In his 1958 magnum opus “Personal Knowledge,’ Michael Polanyi defines ‘tacit knowledge’ as anything we know how to do but cannot explicitly explain how we do it, such as the complex set of skills needed to ride a bike or the instinctive ability to stay afloat in water. It is the ephemeral, elusive form of knowledge that resists classification or codification and that can only be gleaned through immersion in the experience itself. In most cases, it’s not even something that can be expressed through language. As he so beautifully puts it, “we can know more than we can tell.”
For Polanyi, explicit knowledge is hugely important in becoming proficient at anything but without the tacit dimension of knowing how to use and apply that knowledge, one can only arrive an an abstract and approximate appreciation of it:
“Textbooks of diagnostics teach the medical student the several symptoms of different diseases, but this knowledge is useless, unless the student has learnt to apply it at the bedside. The identification of the species to which an animal or plant belongs, resembles the task of diagnosing a disease; it too can be learnt only by practicing it under a teacher’s guidance.”
Teaching a group of children (as opposed to adults) over an extended period of time is one of those highly specialised domains where tacit knowledge is perhaps more of a prerequisite than others. It involves a million subtle nuances that are often invisible to the untrained eye, and as Polanyi reminds us, are often invisible to the teacher themselves. Knowing what will work last period on a Friday, knowing how one particular student will respond to a particular kind of feedback, knowing how to phrase that question just right to a particular kind of class who are struggling, knowing when students need to read in silence or have an animated discussion, knowing how to pitch a tricky concept at just the right point in the term or knowing how to deal with a 12 year old who has recently been bereaved and still get them through the year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to truly understand unless experienced firsthand.
On top of that, knowing how to assimilate all those elements and navigate the demands of an ever changing curriculum, parental engagement, marking and assessment and the undulating rhythms of the school year are all forms of tacit knowledge that are difficult to even define by its very best practitioners, never mind codify and teach to someone else.
And yet it’s difficult to think of another profession that is so dictated to by people without any of this knowledge. Surprisingly, some academics in education departments who train teachers are without any experience of teaching children themselves. Of course research and the kind of rarefied knowledge it creates is very useful to inform the teaching profession, indeed many of the developments in cognitive psychology for example are yielding many highly applicable findings in terms of the science of learning, but to directly train teachers about the day to day complexities of children in a classroom without any experience of those complexities is another story. It’s like someone doing just a driving theory test but then never actually learning to drive themselves yet becoming an instructor and telling people how to drive based on a theory of driving.
Beyond teacher training, there are now an increasing number of voices advising teachers how to teach who have little or no experience of teaching children. Some education consultants are paid significantly more than the teachers they are training and yet do so without any tacit knowledge of the classroom other than their own as a pupil decades ago. Encircling education is a humming industry of corporate enterprise insisting for example, that there is a mental health crisis in our schools that urgently needs costly intervention, that kids need to be taught only that which they are interested in or that business leaders should determine what’s on the curriculum as opposed to schools.
Indeed one of the main growth areas of education consultancy is the nebulous techno-world of 21st century entrepreneurialism. Now there are very good reasons why technology can and should be adopted into classroom practice but we need actual teachers with tacit knowledge of the classroom to explore this, not someone who simply brands themselves an ‘edupreneur,’ ‘disruptor,’ ‘thought leader’ or whose only qualification for standing in front of teachers seems to be merely having done a TEDx talk. (It would seem trite surely, for someone with no experience whatsoever in the operating theatre to come into hospitals and lecture qualified surgeons on how to perform “21st century surgery” for example.)
There are of course many instances in which schools can benefit from wider perspectives and experiences that are just as valid forms of tacit knowledge in themselves. In terms of school governance and policy for example, there is a lot to be learned from wider experience. After all, teachers do not have the kinds of tacit knowledge needed to run large scale operations or nationwide initiatives, but in terms of what happens in the classroom, approaching it purely from a speculative, theoretical perspective can be dangerously misleading. As Daisy Christodolou has pointed out, a lack of tacit knowledge can represent real problems in the area of assessment.
There is a lot of talk of teachers “claiming their profession,” but if teachers are to become truly empowered and take control of their own practice then they need to form more robust networks to share their tacit knowledge in meaningful ways that directly improve student outcomes and their own professional development, and that have the collective authority to contest bogus assertions and to evaluate and assimilate other useful forms of knowledge, both explicit and tacit.
