in Education

Some questions about teaching

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s the start of the new academic year and so naturally a time when I start musing on the whys and wherefores of education. By the end of the academic year I’ve almost come to accept the system as normal but now, at the beginning of the year – and fresh from summer holidays – it all seems rather strange… :-s

  1. Why do we have a system that trumpets ‘personalised learning’, ‘Every Child Matters‘ and the diversity of society, and then insists that each cohort must do better than the last in public examinations?
  2. Can you think of another profession where day-to-day web tools such as Flickr (that have been used unproblematically and without complaint) are suddenly made unavailable by persons unknown (and unaccountable)?
  3. If we know that children learn ‘academic’ subjects best in the morning and do better in artistic, athletic and creative activities in the afternoon, why don’t we arrange our lessons accordingly?
  4. Why must every intervention and way of teaching lead to ‘better results’ (measured, of course, by examination)?
  5. Given that headteachers, colleagues, parents and pupils all know who the very poor teachers are in a school, why is it so difficult to remove them from their extremely important position of responsibility?
  6. Why are politicians in control of the majority of what goes on in education?
  7. What makes a ‘good’ teacher? Should decent results in public retrospectively justify or condemn the methods employed by teachers?
  8. Most private schools do better than state schools. Research shows that this is largely down to smaller class sizes. Why, in a wealthy western world, do we not do something about this?
  9. Do students always know what’s best for them? Shouldn’t professionals guide their option choices and advise them based on experience? Has ‘learner voice’ gone too far?

What would YOUR answers to these questions be?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

If you liked this post, you might want to subscribe to my newsletter and explore my ebooks!

Share a Comment

Comment

38 Comments

  1. I’m no genius, but I’ll take a stab at your questions.

    1. By our very natures, we hope to improve in everything we do. Period.

    2. I can’t think of another profession, but I do know that, under most circumstances, the person that blocks Flickr IS the person that is often held accountable for its misuse. He or she, in your circumstance, is likely in charge of the networking within your school system. If the network is used with malice, the buck will stop at him/her.

    3. Good question, but the answer is easy: space. The reason school schedules aren’t so easily manipulated is because there simply isn’t room to only hold academic classes in the mornings and only PE/art classes in the afternoons. Unless you want to hold gym class in the science lab and teach math in your school’s gigantic gymnasium.

    4. See number 1. Unfortunately, few feel comfortable with alternative forms of assessment (other than traditional examinations).

    5. Another good question. The answer: the system. As sad as this sounds, the truth is that it is often far more work and head-ache to remove a poor teacher than it is worth enduring their horrible presence. Another answer to this question is politics. More on that to come.

    6. Everything in education is political. Everything in education is political. Everything in education is political. To think otherwise is naive.

    7. This seems like a loaded question. Pass.

    8. Your statement here is simply not true and certainly still up for discussion. Here’s a research report illustrating my point. Here’s another.

    9. Students don’t always know what is best for them – just as teachers don’t always know what is best. Finding the right balance between student voice and professional guidance is key.

    • Darren,

      I used this format to provoke a response, so thank you for replying. I suppose what I’m saying is:

      a) We need more teachers so that we can deliver better-quality education.
      b) People shouldn’t be able to block websites (apart from the obvious ones)
      on a district-wide or broadband consortium-wide basis.
      c) Alternative forms of assessment are desperately needed so people *have*
      to move away from chalk-and-talk.
      d) Politicians don’t have the same agendas as educators, ergo they shouldn’t
      be in charge of education.
      e) It’s important to take the views of students into account, but we as
      educators shouldn’t abandon our reponsibilities to help and guide them.

