Banging heads on brick walls

Brick wallIn calling for better teaching and better leadership in secondary schools, OFSTED and its political masters are failing to recognise the fundamental problem facing formal education.

There have been three interesting contributions to the ed-tech debate by the BBC in recent days. Yesterday, 10 December (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 2:17:38), Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw complained on the Today programme that too many secondary schools were providing an inadequate standard of education, due mainly to poor quality teaching and leadership. Today, the Today programme covered the problem that schools are having in teaching the new Computing curriculum (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 02:39:00). The two items are connected in that they both demonstrate that the education service continues to fail to recognise its own fundamental problems. It also fails to recognise the importance of the message in this year’s Reith Lectures, given by Atul Gawande, ostensibly about medicine (listen to lecture 2, The Century of the System).

The problem identified by Ofsted is summarised by BBC interviewer Sarah Montague as follows:

Almost a third of secondary schools are not good enough and too many are not getting any better (02:17:40).

Sir Michael blames this situation on a number of factors: poor transition from Primary to Secondary; a poor learning culture; poor discipline; inadequate provision for the most and least able; poor careers education. But as Ms Montague points out, all these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem and she presses Sir Michael on whether there is any difference between academies and Local Authority schools in this respect.

No, we are seeing under-performance across the different types of school. Its not the status or the type of school that’s the issue, its the quality of the leadership and the leadership of the culture and the teaching in the school that is the biggest issue.(02:20:03)

Saying that the quality of education depends on the quality of teaching is, surely, to state the self-evident. More difficult is to suggest what can be done about it—particularly when it is difficult to recruit enough suitably qualified teachers to do the job, particularly in challenging schools. And so OFSTED continues to wag its finger at teachers and teachers continue to feel put upon and no-one comes up with a sustainable, pragmatic solution.

This is the same problem, placed in a general context, that was raised in a second Radio 4 Today item, broadcast this morning, on the difficulty of teaching the new Computing Curriculum. As Sarah Montague summarizes the problem,

One term in and teachers are struggling (02:39:07)…schools are being encouraged to reach out to the tech industry and be creative in the way that they deliver this new subject. But many are finding the changes tough. (02:39:19).

The main organisation tasked with addressing this problem is Computing for Schools which has been given £3 million so that:

teachers who contact them are given guidance on implementing the new curriculum (20:40:09).

The Head of CAS, Simon Peyton-Jones, came on the programme to complain that CAS is “badly under-resourced”, while the government refuses to increase its funding on the grounds that:

We [already] give money to schools for teacher training.

Mr Peyton-Jones says that these budgets are only sufficient for regular training requirements, not for the extra training required for

the step-change that happens when you introduce essentially a completely new subject—so you are training teachers, not only in subject knowledge, which they don’t have, many of them, but also in pedagogy and assessment techniques. That is a big, big change (20:40:35).

Well, the requirement for new subject knowledge is certainly a big change. Teachers’ common lack of understanding of pedagogy and assessment techniques might strike the average Radio 4 listener as a little more surprising (though it has already been covered in this blog in Why teachers don’t know best). What no-one seems to be questioning is the assumption, being made by Simon Peyton-Jones in the particular case of the Computing curriculum, just as much as by Sir Michael in the overall context of Secondary education, that the only answer on the table is better performing teachers.

Is it really the most efficient way to introduce a new subject to give guidance to thousands of different teachers, many of whom start from a position of knowing very little either about the subject or about how to teach it, each working in their spare time and with almost no resources, to “be creative” and “implement the curriculum”? Would it not be better to invite a small number of well resourced organisations, operating in a competitive environment and drawing on appropriate levels of funding and expertise, to develop world-class programmes of study that would put into the hands of teachers the tools that they need to “deliver this new subject” to their students?

