Standardised Lessons is a Dystopian Vision of Education

“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’

Bureaucracy is sucking the life out of teaching

This was originally posted here as part of Spiked’s back to school special.


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.

Is collaboration always the best way of working?

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.) 

Nemeth writes:

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;

Education Festival 2015: Hearts and Mindsets

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.

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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.

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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.

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Podcast: Students Interview Carol Dweck about Growth Mindset

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. 

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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.

The Semmelweis Reflex: Why does Education Ignore Important Research?


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.


Ignaz Semmelweis

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.


Neuroscience and Education: Issues and Opportunities – ESRC

Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning

Why the Widespread Belief in ‘Learning Styles’ Is Not Just Wrong; It’s Also Dangerous

We’ve lost Sight of the Point of Testing

Testing in its current form is a relatively new phenomenon. In the Ancient World, Socrates would ‘test’ his students through a dialogue where there were no ‘correct’ responses but simply more questions and answers. The Socratic tradition of dialogue was largely continued in Europe with students being tested through oral responses and then essays until around 150 years where we begin to see the notion of testing as something that can be standardised in a uniform fashion.

In the 19th century, the “father of American public education” Horace Mann advocated testing to provide “objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools, monitor the quality of instruction, and compare schools and teachers within each school.” At the beginning of the 20th century psychologist Alfred Binet developed a standardized test of intelligence, which would eventually become the standard IQ test we know today.

There is no question that a standardised measure of assessment holds great value in terms of being able to compare students and schools with on a national level and to flag up underachieving groups but there is a clear sense at the moment that standardised testing has become something else, that the tail is now wagging the dog and that the model may be in need of reform, something brought to national attention in the US not only by mass boycotting of tests but also by John Oliver on national TV:

For me there are several issues that focus not so much on testing itself but on the collateral damage caused by testing and how they’re being used far beyond their intended purpose:

1. Tests are no longer part of a judgement, they now are the judgement.

One of the proposed benefits of testing in the 19th century was that they would provide a diagnostic indicator of student progress and school efficacy that would inform a more wider, more balanced and measured judgement. However what we have now is a system where test scores are the judgement – it’s not so much that the tail is wagging the dog as the tail now is the dog. Referring to Horace Mann’s statewide roll-out of standardised tests in the mid 1800s, a US congress report from 1992 notes that:

It is important to point out what “standardization” meant in those days. It did not mean “norm-referenced” but rather that “. . . the tests were published, that directions were given for administration, that the exam could be answered in consistent and easily graded ways, and that there would be instructions on the interpretation of results. ’

The other issue is that the current model of testing risks exceeding its own mandate by being used mainly for school reform and teacher evaluation as opposed to pupil evaluation. Many opponents of standardised testing claim that they may not be fit for purpose on their own terms. According to James Popham standardised tests are like trying to “measure temperature with a tablespoon”

“Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should be used to make the comparative interpretations that they were intended to provide. They should not be used to judge educational quality.”

Combine this with an inspectorate that is data-obsessed and you have a perfect storm as this cautionary tale from Geoff Barton illustrates.

2. Standardised tests are really just a measure of who has access to specific resources

Does standardised testing evaluate a pupil’s aptitude or general knowledge or does it simply register their access to a particular set of resources? Resources here can mean a wide range of things such as the school, a private tutor, parental support but when a particular set of textbooks define success then there is an issue. This is well illustrated by the case of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) where Meredith Broussard discovered that success in her daughter’s 3rd grade test was inextricably linked to specific textbooks:

“Standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.”

Regardless of all the other inequities, the cost of these textbooks are prohibitive in many districts so the inevitable outcome is that schools in deprived areas simply cannot ‘win’ in standardised texts. Interestingly, in the 1960s the Civil Rights movement protested against standardised testing as it inevitably punished those from a certain social strata. The Coleman Report, found that a student’s home environment was the deciding factor in determining achievement. (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005) In a culture of high stakes accountability the losers will inevitably be the ones without access to the best resources.

2. Linking teacher accountability to student test scores raises difficult ethical questions

The logical end point of a high stakes system of accountability where teachers are judged on their students’ scores will be the occurrence of dubious ethical practices somewhere along the line, whether that be on a small scale with teachers ‘correcting’ a student’s coursework or on the more extreme end with institutional malpractice. Earlier this year in Atlanta eight educators were found guilty of organising a “criminal enterprise” under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) act for manipulating student scores on Georgia’s state standardized tests. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that they did this as a result of standardised testing, but the case raises some important issues around the kinds of pressure being put on teachers at the moment. What kind of a system makes people risk years in jail to improve student test scores?

Across the US right now there is a fairly widespread movement of civil disobedience with parents intervening in their children’s education and opting out of standardised tests. Whilst the moral and ethical dimensions of these decisions are unclear it is evident that the current fetish for testing has engendered a string of unintended consequences.

3. “But will this be in the test?”

