Join the Dots

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Join all the dots
using only 4 straight lines and
without taking your pen off the paper

I often use the nine dot puzzle when I’m working with teachers. It helps us consider how thinking can work, why it can be really hard, and how differently people react when they are given something they can’t easily do. Faced with this puzzle, and told to work on it alone and in silence, some people will stare at the dots, trying to imagine what the answer could be. Others will start scribbling immediately, in an effort to find out how it works, not caring how many failed attempts they make. A few people might switch off pretty quickly because they decide they won’t be able to do it, or they can’t be bothered. And others may want to be told the answer almost immediately. (A handful of any group will know the answer already, so I ask them to come up with alternatives to the ‘classic’ answer.)

When we are asked to work something out, rather than just being told it, we have to think harder than we normally would. We don’t know yet, so we have to figure out how we could find out. I suppose this is why the human mind seems to like puzzles – trying to work something out is like aerobics for our brains.  Even though we know there is an answer, we get a buzz if we can work it out for ourselves. When I use this puzzle with teachers, I help them get the solution to the puzzle by giving them clues. The first, most important clue is that it gave rise to the saying “Think Outside the Box”. This puzzle is a great example of how, when the human mind is given a box, we tend to stay inside it. As soon as you let people chat in groups about the puzzle, they quickly start to build on each other’s thinking, and pretty soon someone has figured out the answer.

For me, though, the most interesting thing about the nine dot puzzle is not that there is a ‘correct’ answer, but about how many alternative solutions I can devise. Can I come up with a solution that no one has ever thought of before? Is there a more interesting way to solve this? I feel this way about education at the moment. I worry that if we are told that we have to find the one correct answer, we might stop looking for alternatives. And the alternative solutions to the nine dot puzzle? Well, try this. Holding your pen on the paper, fold it up, so that you can connect the dots in a stroke or two. Or this. With your pen still on the paper, grab a pair of scissors and cut out the dots, rearranging them to complete the task. Perhaps my favourite alternative answer of all is not to do with the dots at all, but with the tool I am using. Because all I need to do is to find the world’s fattest marker pen, and I can join the dots in a single line.

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Won’t Get Fooled Again

This morning I was ambling through my Twitter timeline in my usual half awake Monday state, when I stumbled across the following tweet:

I had a quick read of the blog, and joined in a brief Twitter discussion about it, but I had a nagging concern at the back of my mind. There was something distinctly odd about that image. For a start, the tail on the ‘a’ looked to me like the letter formation of a very young child – that separate tail is a classic sign of an emergent writer – it’s something you see a lot in children of around 4 or 5 years old. But why would a child that young be given a test like this, when they would only just be learning to read? And if the child was older, with poorly developed letter formation, but was able to read, then surely the answer to the question would have been obvious? I started to wonder whether the child had written the wrong answer on purpose, as a joke. It seemed like the only plausible explanation. It was really bugging me. How could I find out the truth?

And then I remembered something that I learned a month or so ago – a great tip I picked up for dealing with potential ‘fake news’ of the Trump variety, around the time of his inauguration (when all kinds of claims about huge crowds were made). It’s a simple way to check the source of an image you see on Twitter, and to ensure that it is what it claims to be, before you retweet it to all and sundry with an outraged comment attached. All you need to do is hover over the image on Twitter, right click on your mouse, and then choose ‘search Google for image’. This takes you to Google where, with a bit of careful research, you should be able to identify the origin of the image. The furthest back I could get for the image in this blog was someone called ‘FishInferno’, who had uploaded it to Reddit in the ‘funny’ category on 26th February, from which point it was picked up by various ‘funniest thing on the Internet’ sites and ended up as “a picture a friend had sent me of work a young student did in the classroom” in Doug Lemov’s blog.

