Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Terra Australis: researchED Melbourne 2017




Terra Australis


Australia is an extraordinary place to come, especially if you’re British. The mixture of instant familiarity (driving on the left as all civilised peoples do, fried breakfasts, Cockney phonics buried inside carefree New World idiom) and the novel (dim sum next to baked beans, a menagerie of animals apparently constructed by God for a dare) creates an uncanny valley. Like you woke up in an alternate timeline where Britain was at once sunny, healthy and positive.

Nowhere I this demonstrated more clearly than in that totem of Terra Australis, the humble Tim Tam. I can summarise it in two words: Aussie Penguin (the biscuit, not the improbable saviours of zoos’ balance sheets). I already have orders from three separate people in the UK for boxes of them, like Antipodean contraband). But it’s a Penguin with an x factor I can’t quite name. A twist of vanilla perhaps, like someone sent a Penguin through a teleporter with a 99. And it is very delicious, an Umpty Candy for our age.

Aussie ed reminds me of this. I’ve been fortunate enough to eke my way across several countries with researchED in my knapsack: Sweden, Norway, USA, Netherlands, Australia, and next year possibly Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand- we’re even in talks with schools in the UAE and Spain. Every time I’m fascinated to discover how education plays out in each territory. It’s like foreign tongues: the vocabulary and grammar are frequently alien, but the underlying conventions of language remain. Every country appears to be wrestling with many of the same devils as every other country.

In some ways, this is unsurprising: the process of educating children has evolved as a societal necessity, and certain conventions emerge and converge due to circumstances universal to the human condition: the classroom, the teacher-expert, the taxonomy of curriculum, testing, certification, graduation, the lingua franca of instruction. As organisms evolve circulatory, respiratory, excretory systems in a ticker tape of styles, education throws up the same issue whether the school bells sounds over Doha or Dunfermline. Autonomy; selection; instruction and enquiry; whole child or subject…these and many others are the wrestling rings of debate.

Which is why I’ve found attending researchEDs aboard so incredibly instructive; the same debates with different accents, angles and nuance. Educational tourism is of course a dangerous game; often we find that what propels a perceived outcome (such as literacy or tertiary education enrolment) can be aligned as much with cultural contextual factors (such as teacher status, simplicity of language forms, social norms about university) as with policy levers and school systems.

But if we are careful we can learn from one another. The key caveat is to remember that correlation is not causation; that constant conjunction of two factors (such as waking up with a sore head and it being Saturday morning) may not be causal. So when we visit Singapore, or Finland we avoid drawing simple inferences about school starting age, bean bags, first name terms with teachers and wraparound tutoring and classes of 75. Some plants look beautiful in a jungle, but need imported soil and sunlight to thrive. British classrooms are not terrariums. Mango trees will not last a winter in Regent’s Park.

And other flora and fauna will. Look at rabbits, one of many unwelcome presents the British gifted Australia with. Or Highland cows (Latin: Heelan’ Coos) that chewed the cud in Mongolia for millennia before they were kidnapped to Scotland and made to produce toffee for people who couldn’t otherwise afford tooth extraction. I am fascinated by what we can and cannot learn from our neighbours, what will and will not take root abroad. There is an obvious advantage offered here: rather than launch costly (and no doubt unethical) vast social experiments in different education systems to work out which ones are most effective, we can just peer over the border and see what our neighbours are up to. In theory.

I learned a lot (my bar is low, and like a pupil on a G grade I make fastest progress) from Australia and the two researchEDs we put together in Melbourne, one at Brighton Grammar School and one in partnership with the ACE conference. Hundreds of teachers, school leaders, academics, researchers, and everyone else in between self-assembled to learn from one another and the fantastic array of speakers who had given their time for free to talk to their colleagues.

There were too many to mention of thank here, but some highlights that I managed to get to were:

Professor John Sweller, famous forhis work on Cognitive Load theory and developing Geary’s idea of Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge, which has proven to be increasingly influential in our understanding of why some forms of teaching may or may not be more or less effective in different contexts. His quiet, patient unpacking of his topic contrasted enormously with….

John Hattie, who is as close to a rock star in edu-conferences as you’ll find. I believe he and Dylan Wiliam are opening the Pyramid stage on Glastonbury next year. His grasp of meta-studies and the energetic, passionate enthusiasm with which he delivers it, make him one of our best communicators in education. Inevitably, one so prominent  attracts criticism: for the 0.4 hinge effect size, the nature of meta studies, and so on. But he is undeniably one of our most important voices in the Great Debate, and rightly feted as a giant in the canon.

