden’ and come back to it later). Suffice to say that I think that Bloom underestimates the time cost, and fails to make out what he really means by mastery (80% in a test score is the usual level – which we can see means pretty much nothing).

What grabbed me more is an idea that that Bloom develops from Leyton (1983) of techniques that “enhance the students’ initial cognitive entry pre-requisites” (who said that educational research can’t be easily understood?!). Broadly, this means ‘making sure they know and can do the things they’ll need to be able to do before they start to learn the new things that you have to teach them’.

Today I’ll be reading through my course materials, looking at the development activities I want them to do during the 10 weeks of the module, and working out a list of these ‘prerequisites’.  I’ll then scrap the first week’s sessions and turn them into a ‘prerequisites’ week.  I might have to think of a snappier title… any suggestions?

Where will this lead?  I’m hoping to make an ‘knowledge organiser’ which the students themselves have to complete, and which I’ll then check over formatively.  I’m sceptical that an organiser on its own will do anything (I need to make sure they read it and commit the ideas to memory for a start), but I’m hoping that if they have a first go at coming up with the ideas, which I then correct, this will give me an idea of where they’re coming from, and them a couple of chances to understand the material they need to know.   I’m hoping that my prerequisites audit will also help inform decisions about the way I structure the workshops and seminars that follow, as well as the content of the weekly lecture, as well as giving me some clear hooks and points to attach to ongoing quizzing.   I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bloom, B.S., 1984. The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational researcher, 13(6), pp.4-16.

The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.

Re-drafting to support learners

This is something that, in my practice as a history teacher, I’ve been resistant to over the years. I went to a great SHP talk on using longer, original contemporary texts this summer (the blog post will arrive, honestly!), and saw some great ideas for making text more accessible without ‘translating’ it into modern modes of talking or writing.

Today with my undergrad class which is studying the different roles and responsibilities within schools, were were looking at diversity and issues of equality, and I handed them a questionnaire that I borrowed from Sue Dymoke’s (ed) excellent book ‘Reflective Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School’. It was meant to be a quick starter whilst I fired up the projector. When I turned my attention back to the group it became clear that the exercise had fuddled and alarmed many of them, who lacked several of the key pieces of vocabulary necessary to access the task. They understood the concepts behind these words, to a large extent, but they did not have the words themselves.

Anyway, we talked through the words and concepts and the quick 5 minute starter became a 30 minute seminar about words and ideas such as:

‘socially well adjusted’
‘fundamental British values’
’emancipation’
‘rhetoric’
‘authorities’

Afterwards I began to wonder whether I should have re-written the questionnaire, and to consider whether I would have do so had I been working with school students. I think I probably would have for school, but not very much. Perhaps I would have picked my battles, and chosen one or two key words like emancipation, so we could have explored the different levels of meaning beyond ‘freedom’. 

At university exploring these particular phrases perhaps should be easier, but the students were affected by the number and weight of concepts that they found impossible to comprehend immediately.  It took some effort on my part to reassure and guide them back to the task. Though I had stumbled upon a teaching moment I’m going to have to think carefully about how to anticipate and prepare for difficult opportunities like these.