I believe that children are the future. So; no change, then. Brain Gym, Bad Science, and the generational story of stupid.
Excellent article in today’s Guardian from the excellent Ben Goldacre, who writes (again) about the car-crash of stupid that is Brain Gym, and the fact that, despite its reliance on the kind of science normally found in the average Green Lantern comic, it persists in being adopted by schools that really should know better. There’s nothing more I can add about Brain Gym, other than to say that anyone who still believes it has any utility beyond keeping credulous writers in employment deserves to be placed in a corner wearing a conical hat.
But there’s a point that deserves examination: Goldacre’s optimism that, despite the persistence of- often adult- participants in the kind of moonshine and snake oil that so entrances educational experts, the future holds a possible golden age of intelligence. Why? Because as he puts it:
‘Information is more easily accessible now than ever before, and smart, motivated people can sidestep traditional routes to obtain knowledge and disseminate it’
|Bouchard: You BASTARD.|
Information certainly is a lot more available these days, oh boy it is. I remember a GCSE (or equivalent thereof) homework where we were invited to either fill in a work sheet, or research a biography of Pierre François Bouchard, the engineer who discovered the Rosetta Stone. Being somewhat friendless and socially gauche, I of course chose the research project, intuitively apprehending its innate complexity, challenge, and geek points. The family picture encyclopaedia was sadly not up to the task; a trip to my local library revealed nothing except for the painful lack of diversity in the Scottish public lending establishment. A further venture to the grand Mitchell Library in the city centre was more helpful. I handed the report in with pride, only to discover that I had carefully recited the life history of another Pierre Bouchard who, unhelpfully, was a contemporary in time and space. Some stories don’t have happy endings.
The point is, that with a few stylish finger flourishes, Dame Google can furnish me with more information about the intrepid French tomb raider than I could possibly digest in a month. Instant, endless raw data is now an axiomatic principle of our daily lives. Pub arguments about statements of fact now last only as long as the time it takes to wave an Iphone. Pub Quiz Masters have to emit EMP pulses just to level the playing field; that, or allow everyone an identical phone and speed recite the questions, testing participants on digital dexterity and search-term efficiency instead of scrappy long-term memory and retention of trivia.
The homework task I described would now perfectly exemplify the IT revolution we have experienced, and surely guarantees Mr Goldacre’s claim that even children- or perhaps especially so- will be the inheritors of a new age of intellectual rigour and penetration; that armed with the facts, reason and empirical scepticism, New Age rhetoric, Religious cant, and superstition will evaporate like fog in a November night, replaced by precision, degrees of certainty and cool, unexcitable reason. In fact, children should surely be the drivers of this intellectual revolution, given the alleged proficiency and taste they show for digital manipulation, and the familiarity they evidence with the online adventure.
|Brilliant! You look like a moron!|
But not so, not so; if only it were. This reporter is at Ground Zero on Planet Earth, bringing you the latest, and from where I’m standing it isn’t pretty. It pains me to say that, while many children do conform to this description as brave and rigorous denizens of an information superspace, many do not. In fact, you could even say that many of them are just as naive as their slightly older counterparts. They hold beliefs, prejudices and fancies that are just as fanciful, unsubstantiated and unsupported as anything that their generational predecessors could conceive.
For example: t a recent conference for students at a school I was visiting, I showed a group of approximately 100 sixth formers a picture of the 1969 Moon Landing, above which I had written ‘Are we being fooled?’ Now bearing in mind that I had already announced to the audience that this session would be about conspiracy theories, and how most of them were totally unfounded, you might expect a high level of scepticism. Not a bit of it. When I asked the audience to put their hands up if they thought that Neil Armstrong and his fellow possessors of the Right Stuff had really made it to Earth’s little sister, only around a third of the group did so. OK, I reasoned; participant anxiety. So I rephrased the question in the negative: who thought they hadn‘t really gone, and that the Moon Landings were faked?
Around two-thirds of the group launched their own Apollos into the air, give or take. In my mind, I could hear the Ancient Gods of mysticism laughing at the pretender Reason. When I asked them why they believed such an apparently transparent piece of guano, the usual answers came out: the shadows from the lander; the motion of the flag, and so on and so on. All the usual, cranky suspects. I can’t be bothered to retread the well worn path of dispelling this crap, but the answers are out there- you know, on the Internet. I spent around half an hour blowing each conspiracy to pieces, showing them sources, experts, references.
