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Walking the teaching tightrope – implications of emphasising memorisation in primary education

In tonight’s staff meeting we were discussing Clare Sealy’s @ClareSealy excellent blog post on memory https://primarytimery.com/2017/09/16/memory-not-memories-teaching-for-long-term-learning/ along with Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylanwiliam) TES podcast last week. This post is an attempt to organise my thoughts. 

Clare’s blog gives a clear account of the difference between, and implications of, semantic and episodic memories in relation to how we retain information. She argues, persuasively, that we should focus our teaching on semantic memory and, in doing so, strip out the pedagogy that creates episodic memory i.e. the many-hued resources for the complicated activity designed to teach a new concept over a one hour lesson. 

The problem, as Clare points out, is that the opposite (the monochrome, monotone, monotonous lesson) is also episodic because we remember the boredom, not the content. Emotions are never neutral and learning is never context free. That isn’t to say that we should ignore neuroscience. We have a lot to learn and intelligent application within our teaching will benefit many children especially, as Wiliam points out in the podcast, those who struggle.

For some children, the thoughts that overload or more accurately divert their minds are related not to the pedagogical devices with which we seek to engage but peer relationships. There is little difference here between adults and children. Our emotional state is tied up with relationship. Part of the human condition is to feel insecure about, and in, relationships with each  other. Children learn less effectively after a playtime because they’ve spent free time in the complex and challenging world of their peer group. Their memories of the day are episodic but focused not always on our exciting pedagogy but who said what to whom. In response to the children’s thoughts  being elsewhere,  we may teach in ways that keep their focus but don’t necessarily help store, and/or practice retrieving, new information in the long term memory. There are, of course, many other variables, beyond our peer relationships, that contribute to our emotions, the contexts of learning and the extent our episodic memories dominate our thoughts. These would include how much sleep, fresh air and exercise we have. 

In response to what neuroscience is telling us and what we already know, it strikes me that we have three choices. First, we can spend a disproportionate amount of time on social and emotional learning to try and help children become receptive to new information. Secondly, we can suppress children’s relationships and emotions within schools through contolled routine. Thirdly, we can seek to maintain a balance between development and memorisation that nurtures the child, engages through pedagogy and makes use of neuroscience to build long term memory in the learner. Another metaphor, alongside and related to “balance”, is of the teacher  walking a tightrope between pedagogical excitement and tedium. This tightrope is the third option above which will meet the learning and development needs of the largest number (but not all) children. 

For primary teachers, part of the  complexity of our work is curriculum design. Each subject we teach has both a unique knowledge base and way of applying that knowledge.  In every subject, emotion and imagination play a role once knowledge is acquired. However, the relationship between knowledge, emotion and imagination varies by subject.  To take an obvious example, to remove emotion from art is to downplay the humanity of the learner and of the subject. The same is true, in different ways, of maths or science. Just as, for a broad education, the differences between learners are as important as the similarities so the uniqueness of each subject is crucial in determining the way knowledge is stored and applied. With ten subjects to teach in primary schools, the tightrope of the teacher is that much harder to walk. 

Whichever way we look at our work, we must not lose sight of the children who face significant barriers to the process of storing and retrieving information in their long term memories. Increasing the amount of practice through tests and reducing the excitement in lessons may not support all children to store information in long-term memories. There never will be a magic wand for learning. Those children who struggle to store and retrieve must not be left to feel of lesser value. They must not be labelled as failures because this will feed a narrative of failure from a young age. Clare Sealy is a superb headteacher of a school that nurtures children in secure relationships. We all need to undertake teaching in all its complex fullness to be effective educators. In that context, applying the work of neuroscience is very important to the success of our children. 

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ResearchED17- a few thoughts 

I was delighted to co-present a session at the ResearchED national conference yesterday. Although nerves and tiredness (it had been a long week at school and I got up at 5.30 to catch the train) prevented me engaging with the talks as much as I have done in the past, it was an excellent event on a number of levels. 