There is of course also a wider debate about what constitutes a “teacher” but directly experiencing the many failures and hard-won successes of teaching children (as opposed to adults) in the classroom and being a stable part of their lives and a wider school community over many years is a rare form of knowledge that’s too often undervalued. In the end, this hard earned tacit knowledge becomes very much a lived experience for teachers, and one that is in some ways, “based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.”
I shall suggest, on the contrary, that all communication relies, to a noticeable extent on evoking knowledge that we cannot tell, and that all our knowledge of mental processes, like feelings or conscious intellectual activities, is based on a knowledge which we cannot tell.
- Polanyi, M, (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press.
- Polanyi, Michael. “The Tacit Dimension”. Doubleday & Co, 1966. Reprinted Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass, 1983. Chapter 1: “Tacit Knowing”.
One of the dominant narratives in contemporary education is the ubiquitous assertion that everyone is now a leader. Not only are all teachers now leaders, but even the kids are leaders whether they like it or not. Within such a climate we might want to ask; if everyone is now a leader, then what distinguishes the role of leader from any other, and who now leads the leaders? The other serious question is what does this say about teachers who just want to remain in the classroom?
Of course, on an abstract theoretical level all classroom teachers are leaders in the sense that they ‘lead’ a class of young people, but in reality they are not ‘leaders’ in the same way that effective senior leaders or heads of departments are. They aren’t making difficult decisions on a need-to-know basis about confidential pupil welfare issues, they are not organising whole school timetables and assemblies, they are not dealing with delicate staff disputes and they are not considering these issues from the same vantage point of actual leadership. If the entire crew on a ship were suddenly told they were now captains or chief officers and all stood at the bridge then how would the ship function?
Calling yourself a ‘thought leader’ because you put whacky ideas down on post-it notes and get a room full of people to jump up and down in order to “energise their creativity” doesn’t make you a leader. More often than not, you’re just wasting people’s time and time is something that teachers have precious little of. They certainly don’t have time to indulge some facile notion of motivational leadership dreamt up by a someone who has just watched a TED talk or read a bestselling book on leadership by yet another ‘leader’ who has never even been in a classroom.
So let’s be clear, beyond the motivational jargon, teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice. What we need is both a divergence and an elevation of both of these respective roles in order to maximise their individual potential, and in doing so we should privilege the role of classroom teacher above all others. The overwhelming purpose of a school is to have an impact on the young people who attend it and the place where that happens for the most part is in the classroom not the assembly hall.
But this cult of leadership has its roots in a more ominous development in education. What seems to have crept into our profession is a sinister corporatism that views career progress in terms of leadership promotion and insists that everyone is now obliged to lead as a matter of course. What could be more suspicions that the teacher who just wants to be a teacher? This new cult of leadership is imperious and its followers are legion, indeed its various plenipotentiaries have been a veritable cash cow for the the encircling forces surrounding education. From the bloated list of academic qualifications in education leadership offered by universities to the often farcical leadership training days for teachers who are sent away from their classes on leadership courses, leadership is the assumed obligation of all teachers, without which any teacher is merely just that, a teacher.
So the role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role. I labour this point not to denigrate leadership but rather to pay tribute to it. Great leadership is a rare ability role that requires a very particular set of skills, many of which are innate. Whilst they can be impersonated, they cannot be learned on a course or through an inspirational seminar.
In my career working in both the state and independent sectors I have been fortunate to work with many truly great leaders and the one consistent element in those people is that they had a set of skills that were sui generis – they were one of a kind individuals who were marked out by their difference, and that is what great leaders are – different. What made them true leaders wasn’t learned on a course or a book, it was a set of innate qualities such as drive, humility, patience, ambition and a certain kind of vision that others didn’t have. Their single biggest quality as a true leader however, was their willingness to selflessly take on a huge amount of unpleasantness that allowed those around them to flourish.
Great school leaders know that the purpose of schools is to endow students with a vital sense of themselves greater than they can yet imagine through the wonder of knowledge, and it is the direct impact of the classroom teacher that is ‘transformational’ here not the senior leader, or the school inspector or the education consultant. Truly great leadership does just that, it leads, intervening when it needs to, but for the most part it gets out of the way and allows others to flourish in a well structured environment. By telling everyone that they are leaders, we risk diminishing the unique role of leadership and we simultaneously perpetuate the idea that simply being a classroom teacher is somehow not enough. Let leaders lead, but more importantly, let teachers teach.
An incredibly useful and informative talk on the research around how students learn best from one of the Deans for Impact who are “a group of deans from schools of education around the country, that have united to make sure future teachers are armed with information about what works in the classroom as they begin their careers.”
