What Works for What?

“If you’re not using evidence, you must be using prejudice …”
Kevan Collins, EEF

In our brave new world of research based this and evidence informed that, I am very much swimming against the tide, because I don’t think we should try to scientise education. While almost everyone else is focused on neuroscience, randomised controlled trials and the EEF, I’ve just written a book about education as an art form. Yes, educational research can be interesting and valuable, and it certainly adds to the store of knowledge we have on the subject of how we might educate our children, but there are a significant number of problems with basing our practice on what evidence ‘says’, and some of those advocating evidence based practice seem happy to gloss over these. Commentators will often talk (at great length) about the kinds of bias to which other human beings are subject, but they completely fail to see how biased they are themselves. I sometimes feel like I’m shouting “but the emperor has no clothes!” while people tell me that he is, in fact, wearing Armani.

The first problem with evidence based anything, is that in education we don’t have a common set of values to which we want to work – we haven’t even agreed what education is for. The Education Select Committee did hold an inquiry to try and figure this out, but they didn’t seem to come up with much in the way of an answer, and it’s all gone very quiet on that front now. Meanwhile, on social media, one group of people believes that the main goal of schools is to get as many facts into our kids as possible so they get ‘cleverer’. Another group of people thinks that the main purpose of school is to make kids ‘socially mobile’ and to end inequality. (There is quite a bit of cross over between these first two groups.) However, another group of people believes that school is about preparing children for the future, equipping them with skills that will help them do jobs, some of which don’t even exist yet. And yet another group thinks school should be about agency and oracy for young people. (Again, there is lots of crossover between these two.) Then there is a group of people (often politicians) who think that school is mainly there to create a well trained and compliant future workforce. And finally, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, some parents see school as a free source of childcare that allows them to go out to work. But if we can’t even agree what we’re doing school for, how on earth can we agree about what works for doing it?

Building on the problem of what education is for, it’s also crucial to consider what it is not for, and to take into account some pretty serious questions about ethics. If we could prove that Intervention X would lead to better outcomes, at least in the short term, should we always use it? Let’s say Intervention X involved hitting children with a stick. Would we still be happy to do the intervention? Clearly not, since that would be illegal, although it is not so very long ago that schools were perfectly happy to use this method. Now let’s say Intervention X involved the public ranking of children according to their test results. Would we still be happy to do the intervention? You might or might not think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But put it this way: if you thought it was okay to use this method on my children, I would not be happy to send them to your school.

The next problem with basing education on research results is that schools tend to be messy places, where all kinds of big and small people meet to work and slosh around together. There’s nothing at all wrong with this – it’s part of the reason why I love schools so much. However, this is nothing like the controlled, clinical environment where medical randomised controlled trials take place. As it happens, my best mate is the manager of a Clinical Research Facility. The CRF she runs cost millions of pounds to set up. She has access to cutting edge resources, top end equipment, highly qualified staff and a clinically controlled atmosphere in which trials can be run at great expense. Whereas in education we have Class 3E in a mobile classroom on a wet Friday afternoon doing a new scheme with Mrs Jones who has been teaching for twenty five years and is, to be frank, fed up of new schemes. You might be able to spot the slight flaw in this bit of the plan.

Yet another problem with research in education is that we have to find a way to measure the outcomes of the research we do, and education being education, we like nothing better than a nice test to sum up how we’re doing. The EEF are currently funding a trial into Philosophy for Children. Nothing wrong with that, surely? A bit of philosophy sounds like a lovely idea. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before! But if you read about the trial you eventually get to the bit on the website that tells you that “The primary outcome measure will be attainment measured by combined Key Stage 2 maths and English scores.” We are measuring the value of philosophy for children by seeing what it does to high stakes test results. Clearly it’s not the children who need the philosophy lessons.