By the end of the session, I asked them to repeat the show of hands. With a trembling lip I saw that the ratio was now an even 50:50. A victory for rationality? I didn’t think so. Even when I questioned them later, the nays still reverted to their default prejudices and positions: they ‘didn’t trust’ the official story; there was ‘something in’ the conspiracies. I was confused. Had I not explained the perfectly simple refutations of these quack ideas? No; they certainly understood.
I realised what was happening. The conspiracy version of events suited their emotional and cultural appetites; the idea that there is ‘something going on’ behind the scenes of history; that authority narratives are unreliable and manipulative; that doubting the official record enables the powerless to perceive themselves as something powerful; prophets of the truth, discerners of deception, and holders of wisdom. There was, it seemed, at least two worlds: the world as it seemed, and the world as we would prefer to imagine it….even if that world itself contains unpalatable truths, such as the idea that the leaders of every nation state would conspire to conceal the truth of the Moon Landings, or that billions of tax dollars were therefore being diverted to feed…what? The military-industrial complex?
|‘This looks well proof, innit?’|
It doesn’t just end at the Moon Landings; it couldn’t. Such an attitude has, in my experience, been the foundation of my experiences of working with this Net Generation, these citizens of cyberspace. I teach RS and philosophy, so I understandably attract the conversations of the mystical and counter-rational. That’s fine, and for the best; the oceans of the mind are not charted solely by reason and measurement. Other compasses are necessary to understand the black box of the human psyche. So I know first hand the way that children and teenagers often wrestle with issues of meaning, value and experience, empirical or otherwise. And I also know how many of them turn to ideas and belief systems that are not merely counter-experiential, but counter-rational.
Like the scores- and I mean scores- of serious young men who sidle up to me after lessons and ask me if I have heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and would I be able to discuss it with them? (The Protocols, for the sainted uninitiated is a fraudulent crypto-history/ manifesto, allegedly written by the Jewish Puppet Masters, and ‘accidentally’ reveals their global ambitions. It is as vile a forgery as you could hope to read, and it has existed for over one hundred years. Despite its utter annihilation as a fake many decades ago, it still enjoys a furtive and political life wherever anti-Semitism needs a prop. Ghastly). There are students who have enquired if I know anything about the New World Order; about the assassination of Diana by the Royals, of JFK by the CIA, and more recently, the enormous number of students who apparently believe that 9/11 was the work of a diabolic Israeli black-op. All of these, theories as empty and aimless as a barrel going over Niagara Falls, yet somehow, inexplicably resuscitated in the minds of the credulous child.
The anti-empiricism doesn’t stop there. I teach a unit on ‘War and Conflict’ to year 9 pupils; I thought it apposite to teach about the Iraq war which, to me at last, still feels relatively recent. Every class I have taught for the last few years has, for the most part, believed that the war was started because of a) Al Qaeda and b) 9/11. Most of my students believed that Hussein and Bin Laden were in some kind of Axis of Evil, and that Desert Storm was the direct response to the fall of the Two Towers.
Now I’d like to point out that these are the same children who are practically hard wired into fibre optic cables, so ubiquitous is their online experience. They could barely be more connected were they to have a wireless connection node implanted in their cerebella. But still, they seem as susceptible to the storm fronts of illusion and nonsense as any of their 8-bit forebears; just as swayed by fantasy and information tricks as anyone else. Why is that?
|‘…and if you look closely, you can see a pixie.’|
The answer lies in this basic truism: being drenched in facts doesn’t make you any smarter; it doesn’t provide the possessor of an iota more discernment or critical faculty. This is the difference between facts and knowledge. Many educational half-wits have hailed the Google generation as having been liberated from the tyranny of knowledge; that in an age of universal IT suffrage, any fact can be conjured from the ether like a magician’s dove, and we should therefore focus on teaching children skills, not facts. If everyone who thought that was reduced to a single person, I’d spanner them. Our data-rich descendants are fallible after all; the cyber natives are just as liable to err as anyone else.
And why on earth wouldn’t they be? They are human, or so I believe, although from a cursory reading of the over-excited froth that is regularly written about them by progressive educationalists, you could be forgiven for thinking they had developed an X-gene that made them the perfected inheritors of a Golden, Utopian tomorrow. I have some news: they’re just like us. They ARE us. If a student wants to find out if the world really is controlled by a race of Reptilian overlords, or a more mundane segment of the Primate clan, it isn’t as simple as just clicking on a link. Because more often that not, the link will take you a million miles away from anything resembling ‘life experienced’, and into ‘life imagined’, realms of fairy tale so fabulous that they resemble a fever-dream. Try it. Search Google for Who killed Diana? and see what kind of balance you find. May God have mercy on our souls.
