For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to make sense of a few ‘big issues’ around teaching, and my attitudes to it. Particularly issues around data, evaluation and how I know whether or not I’m doing ‘the right thing’.
I’ve started and abandoned a series of posts on these issues, because they kept getting tangled up in each other. So this morning I opened a new window and just started typing. Every time a question arose, I typed it. Everytime I got stuck I stopped, walked away for ten minutes and then came back to it. Each time I found I was able to pick up and carry on.
This may be the least interesting post I’ve ever added here, but I thought I’d add it here for future me to come and reread next time I get stuck, and maybe carry on this conversation. Please feel free to challenge anything I’ve written below in the comments. There are a few bits here that could probably do with being kicked around a bit…
I started with an attempt to define my priorities and I went from there.
The absolutely most important thing is that students leave school able to access their next step, with the skills and attributes to keep learning
This is supposed to be supported by the exams system which is supposed to provide the currency to the next step
In reality, the exam system actually places barriers in the place of some students. This needs to be addressed
However, while I can put pressure on those at a level able to fix it, I don’t have that power in my classroom
Am I therefore stuck?
Not at all – the decisions I make about HOW I teach can make a huge difference
By ensuring I use the techniques that a) enthuse students and b) allow them to do the best they can inside the exam system
Are those contradictory?
Not necessarily, but I need to be mindful of the conflict
So how do I know how I should teach?
I should use the techniques that are shown to work
How do I know that? After all, as Hattie points out, pretty much everything has an effect. Does that mean anything goes?
Clearly not, because Hattie has also shown there is a variation in effect size. At the same time, Wiliam has shown that his research based ideas that work can be interpreted and used in a variety of ways by different teachers in way that suit them. I’m a professional, so it’s my responsibility to make sure what I do works for me and the students.
Hang on a minute now. I can hear the echos of two viewpoints that make me very uncomfortable. The first is the ‘leave me alone, I know it’s working’ view, the second is the data chaser.
I have a problem with the first because I feel there is a need to innovate in education.
Why? Isn’t innovation for its own sake both dangerous and counter-productive?
It can be, but the world is changing fast. Education can’t be immune from that. Besides, I’m already convinced that the ‘industrial’ method of education is part of the problem, and therefore, if I wish to be part of the solution, I need to try out new ideas.
How do you know if they work?
Currently, I have little more than professional opinion, student feedback and results. There may be a better way, but if there is I’m not sure what it is in a way that doesn’t require simplification to a level as to make the results invalid.
So, is this what’s wrong with the data chasers?
I’m a great believer in tracking student progress in way which provides meaningful feedback for students and a guide to the need for interventions for me. But there are dangers that the data becomes the purpose, rather than a tool for ensuring that students are making progress. If the need to demonstrate progress through data means we end up reducing the system to something that is easily measurable, we risk sacrificing our broader (and perhaps more important) aims of education. Education becomes reduced to a series of boxes to be ticked and the pleasure and value of exploration is lost. If, in order to ensure that students know their ‘next step’ we reduce understanding to a series of predefined rungs on a ladder with little or no evidence to support its validity we remove the chance for discovery and the possibility of alternatives to our predefined path.
So anything goes?
No, because then we’re back to ‘I don’t need to change’, or ‘it works because I say so’ or Brain Gym.
So… where does that leave us?
Honestly? I’m not sure. We need creative teachers who are willing to try things out, but who are also able to honestly and publicly critique their work. This, or at least the second part of that is culturally alien.
We need students and teachers to be able to demonstrate progress in the broadest sense, and acknowledge that learning and understanding are not linear. At the same time, we need to encourage teachers to try and measure the impact of their interventions not just in raw terms, but against control groups wherever possible
I need to be constantly on the look out not just for new ideas, but for ideas that are either proven, or whose hypothesis or contention seems to match my personal understanding of how the aims of education can be met.
How do I answer those that claim we should leave well alone?
By pointing to those students for whom the current system isn’t working. It’s easy to blame them, but ultimately that’s self defeating. We need to find a way of bringing education to them without sacrificing its purpose or its rigour.
How do I answer those that would jump on every new initiative, or get lost in arguments about which device is better?
By never forgetting what I believe the purpose of education is, and everything I’ve said above. By remembering that I lapped up the claims of Brain Gym when someone told me that ‘science shows us’.
How do I stop myself from growing despondent at the lack of a solution?
By remembering that there will never be one solution. Education is made up of people is people are way too complicated than that. By remembering that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, and remembering the important need to model that. By remembering that in ten years time the only thing my students will remember is whether or not I treated them like a human being. By remember that you can only do what you think is best today, and if you didn’t then the even better of tomorrow wouldn’t emerge.