The next thing to bear in mind is that all these trials cost money to fund (the EEF was set up with a DfE grant of £125 million). At a time when budgets are being slashed, and school staff are being cut, we are still spending millions of pounds trialing new interventions.  The EEF was set up with the aim of doing research to narrow the gap between outcomes for children from advantaged and disadvantaged homes. While this is an admirable aim, despite all the talk about how we can do this, the gap stays persistently wide and more children are living in poverty, not less. And at the same time as the EEF are funding research into things that might close the gap, we have a government who have decided to ignore what research says and fund things that we are told are likely to widen it. How can anyone stomach the DfE calling for evidence based education when they see fit to fund new grammar schools?

Another very interesting problem about education research, which hadn’t occurred to me until I read an article about it recently, is that we seem to have completely overlooked the possibility that interventions can have negative side effects. When the doctor gives you a prescription for some new pills, she will warn you that there might be side effects. The leaflet inside the box of pills outlines exactly what the potential side effects are. But in education, we have become so focused on what research tells us about the benefits of certain approaches, that we have completely forgotten to think about the downsides. I’ve mostly given up commenting on phonics, because every time I do, I get angry messages from people who produce SSP schemes. But a few years ago I wrote this blog, listing many of my concerns. When people are deeply invested in a piece of research being proved ‘correct’, there can be a distinct reticence to discuss the potential downsides. And history tells us a story about the issues this has caused in the field of medicine.

And finally, call me a picky, middle class, sharp elbowed parent if you like, but those in favour of research in education seem to be building the system on the assumption that it is okay to use school children as guinea pigs. And this might happen to include my children. When my friend recruits for her trials, she has to follow very careful procedures to select suitable test subjects, and the people involved in the trials get paid. While I’m sure there are careful procedures in education, you can’t exactly remove your child from school if you don’t want them taking part in a trial. I’m fine for my children’s class teachers to try out new approaches that they think will suit my child; I’m not fine for my children to be used as guinea pigs for trials that could make money for someone’s company. I’m happy for my children’s teachers to make decisions based on experience and intuition; I’m not happy for my children to be involved in someone else’s expensive experiment. No, I’m not using evidence, but I’m not using prejudice either. I am exercising my professional judgement. And we used to set great store in that.

Posted in Education, Evidence, Research | 10 Comments

Special

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Jaz had always found learning easy. She had a sneaking suspicion that she was special. Her parents had always told her so. They told her brother the same thing too, but he was special in a different way. He was special at being annoying. Jaz thought that everyone was special, it’s just that they were special in different ways. Personally, Jaz was really good at maths. She was good at most things, but maths was her special power. She wasn’t sure what it was that had made her special at it. Maybe it was all the travelling her parents had done with her, all those road signs she had seen, saying how many kilometres it was until they got to Portugal. Or perhaps it was all the games she played when she was little, especially Sum Swamp and Spongebob Monopoly. For some reason maths just went into her brain easily and stayed there. School wasn’t hard for Jaz. In fact, school was easy. Times tables were a piece of cake. She put semi colons in her writing with a shrug. She loved to read and they did a lot of reading at school, so that was cool. Probably the hardest thing about school was that it didn’t go fast enough.

Jaz knew that she was lucky. The special things she had already been given by life were more than enough to keep her going. At school, though, she could see that there were some kids who didn’t find things so easy. Who hadn’t got such a big dollop of luck when they handed out an easy life. There were some children who couldn’t quite get what the teacher was saying first time, or who still didn’t know where to put full stops in their writing. These kids were special, just in a different way to her. Annie was the most special of all. Jaz knew she wasn’t really meant to think that, but Annie was very special indeed. Maybe, those other children needed a little bit more support than her to get the same love out of learning. She didn’t mind if they got more help, it was only fair after all. And then she opened up her book and smiled. She was reading Maze Runner again. She didn’t often read the same book twice, there were so many new ones she wanted to get onto, but this one needed a second go. I am so very very lucky, Jaz thought, that I find it easy to read.

Posted in Children, SEND | 5 Comments

The Duck Wedding

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I once asked the kid who her favourite ever teacher was. Yes, I know I shouldn’t have, because all of her teachers have been great, and it’s not a competition. But I was curious about what her answer would be.