The conference brought a very large, sell-out crowd of educators together. Organisationally it must have been challenging and yet the whole event ran very smoothly. As impressive as the smooth running, was the demeanour of the main organisers (Tom Bennett, Helene Galdin- O’Shea and Alex Weatherall) who were their usual calm, kind and supportive selves. All three have the ability to focus on people and conversations in the present moment while no doubt dealing mentally with all the behind-the-scenes hitches every conference event throws up on the day. Unflappability is a great quality and Gladin-O’Shea, Bennett and Weatherall seemed particularly blessed with it. 

ResearchED continues to evolve as it grows. The aims published in the programme are now wider and the diversity of speakers and participants has increased significantly since last year. It also struck me that there were more sessions this year disseminating research. It is an event that attracts a wider spectrum of view points than most education conferences and that has to be a good thing for the profession. 

Twitter has been a big part of ResearchED but it wasn’t used as much on the day as it has been in previous years. In the sessions I attended, there appeared to be less live tweeting going on during talks which is a good thing because it suggests that more teachers are attending who are not on Twitter.  

Where Twitter continues to play a vital role is in connecting people online before events. There are several people I only see at occasional conferences but interact with regularly on Twitter. The development of, and challenge to, thinking that can happen on Twitter increases the interest and interaction when talking with the same people in real life. The conversation begins from a more advanced point if people have prior interaction online. As always, it was good to meet people from Twitter for the first time. I very much appreciated the supportive discussion I had with @thatboycanteach straight after our presentation. 

Twitter can also be of practical use;  with the significant and ongoing regeneration of Startford, I may not have found the venue if I hadn’t bumped into Rachel Rossiter (@rlrossi64) outside the tube station.  


Highlights for me were Kieran Dhunna Halliwell’s (@ezzymoon) and Dr Pete Bradshaw’s (@watfordpete) first session because, although Kieran and I have been co-researchers on a project, I’d not previously seen the results of their OU study on the flipped classroom. I wasn’t the only one interested in their work as the room was packed. Their research used videos of Kieran silently modelling concepts that could then be used for pre-tutoring at home or by individuals/groups using iPads during lessons. One of the most interesting findings for me was that the impact was greater on her own class than on other people’s classes. Coupled with the children’s interest in what the videos showed them of her home, the research highlights the continued importance of relationship in learning. At a time when artificial intelligence is being considered as a replacement for teachers, Kieran and Pete’s research is reminder of the wider aspects of education, learning and human development that will be lost when we are all plugged in and networked.  


Sam Sims (@Sam_Sims_) and Dr Rebecca Allen (@drbeckyallen) both work for Education Datalab who, along with LKMco, have produced some of the best data-based reports on education I have read.  Their session at ResearchEd looked at large scale US research on the effectiveness of teachers over time. Their conclusions included the importance of improving working conditions in order to retain teachers and improve the quality of teaching. As someone with responsibility for the working conditions of others it was a challenging talk but very interesting. 

Another highlight was meeting, in the presenters’ room, a teacher called Sergei who had travelled from Holland to speak. As well as being an expert on assessment processes, Sergei turned out to be a singer-song writer, published poet and a fluent speaker of 6 languages. I just sat there listening to him in awe. 

I chose to miss the big keynote speakers. Nick Gibb’s record as a minister shows that even by the low standards of politicians he is unable to engage with research outside of his own narrow ideological belief system.  I wasn’t upset to also miss Amanda Spielman, who, as head of OfSTED, speaks for an organisation whose crude use of data (to try and prove their high stakes inspection process is objective) damages education and has ruined the careers of many very good teachers. As research methods go, OfSTED have the least credible I have come across. 

I also chose, from the packed programme, sessions other than the Institute for Ideas debates because despite being very intelligent, articulate people their agenda of individual libertarianism says nothing to my understanding of education as a collective endeavour.  Their contribution to debate in the media demonstrates that people can be very clever whilst deliberately trying to deny a space for compassion in human society. It is arguably an example of the difference between being clever and being wise.  There are some worldviews that are so far removed from my own that I gain little from repeatedly engaging with. The Institute for Ideas have one such view. Having said that, I heard lots of positive comments about the Institute’s debates so the panellists clearly spoke well. I also heard great things about Martin Robinson’s talk. I have heard Martin a couple of times and he as almost as fine a speaker as he is a writer. I regret not seeing him along with many of the other sessions in the programme. 