Searching for the truth involves more than just asking a question: it involves asking the right questions. Not all questions will lead you to the real answers, or as close to the real answer as our epistemological faculties will permit. Asking ‘When will Satan end the world?’ won’t get you an inch closer to the veracity of that claim’s assumptions, not on Bing anyway.
The ability to tease apart speculation from cautious theory is a skill that has enjoyed varying respectability as the centuries have progressed. Some reliance on the evidence of our senses has always been with us, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it this far. David Hume famously exploded the irrationality, the ‘sophistry and illusion’ as he described it, of believing in anything that could not be experienced or rationally inferred. The growth of the scientific method has transformed our world, physically at least. But how much of it has penetrated the methodology of our everyday analysis?
I, too have attended training courses on Brain Gym (sponsored and paid for, I hasten to add, by the Fast Track, a by-now deceased arm of the DfE’s previous attempt to invite the brightest and best into education. Alas, they got me) and believe me, the first time around, it sounds perfectly plausible. Who’s got the time to go away and dig up the data that reveals it to be a load of shit? Besides, the DfE were paying for it, so surely they must have checked it out, right?
We’re not swimming in information any more. We’re drowning. Children and adults alike are drenched in a deluge of data that takes time, effort and perspicacity to distinguish the dreck from the good stuff. There will always be people patient and stubborn enough to want to get to the bottom of things, and with the advent of the Internet, the resources to do so are now available to more people- children included- to do so. The problem is, not many of them necessarily will bother. We’re lazy; we’re busy; we’re just too damned indifferent to the truth.
And it’s one of the reasons that an enormous intellectual cavern exists in educational theory, and why the charlatans, the hucksters and the spivs have moved in to fill it with empty theory and card tricks. the battle, I might point out, goes on…
I’m off now to pay tribute to my Scaly overlords, and see if the Internet can tell me how to build a tinfoil Fascinator to stop the CIA controlling my brain. If I start blogging about Personalised Learning Styles, you’ll know they got me, in which case put a diamond bullet through my heart and head for the Vatican. End of Transmission.
|‘Gorblimey, social mobility and no mistake!’|
LSE ‘saves the children of the future from the poorhouse.’
Homeless orphans in London’s East End were today said to be Mexican-waving in joy at the news that the LSE, one of Britain’s top tertiary educational institutions, had foregone the maximum fees of £9000 for students per annum, and had instead opted for a much lower £8,500 instead.
‘I just can’t believe it,’ said 16 year old Darren Baker, from his cardboard box under London Bridge that he shares with his family of twelve brothers and sisters. ‘This is like all my Christmases have come at once. Previously I had thought that Russell Group institutions would be cruelly priced out of my reach. But now, but now,’ he said, struggling with tears, ‘I know that it’ll be £500 quid less for the LSE. They don’t know how much this means to me. Really, they don’t.’
A spokesman form the University said, ‘This sends out a clear message that the LSE welcomes students from all backgrounds.’ Then he added, ‘Quite wealthy ones, for example. And others who are a tiny bit less wealthy- about £500 a year less so, to be exact. See? It’s not f*cking rocket science is it?’ he said, lighting his Havana with a rolled up hundred pound note. ‘See that?’ he said. ‘That’s a hundred. You have to ask for them at the bank. Five of them.’
Earlier this month, the LSE Academic Board narrowly voted in favour for a charge of £8000 per annum; but the new limit was set after tense nights of brinkmanship, horse-trading and, apparently, taking acid.
‘You see,’ said a board member, ‘How clever we’ve been? It isn’t nine grand. It’s eight and a half. You see what we did there? I hope the poor people are grateful. They bloody better be. Five hundred quid buys a very agreeable Château d’Yquem at Rules, you know. Have you tried the fillet of red deer? You must.’
LSE director Professor Judith Rees said, “We are determined to preserve academic standards and ensure that all students with the ability to benefit are not deterred from applying to LSE.’