“Mrs L,” she said, without hesitation.

Mrs L was her teacher when we lived overseas, briefly. “Okay,” I said, “and why is that?”

“Because she gave us gummy bears when we did good work.”

“Oh. That doesn’t sound too good for your teeth. Did she do anything else?”

“Well.” The kid paused and thought for a moment. “She was kind, and she was beautiful, and she told us stories about where she came from in Canada. How old do you think she was, mummy?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Do you think she was older or younger than me?”

“Oh, she was definitely younger than you, mummy.” (This was upsetting since I’m pretty sure Mrs L was in her early fifties and I was still in my forties at the time.)

By this point I was wondering if she was going to get to the teaching methods, so I gave her a nudge. What did Mrs L do that helped her to learn, I wanted to know.

“You remember. She got me reading by myself, by challenging me to read a bit of my book every night and write about it in my diary. We had a garden where we grew things. And then of course there was the Duck Wedding.”

To cut a long story short, Mrs L got the class two ducklings. They took a vote on names and the ducklings ended up called Billy and Quaa-Quaa. As the ducks got bigger (and I suspect more amorous) Mrs L decided that they needed to hold a wedding for them. And so it was that her class held a Duck Wedding, which I assume involved some duck wedding related accessories. In this random and completely non scientific manner, Mrs L became my kid’s favourite teacher (although all her teachers have been great and she has loved them all). But what would Nick Gibb make of a teacher who held a Duck Wedding? What possible contribution to a child’s store of knowledge could a Duck Wedding make? And did Billy and Quaa-Quaa ever recover from the experience? I’m not sure, but the lesson I take from it is this. You can take a duck to water, but you can’t make it swim. And you can lead your children to knowledge, but it’s the teacher who makes them want to dive in.

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Responsible

People don’t tend to come into teaching for the money. At a pinch, they might come into it for the holidays, but mostly they have higher motives. They want to make a difference for the children in their care, inspire children to love all the subjects, and change the world a bit at the same time, if they can. They want to help children make more of their lives, support families in bringing up their children, and create a love of learning that lasts a lifetime. When I think of the teachers I know, they mostly do it with their hearts rather than for their wallets. Otherwise they would probably give up and go do something easier, particularly in the climate that exists in education at the moment. Unfortunately, one side effect of this desire to make a difference is that other people can get away with making you do things that you shouldn’t really do. You are so keen and willing to do good that you end being leaned on much too hard and taking on far too much. You end up forgetting that it is not your job to change the world; that this is what we vote in governments for.

Here’s a partial list of all the things that schools are now being asked to achieve.

* Exam results
* Social mobility
* Mental health
* Well being
* Child protection
* SEND
* Behaviour
* Physical health
* All above average
* Identifying radicalisation
* Eating healthily
* Cleaning teeth properly
* School readiness
* Careers
* Employment
* Limiting the use of exclamation marks
* Correctly sloping commas
* Memorising quotes
* Learning about sex and drugs (but not rock ‘n’ roll)

Most of these things are completely admirable goals, and achieving these things is the reason why many people come into teaching. But I think we need to be asking ourselves whether government is actually playing its part, or whether they have stopped thinking they have to. And if they have stopped thinking they have to, whether that is because when they handed the buck over to us, we held out our hands and accepted it. We are at a point where teachers are being held responsible for pretty much everything that happens in society. The government is saying ‘teachers can do this’ and I reckon teachers need to start saying: “Some of this is as much your job, as it is mine.” Because if we don’t, it won’t be long before we are held responsible for all the things on planet Earth. And that includes Trump, Brexit and Climate Change as well.