On the way out, having finally relaxed after co-delivering a session, I was really pleased to see Jane Manzone. Although no longer blogging, Jane remains one of the most intelligent and analytical thinkers on education. She represents an increasingly rare professional – a teacher who combines educational expertise with significant and on-going experience. 

The profession needs a range of mechanisms to engage with, and contribute to, research. ResearchED as a concept has developed to provide such a mechanism and yesterday showed how far it had come in doing so. 

In our session, I promoted the concept of co-research because most of us are too busy to design, undertake and analyse studies on our own. Kieron and I have gained nothing from our work (neither money, nor status nor qualification) other than finding out about something in which we are interested. Having full-time jobs gives us that privilege. We are very different people who have learned, through undertaking a research project together, in a way that, for me, has improved my ability to think about education. I genuinely recommend learning to undertake research to anyone who wants to develop their ability to think through issues. Understanding research methodology and method through designing studies under the critical gaze of others is also a very good way of learning to engage with research at a deeper level. There is significant research expertise in University education departments and it was good to see it represented here. For teachers, working with University colleagues to learn to research is powerful CPD.

I would still research without ResearchED but it gave us an audience with whom to engage that we may not otherwise have reached. Many thanks to everyone who made it happen and everyone who came. 

The generation who will own nothing

My children persuaded me to take advantage of an offer of 6 months free subscription to Apple Music. For 2 days, I was in heaven creating playlists and listening to everything I hadn’t previously bought (and many tracks I used to own but had misplaced – all those empty CD cases I have cos the stupid things must be somewhere). On the third day, feeling vaguely dissatisfied and lethargic, I put the radio back on. 

There is far less emotional investment when the arts are so easily accessible. Even the downloaded music on my iPod required me to actively purchase and therefore make choices about what I really wanted to hear more than once. My free subscription (the only cost being that Apple will have data on what I like and therefore what else I can be sold) robs me of the choices I used to have to make. Owning record, tapes and CDs was once, in the UK, part of forming an identity. Music (and to a lesser extent books) are still an important part of people’s lives but when everything exists in the Cloud, our experience of music changes.

Some of the changes that are taking place  are for the good. The current generation find moving house easier as they have fewer possessions to pack and unpack. They may move house more often as the majority will not own homes. They may also lease cars rather than buy. In fact, we may be at a point where most people own nothing but still consume plenty: a different world indeed. It’s a world that whose cultural forms I’m too old to appreciate – now where are those CDs? 

“Full on idle” – summer reading

Having read, and been depressed by, Yuval Harari’s brilliant book Homo Deus, I have sought and partly found an antidote in Tom Hodgkinson’s books “How to be Idle” and “How to be Free” kindly lent to me by Jane Whitehouse, Head of Drama at the British School in Brussels. 

Harari uses the remarkable understanding of human history he demonstrated in his book “Sapiens” to project into the future. He foresees a post-humanist world where consciousness is separated from intelligence as life is determined by and dependent on algorithms.  Whilst he includes caveats that his analysis may prove false, he provides plenty of evidence that we are, as a species, already past a turning point in our history: the speed with which work is being automated is hard to ignore.

Humans used to participate in and define themselves through war and work. On the news this morning, there is a debate about ‘war robots’ highlighting the fact that people are no longer needed on the battlefield. Further, in peacetime our jobs are so specialised that we are easily replaceable in the workplace. Harari’s ideas are there for us to ponder now. We do not have to wait to see if some of his arguments prove true. 

Harari perceives religion’s role in history as  enabling people to see suffering in war, famine and plague as part of a cosmic plan. Whilst those three elements continue to haunt the poorest parts of our world, as a species, Harari points out, we are now more likely to commit suicide than be killed in war and more likely to be die from obesity than starvation. Long ago we stopped needing a God to explain events because, thanks to the industrial revolution, we have the capacity to control and overcome them. Harari provides ample evidence that in the biological sciences there is no cosmic plan just algorithms.