Last night, a grateful crowd of weeping paupers and beggars had gathered for a candle-lit vigil outside the gates of the LSE, some of them emptying their pockets of coppers into a collection tin. ‘It’s for the LSE,’ said one half-blind urchin, resembling a character from a period drama. ‘They need it more than us. Now I can stop dreaming, and get on to that three year Masters in Russian Literature.’
Oxford and Cambridge University were unavailable for comment, but there were rumours that they would knock one pound twenty five from their fees.
‘Is that enough?’ one frightened don was heard to say. ‘Is it too much? I don’t know.’
‘What is money?’ he said.
|‘Not safe,’ says Durham study.|
Telling kids how to do better ‘helps them do better’ claims shock survey
A new report from Durham University had the educational establishment flat on its back as it made the previously unheard of claim that teachers who told their students what they were doing wrong, and how to improve, ended up with classes that understood how to ‘do things better.’
‘This is fantastic news,’ said Richard Gravy, a history teacher from Birmingham. ‘Previously we’ve all been doing it the way we thought worked best: the student handed in a piece of work; we looked at it in absolute silence, and returned it to them without saying anything or writing in their books. Turns out we were wrong all along. Who knew? When I trained to teach were told that children would just learn by a magical process, and that any attempt to guide their education would lead to their brains melting, like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now they’re saying that we have to give them comments and stuff. Quite frankly, I’m shaking.’
Other game-changing conclusions from the report, sponsored by the Sutton Trust included:
- One-to-one tuition is ‘expensive’
- Children learn best ‘when alive.’
- Some children ‘don’t like maths.’
- Putting a jacket on in Winter is an effective way of maintaining a pleasant skin temperature.
- Some men are bachelors.
‘Actually, we’re not totally sure about that last one, said the lead writer of the paper. ‘I think we need some more money to really nail it to the floor.Ooh, that would be lovely.’
Faced with accusations that they were engaged in research that many teachers would regard as ‘completely f*cking obvious’, the research team were defiant. ‘We’re social scientists. That’s what we do.’
|‘Hold on to your dreams!’|
Martin Luther King, Gandhi, pay tribute to Michelle Obama.
The first lady, Michelle Obama was given standing ovations throughout the kingdom of Londonland today after she gave a series of speeches that Elizabeth the first, speaking through a medium, described as ‘transformational, inspirational.’
‘It was amazing,’ said Trisha, a sixth form student attending the speech at Christ Church College, Oxford, a University renowned the world over as appealing to the impoverished outliers of society, the oppressed and the humble. ‘She said, right, that it didn’t matter where you came from. It mattered where you were going. And that you should never stop reaching for your dreams because the stars are forever. It was awesome. I’d never heard words like that before. It was as if a veil had been pulled from my eyes, and now I could see for the first time. I thought that if, like me, you were a member of the affluent middle class then it meant that you would never be a member of the wealthy super-elite. But that’s not true at all.’
‘Then she said something about holding out for a hero, and respecting yourself, but I couldn’t hear because I was so moved. I think the people who say that she should have tried saying that at an inner city East End failing comprehensive have missed the point. They just wouldn’t have understood. But I know what being a little bit wealthy is like, so I can understand being really, really successful.’
‘Excuse me, but I have to go believe in myself.’
Some general behaviour advice for running a classroom. It’s not bloody nuclear physics, incidentally.
- You’re not dealing with rational adults. Many of them will behave selfishly, motivated by whatever gets a laugh, or boredom, or hormones. Rationalising with classes, while laudable, is mostly pointless.
- They initially value their relations with their peers far more than with you. So they would rather look good to their pals than please you.
- They know you don’t know them. Literally; names and faces will be a blur at first. See how long it takes you to realise this: that if you can’t put a name to the misbehaviour, you literally can’t do anything about it, unless you pin them to the floor with tent pegs.
- They’d mostly rather not be sitting at a desk all day, writing about the Tudors or Trigonometry. I don’t blame them.
- What they would like to do is sit talking to their pals, planning cruelty upon their archenemies, and possibly, getting a rise out of the new teacher for kicks.
|Oh for God’s sake.|
- If the class isn’t behaving the way you want, then you’re going to have to bring the rule of law into the room; your law.
- There will probably be a whole school policy on behaviour, outlining punishments you can use, and when you can use them. There should also be a reward system. The students will be familiar with both, so if you use them, then you show that you are an extension of the whole school teaching team, and not some pathetic loner student teacher that they can kick about like a tin can.