Posted in Social Mobility, Teaching | 2 Comments

The Contented Little Baby

Like most new parents, within a few weeks of having my first baby, I was completely and utterly desperate for sleep. Sleep deprivation is a strange thing – I can see why they use it as a method of torture. You start to feel like you are living in a half world, where nothing really makes sense and your brain just won’t work properly anymore. You become clumsy, and you can’t make the simplest of decisions. You ache for the chance of a decent night’s sleep. When someone you know tells you that their baby slept through the night at a few weeks old, you feel like you might want to punch them. Anyway, some of the people in the online baby group I belonged to were talking about a book that they reckoned might help. It was called the Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford. Apparently if you followed the rules in the book exactly, you could get your baby to stop screaming to be fed all the time, and make it take regular naps, which meant that you could get a decent amount of sleep yourself. No longer would you be woken up in the night by a baby demanding to be fed. Some of the people in my baby group were scathing about the methods described in the book. They reckoned it was cruel. But, tantilised by the prospect of sleep, I swept any concerns to one side.

Having purchased the book, I set about making it work. The book told me that you had to wake your baby up at a set time even if you and/or the baby were actually asleep. When my partner caught me doing this, he raised an eyebrow but sensibly kept his mouth shut. Then you had to feed your baby for a specific amount of time, have a little play with it, wrap it up in a specific way and then make it go to sleep by the specified hour. If you needed to pop out to the shops with your baby, you mustn’t let it fall asleep in the process. The problem was, though, that my baby was having none of it. He wouldn’t fall asleep at the correct times in his cot, but he was more than happy to crash out in his car seat. He didn’t want to feed at the times the book told me and he was perfectly capable of letting me know about it if he didn’t get his own way. The idea of controlled crying was making my heart break inside, and if anything I was getting less sleep rather than more. When my partner caught me studying the book as my baby screamed, having not been out of the house for five days, he threw it out of the window and he told me that he would burn it if he ever caught me looking at it again. That Friday, I met the girls from my antenatal group at the pub for lunch, we lined our sleeping babies up in their car seats along the wall, and we had a chat and a laugh together. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

The idea that there could be a system that would get a child to do exactly what you wanted it to do, at exactly the moment when you wanted, with no potential downsides, might seem appealing. This would be especially so if the child was refusing to do what you said and you really wanted the child to do that thing. One of the problems is, though, that there is only one way to create a system that will make a child obedient at all times. And that is to wrap yourself and the child up so tightly in a set of rigid structures, that you barely have room to breathe. If the child refuses to comply, you must have a method to achieve the compliance you desire. You must put your own need for control of your child ahead of your instinctive reactions about what feels right. You must make the child fit into your vision of what matters, and not react to the child’s immediate needs. In the end, my baby figured out for himself how to sleep through the night in his own good time and I wasn’t permanently scarred by a few months without much sleep. I relaxed into the idea of being a mum, and grabbed forty winks whenever my baby took a nap. As a friend once wisely pointed out to me: he won’t still be waking up in the night when he’s fourteen. And she was right; he’s not. These days it’s all I can do to get him out of bed.

Posted in Parenting | 2 Comments

If Detentions Worked

One of the ‘problems’ for schools with the use of punitive measures to control behaviour is that they are not exactly armed to the teeth with options. In the (bad) old days, when I was at school, the threat of violence was available. A lot of us did as we were told because we were scared of being caned if we didn’t. The moment the cane was banned, schools were basically left with one main punitive option to help them manage behaviour: detentions. Unfortunately for schools, some young people aren’t particularly bothered about being given a detention, or even about being given lots of detentions. What tends to happen is that you end up with the same young people getting detentions over and over again. The detention hasn’t ‘worked’ in the sense of changing the child’s behaviour, although it might to some extent have controlled it or stopped it getting worse. I remember once years ago asking a child to give me his planner so I could write in a detention. He told me that he couldn’t “fit me in” that day, nor the next, but he had a space I could book on Friday week. It struck me that it was no wonder the child had so much excess physical energy in my lessons; he barely ever got a playtime to expend it in.