Humanism has focused on the feelings and experiences of humans as the ultimate justification for actions and those actions as a species, Harari argues, seek continuous pleasure and immortality. Whilst the latter is unobtainable, we may end up living for far longer as diseases are overcome. In this situation where committing suicide, being run over by a bus or killed by a family member are the likely ways of dying, we will become even more risk averse because we have a far longer life to lose. Within a longer lifespan, our pursuit of continuous pleasure will be through drugs rather than the restraint to the senses suggested by ancient wisdom.

Longevity and bliss (the things of the Greek Gods) will not be for all. Those who write the algorithms  that have the greatest impact will have the wealth. The rest of humanity, once useful for war and industry, will find themselves with nothing to offer the world other than data already harvested through our use of Internet search engines and social media. Politically, there will be no imperative to keep people healthy and educated. 

As we allow technology to merge with our minds in order to participate in the “Internet of things” where algorithms know us better than we do ourselves, we cease to be Sapiens and evolve into a new species. 

There are criticisms to made of Harari. He views humanity from a detached, neutral distance and describes us in sweeping historical statements that lack nuance but the quality of his writing and use of evidence makes his overall argument difficult to resist. By the end of the book, I was in equal measure  impressed, exhausted and depressed. 

That I’d been lent two books that provided another way of viewing the future was both fortunate and coincidental. If Harari is right in arguing humanity will have little value in the AI future then books that promote finding value outside of work may gain in relevance. The author of the “How to be Idle” and “How to be Free”, Tom Hodgkinson, has held the role of editor of the Idler and this has given him many years to develop and live out a coherent philosophy which seeks to help him avoid drudgery and dependence. His books provide a defence of minimisation of work and practical advice on how to live more freely. The books invite the reader to stop and think about how life is lived and the small steps needed to be taken now as well as see positive signs for the longer term future. The passages that resonate strongly with me are those on living in isolation. For Hodgkinson, the answer to many issues is a more communal way of living where we open our doors and share food, alcohol, conversation, work, childcare etc. The growth of Twitter and Facebook evidences a far more isolated existence, than promoted by Hodgkinson, where we want to share our lives at a distance. Twitter has become an emotional crutch for many of us as we seek affirmation for ourselves through constant virtue signalling without the need to engage in face-to-face interactions. 

Like Harari,  Hodgkinson draws his evidence for future possibilities from history. He is very positive about the mediaeval city states, the lives of Victorian artists, as well as the examples  of modern day figures such as Keith Allen, Joe Strummer and Penny Rimbaud (the anarchist group CRASS and their Essex commune get a number of favourable mentions). 

The medieval city states brought together relatively large numbers of people in cooperative relationships that Hodgkinson argues worked well to meet needs without enslaving anyone. He acknowledges the importance of the Catholic world view and culture that dominated Europe in promoting balance, freedom and enjoyment. Eamonn Duffy’s excellent work The Stripping of the Altars  makes an argument for pre-Reformation Catholicism providing a coherent way of life that fitted the rhythms and rituals of agrarian England. For Hodgkinson, an atheist, Henry XIII’s destruction of Catholic culture combined with the industrial revolution is the root of our current overworked, stressed and depressed society. A return to religion does not hold the answer for either Harari or Hodgkinson. The former dismisses religion as having, since the industrial revolution, been merely reactive in the development of the species whereas before it had driven science and culture (one of his claims that doesn’t actually stand up as it was the Catholic Church that provided the Big Bang theory). Hodgkinson likes the idea of public holidays and enjoyment that were part of Catholicism but is at heart a humanist looking to improve our experience of life. 

Harari  would have no problem  with any of Hodgkinson’s arguments for a return to a simpler life but from his detached viewpoint would see the tide of history taking us in the opposite direction with increasing speed. The individuals cited by Hodgkinson are just individuals. Although Harari argues history is determined by small numbers of well-organised people and not the masses, the Penny Rimbauds and Joe Strummes of this world do not seek revolution beyond their communes and campfires. 