All the research shows that what really matters to students is good teaching. As I suggest above, this strikes me as self-evident. What is almost always assumed in the next sentence, is that better teaching means better teachers. This is not only not self evident—it is false. The outputs of any service depend on a combination of the skill of the worker and the effectiveness of the technology, the “tools of the trade”, that the worker can use. Not even the most skilled carpenter can produce fine furniture with bent and rusty tools.

The assumption that that every practitioner must do the pedagogical equivalent of whittling his/her own tent-pegs throws us back onto a desperately inefficient model of resourcing, equivalent to a pre-industrial, craft-based economy. Yet this is exactly the model of resourcing which we appear to be stuck with in education, bedeviled as it has been for thirty years of home-produced worksheets. What is needed, both in order to improve the quality of teaching across the sector and particularly in order to support the delivery of new subjects, is not more guidance (in which the profession is already drowning) but the “tools of the trade” which will help them to deliver good teaching on the front line. And by “tools of the trade”, I mean not just information-bearing textbooks but methods (which I believe will for the most part be mediated by digital means) of helping teachers to manage the processes, feedback cycles and activities that form the very stuff of instruction.

At this point you might like to listen to Dr Atul Gawande, in his second Reith lecture, argue that we are living in “the century of the system”. It is process control that makes the difference in large, modern organisations delivering complex services. When we hail doctors and nurses (or teachers for that matter) as heroes and heroines, we are implicitly acknowledging that we are asking them to operate in dysfunctional working environments, characterised by poor process control. However much we might applaud heroism, it is in the long-term better for everyone if our services do not require anyone to be a hero for them to work properly.

In education, our lack of process control reflects our poor understanding of process in the first place. Often this is due to the failure of academic educationalists to produce well-evidenced theories of education, resorting to post-modernist posturing instead. In many cases, we deny that education is a process at all, certainly not one that aims to deliver defined and measurable outcomes. We shut teachers, often with little subject knowledge, into a room with 30 students and tell them to “implement the curriculum”. And when they fail to cope, OFSTED comes along and tells them that they must try harder. But the failure is not one of effort or individual professionalism: it is one of inadequate process control—a sort of control that is provided in other sectors by digital technology.

This point is routinely ignored by the educational establishment. I spoke to Sir Michael after he launched OFSTED’s data dashboard at Policy Exchange in February 2013, suggesting that OFSTED should report on the effectiveness of the programmes of study and the resources for learning being used by the schools that it inspected. He replied that this would be outside their scope because OFSTED is tasked to report on the effectiveness of the service being provided by the teachers—the personnel. If this answer was correct (which I somewhat doubt), then OFSTED is locked into a false assumption, that the only way of improving educational provision is by recruiting or training better teachers. For such reasons do bureaucracies perpetuate the fallacies on which their own existence is predicated.

This is an argument that I have been making on this blog over the last couple of years. If you want to drill down into more of the argument, you might be interested in:

  • Education’s coming revolution, based on the 1971 book Resources for Learning by the Director of the Nuffield Institute’s programme, which argues tthat the fundamental problem in education is the shortage of suitably qualified teachers and the preservation of a pre-industrial, craft model of teaching;
  • Textbooks for the digital age, arguing that we should not be looking back to the last generation of textbooks to solve the “death by worksheet” syndrome, but forwards to the next generation of digital ed-tech;
  • It’s the technology, stupid!, on why we continue to perpetuate the fallacy that the technology doesn’t matter;
  • Round-table with Ian Livingstone at Computing Magazine, in which I oppose Ian Livingstone’s restatement of the popular saw that teachers don’t need to be subject experts, if only they act as facilitators;
  • Is Michael Gove a modern day Hercules? (i.e. is his reputation built on myth?) on why structural reform will not be enough to address the underlying problem with education.

For those of my readers who are familiar with this argument, I must apologise for repeating it again in this post. All that has changed (and therefore the only justification that I have for writing this further post) is that the passage of time is beginning to reveal the inadequacy of many of the assumptions made by Michael Gove about how to achieve change. Maybe also, little by little, it is beginning to dawn on people that what makes the difference to efficient service provision is better control of process, not the heroism (not even the professionalism) of individual operators.

