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Thursday, 23 September 2021

Prisoners of our past

We are all prisoners of our past. We view events through the lens of our previous experiences and often project onto others opinions and motivations they simply do not have. These imperfections in our understanding of the world around us are exacerbated rather than mitigated by social media and the internet. Evolution has favoured pattern recognition skills over complex analysis.  Consequently, we are vulnerable to seeing things as we think they are rather than in their complex, messy and contradictory reality.

Mark Twain said, "I've lived through some terrible things, some of which actually happened", succinctly highlighting the unreality and unreliability of both anticipation and memory.

There was an interesting example of this last week when HMCI Amanda Spielman attempted to articulate complexity, 



Her thoughts were 'reported' by TES and 'rereported' in the Twitter echo chamber, which jumped on this as further evidence of 'horrible Ofsted' not caring about hungry children or not caring about teacher workloads or just not caring. I suspect she was trying to say something much more nuanced.

It is perfectly possible to care deeply about all of the following:

  • the loss of learning from Covid
  • the loss of livelihoods from Covid
  • the dispropotionate impact of both of the above on those already disadvantaged
  • the huge and unjustifiable variation in education offering between schools in similar contexts, largely due to an absence of planning at both governmental and local authority level but also at school level
  • the impact of all of the above on teacher workloads
  • the sheer scale of the recovery work needed over the coming years and the complete failure of the DfE to acknowledge and fund this
These are not mutually exclusive or contradictory ideas. In fact they are largely interconnected. The messy truth is that some schools prioritised support to their most vulnerable families, some schools prioritised remote learning, some schools did both, some schools did neither, some schools prioritised in school support to key worker and vulnerable children and some schools prioritised the wellbeing of staff. But all children have lost significant amounts of learning and all schools must be involved in the long and slow process of rebuilding for all children.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Schrodinger’s appraisal

As far back as 2009, I wrote an article for the Training Journal about the ineffectiveness of appraisal processes in organisations being rooted in their compression ratios. We try to compress a year's worth of work into an hour's worth of feedback and fail because this is beyond the tolerance of human communication. 

Appraisals don't work because appraisees arrive as a hot neurotic mess of hyper-vigilance, 

"Do you love me? Tell me you love me. Purlease.... tell me you love me. Oh God, you hate me, don't you?!" 

They over-interpret every available clue whether visual, verbal or otherwise from their line manager until they decode the central message as either good or bad. At which point they stop listening. If they perceive the negative, they either turn in on themselves in an auto-perpetuating spiral of self-loathing or they launch a counter offensive to rewrite the wrong that their manager is peddling. If they perceive the good they also stop listening and bask in self-satisfaction or start positioning for a pay rise.

Compare this with lesson observations for trainee teachers. Feedback sessions almost always occur directly or soon after the observed teaching. The feedback can sometimes take longer than the observed teaching itself. The student knows that they can improve and actually wants to be helped, so often the feedback doesn't feel like criticism and is thus welcomed.

The difference between the two approaches has parallels with Erwin Scrodinger’s famous thought experiment involving a cat, a radioactive source and a flask of poison. At the risk of an epic oversimplification only possible from a historian talking about quantum mechanics, Schrodigner’s cat inter alia articulates the superposition, in which the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is only when we open the box to observe, thus collapsing the waveform, that we establish the reality of whether it is alive or dead.

In the common or garden annual organisational appraisal described above, the appraisee tends to collapse the waveform very early on in the appraisal into the binary choice of either good or bad. Contrastingly, in the trainee teacher feedback session both trainee and mentor tend to maintain the superposition of both good and bad at the same time for much longer.

When we feedback about teaching we tend to reinforce and amplify positive behaviours e.g. “It was really good when you did X Y Z, you could also try using that approach in the following situations…”. We also tend to suppress negative behaviours with positive substitutions e.g. “Did you notice it went a bit flat when you did A B C, next time you could try D E or F”. The conversation holds onto the idea of both good and less than good teaching behaviour as being present in all lessons.