Podcast from the Harvard Graduate School of Education asking “How do you effectively measure teacher effectiveness?” Interesting conversation on triangulating data to create a broader, more in-depth picture of the impact a teacher is having beyond test scores.
One of the best podcasts around. This episode features stories of adults taking very different approaches to communicating with children with some very funny kids saying what particularly annoys them about how they are spoken to, specifically age appropriate talk. (TAL spawned the outstanding Serial podcast.)
If you work in education and you haven’t read Dan Willingham’s work then you’re doing it wrong. In this podcast, he elegantly dispatches the fallacious notion of learning styles and also looks at multiple intelligences.
Why can’t we replicate so much of the research on psychological studies? An interesting listen for anyone interested in education research and the problems of social science in general.
Intelligent podcast that asks some very controversial, almost taboo questions such as “is the issue with America’s failing education system simply that teachers just aren’t very bright?”
Laurie Taylor talks to Will Davies, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, who asks why policy makers have become increasingly focused on measuring happiness. Interesting contribution to the conversation around the emergence of positive psychology in education.
Engaging podcast which essentially explores self delusion. This episode asks what keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios with just one more effort. Useful discussion for anyone dealing with young people and reluctant learners.
Radiolab make unique audio documentaries in the style of This American Life. This episode features Oliver Sacks telling the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.
“Historically the philosophy of education has been at the core of the subject. Today there are relatively few philosophers working in this area. Meira Levinson, a philosopher with experience of teaching in US public schools, is one of them. Here she discusses fundamental questions about what we are trying to do when we educate our children.”
The ‘In Our Time’ podcasts are an indispensable resource for navigating an incredibly diverse range of areas of knowledge featuring experts in the field. Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and purpose of education.
NPR podcast on schools in the U.S. using traditional approaches to behaviour management that are challenging for many but yielding impressive results. Contributions from teachers in the frontline applying these methods and education academics who are less than convinced.
Name: Carl Hendrick
Twitter name: @C_Hendrick
Subject taught (if applicable): English
Position: Head of Research/Head of English
What is your advice about? Teaching Secondary English
1: If you’re spending more time cutting up things and putting them in envelopes than knowing your subject inside out, then you’re doing it wrong.
2: Kids will not die if they don’t talk in class for half an hour, in fact they might even enjoy the silence.
3: If you don’t give kids an awareness of the rich tradition of literature then their understanding of the present will be impoverished.
4: Literature is an exploration of what it means to live, to die, to love, to lose everything. Always remember that when dealing with kids who struggle with these things.
5: People who read a lot sound like they read a lot.
People who don’t read a lot sound like they don’t…
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“All our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook.”
– World Controller Mustapha Mond from ‘Brave New World’
In the Times today, Dame Sally Coates claimed that all schools should teach identical lessons in order to address social inequality. She claims that “all children aged four to 14 should learn precisely the same things from a uniform curriculum in the same order throughout their schooling.”
This is an impoverished and dystopian view of the profession that should be resisted. It is a misguided attempt to impose an order where it’s almost impossible to do so, that views teachers as disposable dispensers of a hotly contested set of ‘standards’ and will ultimately cause more problems than solutions.
I can certainly see the appeal however. Current curriculum and assessment models vary so much from school to school that the landscape sometimes looks like the original thirteen colonies with differing constitutional systems of self government and legislation around a loose federacy. The idea of uniformity would certainly allow greater co-operation between school systems who would speak a more common language instead of the loose lingua franca there currently is.
But what this view fails to appreciate is that we are strengthened by our differences not limited by them. Creativity doesn’t come from uniformity, it comes from debate and dialogue with different voices and perspectives not some imposed singularity from outside. And the idea that uniformity can solve social inequality and ‘unleash creativity’ is part of a movement that takes its cues more from the assembly line than the classroom and for me, has uncomfortable resonances with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’
The central claim of a standardised curriculum is that through standardised testing of that curriculum you will be able to fairly evaluate progress against a common standard. The main problem here is that by piling so much emphasis on empirical notions of progress, you are unleashing a culture of high stakes accountability that views success in terms of exam results and worth in terms of league tables and too often sees teachers as disposable elements in that enterprise.
What makes this claim all the more baffling is that we have a pretty good example of what happens with mass standardisation (albeit an ‘opt-in’ model as Coates as advocated) in the form of the U.S. common core where the notion of a uniform ‘raising of standards’ as a driver of improvement is being robustly challenged.
At least three reports from the Education Department, including a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, have found no relationship between the difficulty of a state’s test and the level or change in student achievement.