- Familiarise yourself with the names of senior teachers in the school responsible for behaviour and general ass-kicking. This might include Heads of Year, Form Tutors, Senior Staff. Don’t invoke their names willy-nilly, or they’ll realise they should be scared of them and not you, but drop them in from time-to-time to show you know who carries the naughty stick at school.
- Tell them what you expect of them, both in behaviour and work; you can do this by a short speech, a hand out, anything that shows them you have rules and you expect them to obey. Even if they disrespect this process, you have made a point.
- If anyone breaks the rules, take their name, give them a warning or a punishment like a detention if it’s serious enough, and inform them of your decision. Do not engage them in conversation on this point. I repeat; do not. The lesson will be ruined by arguments, and it’s demeaning for you to argue with students. Let them huff and puff
- If you set a detention, then DO IT. Be there, for God’s sake.
- Don’t talk over me
- Put your hand up to talk
- Wait for me to allow you to talk
- Treat everyone with manners.
- Be on time
- Bring equipment
- Do all work
|Independent learners, having their needs met.|
|Dewey: ‘I’m so sorry.’|
- Be tough one day and tender the next. Consistency is massively important
- Be Nasty. If you EVER say to the class that they are ‘horrible’ or ‘evil’ or- God forgive me- you ‘hate them’, then you will deservedly be poked with a dozen pointy sticks forever, in Hell
- Blow your stack at them. Shouting will get their attention, maybe even cow them slightly for a minute, but actually, after five minutes they realise, ‘Is that all she’s got?’ and your fury will be revealed as empty, hollow and meaningless. Besides, some of them will find it entertaining. But most importantly, it’s undignified and makes you look like an emotional fool. What would Sean Connery do- apart from shoot them? Imagine someone you respect as an authority figure. How would they conduct themselves?
- ‘Forget’ to turn up for a detention/ meeting/ chat if you are meant to be there. They will realise a terrible thing; that sometimes they can get away with misbehaviour. That’s as bad as never punishing them. Inconsistency will bite you on the ass.
- Turn a blind eye to something you normally punish. Just because you’re having a great/ tiring/ hung over day doesn’t mean YOUR behaviour should be any different to normal. See above re: inconsistency.
- Let them off with misbehaviour because you can’t be bothered to follow up. Do your job.
- Completely forgive their crimes because ‘they were good afterwards’. That means they can misbehave, then get away with it if they act nicely afterwards. Which means they’ll never be good all lesson. Of course, you can still reduce their detention/ prison sentence if they act really well, but never entirely rescind the punishment. There has to be some justice. You are the Law.
As Johnny Vaughan might say, ‘London- why are YOU feeling flash?’ Well today I’m going to allow myself a sliver, a tittle of feeling flash for four reasons.
1. The NUT will be giving away a copy of my first book, The Behaviour Guru, free to all qualifying teachers in England and Wales as a joining incentive- for the next three years. I am indecently chuffed, and enormously grateful for the chance to get what I hope is plain speaking, common sense advice out to as many new teachers as possible.
2. Book number 2: ‘Not quite a Teacher’ slammed into the Top Million or something today, and it’s my first book out on Kindle. I fully intend that the third book (which I’m writing as we speak) will be available for instantaneous download directly into your central cortex, or something.
3. I’m doing a training session this Saturday for the TES in London, working with some people on behaviour management, which I always love. And the sandwiches are fabulous. One place left, I think, if you’re at a loose end at the weekend. Click here for details.
4. My A-level students have made a great start to the exam season- I hope. Couldn’t be more proud of them. There is an atmosphere slightly more tense than the launch of a Space Shuttle, but it’s a buzz. And it’s legal.
Two of my favourite things in the world: teaching, and writing. I get to do both. And the best bit is, I know exactly how fortunate I am for that.
|The night has ended!|
Fans of poorly phrased pedagogic advocacy and unsubstantiated educational research rejoice! After the excitement of the Royal Wedding and the death of Voldemort (check: Google), 2011 brings another pivotal paperback event for everyone’s calender.
My new book, ‘Not Quite a Teacher’ hits the book stands tomorrow (out in paperback and Kindle: can Kindles be hit? ‘streamed’, possibly) after a long incubation period in the laboratories of my mind. I wanted to write something that I would have found useful before and during my entry to the profession. Also, although I’ve enjoyed a lot of decent writing about education, I came across the following problems:
|‘Peggy; get me a line to the TDA.’|
1. Some teacher training books appeared to be aimed at prospective therapists, with their emphasis on ‘understanding how the kids (or ‘learning participants’ were feeling, and what they were trying to communicate with their behaviour. How odd, I thought.