      Hope that clarifies things a bit. :-)

  2. I'm no genius, but I'll take a stab at your questions.1. By our very natures, we hope to improve in everything we do. Period.2. I can't think of another profession, but I do know that, under most circumstances, the person that blocks Flickr IS the person that is often held accountable for its misuse. He or she, in your circumstance, is likely in charge of the networking within your school system. If the network is used with malice, the buck will stop at him/her.3. Good question, but the answer is easy: space. The reason school schedules aren't so easily manipulated is because there simply isn't room to only hold academic classes in the mornings and only PE/art classes in the afternoons. Unless you want to hold gym class in the science lab and teach math in your school's gigantic gymnasium.4. See number 1. Unfortunately, few feel comfortable with alternative forms of assessment (other than traditional examinations).5. Another good question. The answer: the system. As sad as this sounds, the truth is that it is often far more work and head-ache to remove a poor teacher than it is worth enduring their horrible presence. Another answer to this question is politics. More on that to come.6. Everything in education is political. Everything in education is political. Everything in education is political. To think otherwise is naive.7. This seems like a loaded question. Pass.8. Your statement here is simply not true and certainly still up for discussion. Here's a research report illustrating my point. Here's another.9. Students don't always know what is best for them – just as teachers don't always know what is best. Finding the right balance between student voice and professional guidance is key.

  3. If it all seems “rather strange”, then check your premises.
    As for question #8: we do; it’s called private schooling. (Also, check out the water-muddying blog entry on the OECD report about British education, the School Gate )

  4. Ah. Yes. And question 10 – if there are so many of us who have identified these flaws with the education system, why oh why doesn't it change?I find your question 8 to be at odds with the mindset behind 1, 4 and 7. You state that private schools "do better". What does that mean? They do better in exams, yes. But have you not already implied that this is not a reliable measure?And, as for question 9, I think that those who are charged with responsibility for/towards minors should assume their mantle. The abdication of these responsibilities do not do the children any favours – we see the evidence of this in a society of (voluntarily or otherwise) disempowered parents who let their children grow up rather than raising them. However, I would say that the responsibilities rest as heavily on parents as they do on the 'professionals' you mention. My husband and I are our children's primary educators. The school and their teachers are accountable to us in the same way a service provider is accountable to the organisation who outsources that service to it. Not the other way around as it is usually portrayed in the UK.

  5. Ah. Yes. And question 10 – if there are so many of us who have identified these flaws with the education system, why oh why doesn’t it change?

    I find your question 8 to be at odds with the mindset behind 1, 4 and 7. You state that private schools “do better”. What does that mean? They do better in exams, yes. But have you not already implied that this is not a reliable measure?

    And, as for question 9, I think that those who are charged with responsibility for/towards minors should assume their mantle. The abdication of these responsibilities do not do the children any favours – we see the evidence of this in a society of (voluntarily or otherwise) disempowered parents who let their children grow up rather than raising them. However, I would say that the responsibilities rest as heavily on parents as they do on the ‘professionals’ you mention. My husband and I are our children’s primary educators. The school and their teachers are accountable to us in the same way a service provider is accountable to the organisation who outsources that service to it. Not the other way around as it is usually portrayed in the UK.

    • Karyn, you’re absolutely right about the role of parents. It’s something I wish we would promote a lot more instead of taking the role of daycare.

      Regarding point 8, it could be a blog post in itself. I suppose what I’m saying is that:
      a) If we are to use public examinations as a yardstick, and private schools show that smaller class sizes mean better results in this, why don’t we (state schools) follow suit?
      b) Private schools ‘do better’ in creating confident, well-rounded individuals, in my opinion. We can argue about ‘being streetwise’, and being in touch with and understanding those from all walks of life, but I think few would argue against my belief that, on the whole, students from private school backgrounds can present themselves and articulate their thoughts better than their state school compatriots.

  6. Karyn, you're absolutely right about the role of parents. It's something I wish we would promote a lot more instead of taking the role of daycare.Regarding point 8, it could be a blog post in itself. I suppose what I'm saying is that:a) If we are to use public examinations as a yardstick, and private schools show that smaller class sizes mean better results in this, why don't we (state schools) follow suit?b) Private schools 'do better' in creating confident, well-rounded individuals, in my opinion. We can argue about 'being streetwise', and being in touch with and understanding those from all walks of life, but I think few would argue against my belief that, on the whole, students from private school backgrounds can present themselves and articulate their thoughts better than their state school compatriots.

