Changing education is not enough

The outside world expects us to educate a child, and demands that we tell them how ‘clever’ he or she is upon leaving school. If we want to remove one-size-fits all education and testing, then we must provide new measures that the public and industry can understand.

Look at any teacher website, read twitter, go to any education conference, listen in any staffroom and you will hear educators talking about how to help their students learn, and fulfil their potential. We are passionate about children achieving ‘Aha!’ moments, opening their eyes to new experiences, and finding and developing their unique set of talents. We talk about learning, and we love our jobs.

Talk to people outside education and they will talk about teaching children and training children. Behaviour for learning means “shut up, listen, bring your books, do your homework”. They want to know if one child is better than the other, who is succeeding, and who is failing. Finally, when the child leaves school they want to know “how clever is this child?”, “which countries’ students are more intelligent”, and so on.

Let’s face it, even some dinosaurs in education still think this way! No wonder much of the government, and most of the media will jump on test and exam results, and blame teachers for failing. Employers don’t want to have to figure this out themselves, they want us to tell them who to employ, so anything other than a one-size-fits-all testing regime sounds worse than useless.

Bu we know that this is exactly why so many kids don’t like school, why so many kids are fixed in a mindset of failure. We are desperate to move from carrots and sticks and motivate kids through innovation, discovery, and creativeness.

So we’ve got to get clever, and produce a new definition of success. We need to measure such things as how engaged kids are in their education, how interested they are in what they are learning, and how free they are to explore their own questions.

We need to measure each child’s strengths, showcase their expertise and talent, and nurture their entrepreneurial spirit.

Once we’ve done this, we start giving out awards, and really publicising such amazing brave new ideas such as Big Picture Learning. Give every education system in the world a rating for these ideas, and show the strong correlation between these ideas and international success.

Once the public starts latching on to these outcomes, then governments will gradually start dialling down the universal tests, the central control, and will start letting educators do what top managers have realised – let everyone play to their strengths, not mould them to your ideal.

Then, and only then, will we be able to stop swimming against the tide.

Passing the buck

Even though we repeatedly disagree how to do it best, all educators are really passionate about getting kids to have more “Aha!” moments. Everyone has their own ways of doing it, and their own ideas on how to make things better. Trouble is, it’s hard not to feel pretty jaded by constant criticism. The thing is, where is that criticism coming from exactly?

We all know the media only likes to pick up on negatives. Witness the recent painting of an improvement in reading standards as another failure, or the pillorying of Oxbridge when in fact they’re taking a huge proportion of the tiny number of deprived kids getting 3 or more grade A’s.

Then there’s the school inspectors, who managed to reduce good schools to merely satisfactory at the stroke of a pen. There’s the government who selectively interpreted PISA results to claim the UK’s education system is slipping despite the fact that the 2000 data was not applicable due to sample size.

However, every sector and industry has negatives thrown at it from all sides, but not everyone deals with it the same way. Perhaps we should look at ourselves, and the way we use language in the staffroom?

If we stopped undermining that member of school management who is on our backs about results and went and talked through our concerns maybe we’d find engagement worked better than anger? Perhaps the next time someone else gets good results we might hesitate before alleging “teaching to the test”, and go and find out what they did so well? Maybe before we complain to our colleagues that the head of department has lousy schemes of work we could start writing one ourselves? What if the latest government scheme actually has some merit, and is not just designed to make our lives harder?

Perhaps the roots of all evil aren’t academic tracking assessments and school data, maybe we could actually learn something from them as well as contribute new and improved ways of measuring success? As Richard Branson points out so well in his Entrepreneur article, maybe its time we stopped complaining about them and started thinking about how to help us?

Learning is more popular than teaching!

And the results are in! For every 10 mentions of “learning” in current writings, there are only 6 mentions of teaching. This wonderful result is brought to you by the Google NGram Viewer:

This graph shows learning (in red) overtaking teaching (in blue) by 1960, although from 1880 to 1960 it was teaching in the lead. Click the graph for the full details.

However, the politically correct may be disappointed that “teaching and learning” is far more popular than the newer “learning and teaching”…

Now who said that data couldn’t be fun?