2. Some are structurally quite useful, but suffered from being simultaneously drier than an oven and wetter than Osama’s pockets. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be informative, but do they have to be so….excuse me, I’m drifting off.
|‘Apparently the DfE no longer require us,’ said Holmes.|
3. None of them really conveyed to me the experience of training to be a teacher, at least not in terms of how I would feel, the emotional content of the experience; a process which, I have to say, I can only describe as harrowing (or, as conventional educational idiom would have it. ‘a unique learning experience involving a synergistic feedback of life-long learning and reflective practise’. The only reflecting I was doing was staring in the mirror and wondering who the bony-faced desperado was that was staring back.
4. They were about as entertaining as a kick in the charlies.
5. Almost all of them conveyed the impression that teaching was a piece of p*ss. And that in order to do it, one was only required to bone up on vile dogma about personalised learning, learning to learn, inclusion, learning styles, and other ghastly, laboratory-invented Frankenstein’s monsters of teaching ideas. I soon found out that these things were very, very far from your first, second or third concern.
|‘Great Krypton. I thought VAK was real.’|
So I wrote the book I wanted to read when I was training. I decided to use a technique that would be human as well as professional; I wrote the book partially as a memoir of my own experiences, interspersed with the advice that my older, wiser self would have given to the fresh-faced apprentice I was. Wise to the fact that I am of little interest except to the people who love me, I kept the memoir sections to the bare minimum, and included them only when it was a relevant experience that conveyed what it’s actually like to be in the boiling saucepan of your first few years. I also used these sections to describe in excruciating detail, as many of the pratfalls I made as possible, if only because the essence of comedy is observing the misfortune of others. Also, I avoided litigation.
|‘Sorry, no, I’m not him. Yes we are often mistaken.’|
I understand that there’s a bit of a debate about the authenticity of teacher memoirs these days (and I never thought I’d write those words), so I should say that while everything in the book happened to me, I have changed names, genders, and other details to protect the identity of the innocent as well as the guilty. Unlike other, anonymous educational writers (or ones who make a feeble attempt to be so), my name is out in the open; I have no secret identity to hide behind. In that respect, I’m a bit like Tony Stark. And in no other way, alas.
|‘Briliiant…is…is it too late to amend the Education Bill?’|
I wouldn’t want anyone to say, ‘Aha! It’s not really like that!’ Believe me; it really is like that. And I think, after running the behaviour forum for a few years, that I got off relatively lightly. At least I had a few years working in nightclubs in Soho before I went into teaching, and I was used to belligerence and indifference. I truly pity those who enter teaching straight from University, especially in rougher schools. Still, in a few years time when we’re all being trained in Tescos, it won’t matter, I suppose.
|‘Curses! He has learned how to master us!’|
I’ve tried to make it funny; I damn well made sure it was relevant. I went over and over it to include everything I needed to know that I didn’t get from the training process. There’s only so much that a teaching professional can learn from a book, any book, so I wanted to make sure that this one had everything I could put in, and still be useful. I even penned a few cartoons for it, because I know that certainly pause over such things when I flick through a book in the shop.
|That’s a direct order from the big guy.|
It’s not a book for educational philosophers (although it has a little of that) or armchair pundits (although to be fair, I never resist the urge to have a crack).
It’s a book for teachers, about teaching. I hope some people find it useful.
And I like the cover.
|‘You can feel exams getting easier’.|
Glenys Stacey is upset about Grade Inflation. She’s not upset that it’s happening; she just doesn’t like the term. She thinks it’s ‘unhelpful’
Who is Glenys Stacey? She’s the Chief Executive of OfQual, the body who ‘regulate general and vocational qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland,’ that’s who. Or in other words, she’s in charge of ensuring that examinations are fair, rigorous and properly administered. And what is Grade Inflation? It’s the idea that, over time, the effort and ability required to achieve a given level of attainment will reduce slowly. In other words, exams are getting easier. You might have heard it described as ‘dumbing down’ although that syndrome is an alleged symptom in many other areas than education. (See: ITV News.)