The other question is who decides what to standardise and what goes on the curriculum? Schools should have standards but they should not be imposed from outside, and certainly not by people who have never been in the classroom. Of course schools should not be able to’do what they want’ but they should have the autonomy to choose what is right for their pupils in their own context.
A further problem is that beyond the curriculum things get even more difficult to standardise. Despite all the research on the classroom there is still very little consensus on what truly works so what exactly is it are we proposing to standardise? And who precisely is deciding what those pedagogical standards are in the first place?
And what if standardisation doesn’t stop at the curriculum? Imagine a world where it was suddenly decided that you not only had to teach character as a new ‘standard,’ but to evidence that against a set of pre-defined set of ‘character metric’, and then this was measured and compared against some sort of ‘national index of character’. We’re back to the sort of big-data-double-speak of Blair and his “rural community vibrancy index”.
I can’t think of a more depressing landscape where all schools are teaching exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, where every lesson is ‘off the shelf’ and where teachers are essentially painting by numbers. In teaching, like in poetry, form and content are inextricably linked, they inform one another and create an overall effect that is impossible to control never mind ‘standardise.’ The best teachers teach a curriculum that comes from within not without, it is content that they are enlivened by and are desperate to communicate to kids.
Teaching is a far more mysterious enterprise than advocates of standardisation appear to realise. It has many disparate parts that are prone to flux and change and often resist order and blunt categorisation. Attempts to quantify the mystery of the classroom have largely failed, so perhaps we should be brave enough to allow at least some of it to remain a mystery, to not reduce everything to numbers and seek to ‘tag and bag’ every single thing and instead celebrate our differences as opposed to eliminating them.
“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides-made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”
‘Brave New World’
In William Faulkner’s short story The Tall Men, a local marshall and a young litigious county official visit a rural family to arrest two brothers for failing to register for the draft. They find that the brothers’ father has had a life-threatening accident. When the older marshall explains to the father that the most sensible thing would be for his sons to join the army in Memphis, the younger official indignantly insists that the warrant be served, and the boys be prosecuted for not completing the requisite paperwork on time. The older marshall intercedes on behalf of the family:
’You mean all right. You just went and got yourself all fogged up with rules and regulations. That’s our trouble. We done invented ourselves so many alphabets and rules and recipes that we can’t see anything else; if what we see can’t be fitted to an alphabet or a rule, we are lost. We have come to be like critters doctor folks might have created in laboratories, that have learned how to slip off their bones and guts and still live, still be kept alive indefinite and forever maybe even without even knowing the bones and the guts are gone.’
Last year there was a raft of apocryphal headlines about teacher workload and burnout. A survey by the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) concluded that wellbeing and satisfaction within teaching were at an all-time low and stress levels were alarmingly high due to a proliferation of ‘pointless paperwork’. Teaching appears to be at the point of collapse, but ask any teacher what wears them down and you’ll rarely hear that it’s due to the cut and thrust of the classroom. No, it’s the near-endless stream of data entry, form-filling, standardisation and ever-shifting curriculum and assessment criteria that is grinding teachers down.
A central problem is the conflation of bureaucracy with professionalism. This was illustrated some years ago when I visited an ‘outstanding’ academy. It had implemented a standardised four-part lesson format. All teachers were expected to deliver the same format every lesson and provide weekly lesson plans to leadership, who then went on ‘learning walks’ to ensure teachers were moving from part A to part B of the lesson at the right time. When I suggested that this approach might be creating a culture of monotony and covert intimidation, I was told, ‘well you can’t argue with the results, can you?’.
The implicit message in the endless monitoring and micromanagement of teachers is that they are not to be trusted. At its worst, bureaucracy valorises methodology over autonomy and gives the false impression of impartiality where instead there is systemic prejudice. The bureaucrat’s axioms of ‘process’ and ‘procedure’ create an ultramontane system unable to appropriate the concerns of the individual teachers into its orthodoxy. This dysfunction affects students, too. Those achieving lower grades, for example, are not viewed as individuals with complex sets of problems, but rather as aberrations within a system that demands ‘intervention’ to re-establish uniformity and straight edges.
One of the more surprising aspects of increased bureaucracy in education is that it arises at a time when education is shifting from centralisation and state control towards free-market solutions. For David Graeber, this has led to a paradox he calls the ‘iron law of liberalism’, which states that
‘any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces, will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs’.
(Ironically, one of UK education secretary Nicky Morgan’s solutions to excessive workload in the form of needless paperwork and form-filling is yet more needless paperwork and form-filling – through the promise of a series of ‘large scale, robust’ surveys in 2016.)