Harari acknowledges the arts as potentially providing meaning to human existence but promotes the possibility, even here, of algorithms doing it better. Hodgkinson sees creativity in everyday life as the way out of drudgery. His examples of people who experience greater freedom are drawn from the arts. This is one of the strongest parts of his argument. 

Both Harari and Hodgkinson give some time to the issues of sex in humanist thought. Harari points to the problem infidelity poses when the human pursues pleasure judged only through the criteria of personal experience, enjoyment and feelings. The pain caused to others through an act of personal pleasure creates tension for humanist theory. For Hodgkinson the answer lies in occasional festivals where the bonds of monogamous human relations are temporarily suspended; it seems to me a very male solution.  

Most of the people cited by Hodgkinson are male. Many led lives of relative privilege from which the decision not to conform to the Protestant work ethic was cushioned by circumstance. Whilst Hodgkinson’s argument can stand on the evidence he provides, consideration of the gendered nature of drudgery and the impact of male pursuit of freedom on women would enhance the books. The musician Kim Deal provides a better example of living without constraints. Pursuing her existentialist and feminist philosophy, Deal has been lambasted for producing music so infrequently (her band The Breeders have managed 4 albums in 27 years) yet has lived a full life away from dependence on others including her more successful band The Pixies whilst being a carer to her mother who has dementia. One of her songs provides the title of this post: a song she used on two separate albums as it saved time. If, in future, creativity becomes more important in providing meaning and value to our lives,  Deal is a better an artistic example to inspire alternative living than many of the men in the books. 


As a teacher, the implications for education of Harari and Hodgkinson’s books are worth considering. The argument about whether education should provide young people with “21st Century skills” looks pointless. Whether the jobs of the future do or do not yet exist is irrelevant if the jobs are mostly undertaken by artificial intelligence. If we  are to be creative, we need a broad and balanced curriculum that allows us to live fulfilling lives outside of work. Harari sees the specialised teacher being relatively simple to replace by interactive computers but there are aspects of the learning relationship within a broad concept of education that may still require human input. 

Persuading governments to invest in such a model of education when the state requires only that people are connected to the Internet of things will be a challenge but the possibility remains of developing alternative forms of education within new ways of living. 

I recommend Harari and Hodgkinson without any hesitation. They challenge their readers to think about the coherence between values, attitudes and lifestyle in the context of a world changing before your eyes. 

For interest: a questionnaire on teachers’ perceptions of race used in a previous research project. 

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/MC7VSYQ

As edutwitter is debating race, this is a survey Kieran Dhunna Halliwell and I used in a project we have completed on teachers’ perceptions of race, culture and diversity. The project has finished and we are currently writing it up. Whilst acknowledging the limitations of social media, we’d be interested in the response on edutwitter although the analysis can not form part of our project. It’s a short anonymous survey

A White Man in the London Stadium- reflections on watching sport

My first ever major sporting event was an England v West Indies one day international at Edgbaston in 1976. It was possibly the most excited I’ve ever felt and I made my dad take me to the ground ridiculously early especially as it had just rained for the first time in that summer of drought. We were almost the first people in the ground and sat for no particular reason on the old Edgbaston hill. My memory is that by the time the match started we were amongst a large group of West Indies supporters celebrating a team as good as any the game has produced. England were beaten that day as they had been all summer. 


My Dad had paid £2 each for our tickets which was a high price for mid-70s sport and about £10 in today’s prices.

In 2004, almost thirty years later I watched the first day of an England v West Indies test match at Edgbaston. The difference in the crowd was unavoidable as there was hardly any black people at Edgbaston that day despite 7% of Birmingham’s population coming from Black Carribbean communities. There was no atmosphere and I left underwhelmed by the cricket and the occasion for which I had paid £40.

As always, there are a whole range of factors involved in why people behave in certain ways. It was hard to escape the conclusion that as with football, people have been priced out of sport. Black communities where, irrespective of academic achievement in school, people face discrimination at every level of the labour market do not have the disposable income to pay extortionate ticket prices for sport. 