Probably the most dispiriting thing a teacher can hear. We all want students to ‘achieve’ academically but should that be at the expense of intellectual curiosity and the ephemeral joy of learning that is often immeasurable? Now they are not mutually exclusive of course but when the outcomes for one far outweigh the other then something has to give and often that is the autonomy of the teacher to be able to go ‘off piste’ and follow a particular conversation or idea perhaps not directly related to the test. Teachers want their students to score well in tests but what about another measure of ‘success’ – what about the English teacher who has engendered a lifelong love of reading in a pupil? or the Physics teacher who has sparked a student’s curiosity about cosmic universe? or the languages teacher who has opened a student’s eyes to the values and customs of another country they now want to visit? Many of these things are not testable and are being subsumed by a focus on what is prescribed by an exam board and the techniques needed to be ‘successful’ in them. Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz notes that “If you impose a simplistic numerical measure and lose sight of the other important goals of the institution, then the other goals get short shrift.”

4. College dropout rates suggest that something is wrong 

In the UK, figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated that over 32,000 students dropped out of university after a year of study in 2012/13. Of those 7,420 transferred to another university, while 24,745 dropped out of higher education altogether. In the US things the picture is even more bleak where there is the “lowest college completion rate in the developed world” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.)

There seems to be a lot of blame attached to the universities themselves, but what if pre-university education is simply not preparing students for the intellectual rigour, criticality and independence needed at that level?  Are students effectively being herded through a set of tests to provide data that benefits policy makers and Ofsted rather than the actual pupils themselves? Is focusing on the ability to use a broad base of knowledge to think critically being sidelined for the narrow measure of how to pass an exam?

The knock-on effect of a high-stakes testing system with increased accountability will be the limiting of both teacher and pupil agency. Apart from the impact on student mental health and stress levels, teachers are increasingly being asked to teach how to pass an exam as opposed to impart knowledge and elicit dialogue. Schools are systems of deep uncertainty and flux in which teachers are often held accountable for the unaccountable.

Part of the solution has to be to move from a high stakes, Russian Roulette, sudden-death style system to one where pupils can be evaluated on their progress in a series of low stakes, non-threatening tests that foster not only an appreciation of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also the ability to think critically and to be able to embrace uncertainty. All of which will prepare them for the ‘tests’ they have ahead of them.

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing

Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions. [Full Report.] 

Teacher Knowledge: From ‘Outside-In’ to ‘Inside-Out’

In their book ‘Inside Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge,’ Marilyn Cochrane Smith and Susan L. Lytle outline a fundamental problem with our profession, namely that there has been an outside-in model of knowledge creation about what effective teaching is and a ‘top-down’ model of school improvement. Teachers they claim, have effectively been passive participants in the process of what constitutes good practice, and in research terms have been mere ‘objects of study.’

“The primary knowledge source for the improvement of practice is research on classroom phenomenon that can be observed. This research has a perspective that is “outside-in”; in other words, it has been conducted almost exclusively by university based researchers who are outside of the day-to-day practice of schooling.”

With all the millions invested in education research, it’s somewhat ironic (and symptomatic of the age) that some of the biggest agents of impact recently have been various grassroots movements, driven through self-organising, informal communities connecting through social media. The establishment of forums like ResearchED are now functioning as a sort of fourth estate to the traditional trifecta of School/Academia/Government, indeed major funding is now being invested to evaluate the impact of both school to school support models and also brokerage models of research engagement.

What is most significant about these initiatives, is that they are being driven by classroom teachers at a grassroots level working from the inside out, as opposed to traditional top-down model of ‘experts’ dictating from the outside-in.

This movement from ‘fringe to forefront’ is fuelled by a real desire from classroom teachers for not just knowledge, but practical, usable knowledge that speaks to them about their own experiences and has real, demonstrable impact on the pupils in their charge. For too long, the creation of knowledge about what makes effective teaching has been one-way traffic with researchers observing and codifying the phenomenon of the classroom, with very little input from teachers themselves.

Stenhouse’s argument was radical: He claimed that research was the route to teacher emancipation and that “researchers should justify themselves to practitioners, not practitioners to researchers.” *

For me the single most important element in this process is the autonomy for teachers to be able to ask their own questions and then carry out the process of collaborative, systematic enquiry to explore those questions. What we have had until this point has largely been characterised by teachers being given answers to questions they didn’t ask. It is vital that those questions come not just from outside-in but from the direct issues that teachers experience everyday in the classroom. As Cochran-Smith and Lytle remind us:

The unique feature of the questions that prompt teacher research is that they emanate from neither theory nor practice alone but from critical reflection on the intersection of the two.

However teachers can’t do it alone with the present workload level and lack of training/expertise in research methods. The experience and knowledge of experienced academics and education research departments can play a vital role in working alongside teachers helping them shape their focus and provide crucial support in terms of methodology, literature and the wider evidence base and hopefully helping to create a truly collaborative model of knowledge creation about effective classroom practice that is not solely outside-in.

Works cited: Cochran-Smith, M. and Lytle, S. (1993) Inside –Outside: teacher research and knowledge, Teachers College Press, New York *Stenhouse in Ruddock and Hopkins, 1985 p.19

The McNamara Fallacy and the Problem with Numbers in Education

Robert McNamara was by any standards, a wildly successful man. Harvard graduate, president of Ford motors then rising to the heights of U.S. Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, McNamara epitomised American élan and brio. But he had one major flaw – he saw the world in numbers.