In some instances, and for some children, detentions work perfectly fine as a deterrent or as a control measure. When my kid started at secondary school, he was a bit disorganised, in the way that many tweenagers are at transition. He forgot his PE kit on two occasions, and on each occasion he justifiably got a detention and some negative behaviour points. After two times of suffering the consequences, he learned his lesson and he hasn’t forgotten his PE kit since. But if he was still forgetting his kit and getting detentions for it two years later, it would seem obvious that something else might be worth a try. From his teachers’ reports, his behaviour is fine in lessons, but this is not because of any fear of getting a detention. It is because we have brought him up to know how and why to behave. In schools where there are lots of children who haven’t been taught how or why to behave, there may be a lot of problem behaviour, and therefore a consistently applied system of consequences may mean that a large number of detentions have to be given. But if these detentions were ‘working’, in the sense of helping you to manage and change behaviour, you would normally hope to see the number gradually tail off.

At preschool, we don’t have any ‘detentions’. For a start, it is totally inappropriate at this age. The parents wouldn’t stand for it, and there is no time in the preschool day when it could happen. But more importantly, the children wouldn’t understand it, and it would make no difference at all to their behaviour. We don’t believe that a system based on rewards and sanctions is the right way to help young children learn to regulate their behaviour; we prefer to analyse the behaviour and come at it from the direction of the child’s needs instead. Clearly this is far more difficult to do in a larger setting, such as a primary or secondary school, but in the end the goal will always be to change behaviour through helping the child learn how to behave, rather than simply trying to manage it. If there was a simple answer to behaviour, we would have alighted on it years ago. In the 20 or so years that I have been writing on and talking about behaviour, and working with schools in this area, I have never come across a ‘solution’ that was easy or straightforward to put in place. The complexity of behaviour in schools is caused by the complexity of human beings. And although consequences can be useful, they cannot take account of that.

Posted in Behaviour | 4 Comments

Carrots

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Ever since I started growing vegetables, I have been a dab hand at growing carrots. In the first few years that I grew them, the children would form a queue for the place where they could pull up handfuls of baby ones. The carrots would get a quick rinse and then the kids would munch them down, smiling at the sweetness and texture as they did so. At that time, I thought I had the exact formula for growing great carrots. It was obvious really. My carrots were better than everyone else’s, and I had plenty to spare. I could smile the smile of the person who knows how carrots grow best. As I told anyone who cared to listen, all you needed to do was dig the well drained soil on the allotment over to a fine tilth, make a shallow line, water the bottom of it, sprinkle the seeds as thinly as you could and then cover them over with a dusting of compost. Put some fleece over them, until they get going (and to keep off carrot fly). Water well in dry weather and you’re sorted. Carrots-r-us.

How wrong could I have been? 

A few years into my carrot growing career, I realised that my perfect formula actually wasn’t so perfect after all. The carrots weren’t doing what I wanted them to do anymore. They were being all temperamental. They were slow to germinate and prone to carrot fly despite my efforts to keep it away. 2016 was a particularly bad year. We didn’t get to eat a single carrot I had grown myself last year, despite me sowing loads of seeds. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps it was the two million slugs that invaded my allotment. Or perhaps it was just, you know, 2016. But whatever it was, it showed me that I am not invincible. That I do not know it all and that I still have much to learn. Certainty of outcome is not a given, when you’re dealing with something as complicated as a carrot.

Today as I dug over the allotment in preparation for a new growing season, I came across a lone carrot. The one brave survivor of the Great Carrot Growing Disaster that was 2016. Despite all my attempts to manipulate the environment to get the carrots to grow, that one seed had gone on and grown despite, not because of me. As a gardener, it is tempting to over play my role in growing plants, and to underplay the role that the plants have to play in growing themselves. To take a bit too much of the credit for myself. If I was so inclined, I could use chemicals to up my yield, and to make sure that nothing came between the sowing of the carrot seeds and the outcome of a plate of shiny unblemished carrots. But in the end, the carrot is going to do what it has to do. I smiled as I dug out that carrot. It was grubby, the carrot fly had got into the end of it, and it wasn’t going to win any prizes at the local flower show. But it had got through without my constant intervention. And I admired it for that.

Posted in Education, Gardening | Leave a comment