So why is she upset with the term? “I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression,” she says. ‘Inflation’ has a negative import whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”
|‘Grade inflation; urgh!’|
Well, we can’t have that, so in deference to Ms Stacey’s feelings to wards the term grade inflation, I’ll keep references to grade inflation to a minimum from now on. But is grade inflation actually happening? Well, let’s take a look at what the chaps with white coats call ‘the facts’:
- Between 1997 and 2007, the pass rate for 5 GCSEs went from 45% to 56%
- In the early 80s, 22% of students achieved at least a C in O-level maths. In 2009 it was 57% (GCSE).
- GCSE results have been rising consistently for the last twenty years.
- The pass rate for A levels was 68% in 1982; in 2009 it was 97.5%. Hoorah!
I could go on, but I don’t need to. On paper at least, the pass rates for examinations are increasing at a fabulous rate, raising the very real possibility that by the year 2025, 150% of all students will achieve better than A* at A level, and more than the entire population of the planet will leave higher education with a Phd. And 100% of all students tested will be above average.
Have I mentioned Grade Inflation?
Why is Ms Stacey so cagey about the term grade inflation? Because ‘in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.’ Oh, we may well indeed. Perhaps that explains all the gains? Let’s have a closer look at that point of view. In order for it to be the case, we would need to see the following things happening:
1. Pupils actually getting smarter.
|This is your kid, now.|
Well, I suppose it’s possible, in the same way that it’s possible that Osama Bin Laden is playing water polo with Megatron in the lost city of Atlantis. It’s possible. But kids getting smarter? Really? Well, well, well, someone call me an evolutionary biologist because there appears to be something strange happening inside the hinterland of our brains that is without parallel in the history of our species, large black monoliths notwithstanding.
I’ve heard people say (well, Boris Johnson) that this is perfectly possible; that Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile, and everyone wet their knickers at the novelty of it all; that Hillary and Tenzing high-fived each other at the summit of Everest, and it was the second biggest news of the day; but now my nan’s nan can run the four minute mile, apparently, and there are so many visitors to the top of Chomalungma you could operate a scone shop at a reasonable profit. The first runner who managed a marathon (arriving conveniently at Marathon) pegged it with the exertion. Nowadays Jimmy Saville and men in diving suits manage it. Truly we live in the age of supermen, of the casually miraculous. Why not in the realm of smarts?
But it’s not the same. Sure, there have been enormous gains in the physical realms in the last century, but these are down to a few, easily identified factors: better diets; professional training programs; sports science that enables the very keen to focus their every effort on the razor thin outcome they desire. And now…well, frankly we’ve hit a bit of a wall. Remember Don Lippencoutt? Of course you do. He was the world’s fastest man in 1912- ran the 100metres in 10. 6 seconds. Now, that really is jolly fast. Fast forward (ho ho) to 1999, and you have the fantastically named Usain Bolt doing the same achievement in 9. 58 seconds. Now honestly, that’s even quicker than I can imagine falling from a plane. But that’s probably as fast as we’re going to get, without super serums and genetic engineering. In 1912, athletes usually also held down a milk round and a job at the gas station; the Titans of the Track in 2012 live in converted volcanoes and sleep upright in MRI scanners. If anyone knocks point 0001 of a second from the current record, they’ll be popping corks.
And that’s for something as easily measured as speed. I mean, how fast can you get from A to B? is really one of the simplest parameters you can hope to establish. But smarter? More intelligent? That’s a whole new card game of contention. There isn’t an intelligence test in the world that enjoys universal recognition as such. That’s partly because any test can be interpreted as an activity in itself; ultimately any test, no matter how good, can be seen as a test to see how well you can perform in a test, rather than having an intrinsic link to another attribute, which we’ll call intelligence. We can’t even establish an effective definition of intelligence, for God’s sakes. It’s like we’re trying to establish an international barometer of how much love there is in the world, or something. And don’t get me started on measuring happiness.
OK, so maybe people aren’t actually getting smarter (exhibit A: Jedward. Exhibit B: people still buy homoeopathic medicine).
2. Perhaps the teaching has got better?
|We’re just BETTER these days.|
Ah, now that’s another story entirely. Because I’ve been involved in teaching for nearly ten years- not an enormous amount of time, but long enough to have a squinty-eyed perspective on the ‘improving for twenty years’ GCSE data. Has teaching really gotten better by about 1.5% every year? I know mine has certainly improved, but that’s because I came from a standing start of ‘rubbish’, so anything would be a 100% improvement frankly.