Katie Roberts Hull from Learning First, who talked about Evidence Based Professional Learning and the implications for effective practice. In many ways this seemed to echo some of the excellent work done by the Teacher Development Trust in this field. Her idea that professional learning needs to be sustained over a long period, and connected to a learning goal, echoed deeply with me, when I see so much CPD and INSET based on a snapshot model where teachers spend a day at a Novotel taking away a bag of notes and often little else.

Tanya Vaughan from Social Ventures Australia, along with John Bush, was spreading the gospel of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and carefully explaining the significance of the lock, the dollar and the months-progress ideas. I hope she’s ready for years of people still asking what they mean like the UK.

Jennifer Buckingham heads up the CIS’s ‘Five for Five project’, which promotes the five main aspects of reading instruction that comprise our best evidenced practice. The resistance to this internationally is extraordinary, and even more extraordinary when you consider the enormous evidence in its favour. It’s a Sisyphean task at times, but when literacy is at stake, a vital one, and people like Jennifer are goddamn heroes for batting on their behalf against the snake oil dingos.  

Greg Ashman. Australia’s deadpan knight errant, and for my money one of the best bloggers writing about education in the game. Prolific, spiky and usually dead on. He’s one of my must-follows for anyone interested in the intersection between practice and theory.

Stephen Norton delivered a brilliant keynote on maths instruction, international comparisons between pedagogy, and the relative merits of enquiry versus explicit instruction. The results, it had to be said, were not in enquiry’s favour.

And Stephen Dinham. And Pam Snow, and Ben Evans…and too many others to mention. A huge thanks to Helen Pike and ACE for making the whole trip possible, to Brighton Grammar School for giving until it hurt, and to all the speakers who gave their time so freely. Kindness and generosity frequently makes the miraculous possible.




Friday, 30 June 2017

Good classroom management isn't violence- A behaviour panel at the Wellington Festival of Education



I took part in a fascinating panel for the Wellington Festival of Education last week. Myself, Laura McInerney, Maria Arpa and Katherine Birbalsingh were quizzed about behaviour in schools (watch it here). Within about two minutes lines were drawn and it was game on. 

Of course any attempt to reduce anything as complex as human behaviour to a coin toss of possible answers risks bleeding it dry of the complexity that makes it a conundrum rather than a pop quiz. Do what you’re told, or do what you want? Compliance or defiance? Autonomy or lobotomy? A lot of debate about behaviour barrels around these poles like flies around a lampshade. They make better headlines than strategy.

Never mind the hyperbole

The first question was ‘Is there a behaviour crisis?’ I would say it’s not obvious because the word is problematic. Crisis implies an emerging situation under so much pressure it cannot bear much more before it collapses or explodes. I think the behaviour problem is real, deep and tragic precisely because it isn’t that; in fact, it’s endured for decades and can continue to do so, gasping and grasping from the sick bed. McInerney mentioned Alasdair Campbell, who only considered it a crisis if the military had to be called in. (Perhaps we should be more worried by the Troops to Teachers program than we think?)

Katherine Birbalsingh, who can normally be counted on to barnstorm like Elijah, was as mild-mannered as someone with Xanax in their Special K. Turns out she was just stretching out like a Sumo. She broke into a jog when asked what the main behaviour problem was. “It’s not just TA’s being assaulted’ she said. ‘It’s the low-level disruption, You see them on the buses, and we’ve just come to accept the behaviour. '
'Children push,’ she said. ‘We push back.’ And I could hear her angry fan club on social media set their blog-phasers to ‘gnash’.

Maria Arpa said she thought children shouldn’t be expected to be just behave. They had to want to behave. This is certainly a laudable ambition. The obvious bogeyman to contrast this with is compliance, that pantomime villain of behaviour management. Compliance connotes so negatively, doesn’t it? Coercion, oppression, subjugation. It’s an egregious word the instant it tumbles from your lips.

The appliance of compliance

But I think we can reform it a little. For me, compliance is the first step in a ladder that takes children to extraordinary heights of habit way beyond mere slavish adherence to convention and into the realms of independently reasoned decisions. But before we can get there we need children, on those first rungs of maturity, wisdom and social awareness, to comply with moral rules, set for their benefit and the mutual benefit of all. I don’t discuss with a three-year-old whether or not to hit a peer while there’s any chance of it happening. No; at first, I forbid and prohibit, and explain why elsewhere. These combinations of prohibitions and admonitions become a set of habits, which become character. If these guidelines are good and useful, the child acquires useful and good habits of character, which are portable, and live on in them long after the teachable moments.