  7. Some thoughts.
    1. We use a value-added (growth) measure and like for like. Does your system really demand “better than last”?
    2.Ask the question, what is our filtering software and how is this site categorised (media sharing). Who has access? Who doesn’t? and why? Is there a review process?
    3.Good question. Administrative needs overtake learning needs. The timetable decides.
    4.I think all intervention should lead to some improvement. Why bother otherwise?
    5. A seemingly intractable problem being debated across the world, I believe.
    8. Our public selective schools are outdoing many private schools, in public exams. This occurs with vastly different resourcing.
    Elaine

    • Elaine,

      1. Within education, we look at value-added, but the wider public still looks at (demands?) better-than-last, unfortunately.

      4. Yes, there should be ‘some improvement’ – but not necessarily one that’s testable by pen-and-paper exams.

  8. Some thoughts.1. We use a value-added (growth) measure and like for like. Does your system really demand "better than last"?2.Ask the question, what is our filtering software and how is this site categorised (media sharing). Who has access? Who doesn't? and why? Is there a review process?3.Good question. Administrative needs overtake learning needs. The timetable decides.4.I think all intervention should lead to some improvement. Why bother otherwise?5. A seemingly intractable problem being debated across the world, I believe.8. Our public selective schools are outdoing many private schools, in public exams. This occurs with vastly different resourcing.Elaine

  9. Darren,I used this format to provoke a response, so thank you for replying. I suppose what I'm saying is:a) We need more teachers so that we can deliver better-quality education.b) People shouldn't be able to block websites (apart from the obvious ones)on a district-wide or broadband consortium-wide basis.c) Alternative forms of assessment are desperately needed so people *have*to move away from chalk-and-talk.d) Politicians don't have the same agendas as educators, ergo they shouldn'tbe in charge of education.e) It's important to take the views of students into account, but we aseducators shouldn't abandon our reponsibilities to help and guide them.Hope that clarifies things a bit. :-)

  10. I have often questioned when do we end? It seems that just as all the students reach the goals, the bar is raised and schools are condemned for not reaching the new standards. Standardized tests are based on the scores of the “average” so by definition, the majority will always be “average”. Since the tests change constantly to reflect new curriculum, then there will always be an average group, above average group, and below average group when looked at as an aggregate. As a result, wouldn’t an above average group start doing worse before a below average group could improve?

    I wonder what would happen if children were tested on knowledge that was considered important 20 years ago. Would they know as much or be considered lacking in knowledge? And finally, while politics does determine curriculum, shouldn’t we be looking at how education met the needs of learners from 20 years ago? How well did we predict their learning needs and how well do they do today, based on education 20 years ago? Shouldn’t we be developing better ways to predict learning needs for the next century rather than for today?

  11. I have often questioned when do we end? It seems that just as all the students reach the goals, the bar is raised and schools are condemned for not reaching the new standards. Standardized tests are based on the scores of the "average" so by definition, the majority will always be "average". Since the tests change constantly to reflect new curriculum, then there will always be an average group, above average group, and below average group when looked at as an aggregate. As a result, wouldn't an above average group start doing worse before a below average group could improve?I wonder what would happen if children were tested on knowledge that was considered important 20 years ago. Would they know as much or be considered lacking in knowledge? And finally, while politics does determine curriculum, shouldn't we be looking at how education met the needs of learners from 20 years ago? How well did we predict their learning needs and how well do they do today, based on education 20 years ago? Shouldn't we be developing better ways to predict learning needs for the next century rather than for today?

  12. Doug, I understand your questions as being rhetorical, I agree with all your points basically. We can’t deny such a gigantic resource like Flickr to the classroom because the network administrator is accountable…what kind of reason is that! That’s just politics (as someone said, education is politics – yeah, OUTSIDE the classroom). There has to be, nay must be ways around these issues.

    I also agree that, without a shadow of a doubt, the learner voice has gone too far.