Call me cynical, but I’m not entirely convinced about the veracity of the original image – it looks to me as though an adult might have made it for laughs, with the thought that the best way to make it look like it was done by a child was to write the answer in babyish handwriting. There’s something just a little bit too pat and amusing about ‘Getty Images’. Either that or the child is brand new to English, or just can’t read yet. Perhaps the only way we could know for certain would be to hunt down ‘FishInferno’ and ask him/her to provide the child’s handwritten original, or to get Doug Lemov to check with his friend. As is the way of the Internet, we will probably never know. The image will pass into history as an example of the evils of using Google, when in reality Google was what allowed me to identify where it had come from in the first place. It strikes me that, instead of this image being an example of why we need more knowledge, it is actually an example of why we need more digital literacy. Of why it is important not to take the things we see on the Internet at face value, and why we should always verify the source.

Posted in Technology | 10 Comments

Just Imagine

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Dressing up for World Book Day in schools seems to split opinion right down the middle. Some people love it, and go all out to take part and to think up a costume. Other people hate it. They don’t like the way that it has been commercialised, they don’t think it has much to do with books or reading, or they don’t enjoy being forced to dress up full stop. Personally, I can see both sides, and most years I would tend to side more with the “oh god no, please don’t make me do that” group than the “I’ve been planning my costume for weeks and it is nigh on perfect” one. In our house, we’re pretty disorganised, so what usually happens is that we chuck something together at the last minute out of leftover bits and pieces from school plays and fancy dress parties. But this year, for some reason, the kid has taken on board the idea of becoming a character for World Book Day and she has embraced it with all of her heart and all of her soul. Maybe it’s because this is her last year at primary school, and she knows that she won’t get do childlike stuff like this when she moves on to secondary. Or maybe it’s because she’s (re)reading a book series that she is very excited by at the moment. But ever since we got the note from school saying they could come in dressed up as a character, her preparations have been in full swing.

“I want to be Newt from The Maze Runner,” the kid announced to me earlier this week. This sparked off an initial panic about what costume Newt might require, which then segued into a long discussion about what a Runner would wear. (Luckily for me, I’ve read the books, so I knew what she was talking about.) We checked out images from the films of the books, we talked about the things that the Runners do, and we rifled through our cupboards to try and find something that would be suitable. Newt is a boy, so we ended up trawling her brother’s old clothes to get what we needed. And as we figured out what she would wear for World Book Day, and worked out how we could create the accessories she needed to be authentic, we spent more time talking about books, and about the characters that inhabit them, and the way that authors work to make meaning, than we have ever done before.

We discussed how the characters in The Maze Runner are named after famous scientists, although you don’t find out until right near the end of the story, which makes it really clever. We talked about how the main character Thomas is named after Thomas Edison, how the character Alby is named after Albert Einstein, and how Minho doesn’t seem to be named after a scientist at all, but how anyway the Minho is a region of Portugal that we happen to know and love very much indeed. We discussed how the language in the books is different to normal everyday language (the children make up constructions of their own, reminiscent of the way that A Clockwork Orange is written). We talked about how far in the future we think the book is set. We talked about dystopian fiction, and how we both also love The Hunger Games, even though the bit where Rue dies is so terribly sad. We talked about our favourite characters, and the bit of the book that we both remembered best. (The part where they climb the walls and hang from vines, to escape the Grievers.) We discussed how eventually the boys find out how to solve The Maze, and how it turns out that there has been a group of girls, solving their own Maze as well. And it felt like me and the kid were in a book group made up of just us two.

Last night, the kid spent an hour making a map of The Maze, with authentic details written into it, like the number of days they had been trying to find a solution and the place where they jumped off the cliff into the invisible Griever hole. This morning, as we stood at the top of the lane waiting for the school bus, she told me that she needed to put a stone in her shoe, in order to make her character completely real. Apparently the actor who played Newt in the films had done this, to remind him that he had a limp. She stuck a big stone in her shoe but decided it was too painful. She tried a smaller stone but she gave up on that too. Then she started throwing Newt quotes at me, including her particular favourite, “Great, we’re all bloody inspired.” By the time the school bus arrived, we both had tears of laughter in our eyes at her attempts at method acting. The lady who drives the bus got out to open the door, looked the kid up and down, and said the words that I knew the kid was going to be hearing a lot that day. “What have you come as?” she wanted to know.

“I am Newt,” the kid said proudly. “I was named after Isaac Newton.” No shop bought costume needed. No money was expended. Mum and daughter bonded. Just imagine that.

Posted in Books, Parenting, Reading | Leave a comment

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