Last week I was privileged to be in the London Stadium. It was birthday present to my son who wanted to see Bolt run. Through a ballot and at a cost of £75 each, we had secured tickets. There were a group of supporters in Jamaican team colours sat together and a few individuals but the crowd that cheered Bolt’s entrance and chanted his name was overwhelmingly white. 

Next week the West Indies return to Edgbaston. The first couple of days are sold out but I doubt whether the black Carribbean communities of Birmingham will be represented. In response to discrimination, the colonial legacy and cost, black culture has moved on. 

Sports have developed in all sorts of positive ways since I began watching but success has come at the cost of pricing a significant proportion of the population out of participation as fans. Sport and society have in many ways become the poorer for the developments.

Happy Talk: for how long should a teacher speak during a lesson?

One of the recurring issues on educational Twitter feeds is the causes of, and implications for, any  criticism of the time teachers spend talking.The frequency with which the debate reoccurs has led me to write this post based on the obvious point that,when teachers talk, it is quality not quantity that matters.

Whether at the hands of inspectors or Senior Leaders, negative comments about the length of introductions/whole class teaching are a potential threat to the ability of teachers to instruct, explain, question and model new concepts. For that reason, discussion about teacher talk is often framed in an ideological debate about ‘chalk and talk’  traditional teaching methods.  The purpose of the discussion appears to be the promotion of direct instruction as a strategy that is under threat. Tweets are often expressed in terms of surprise and/or indignation especially since OfSTED’s current framework does not inc!ude any pedagogical judgement with reference to time spent talking. One of the reasons why the issue reoccurs is that negative comments about the time teachers talk share the same roots as the ideology still driving wider eduction policy because the claim to base the judgement of someone’s teaching solely on scientifically measureable evidence offers both the inspectorate and policymakers protection from accusations of fallibility. Therefore the measurement of teacher talk by time can be seen in the context of other elements of reform such as the use of randomly controlled trials and the EEF toolkit. The problem with the demand for quantitative  evidence to support any aspect of pedagogy is that teaching is too complex a process to be solely judged by that which is easily measured, explained, held accountable, commodified, marketed and sold. Evidence-based practice is too important to be reduced to the empirical. The success of teaching generally and teacher talk specifically rests on quality not quantity.  It is an interesting reflection on how educational reforms have inadvertently damaged teaching that we ever allowed judgements to be made using a stopwatch.

The effectiveness of what I say as a teacher rests on three factors: how well I know the subject; how well I know the learners and my ability to break the subject down in order to make it accessible to those learners. If I do not know my subject inside out and if I do not know the learners, I can talk for 10 minutes or three hours and I may achieve nothing. On the other hand, if I know the subject and know the learners, I can judge the instructuon , the questioning, the explanation and the modelling to maximise the time available. The time will vary depending on subject and learners which is why setting a limit was and is a nonsense. The judgement as to what to explain, ask and instruct is part of what makes me a professional.  

The criticism that a teacher has spoken for too long is often an inadequate shorthand for  what is in reality a lack of clarity in the teacher’s talk and/or preparation. When teaching a class of 30, the following undermine learning:”winging it”; waffle; a monotone voice; poorly phrased questions, instructions or explanations; spoonfeeding and lack of structure. All of those can involve a teacher speaking for too long a period of time. Those who observe teaching need to ensure they feedback with precision as to the exact nature of the issue. 

What we say in front of a child, a group, a class or a whole school needs to be carefully thought through based on a high level of subject knowledge. Instructions, questions and explanations need to be planned by the teacher anticipating  what a learner in that class/of that age will hear. Each instruction essential for understanding, or question necessary for development of thought, needs to be mentally  planned, edited and replanned. This is a mental process that can be learned and refined. If the instruction is not essential, it should not be said. If the question is not going to support learning, it should not be asked (or not asked in that form). Poorly framed instructions, explanations or models lead to confusion; poorly constructed questions often lead to silence and frustration. When I reflect on a lesson, I should not need an observer to feedback based on a stopwatch, the quality of children’s response is a far more useful indicator. There may have been a range of factors involved in the learners’ understanding (including time of day, incidents at playtime etc) but I know what I said and what I asked and on that basis I, or an observer, can reflect on the effectiveness of my teaching.