4 thoughts on “Banging heads on brick walls

  1. Crispin, a very interesting and well-argued post. I think the way the new Computing programme of study has been introduced (under-funded) is appalling, and I have some sympathy with your views on expecting teachers to sort it out for themselves individually (in effect) and in their spare time. However, regarding your comments:

    “Would it not be better to invite a small number of well resourced organisations, operating in a competitive environment and drawing on appropriate levels of funding and expertise, to develop world-class programmes of study that would put into the hands of teachers the tools that they need to “deliver this new subject” to their students?”

    1. One of the worst examples of providing teachers with programmes of study etc was the Key Stage 3 Strategy in my opinion. The content was good, but the way it was implemented, and the way it was expected to be “delivered”, were awful. Unless, of course, you think that instructions like “After 7 minutes ask pupils to …” etc.

    2. I object to the word “delivered”, or rather the concept it represents. Teachers, surely, are more than postmen? Teaching is a creative enterprise in my opinion, and producing toolkits to enable teachers to deliver the knowledge — as opposed to, say, creating resources that make teachers get really excited about learning more and wanting to deveop their own resources — is a bit of a backward step.

    3. How would “world class” be defined, or, more to the point, who would define it?

    4. Although the days when Ofsted routinely looked at subject resources are, I believe, gone, during the days of the Key Stage 3 Strategy and, before that, the QCA Primary Scheme of Work for ICT, Ofsted inspectors would ask ICT subject leaders if they were using that — the implication being that if they weren’t then they would have to justify themselves, presumably on the grounds that those resources were “world class”.

    5. As it happens, the QCA scheme was pretty good — for its time. Unfortunately, because of Ofsted, teachers tended not to update or adapt it, in case, I presume, what they came up with was deemed to be not good enough.

    In other words, one of the unintended consquences of providing teachers with a “world class programme of study”, whether at primary or secondary, was, arguably, to stifle creativity and innovation and to render the experience of pupils — and teachers — worse as a result.

    I don’t have a well-thought out answer, unfortunately, but I do think that in terms of materials and resources being developed by experts and given to teachers to enable them to “deliver” the curriculum, we’ve been there before and it wasn’t that wonderful.

    • Hi Terry,

      Many thanks for the comment. I am not sure how much the disagreement is one of substance and how much to my failure to be clear in my argument. Let me respond to your points individually.

      1. I completely agree with you that you cannot script lessons. The teacher must be in charge of the process – which is why I term resources and programmes of study as “tools of the trade”, to be used and manipulated by the teacher as required. I use “programme of study” as shorthand for “composite resource”, which presupposes that the programme should be adaptable (or if digitally encoded, editable).

      Also, I don’t mean to suggest that the programme of study should be specified by anyone in a position of authority. My view is that the state and its agencies are ultimately responsible for specifying the aims of education but there should be freedom to whoever is best able to provide the pedagogy and supporting tools that are required to deliver those aims. I probably expressed myself badly in saying that a few organisations should be “invited” to provide resources: what I really mean is that *everyone* should be invited to contribute, but in a competitive environment in which teachers call the shots, with the likely result that there would end up being relatively few resource suppliers, at least in comparison with a model in which every teacher ends up developing their own resources.

      2. I hear what you say about the term “delivered”, by which I deliberately try to be provocative. The point I am trying to make is that education is a process which has particular objectives and it against these objectives that teachers must “deliver” (perhaps I am using the term in a rather Americanised business-speak sense). I certainly don’t mean that they just have to deliver knowledge like the postman, or that the means that they employ to achieve those objectives are fixed – they certainly should be creative and innovative in the means that they employ. But I do mean that teachers are not there just to indulge their fancies / express their own personal values, or presume that their outputs cannot be measured. Diana Laurillard makes a similar point at the beginning of “Teaching as a Design Science” when she argues that teaching is a sort of engineering, not a form of art. In my book, engineers deliver.