Measures of effective teaching

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is conducting research in to measuring and improving the effectiveness of teachers. They recently released some early findings which show:

  • First, in every grade and subject we studied, a teacher’s past success in raising student achievement on state tests (that is, his or her value-added) is one of the strongest predictors of his or her ability to do so again.
  • Second, the teachers with the highest value-added scores on state tests also tend to help students understand math concepts or demonstrate reading comprehension through writing.
  • Third, the average student knows effective teaching when he or she experiences it.
  • Fourth, valid feedback need not be limited to test scores alone. By combining different sources of data, it is possible to provide diagnostic, targeted feedback to teachers who are eager to improve.

One of their key findings is that student feedback is critical. They have some very interesting tables of results showing the difference in responses from students in schools at the 25th percentile and students at the 75th percentile, and the results are compelling.

What are the key points here?

  • Create an environment where teachers are free to innovate and eager to improve, without fear of retribution.
  • Listen to the student voice – sample regularly and analyse the data, both at class level and school-wide.
  • Assessment data is a key element of showing effective teaching. Teachers who produce better achievement tend to score better on all measures of teacher performance.

How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better

In November, McKinsey produced a new report analysing the most improved school systems in the world. This fascinating document goes through some of the key markers on the journey from fair, through good, then great, and finally reaching outstanding. What were their key points about data?

Firstly, they noted that there were six common themes in all improving systems:

“The cross-stage interventions comprise a group of six actions that occur with equal frequency across all performance stages, but manifest differently in each one. These six interventions are: revising the curriculum and standards, ensuring an appropriate reward and remunerations structure for teachers and principals, building the technical skills of teachers and principals, assessing students, establishing data systems, and facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws.”

Systems moving from “poor” to “fair” used data in a very driven way:

“The system sets minimum proficiency targets for schools/students, frequent student learning assessments (linked to lesson objectives, every 3-4 weeks), and data processes to monitor progress”

Those moving from “fair” to “good” focused more on holding schools to account for each student, and for cohorts.

“The system establishes student assessments and school inspections to create reliable data on performance and to hold schools accountable for improvement. The system uses this data to identify and tackle specific areas (e.g., subjects, grades, gender) with lagging performance”

When moving from “good” to “great” schools were encouraged to let data filter down to practitioners, and ensure every teacher was fully involved in tracking and evaluating progress.

“Instructional coaches work with teachers to strengthen their skills in areas such as lesson planning, student data analysis, and in-class pedagogy. The systems cultivates ownership in schools for improvement through introducing self-evaluation for schools and making performance data more available”

And finally, from “great” to “outstanding”…

“The system sponsors and identifies examples of innovative practices in schools (teaching and learning practice, parent/community involvement practices, etc.) and then
develops mechanisms to shares these innovations across all school”

Clearly the Labour government concerned itself mainly with perceived pockets of “poor” teaching, and acted centrally to raise these to “fair”. Sadly, this process also served as a drag on those already good schools. In some senses the new government is now focussing on these schools and freeing them up with the academies program. However, good LEAs have always been good at identifying and sharing good practice, and it doesn’t yet seem entirely clear what is going to replace this. In addition, the current government is still wedded very firmly to centralised prescriptive testing regimes, whereas the top school systems have allowed professionals leeway to judge their own standards.
So as a school leader what is the message here?

  • Ensure regular collective tracking and monitoring of students, with regular moderation of these processes.
  • Set suitably challenging individual and cohort targets (e.g. with FFT, RAISEonline, etc)
  • Conduct regular, in-depth analysis of internal tracking, including breaking down by characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, deprivation, cognitive ability, etc. as well as a thorough ‘post-mortem’ after exam results.
  • Leaders and senior teachers should sit with middle managers and class teachers to discuss their understanding and use of internal school tracking. This should be an opportunity to identify areas of strength and innovation.
  • A culture of openness and sharing needs to be fostered. Every teacher should be encouraged to visit other lessons, both within the school and in other schools, and to discuss ideas with their colleagues. Share good practice, and foster a culture of innovation.

This sounds likely truly informed education.