  13. Doug, I understand your questions as being rhetorical, I agree with all your points basically. We can't deny such a gigantic resource like Flickr to the classroom because the network administrator is accountable…what kind of reason is that! That's just politics (as someone said, education is politics – yeah, OUTSIDE the classroom). There has to be, nay must be ways around these issues. I also agree that, without a shadow of a doubt, the learner voice has gone too far.

  14. 1. Perhaps a better model is to evaluate students individually, measuring one year against the next for an idea as to how much growth there has been and with some basic expectations for annual growth. We could also measure across a cohort group. If 5 children who came in to 5th grade moved up a grade or two grades in reading, but one made no progress, then we might surmise that the issues impacting this student are not strictly under the control of the classroom teacher.

    2. no comment.

    3. We know that children learn everything better when they are freshest and that they become increasingly more impatient and unfocused as the day continues. The academic teacher wants the fresh part of the day and seeing all the exit classes as vehicles for relaxed expression or energy burning activity, rather that legitimate subjects unto themselves with real rigor that requires a fresh, focused student just like any other subject. Also, scheduling is a complex art and it isn’t always possible to schedule everyone into the dream slot. So… I’m in competition with the realities of scheduling, which cannot always accommodate best practices. And I’m in competition with other teachers who might also like students at their freshest and most malleable.

    4. What purpose does an intervention or way of teaching serve if not to lead to better results? It should be that. The problem is that some results are not so easily measured. Depending on the student, the ability to acquire skills may be impacted by the ability to focus, delay gratification,organize materials, handle frustration, value educational objectives, manage time etc. We need multiple ways to assess all students (not just those with IEPs). That doesn’t for a second mean that we don’t need objective testing in place. Only that we need other types of evaluative tools that help us to identify different types of growth over time.

    5. I think that we all know that there are poor teachers that can not be removed, however not unlike the criminal justice system, the guilty are sometimes protected by the same organs that protect the innocent. Education (which is about literacy AND the free flow of ideas) requires a shield to protect educators from the whims of political fashion. If teachers don’t have protection in the form of tenure, the free flow of ideas is at risk and therefore the rights of citizens and the existence of open societies is also at risk.

    6. Politicans aren’t in control. They are controlled BY the interests of their constituents. The right of a society to measure the effective use of it’s resources is fundamental. And, to be honest, if students (certainly in the USA) had basic skills in place by graduation, the government would have less reason to interfere with school structures and policies. We can not expect them to stay out of the game if we’re losing it.

    7. Big question for another time :)

    8. The research that shows smaller class size? I’d like a link to that research. I’ve seen research that suggests that private schools are not doing better than public as an overall measure. Of course, some private schools do significantly better in all areas of measurement. What I do know is that private schools can cherry pick their students. It’s easier to do well when you can remove any poor performers and send oppositional behavior problems right back into the public arena.

    9. I think the idea that the learner knows what is best for them is voodoo educational philosophy. What we need to know is not instinctual. You need to have a basic understanding of the world, a developed brain, some maturity and experience to even know what there is to know… never mind whether or not you need to know it.

    Therefore, a young child has no understanding of what is best for them. They should be guided in their education with adults who observe interests as a way of supporting development, but not to the exclusion of building foundation and increasing exposure. By high school, a student is moving toward control of their direction; they can choose some but not all of their direction. An entry level college student may know a direction yet still need guidance in terms of foundational aspects to a career. Eventually, the wise student begins to choose WHO will give them guidance in a what that they have determined for themselves. Mentoring can continue throughout a lifetime…

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You say that politicians aren’t in control. You’re right, but it’s not their constituents who are – it’s the media.Which, in my book, is even worse!

      I’m not going to go through your points individually as I think we generally agree. :-)

  15. 3. Seems easy enough to fix.
    4. When’s the last time as an adult you took a test? I think it is a safe bet to argue the traditional pen paper test as evidence of actual learning has been tried and found lacking.
    5. I’ve fired nine people. It isn’t fun and no one wants to do it. There is a part of all of us that wants someone else to do the dirty work for us. I’ve hated everyone of those meetings but in the end it can be what is better for the kids.
    8. I don’t know on this one. I was at a meeting yesterday where our superintendent of a private school system argued there is no real correlation between class size and performance. A good teacher with 35 kids will make more progress than a crappy one with 10 kids. The teacher makes the biggest difference.