With the emergence of Big Data, bureaucracy has entered hyperdrive. The weight of key data points such as GCSE English and Maths scores at Key Stage 4 are out of all proportion with their integrity as valid measures of progress. They are used as a stick to beat headteachers and staff in the name of ‘improving standards’.
Another unintended consequence of bureaucracy is that it allows poor teachers to fly under the radar. Instead of acting as a bulwark against incompetence, bureaucracy often serves to protect and even perpetuate it. A teacher who has poor relationships with his or her pupils, and doesn’t have sufficient subject knowledge, for example, can be less likely to be held to account than a teacher who is unable to ‘evidence’ progress through a portfolio of lesson plans, objectives and whatever marking policy is in vogue at the time.
Something has gone terribly wrong when teachers are spending more time on facile data entry and documenting nebulous ‘evidence of progress’ than on deepening their subject knowledge and building strong relationships with their pupils. By foisting the impersonal machinery of bureaucratic infallibility on to the uncertain, relational domain of the classroom, we have created a heightened sense of anxiety and unease in the classroom.
But this anxious culture in schools is unnecessary. It comes largely from the fact that teachers today are over-monitored and under-mentored. They are swimming against a constant tide of meaningless administrative toil and are too often held accountable for the unaccountable, with all the paperwork that entails. To counter a schools culture in which we have lost sight of the value of knowledge, and that audits itself in terms of league tables and specious data, we need a serious re-evaluation of what education is for, and what it is we want our teachers to spend their time doing.
I’ve long thought that if the guiding principle for any initiative is the fact that it’s alliterative or that it’s a ‘handy acronym’, then there’s probably good reason to be suspicious of it. One of the most pervasive of these is the three Cs – collaboration, creativity and communication or a variant thereof, with the emphasis firmly on collaboration.
Collaboration is now the sine qua non in any learning or professional development scenario. We live in an age where to work alone is somehow seen as a seditious act. There is now a near constant injunction to collaborate, to ‘connect’ socially and to be a “team player.” We now have open-plan offices, “break-out spaces” and increasingly classrooms that look more like Times Square than somewhere where you might be able to reflect and think hard about something.
I worry that for many of us, there is now no refuge from this kind of stuff:
The classic collaborative activity is of course ‘brainstorming’ devised by Alex Osborn in 1939. The commonly held wisdom here is that if you withhold criticism, reserve judgement and allow a critical mass of ideas to form then you will arrive at the most creative solution to any given problem. However this approach is not supported by evidence.
in 2003 Charlan Nemeth from the University of California divided 254 students into different groups with the same problem to solve ‘How can we limit the impact of the traffic problem in the San Francisco Bay area?’
The first group were instructed to solve the problem in the classic collaborative, brainstorming method where they did not criticise ideas but simply collated as many ideas as possible. The second group were instructed to work differently and to debate and criticise ideas and preconceptions and the third group could do as they pleased.
The results were overwhelmingly definitive – the debate team were by far the most creative. Not only that, but when the teams were broken up and individuals were asked to think about the problem further on their own, the brainstorm team came up with an average of three extra ideas but the debate team came up with an average of seven ideas.
What I think is so interesting about this study is firstly the clear evidence that critical dissent is a powerful driver of not just creativity but also of the volume of ideas, but perhaps more interestingly, deliberate and solitary reflection (combined with debate and rational argument) would seem to be far more productive than traditional collaborative brainstorming or uni-directional ‘teamwork’ activities. (This chimes with Nick Rose’s clarion call for professional scepticism.)
This line of research maintains that the benefits of dissent stem from the cognitive conflict it generates; the dissent compels those in the majority to search for possible explanations as to why the dissenter is willing to openly disagree and suffer the rejection that often accompanies such disagreement. This search for explanations then fosters thinking on all sides of the issue (Nemeth, 2003).
As someone who valued the fact that I could sit, read and think for hours as a child undisturbed by the injunction to agree with everyone and then march around the room and stick post-it notes onto sugar paper posted on walls, I worry that we are not affording the same opportunities to kids today in an age where collaboration is not only valorised but mandated.
Add to this the constant distraction of technology and there is a reasonable argument to be made that the most progressive and indeed liberating thing you can do in education today is make kids read in silence for an hour.
There are lots of other reasons why we might want to work collaboratively such as social and relational benefits which are certainly important, but we should perhaps think twice in doing so in the name of being more creative or productive.