      3. I would define “world class programme of study” as a programme of study that helps teachers deliver their learning objectives better than any other programme of study being used to address similar objectives, recognising that they are operating in an internationally competitive arena (as PISA has underlined). I do not think the “who” question is really important – this matters in bureaucratic systems in which the important question is “who has their hands on the reigns”, but in the sort of market-based system that I am advocating, everyone is free to make their own evaluation (though their outputs will in turn be evaluated by others in a cascading system of accountability). Non quis sed quid. Though if you reply that in a system in which everyone makes their own evaluation, everyone will come up with wildly differing perspectives and so all this talk of evaluation will end up as so much hooey, I reply, “not so long as:

      a. we have defined our objectives clearly (I touch on this in the latter portions of my recent post on Tim Oates – but it is a point to which I will be returning in future posts);

      b. we start collecting, aggregating and correlating data which shows how well students are progressing and cross-referencing this data against the programmes of study that they are following, ensuring that other variables (like student intake and teachers) are randomised”.

      In short – I expect the data to show what works, once education starts to use data properly and once we have defined our objectives.

      4. Your anecdote about Ofsted reflects exactly the sort of “soft prescription” that I think has so discredited Ofsted. I have much sympathy with the argument being put forward by e.g. James O’Shaughnessy at Policy Exchange that the job of the inspector should be largely done by data collection, with human inspectors only coming in as troubleshooters. Ofsted’s comments on a school’s use of resources (or any other view that they expressed about *why* a school might not be producing the outcomes that we expect) would need to be supported by data – otherwise it opens the inspectorate to justified criticism.

      5. Again, I agree that we must avoid prescribed programmes of study – it is not enough to be good – you have to keep optimising to keep up with the competition. But the problem that I am trying to highlight is that we are stuck in a polarised world view in which:
      a. *either* resources are prescribed by bureaucrats
      b. *or* poor quality resources are developed by front-line teachers.

      I am suggesting a third-way, the potential for which no-one seems to recognise just because it currently isn’t done that way. This is for commercial (or open source) suppliers to provide resources in a competitive market, to be taken up by teachers, on the basis not just of personal whim but also of good quality information about what works well.

      In respect of your final paragraph, I think we tie ourselves in knots over so-called “experts”. There seems to be no shortage of people claiming to be “experts”, largely because, in a bureaucratically-run system, expertise is cited as a justification for authority. Yuk. But true expertise is based on a proven ability to deliver – and that is what rises to the top, without the need for authority or prescription, in a market-based system. A market needs some sort of commodity that can be easily replicated, bought and sold. Learning resources are such a thing – human-delivered lessons (if I can use the “d” word) are not.

      Thanks again for the comment and apologies for the long reply – I hope, though, that it clarifies my position to some extent! I don’t disagree with the points you make – I just think there is this third way which we are not considering at the moment.


  2. By way of a footnote to this post, I attended a TES webchat on workload with David Laws last night. The questions from teachers were almost exclusively complaining about excessive workload and lack of recognition, while Mr Laws’ answers, given extremely slowly as if out of a determination to reduce the number of answers that he had to give, were non-committal and evasive. I was disappointed with this, having watched Mr Laws give an impressive performance answering questions in the Commons as Treasury Secretary before his first resignation.

    One teacher wrote on Twitter that the whole exercise was pointless as it ignored the fact that “there’s a simple choice: 1. Better funding or 2. Expect less from schools”. Although she agreed with me that neither of these things is going to happen any time soon, she claimed that “all other discussion is ultimately meaningless”.

    On the contrary, the discussion that is meaningless (or pointless, at least) is the one in which none of the options under consideration is remotely plausible, a discussion in which teachers complain and politicians offer platitudinous, meaningless expressions of support – while everyone seems to be so transfixed by the buzz of irreconcilable difference that no-one shows the slightest interest in discussing constructive solutions. Head-banging indeed.

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