It’s odd that we don’t always take what we know from one domain to another.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Mistaking authority for control

I was unsurprised but nonetheless disappointed to read that giving evidence to the Education Select Committee yesterday the National and Regional Schools Commissioners argued that there was no need for Ofsted to inspect MATs because, together with the ESFA, they are in control.

In fact the converse is true, there is every need for Ofsted to inspect MATs precisely because RSCs and the ESFA are not in control. 

The reasons the RSCs and the ESFA are not in control I have set out at length in the chapter I co-wrote for Education System Design: Foundations, Policy Options and Consequences (Hudson, Leask, Younie et al) last year. But in short the gearing ratio is too high. RSCs have less than half a day per year to think about (let alone act upon or seek to improve) each of the different organisations over which they have authority. As a result all they can do is perform a bureaucratic function that points at failure. Pointing at failure is Ofsted's job, one which it does well and, on the whole, fairly. 

The ESFA is currently the principle funder and primary regulator of the academy sector a dual position it cannot and should not continue to hold if we seek a self-improving system. Regulation must be separated from funding if you want your system to function. 

This is not the first time the RSCs have made a grab for the reins of the ESFA but it should be resisted because it further confounds the process of accountability and improvement. Regulation and accountability are by their nature process-heavy functions. Whereas system improvement requires flexibility, innovation, experimentation and fleetness of foot. These ideas were part of the genesis of the academies' movement but have long since been on the wane.




Thursday, 14 January 2021

Slow down and do it better

Although a significant number of the posts in this blog over the years have been "Get it off my chest" rants, so that I can keep on doing the job, I am at heart a postive and optimistic person. It's just that sometimes it is hard to find the appropriate voice for constructive critcism in the education sector. Speaking the truth to power is essential but when power doesn't really listen for the best part of a decade, frustration can creep in.
  • The DfE contains highly skilled, highly motivated and highly dedicated civil servants who have been rushed off their feet throughout Covid trying to issue guidance to support school
  • Unfortunately due to the massive fragmentation of the education sector, the DfE no longer actually knows what is actually going on in schools [see many other posts on this blog on fragmentation]
  • Political leadership at the DfE and in No. 10 appears to believe that the role of the department is to strongly assert certainty and ‘best practice’ when only uncertainty and emergent practice exist 
  • This is why there have been so many ‘U-turns’ as information comes to light that overtly contradicts the department’s over-confident assertions
  • Consequently, much of the department’s ‘guidance’ serves only to shift blame for failure from itself on to school and Trust leaders and in doing so creates work with significant opportunity cost to children and communities
The purpose of this blog is to highlight the importance of focusing on quality and not speed when issuing education guidance during Covid by constructively reviewing its latest Framework for reviewing remote education. So let's quickly and superficially identify what is wrong or insufficiently thought through:
  • As a whole the framework adds little value and much confusion, it is effectively a self-assembly noose with instructions to, “Insert neck of responsible officer here”
  • It's based on a false premise as we simply do not know which are the better ways to deliver remote learning to children not in school yet, so we should be seeking first to understand before we rush to measure
  • It is confused about whom it is for and confuses governance with operational management throughout
  • It imposes a self-assessment grading system without evidence base or terms of reference and although it (optimistically) asserts it will only take “approximately 1 hour” to complete fails to show how this will achieve anything other than the creation of a piece of paper marked 'remote learning self-assessment'
  • Having been drafted at speed for multiple audiences, it is less than clear over who is responsible for what and fails to even mention Trustees from whom authority must be delegated in MATs for some of the decisions it mentions
  • It wrongly and dangerously attempts to make schools and Trusts responsible for the safety of the home learning environment when this can only ever be a parental responsibility
  • Although it is merely repeating the line from other guidance, the requirements are stated in terms of quantity (hours per day) not quality when the role of remote learning is not to fill time but to help children learn
  • It appears to add a requirement to provide real time both way communication ‘school community events’ which are likely to be safeguarding nightmares
  • It lobs a reminder about GDPR in at the end just to keep us on our toes
  • And its last line is one of the best “There are clear rules for behaviour during remote lessons and activities. Pupils know them and teachers monitor and enforce them.” 
  • Anyone who has attended Google hangouts, MS Teams or Zoom meetings in the last year will immediately understand the impossibility of controlling behaviour of primary school children remotely. NB the Spanish councillor or other example of carelessness and stupidity whilst online
So far so easy and so negative. But what would better and more succinct look like? To which I offer the following:

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Postpone all formal examinations for the forseeable future

The government and Ofqual and some education bodies are currently arguing furiously over how we will be able to run examinations in 2021 if Covid continues unabated.

They are entirely missing the point. It is like arguing over what colour to paint the lifeboats whilst the ship sinks.

There is a limit to what an examination system can tell you. No amount of brute force trauma on next year's exam statistics will be able to redress the unfairness in the learning already lost to Covid since March. Exams are not impossible. It is perfectly possible to design a comparatively safe way to conduct them next year. But why would we bother? We already know beyond any doubt that they will be irrelevant and fundamentally unfair.

Exams are merely a proxy for what we think young people may or may not be able to do next. They are effectively passports or letters of introduction which say, "You can trust the bearer of these results to be able to..."

  • Study 4 A levels with a reasonable chance of passing them
  • Reasonably hope to complete a BTech
  • Cope with the academic rigour of a university course
  • Thrive in this apprenticeship
  • Etc etc
Surely as a sector we can come up with some form of emergency letters of transit that equate to a letter from their current school that says, "Peter could reasonably have expected to have achieved between x & y GCSEs at grade q or above had he not lost six months of school in the last year". The next institution can accept Peter onto its programme of study or work; perhaps with a novel probationary period, if it turns out that Peter can't actually keep up with the demands of his new programme.

This is the only way that massive regional and economic unfairness is not further baked into an already divided country. 

This emergency process need only be for the duration of Covid and the only risk is that we admit a small number of people onto programmes of work or study that are too challenging for them. Well, what is wrong with that? Provided we treat them fairly and supportively, we can say, it looks like this course is a little too hard for you why don't you try 'x' instead.

The three arguments that the government has used thus far to defend its absurd attachment to exams under Covid are:
  • To do any different undermines the credibility of the exam system as a whole
  • It is unfair to those in previous and future years
  • It risks promoting people beyond their capabilities
The first point only matters if you are trying to protect the myth of a meritocracy. And can you really tell me that anyone in the current cabinet other than perhaps Rishi Sunak is there on merit?

On the second point if you could find me one person from the past or the future that says, "No we shouldn't err on the side of kindness to this year's cohort, whose education was ripped away from them by Covid. No. Let's mark them down because it's unfair on me". I'd say you'd managed to find an idiot and a heartless one at that.

And on the third point, see my answer to the first point.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

What is a school?

 As you already know, dear reader, I am a classical liberal educator. Unfortunately, we live currently in a period of deliberate endarkenment. But there is always hope...

I sincerely hope that America gets rid of Donald Trump next Tuesday. But there is nothing I can do to make that happen. Closer to home and in a field where I might have a tiny bit of influence, I sincerely hope that the Covid pandemic impact on the operation of schools will lead to a re-examination of the process of education that is to the benefit of the learners themselves. 

Wilhelm von Humboldt said, "We cannot teach language, we merely create the environment in which it is learnt". And with the rolling ongoing closing of schools I hope that we can deconstruct what we understand by a "learning environment".

As I have written before, most people have strong opinions about education because most people at least attended a school and thus believe they have received or suffered an education. But the extent to which most people, including many politicians, actually think about or understand the process of learning is tiny. We tend to conceptualise the process of educating through its machinery, namely schools.

Education is done to children - in classes - by teachers - in schools - run by headteachers - held to account to a greater or lesser extent by local or national governments. Even the late Ken Robinson in his famous TED talk used the metaphor of a factory to explain what he saw as wrong with education, when he asked if "schools were killing creativity".