    • Charlie, I respectfully disagree with your last comment about ‘teachers making the biggest difference’. I think it’s actually parents, then the overall school system, and *then* the teacher.

      Thoughts?

  16. Elaine,1. Within education, we look at value-added, but the wider public still looks at (demands?) better-than-last, unfortunately.4. Yes, there should be 'some improvement' – but not necessarily one that's testable by pen-and-paper exams.

  17. Charlie, I respectfully disagree with your last comment about 'teachers making the biggest difference'. I think it's actually parents, then the overall school system, and *then* the teacher. Thoughts?

  18. 1. Perhaps a better model is to evaluate students individually, measuring one year against the next for an idea as to how much growth there has been and with some basic expectations for annual growth. We could also measure across a cohort group. If 5 children who came in to 5th grade moved up a grade or two grades in reading, but one made no progress, then we might surmise that the issues impacting this student are not strictly under the control of the classroom teacher. 2. no comment.3. We know that children learn everything better when they are freshest and that they become increasingly more impatient and unfocused as the day continues. The academic teacher wants the fresh part of the day and seeing all the exit classes as vehicles for relaxed expression or energy burning activity, rather that legitimate subjects unto themselves with real rigor that requires a fresh, focused student just like any other subject. Also, scheduling is a complex art and it isn't always possible to schedule everyone into the dream slot. So… I'm in competition with the realities of scheduling, which cannot always accommodate best practices. And I'm in competition with other teachers who might also like students at their freshest and most malleable.4. What purpose does an intervention or way of teaching serve if not to lead to better results? It should be that. The problem is that some results are not so easily measured. Depending on the student, the ability to acquire skills may be impacted by the ability to focus, delay gratification,organize materials, handle frustration, value educational objectives, manage time etc. We need multiple ways to assess all students (not just those with IEPs). That doesn't for a second mean that we don't need objective testing in place. Only that we need other types of evaluative tools that help us to identify different types of growth over time.5. I think that we all know that there are poor teachers that can not be removed, however not unlike the criminal justice system, the guilty are sometimes protected by the same organs that protect the innocent. Education (which is about literacy AND the free flow of ideas) requires a shield to protect educators from the whims of political fashion. If teachers don't have protection in the form of tenure, the free flow of ideas is at risk and therefore the rights of citizens and the existence of open societies is also at risk. 6. Politicans aren't in control. They are controlled BY the interests of their constituents. The right of a society to measure the effective use of it's resources is fundamental. And, to be honest, if students (certainly in the USA) had basic skills in place by graduation, the government would have less reason to interfere with school structures and policies. We can not expect them to stay out of the game if we're losing it.7. Big question for another time :)8. The research that shows smaller class size? I'd like a link to that research. I've seen research that suggests that private schools are not doing better than public as an overall measure. Of course, some private schools do significantly better in all areas of measurement. What I do know is that private schools can cherry pick their students. It's easier to do well when you can remove any poor performers and send oppositional behavior problems right back into the public arena. 9. I think the idea that the learner knows what is best for them is voodoo educational philosophy. What we need to know is not instinctual. You need to have a basic understanding of the world, a developed brain, some maturity and experience to even know what there is to know… never mind whether or not you need to know it. Therefore, a young child has no understanding of what is best for them. They should be guided in their education with adults who observe interests as a way of supporting development, but not to the exclusion of building foundation and increasing exposure. By high school, a student is moving toward control of their direction; they can choose some but not all of their direction. An entry level college student may know a direction yet still need guidance in terms of foundational aspects to a career. Eventually, the wise student begins to choose WHO will give them guidance in a what that they have determined for themselves. Mentoring can continue throughout a lifetime…