In fact, not to do this, and not to expect compliance, is a disservice to the child and an abdication of the precious duty we have to raise our children with every advantage possible. Sure, it sounds great in theory that we could reason our every ethical dilemma with children every time, but this misses two key issues. a) We only partially reason rationally. Much of what we consider to be our wise judgement, is an emotional response. And b) It just isn’t practical. What if they simply disagree with us? What if, after all our lovely discussion, children simply want to pursue their own self-interest? This is called the Free Rider problem, and is the reason why, even though it might seem in everyone’s interests to be good, so many people aren’t. If you were perfectly rational you might conclude that the wisest course would be for everyone else to be moral, and for you to be wily and wicked, and exploit the poor saps.

And this is why reason and patience alone will not make us moral. At some point, we simply need to instruct children to be so, and expect it, and alongside all the lovely conversations about kind hands and how do you think Tariq felt when you did that, there has to be oceans of you just can’t and because I said so.



Michaela School, yesterday 
Arpa said she wanted to get rid of behaviour management from teacher training, and half-jokingly I suggested that her wish had already been granted. Some providers do a great job, but there are still too many ITT platforms that de-emphasise behaviour management, or teach queer platitudes that are at best useless and at worst harmful: things like ‘try to make them laugh,’ or ‘There’s no such thing as bad behaviour, just a badly planned lesson,’ or one of my favourites, ‘Every behaviour is a communication,’ which might be true, but often what’s being communicated is ‘I fancy a bit of fun at someone else’s expense.’ It’s something I’m working to change, with the work we did as part of the ITT review into behaviour management training.

Do it- or I'll tell you to do it again

I agree that discussion is a more lovely way to encourage social behaviour than enforcement. But the simple, stark and stone-cold truth is that it isn’t an efficient way to run a community beyond two or three people. We all have very different ideas about right and wrong; we dispute every term imaginable, from justice to equality to good manners. If we left it to individuals to work out what each meant every time we needed to think about it, life would be a series of struggles that would consume our every instant.
Cultures thrive on shared understandings of what is meant by good conduct. Watch children howl as you apply one rule for one person but not for another. You simply can’t get students to all agree what the right thing to do is, even if you negotiate with them. For a start, some children will simply disagree about the rules of conduct, or lateness, or homework, if you let them co-create it. And every time you defer the responsibility of decision to a pupil you undermine the authority of the teacher to regulate and monitor the culture of the classroom. And that means you can’t keep them safe. It means you can’t provide what they need the most; a calm space where they know they are valued, free from bullying and interference, and free to learn and flourish.


Because what are consequences if not a way to show students that their actions matter? That they are not invisible? That someone cares about what they do? Some decry sanctions. Arpa calls them ‘Violence.’ My eyeballs almost spun in their sockets and my face made a very serviceable OMG GIF. This could not be further from the truth. She, and many who share her view, believe that systems based on rules and consequences breed violence; endorse violence; multiply violence. I think this stretches the concept of violence so far it snaps like a banjo string. If rules have no consequences attached to their infraction, then even the simplest of children realises quickly there is no rule at all.

Consequences are like the alarm bell that stops you reversing into a bollard on your car; an uncomfortable reminder that a poor choice is being made. There are many other reactions one can have to good or bad behaviour- sanctions and rewards are only two arrows in a quiver that quivers with possibility, from conversations, to meetings to education to interventions. But they are an essential- not optional- part of how we mould and help sculpt young adults into better versions of themselves.

I've seen things you wouldn't believe

Arpa is a sincere, intelligent and deeply caring person, committed to the well-being of children and adults. But these ideas are part of the reason why we have such intemperate and inconsistent behaviour in schools today. We train teachers not nearly enough in effective ways to anticipate and resolve challenge at a structural level. We offer no guaranteed training to school leaders who want guidance in creating effective school cultures. And far, far too much of the advice on offer where it does exist, is of this variety: that rules are oppressive, that children will thrive if only we granted them more and more autonomy.