During the Vietnam War, McNamara employed a strategic method he had successfully used during his days at Ford where he created data points for every element of production and quantified everything in a ruthless fashion to improve efficiency and production. One of the main metrics he used to evaluate progress and inform strategy was body counts. “Things you can count, you ought to count,” claimed McNamara, “loss of life is one.”


The problem with this method was that the Vietnam war was characterised by the unmeasurable chaos of human conflict not the definable production of parts on a factory assembly line. Things spun out of control as McNamara’s statistical method failed to take into account numerous unseen variables and the public turned against US involvement in the war through a cultural outcry that would change the country. Although on paper America was ‘winning’ the war, ultimately they lost it.

As the war became more and more untenable, McNamara had to increasingly justify his methods. Far from providing an objective clarity, his algorithmic approach gave a misleading picture of what was becoming an unfathomably complex situation. In a 1967 speech he said that:

“It is true enough that not every conceivable complex human situation can be fully reduced to the lines on a graph, or to percentage points on a chart, or to figures on a balance sheet, but all reality can be reasoned about. And not to quantify what can be quantified is only to be content with something less than the full range of reason.”

While there is some merit to this approach in certain situations,  there is a deeply hubristic arrogance in the reduction of complex human processes to statistics, an aberration which led the sociologist Daniel Yankelovitch coining the term the “McNamara fallacy”:

1. Measure whatever can be easily measured.

2. Disregard that which cannot be measured easily.

3. Presume that which cannot be measured easily is not important.

4. Presume that which cannot be measured easily does not exist.

Sadly, some of these tenets will be recognisable to many of us in education – certainly the first two are consistent with many aspects of standardised testing, inspections and graded lesson observations. This fiscal approach been allowed to embed itself in education with the justification given often to ‘use data to drive up standards.’ What we should be doing is using “standards to drive up data” as Keven Bartle reminds us.

The fallacy is based on the misguided notion that you can improve something by consistently measuring it. In the classroom, this is best illustrated by the conflation between learning and performance, which For Robert Bjork, are two very different things – the former is almost impossible to measure, the latter much simpler. It is very easy to transpose observable performance onto a spreadsheet and so that has become the metric used to measure pupil achievement and concomitantly, teacher performance. In tandem with that you’ve had the hugely problematic grading of lesson observations on a linear scale against often erroneous criteria as Greg Ashman has written about here.


Two years after the Vietnam war ended, Douglas Kinnard, published a significant study called The War Managers  in which almost every US general interviewed said that the metric of body counts were a totally misguided way of measuring progress. One noted that they were “grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara.”

In education, the ‘incredible interest’ of the few over the many is having a disastrous impact in many areas. One inevitable endpoint of a system that audits itself in terms of numbers and then makes high-stakes decisions based on that narrow measurement is the wilful manipulation of those numbers. A culture that sees pupils as numbers and reduces the complex relational process of teaching to data points on a spreadsheet will ultimately become untethered from the moral and ethical principles that are at the heart of the profession, as the recent Atlanta cheating scandal suggests.

Even in the field of education research, there is a dangerous view in some quarters that the only game in town is a randomised controlled trial (its inherent problems have been flagged up by people like Dylan Wiliam.) If the only ‘evidence’ in evidence based practice is that which can be measured through this dollars and cents approach then we are again risking the kind of blind spots associated with the McNamara fallacy.

Teaching is often an unfathomable enterprise that is relational in essence, and resists the crude measures often imposed upon it. There should be more emphasis on phronesis or discretionary practitioner judgement that is informed by a deep subject knowledge, a set of ethical and philosophical principles and quality research/sustained inquiry into complex problems.

In my experience, the most important factors in great teaching are almost unmeasurable in numbers. The best teachers I know have a set of common characteristics:

1. They are not only very knowledgable about their subject but they are almost unreasonably passionate about it – something which is infectious for kids.

2. They create healthy relationships with those students in a million subtle ways, which are not only unmeasurable but often invisible to those involved.

3. They view teaching as an emancipatory enterprise which informs/guides everything they do. They see it as the most important job in the world and feel it’s a privilege to stand in a room with kids talking about their passion.

Are these things measurable in numbers and is it even appropriate to do so? Are these things helped or hindered by the current league table culture?


Robert McNamara died an old man and had opportunity to reflect on his long life, most notably in the Academy award winning documentary The Fog of War. His obituary in the Economist records that:

“He was haunted by the thought that amid all the objective-setting and evaluating, the careful counting and the cost-benefit analysis, stood ordinary human beings. They behaved unpredictably.”

Measuring progress is important. We need to know what we are doing is having impact against another approach that might yield better outcomes, but the current fetish of crude numerical quantification in education is misleading and fundamentally inappropriate for the unpredictable nature of the classroom. We need better ways of recording the phenomenon of the classroom that captures more than simply test scores and arbitrary judgements on teachers, and seeks to impose an order where often there is none.

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