  19. 3. Seems easy enough to fix. 4. When's the last time as an adult you took a test? I think it is a safe bet to argue the traditional pen paper test as evidence of actual learning has been tried and found lacking.5. I've fired nine people. It isn't fun and no one wants to do it. There is a part of all of us that wants someone else to do the dirty work for us. I've hated everyone of those meetings but in the end it can be what is better for the kids. 8. I don't know on this one. I was at a meeting yesterday where our superintendent of a private school system argued there is no real correlation between class size and performance. A good teacher with 35 kids will make more progress than a crappy one with 10 kids. The teacher makes the biggest difference.

  20. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. You say that politicians aren't in control. You're right, but it's not their constituents who are – it's the media.Which, in my book, is even worse!I'm not going to go through your points individually as I think we generally agree. :-)

  21. Do students know what’s best for them? Maybe sometimes they do and maybe sometimes they don’t. I think that given a student’s immaturity that we can’t leave the choices up to students totally because they simply can’t yet appreciate what it is they need to know to help them become informed citizens so that they can make the informed choices that life will ask them to make.

    I have students who would elect to drop any subject like English or math that they find difficult. They would prefer to spend the day playing video games. How do I know? They’ve told me so. I do think that students should be given some choice. But, as the adult in the classroom, I feel I have a duty to help them appreciate the need for subjects, topics they may think at 17 they do not need. I talk about knowing as much as possible about as many things as a defense for the future. You never know when knowledge about something will be useful. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, but I keep trying.

    I have found that the new digital technology that I’ve introduced these past two years in my classroom does make the medicine go down. Reading, writing and arithmetic is not as painful. Granted, I teach struggling and reluctant learners, but out of respect for them I keep encouraging them to prepare for the future.

    Luckily, there are more pathways forstudents to take now- the pathway of work, the pathway to college and the pathway to university. I think with in each pathway , the choice needs to be how they will learn rather than what they will learn.

    I hope that the cult of educational romanticism that I wrote about http://tinyurl.com/5njddl does not continue to set kids up for failure. Some times adults do not know best. We need educational realism. Are you asking whose realism we need? That’s the difficult question.

    • Good question about whose ‘realism’ we need, Elona. I agree that students are very different. Just take my form – I’ve very, very immature young people in there and some who are 13 going on 40! Perhaps we need to take each student on their own merits, rather than deciding in a blanket way which are ready to make their decisions and which are not?

  22. Do students know what's best for them? Maybe sometimes they do and maybe sometimes they don't. I think that given a student's immaturity that we can't leave the choices up to students totally because they simply can't yet appreciate what it is they need to know to help them become informed citizens so that they can make the informed choices that life will ask them to make. I have students who would elect to drop any subject like English or math that they find difficult. They would prefer to spend the day playing video games. How do I know? They've told me so. I do think that students should be given some choice. But, as the adult in the classroom, I feel I have a duty to help them appreciate the need for subjects, topics they may think at 17 they do not need. I talk about knowing as much as possible about as many things as a defense for the future. You never know when knowledge about something will be useful. Sometimes it's a hard sell, but I keep trying. I have found that the new digital technology that I've introduced these past two years in my classroom does make the medicine go down. Reading, writing and arithmetic is not as painful. Granted, I teach struggling and reluctant learners, but out of respect for them I keep encouraging them to prepare for the future. Luckily, there are more pathways forstudents to take now- the pathway of work, the pathway to college and the pathway to university. I think with in each pathway , the choice needs to be how they will learn rather than what they will learn. I hope that the cult of educational romanticism that I wrote about http://tinyurl.com/5njddl does not continue to set kids up for failure. Some times adults do not know best. We need educational realism. Are you asking whose realism we need? That's the difficult question.

  23. Good question about whose 'realism' we need, Elona. I agree that students are very different. Just take my form – I've very, very immature young people in there and some who are 13 going on 40! Perhaps we need to take each student on their own merits, rather than deciding in a blanket way which are ready to make their decisions and which are not?