DW Taylor, PC Berry and CH Block, “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?”Administrative Science Quarterly 3, no 1 (1958): 23-47
Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg
This year’s Education Festival was an apopemptic affair for me. Not only is my boss Anthony Seldon leaving but also several members of my own department, including festival director David James, the inestimable Joanna Seldon and my good friend Jim Heal who I trained with at King’s College. It has been a strange few weeks saying goodbye to so many colleagues that I am genuinely sad to lose and which infused the timbre of this year’s festival, one that proved to be an emotional one in many ways.
In just a few years the festival has gone from a few hundred attendees to over 5000 on both days this week. It is an incredible thing to have some of the most important voices in education come to your school and speak and I feel hugely fortunate to have been part of it.
This year as head of research I managed to convince Harvard faculty to hold their Research Schools International Symposium here at Wellington featuring a range of schools working on school based research to share and discuss ideas. We had schools from the US, Ecuador, France and even Hawaii. We began the day with me welcoming delegates and speaking a little about school based research. Then Dr. Christina Hinton outlined the work of Research Schools International and the notion of Usable Knowledge. There is a good summary here. I was especially please to meet Andy Tharby and Shaun Allinson as I sat down. We then had a panel discussion on school based research and the value of student voice with Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher from the CTTL, Tom Callahan from the Merck-Horton centre and the always fascinating Al McConville from Bedales.
We then had a series of roundtable discussions with all the schools and some honoured guests including the fantastic Jude Enright from Greenford High School and Jonnie Noakes from Eton’s new Research centre. This discussion was incredibly useful in terms of getting a sense of how we might translate research on Growth Mindsets, Grit and resilience into something that might have impact in schools. I was blown away by the whole thing and will sift through my notes and post findings at a later date.
As I was focussing on the symposium I had little time to do much else before the now legendary speakers dinner that evening. If you are unaware of it, every year at the festival Anthony hosts a dinner for speakers where guests are called at random to speak about a topic of his choosing. It is a brutal affair as you do your best to enjoy the food with a perpetual sword of Damocles hanging over your head. This year’s guests called on to speak included Tom Bennett, Daisy Christodoulou, Martin Robinson, Angela Duckworth Rob Coe, Claire Fox, David Didau, Laura McInerney, Dominic Randolph and surprisingly, yours truly. It was a somewhat terrifying experience in which I mumbled through something about why teachers should engage with research. Luckily by that stage of the night everyone was reasonably drunk so I think I got away with it. David James made the final speech of the night which was as heartfelt as it was funny and for which he was applauded with great brio not just for his contribution to the festival and its prosperity, but because he has been instrumental in the successes of many in the room.
I was especially pleased to be seated next to the two finest human beings on the face of the planet, John Tomsett and Martin Robinson, however any joy quickly evaporated with the arrival of David Didau who arrived dressed as an adult leprechaun and whose attempt to pass off what can only be described as an old sock for a bow-tie was particularly risible. (What if everything you know about evening wear is wrong?) Later I speculated that his entire outfit might have been a thinly veiled attempt to mock my Irish heritage in which case he deserves great credit.
Later that night a rogue team including Salon Stalwarts David Didau, Claire Fox and Daisy Christodolou broke away to Wellington’s on-site secret bar, Napoleon’s Retreat where I was lucky enough to meet data expert Jack Marwood and progressive traducer Nevile Gwynne.
The next morning I went to see one of the most powerful talks on education I’ve ever seen featuring Jarlath O Brien and Maria Ramsey from Carwarden house, our own chaplain Tim Novis and Ed Venables give a talk on the unique collaboration between ourselves and their special school featuring many of the students presenting also. This talk was the one that had most impact on me over the two days, particularly my colleague Tim’s beautifully honest and personal account of the birth of his daughter and how he became involved with Carwarden House special school. It was not easy for Tim to say those words but I am glad he shared it with us all. I have an unfathomable respect for everyone involved in this project and felt genuinely moved/uplifted by it not least as my own sister was given fantastic care and support from a special school in Dublin.
I then raced off to the theatre to see Dylan Wiliam gave a masterclass on principled assessment design mainly focusing on the many issues with assessment. He outlined a plethora of problems with current assessment models that are simply not fit for purpose, notably the problematic practice of using tests to group students by ability.
Dylan is a hugely engaging speaker, his talks are peppered with a torrent of powerful edu-aphorisms such as this gem:
Other pearls included:
“We are drowning in data but not learning anything”
“Scores suffer from spurious precision. Grades suffer from spurious accuracy.”