Neither are complex enough to be true rather than merely pretty and pious platitudes. Children desperately need us; they need adult guidance. That requires us to be adults; to admit our responsibilities and take them seriously. Far too often we are advised in these matters by well-meaning people who have never had to deal with the reality of thirty, not a few children, in a teaching rather than a therapeutic context.

Teach the children you have, not the ones you want

There was a sensible question at the end. Could you run a society on principles of restorative justice? And of course, the answer is no. No society ever has. You simply can’t expect large communities to self-regulate through reasoned discussion. It would be lovely, but it’s a utopian fantasy. And the sad reality of utopias is that when they go wrong, it’s never the wealthy who suffer most, but the people it was intended to emancipate. Its why we have prisons and police rather than enormous voucher reward schemes for M&S.


Rules optimise justice and stability. Broken rules need to be mended and reinforced. People are imperfect. We can strive for a more perfect community, but not on a cloud of enthusiastic but impractical fantasy. In every teacher movie, broken urchins are healed by the love of a teacher who never gave up on them. That’s true, but if we don’t also teach them how to behave, then all we’re doing is hugging them into poverty.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

iPads: game changers or money paperweights? New study tells us little

'Computer: activate holo-deck, In the Night Garden sub-routine.'

An interesting and problematic study from Northern Ireland about iPads in early-years settings hit the interweb today. Interesting because it makes some extraordinary claims about their efficacy that, if true and replicable, could revolutionise the way we teach in those settings; and problematic because  that ‘if’ has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The study ‘Mobile Devices in Early Learning’ was carried out for two years and involved 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and five nursery schools.

‘Schools which took part were in some of the most deprived areas of the city.
They were each supplied with sets of iPads for nursery, primary one, primary two and primary three classes.’ (1)

What did they find? Fans of chalk boards and cuneiform look away now:

  • The introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of children's literacy and numeracy skills
  • Contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers report that the use of iPads in the classroom has enhanced children's communication skills
  • Children view learning using handheld devices as play and are more highly motivated, enthused and engaged
  • Boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology, particularly when producing pieces of written work (2)

Impressive stuff, and these findings represent prizes we all value: improved gateway skills, engagement, enjoyment, motivation. Game over for sceptics surely? Alas, one Boss-level obstacle remains. Is it true?

The quotes above are taken from a news website, which only describes the authors' findings. But in order to understand if the research findings are robust, and that they flow from the iPad intervention, we need to be able to access methodology, study design, attainment measures and so on. We need to hear a critical voice to contract with the claims. Otherwise we could just say anything. 

Thrilling sub-heading supported by weak evidence in paragraph 14

What’s wrong with reporting like this? In my opinion, it's unhelpful. In fact I think taken as a whole it makes the business of knowing how to educate children harder. Because if we want to make sure that what we do with children in classrooms is useful rather than frivolous, it’s important that claims of efficacy are matched by evidence, and extraordinary claims matched by extraordinary evidence. This project set the Belfast Regeneration Project back £300K, with change back for a Solero- or a teacher’s salary for a decade if you prefer. School budgets are finite systems and getting more finite by the year.

'Sir! This intervention appears to based on weak findings.'
When we report unconfirmed results like this without challenge, the intellectual landscape of education discourse is changed subtly. This news report will be cited somewhere, by someone who wants to bring a cache of iPads into a school, and someone somewhere will say ‘OK’. That’s great if they have the effect they claim, but what if they don’t? At best a waste of money and time. In fact, that’s also the ‘at worst’ scenario, because children- especially children in deprived areas, don’t have second chances, or time for expensive substitutes for teaching time. When we report research without question, it enter the collective psyche as factual: ‘iPads make kids smarter and happier.’ But what if they don’t? And I don’t have skin in this game. I love iPads. But I also loved Tom Hardy’s performance in Taboo, and I’m not using that in any lessons soon because there is no obvious reason for me to do so.

Show me the money

Ok, so go beyond the slightly breathless news report. Where is the research itself?

The article doesn’t link to anything we can look at, so a quick search reveals that this study is:

‘Gray, C., Dunn, J., Moffett, P., & Mitchell, D. (2017). Mobile devices in early learning. Developing the use of portable devices to support young children's learning. Stranmillis University College: A College of The Queen's University of Belfast, 24.05.2017’

To the website, Robin. Over at Stranmillis University College, we find a link to a press release, where one of the report’s author’s makes these claims:

“The study’s findings showed that, in the five participating schools, all of which were located in catchment areas of high social deprivation and academic under-achievement, the introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of pupil literacy and numeracy skills. And, contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers also reported that their use had enhanced children’s communication skills, acting as a stimulus for peer to peer and pupil to teacher discussion.” (3)

There’s a link at the bottom of this breathless review, but it doesn’t work- happily the study is elsewhere on the website (4).