But as Le Corbusier famously described houses as being, "things for living in" then schools should be "things for learning in" and here we can see that the process of education, or 'schooling', is not defined by the physical school or classroom itself.

Indeed children can and do learn at home, in the park, online, in the playground... anywhere in fact. Equally as schools are forced to send more and more children home to learn "remotely", they must realise that they have lost control of the learning environment, if indeed they ever had it. 

Much of the flurry of Covid remote learning has been the creation of pre-recorded lessons in video format that children can watch at home. But however much care is given to the platform through which teachers communicate, test and feedback to children, I don't think anyone has got the technology to tell whether any particular child actually watches the videos with the sound turned on and pays attention.

I suggest a school should be determined by its output. A school is the thing which creates, in the mind of a child, sufficient trust that appropriate risks can be taken from which learning may occur. Schools should create learners. If they do not, then they are not schools, they are merely childcare facilities.[1] 

This in turn poses questions about how you measure whether learning human beings have been created by our schooling process but that is for another post.


Footnote

[1] The Covid pandemic has revealed that our current government cares more about schools as childcare for workers than it does as instruments of social progress


Monday, 19 October 2020

Centrist Dad's lament - provoked by looming no deal

 "If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain"   

For much of my adult life I have misattributed the above quote to Churchill. A superficial web search throws enough doubt for me to be unsure of its true origin and slightly embarassed to have been wrong for so long; Churchill having famously left the Tories at age of 56 to join the Liberals for a two-decade stint.

I suspect the reason I have not questioned its origin is because it appears to be so self-evident. As we get older, we have more to protect. The most obvious corrolary is, "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas". And yet maybe I should start examining the things I believe to be obvious in more detail as 2020 seems to have more than a little topsy-turveyness about it.

I have felt disenfranchised for the best part of a decade, if not longer. My political choices have generally been choices between the least dreadful. I cannot remember voting for someone I genuinely trusted to do right by society. In my youth I despised Margaret Thatcher at least partly because I was young and to do so was fashionable. Looking back now, although I still disagree with most of her policies and grieve at the damage done to communities and society, I can at least respect a values-led politician.

John Major is a man to whom history has been surprisingly kind, although his fondness for cricket and Europe are probably behind my affection. And what wouldn't one give to have politicians of the stature of Clarke and Hesseltine more involved in government now?

It is odd that I feel most let down by Blair. Not because of the Iraq war. I have to admit that I did not oppose it at the time, so I will not fly that flag of convenience now. But because of the lost opportunity. New Labour could have done so much more and in the end was brought low by its squallid compromises. Brown I suspect, like Major, will weather increasingly better with the passing of time as the importance of his role in avoiding genuine global financial collapse in 2009 becomes more apparent. But timing was against him as was his slightly awkward style and he paid for his predecessor's crimes

I flirted briefly with the idea of Clegg, despite having probably been a possible Lib-Dem for many years before his accession. But I cannot really forgive the degree to which he enabled a government so much worse than the one that he claimed to have mitigated. He was so comprehensively outmanouvred that his party was consigned to irrelevance.

Whilst Boris probably only make's the 8th level of Dante's Inferno [i] but with claims to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th (go on look them up it's fun), David Cameron I condemn to the 9th. He must go down, amongst some stiff competition, as the worst leader this country has had in centuries.

I already have some sympathy for Teresa May but the sooner we are done with Boris and all who sail in him the better. Society is coming apart at the seams because of the box that David Cameron arrogantly flung open and I'm not sure that there's much hope left at the bottom. 

The damage we have done to our country over the last decade borders on vandalism.

Would that the Greens had a little more pragmatism... [ii]


Footnote

[i] I do not believe in hell so this a merely a thought experiment in ranking catastrophic leaders

[ii] My political compass appears to have moved a click or so to the left since I last checked but I'm still quite libertarian (in American terms)