The full presentation can be downloaded here. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Dylan after along with Daisy Christodolou where we spoke about a wide range of things from why baseball provides more insight for education than football and why the solution to the Semmelweis problem might be Hattie Jacques. (Ask Daisy)
Another emotional moment was Tom Sherrington seeing a picture of one of his students during his talk and getting all choked up. I missed that talk but I have known Tom to break into tears before when talking to me about one of his students. It is this capacity for empathy that marks him out as a truly exceptional head teacher.
I then went to see a Battle of Ideas debate ‘Is teaching an art or a science?’ featuring Rob Coe,Tom Bennett, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, Alistair McConville and Daisy Christodoulou and hosted by Claire Fox (who should be in charge of everything.) This was an engaging debate featuring some powerful points on both sides and avoided the usually reductive, reactionary truculence that this debate often descends into. A particularly strong point was that there are certain ethical mplications around ignoring evidence and that research should be seen as something that informs professional judgement as opposed to something that subsumes it. Sadly, I was to be distracted by Tom Starkey live-tweeting abuse at me.
After this I went to meet Carol Dweck at the master’s lodge where I had a cunning plan to get some of our student research council to interview her. She agreed and was absolutely delightful with them and gave of her time generously. These students have read a lot of her work over this last year and had a fascinating conversation with here. The recording of that meeting can be listened to here. I cannot express the pride I felt at seeing my students interviewing one of the most important voices in education.
Another great moment was seeing Carol Dweck meet with Tom Sherrington and John Tomsett who spoke enthusiastically about how they had adapted her ideas in their schools. She was suitably impressed and kept talking about them in glowing terms afterwards.
A key element of her talk was the notion of ‘false growth mindset’ written about here eloquently by David Didau. Another act of human greatness was Laura McInterney taking the time to speak to one of my students who has dreams of being a journalist.
I had to then leave early to attend the TES awards in London where a number of friends were up for the blogger of the year award. I was at a table with Tom Bennett (who was late again so I ate his starter) and Emma Ann Hardy who introduced me to the living legend that is Fred Jarvis. At last the blogger nominees were announced and again I felt a swell of pride to see good friends get some much deserved attention especially Nick Rose who I nominated and who is one of the voices I respect most in education. (I was also delighted to see motivational speaker Andrew Old.)
In the end, Nancy Gedge won and no one could have any complaints. Her writing over this past year has been insightful, erudite and honest and has given us all a valuable insight into a world that I think is too often marginalised in UK education.
A whirlwind couple of days then and as is the case with #Educationfest every year, the core messages and central themes take days/weeks to sift through. On a personal level, this year’s festival marks the end of an era in which many good friends leave that I will hope to see return as visitors next year.
One of the things I was keen to do this year in setting up an in-house research centre at Wellington College was to have a small number of students partner with us on our project with Harvard faculty on Growth Mindsets and Grit. A key point for me was what does this research actually look like in the classroom and and at the level of the student?
Another goal was to have them help us in designing a survey by having them pilot test some of the more problematic questions so we could get as reliable data as possible.
We asked the students to read some of the literature and research in these areas and then had a series of group discussion with them where we discovered a huge range of things that was really helpful in helping us understand Growth Mindsets from multiple perspectives.
At the education Festival this week we were hugely fortunate to have Carol Dweck as a speaker so when I met with her I was really keen that our student research council interview her and put some of their own pressing questions about student motivation, assessment and Growth Mindset to her from their own perspective as students. She was incredibly generous with her time and was really eager to meet with them.
In 1846 the general hospital in Vienna was experiencing a peculiar problem. There were two maternity wards at the hospital but at the first clinic, infant mortality rate was around 16% while at the second clinic the rate was much lower, often below 4%. Mysteriously there were no apparent differences between the two clinics to account for this.
Part of the mystery was that there was no mystery. Almost all of the deaths were due to puerperal (childbed) fever, a common cause of death in the 18th century. This fact was well known outside the hospital and many expectant mothers begged to be taken to the second clinic instead of the first. The stigma around the first clinic was so great that many mothers preferred to give birth in the street than be taken there.
Working at the hospital at the time was Ignaz Semmelweis, a young doctor who had risen to the ranks of assistant professor where his duties included the examining patients before the professor’s rounds. Perturbed by the seemingly unsolvable nature of this mystery, young Ignaz recorded that it made him “so miserable that life seemed worthless” and so dedicated himself to finding a solution.