Surely here at last we'll find evidence that robustly stands the claim up? Well, in my opinion, it's a bit disappointing. Why?

1. Completely subjective self-reporting: If you were hoping to find some evidence that children's literacy or numeracy had been demonstrably improved in an objective way, you will go home with empty pockets. All the evidence collected in this areas was in the form of semi-structured interviews with teachers, school principals, student focus groups and parental questionnaires. So the teachers (small focus groups from each of the 5 schools and pre-schools) said things like 'I think they've improved their literacy.' How do we know this? How can we separate any gains from normal progress, or progress attributable to other interventions or processes? 

2.  Questionnaire response rate: 27% (after a second push- the first response was 8%), which seems to my mind to be a poor response. We have no way of knowing how representative this is (although I'll suggest 'not very')

3. Possible design biases: schools were selected to participate in this project based on their commitment to the project, their pre-existing use of ICT and iPads in the school, and their commitment to use iPads in the future, as well as a troubling commitment to 'The benefits of developing literacy and numeracy skills to be gained from the use of iPads.' So, to summarise: schools that were enthusiastic about iPads, already used them and believed they had big educational benefits, participated. 'Person who likes x, thinks x is good' isn't so much a research finding as a disappointing maxim in a fortune cookie. 

4. Variable usage: schools used them at different times, with different apps, in different ways, with different children. In some schools they were used more than others. It seems very hard to discern if like is being compared with like. 

5. Funding. This whole program came about because the Belfast Educational & Library Board was awarded a grant from the Belfast Regeneration Office to 'develop an ICT program.' Was there sufficient critical examination of the need to do so in the first place? Every study needs to suspend disbelief in its own utility, and question its own existence.

6. No control group. What is this intervention better than?

Duvet days: no longer a get-out from teaching.
This study' findings may well be found to be correct, and I’m sure that the authors and everyone involved has the best of intentions and conducted themselves with scruples and integrity. That’s not in question. But questions are all we have at this stage. All we are holding in our hands is a fog of grand claims and optimism. Do iPads turn frowns upside down? Do they turn light bulbs on above confused heads? Are they just a novelty or a distraction? We can’t tell, not from this. A day of terrific press is great for the University, but doesn’t help the debate.

Never mind the quality, feel the tech

I’ve looked at a lot of research that often gets used to support positive claims for the utility of tech in the classroom, and often they don’t stand up in court. Some of the most duplicitous research I have read in this area uses proxies of success that are entirely subjective or impossible to substantiate. ‘tech has the potential to do x’ is the same as ‘tech has not done x yet.’ And ‘boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology’ could be uncharitably responded to with a ‘so what?’ and a ‘oh really?’ and a 'did it take a £500 iPad to do that?'

And that’s important, because schools are poor and kids don’t often get second chances when they come from deprived areas. Universal, free education is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Wasting that is a sin, and a theft from people with nearly nothing. Who would rob a child, from a family with nothing but debt?  


Other people's children

Public money needs to be spent as carefully as if it were our own. Other people’s children need to be taught as carefully as if they belonged to us. No child should endure the loss of their right to an education, no matter how digitally it is dressed. If iPads and their ilk can bring benefit to the table, then let them demonstrate it in public. Let everyone see how well they work, and if they do, the truth will be unmistakeable. But when claims are made without data that substantiates it appropriately then we have a right to ask if our money is being spent wisely. This matters. Ominously, the report suggest that:
'These findings should inform the future rollout of similar initiatives and will be of interest to practitioners, policy-makers and parents.'
Ireland, I love you. My family migrated from Ireland. I wish you and your beautiful island nothing but fortune and love. For the good of your children, and the wealth of your nation, and the prospect of better things to come, I suggest that you use these findings wisely. Keep your hands away from the cheque books for now and wait until better data supports swapping out precious resources for digital magic beans.

I'll end with a lovely quote from Piaget, which starts the report:

'The principal goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing few things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done—men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who have minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered (Piaget,1973).'

Be critical? Verify? Not accept everything we're offered? I couldn't agree more. 



(2) Ibid