The breakthrough came when his close friend and colleague Jakob Kolletschka died of the same infection after cutting himself with a surgeons scalpel during an operation. Semmelweis then noticed that in the first clinic doctors were routinely conducting autopsies whilst in the second this practice did not occur. He also noticed that doctors were often delivering babies and treating patients with the same unwashed hands they were performing autopsies with and so proposed that doctors were contaminating patients with “cadaverous particles.” He then insisted doctors wash their hands in a chlorinated lime solution before dealing with patients resulting in a drop in deaths from puerperal fever to around 1%.
However despite this transformative discovery many in the medical community at the time were not only skeptical of Semmelweis’s findings but openly mocked them. Charles Meigs, a prominent American obstetrician (and teacher) derided the notion of bacterial infection and antiseptic policy noting that “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean” and that any that it was morally unacceptable to “contravene the operations of those natural and physiological forces that the Divinity has ordained us to enjoy or to suffer.” Even when Semmelweis published his findings, he still came up against intransigence and entrenched partisanship. August Breisky, an obstetrician in Prague, referred to his work as “the Koran of puerperal theology.”
This reactionary short-sightedness gave rise to the the term The Semmelweis Reflex: “the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.” Now education is clearly very different from medical practice, but there are things we are discovering about the process of learning that the profession can no longer afford to ignore. In the last 10 years we have witnessed an explosion in what we know about the essential dynamic of how the brain retrieves and stores information. The field of neuroscience in particular has afforded huge opportunities to the profession by challenging and clarifying erroneous beliefs through not just solid evidence, but important evidence yet still many many of these problematic ideas are still widespread.
We now know for example that left and right brain thinking is not supported by any evidence, we know that the belief in learning styles is not just wrong but dangerous, we know that the claim that we only use 10% of our brain is completely unfounded and that if you are using Neuro linguistic programming for education purposes then you might as well be practising astrology. Yet despite these important findings, may of these beliefs still persist in education settings today.
Against this clearing out period of debunking and myth-busting, we have also had a number of significant discoveries such as Sarah Jayne-Blakemore’s work on the teenage brain and the fact that “disorders like anxiety disorders, depression, addictions, eating disorders, almost all of them will have their onset some time during the teenage years.” Her work proposes to explore how “genes and the environment influence brain development, like for example, how adolescent brain development differs between cultures is something that no one has yet asked, and yet it’s bound to.” These issues and the potential findings from them seem to be not only integral to the practice of teaching children but also ethically imperative. Yet how much of these findings are properly embraced by the profession in a way that is commensurate with other professional fields?
Even where important ideas have been adopted, implementation of them has been problematic. Dylan Wiliam’s work on assessment for learning from 1998 is a seminal contribution to the field of education research but has used reductively to simply mean kids knowing what level they are working at or teachers sub-levelling individual pieces of work. These issues raise some important questions:
Whole School Cognitive Dissonance: What is the value in a school preaching Growth Mindsets in an assembly yet basing their entire school enterprise on the reductive and fixed mode of target grades and narrow assessment measures based on poor data? Why are kids explicitly told that their brain is malleable but implicitly told their target grades are not?
Insufficient training: Why are teacher training courses essentially a mad trolley dash around hugely complex ideas over 8 months, where trainees spend more time collating paperwork against often arbitrary targets than engaging with significant research? (I don’t blame PGCE providers for this – they are working in an increasingly difficult area with less and less resources but where did the idea come that you could learn all you need to know about teaching and be classroom-ready in less than a year?)
If not evidence then what? If educators are not interested in evidence then what are we actually talking about? Are we basing our entire professional practice solely on our own experience in the classroom 10 or 20 years ago? Or should our professional judgement be one that is informed by and that engages with a wider body of knowledge from different disciplines? Are we so arrogant to think we have nothing to learn from different fields?
Ethical considerations: If research shows us that certain practices lack any evidence or are ultimately a waste of time, is it ethically right that teachers continue to use these practices? As mentioned, learning styles has been fairly widely debunked now but why does it continue to linger in so many educational arenas? And what are the implications of new research for educational monoliths like group-work, differentiation, Bloom’s taxonomy and traditional marking?
Three of the most important aspects of teacher development are trust, professional judgement and autonomy but surely that judgement and autonomy is only enhanced and not hindered by new findings about how learning takes place. As with Semmelweis’s detractors we shouldn’t be rejecting new ideas and discoveries, especially ones that are so relevant to our field but rather incorporating them into our own practice. One of the challenges to education research is the perceived threat of “evidence” as an axiomatic truth to be delivered on high that will limit teacher autonomy and agency in the classroom but I for one am excited by education incorporating these new findings around memory, retention and performance and incorporating them into their own professional practice and then making them applicable in the classroom where they can have the most impact.