The first year I taught, my kids got a 67% pass rate (A-C) at GCSE. The next year they enjoyed an 87% pass rate. The next year it went down a bit. The next few years, up a bit. I do OK; above national, borough and subject averages, so I’m feeling fine. Why do some years do better than others? To be honest, a lot of it’s to do with the cohort you teach; some year groups have got the academic rigour/ smarts/ familial support dynamic, some have it a bit less. There’s a lot of variation that you don’t have anything like direct control over. I do my best, whoever I get; I teach my heart out, and jump around like Johnny Ball when I need to, and crack the loving whip as much as I have to. My Value Added is just dandy, thanks very much. I don’t say that to self-congartulate. I say it to show that the value of your house can go down as well as up.
Teaching has NOT improved, year in, year out. There is NO evidence to suggest that this has happened nationally. Anyone wants to contest that, I challenge you to show me what teachers do differently now that has significantly improved examination results the way we have seen. Assessment for learning? Do me a favour. VAK? Personalised learning? Learning to learn? Multiple Intelligences. All of them- ALL of them, fashionable ideologies, quack pseudo-science, or well-meant ideas that never survived in the cold atmosphere of the real classroom. Teachers have never been so hampered by red tape, directives and ‘best practise’, and yet exam results just keep going up and up and up. How?
Is it…Grade Inflation?
The temptation to inflate grades can be expressed in these ways:
|‘Pick a qualification…any one.’|
1. It’s Darwinian. If one school inflates its grades, then all other schools that don’t would be at a disadvantage, unless they too chose to inflate their grades, like the constantly lengthening neck of the giraffe over the millennia. And once they do it too, the survival advantage is negated, until someone inflates their grades again. Hence inflation. I believe economists have noticed that something similar happens with money…Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if all schools weren’t compared with each other in a Darwinian environment that replicates and combines the brutality of the state of nature with the heartlessness of the Free Market in League Tables, except…oh dear; we do have that. Ah.
2. Exam boards compete for business. They do, they do, they do, and Satan rules the world. OCR, Edexcel, AQA and Al Qaeda, etc all want a slice of your pie. And when profit drives an enterprise, then profit replaces the enterprise itself as the goal of the project. Don’t misunderstand me- I’m not explicitly anti-market- as Milton Friedman roughly said, it’s the best system out of a bad bunch- but as a motivator, it often has imperfect consequences. In the pursuit of market share, competitors will…well, compete. They’ll try to distinguish their product from the competitors. Do you think they have many strategy meetings where anyone suggests that they make next year’s syllabus even harder? ‘Oh boy, even less kids will pass- let’s DO it!’ No. No, they don’t.
Says who? Says Mick Waters, former head of the QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the public body that was (until recently) responsible for maintaining and advising on the National Curriculum. He claimed that England’s exam system was ‘diseased’ and ‘corrupt’. Consider this, taken from the BBC website::
‘In Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching, Mr Waters says that before working for the QCA he thought all the criticism about exams being “dumbed-down” was “unfair”.
This is because exam boards are vying for business in a marketplace, he adds.
He also says he has heard people from exam boards talking to head teachers and trying to sell their qualifications by implying their examinations are easier than those of other boards.’
Head of the QCA. What would HE know, eh?
|It’s all good, apparently.|
Nobody in their proverbial right mind would say that schools should be exempt from some kind of external assessment- they’re not cheap, you know- but what is undeniable is that whenever anything is subject to assessment, it’s human nature to try to look as good as possible. If a school gets an Ofsted, it’ll paint over tthe cartoon phalluses, ‘lose’ a few key players, and get its books ready. When a government wants to be able to crow about the success of a flagship policy, it will do what it can to ensure that key indicators for that policy are looking as sexy and toned as possible. When the Academies were first introduced, we also saw a rise in GCSE-equivalent subjects that frankly, my dear, weren’t worth a damn- or at least not the market value that was being ascribed to them. But results went up, indeed they did.
Add to that the currently irresistible practise of certifying students in ‘life skills’ and other GCSE-equivalents that were (and are) an insult to their more traditional brethren (you know, useless things like English and maths), and finally chuck in drilling for exams that is now an unavoidable part of every child’s school career, and you have an easy explanation for the success rate in exams going up, and up, and up.
There are still sceptics of course, who usually say these kinds of things:
You’re devaluing the terrific achievements of the kids.
No: I want to celebrate genuine achievement. Do you think they introduced the A* for A levels because the present system was working? Alas, no.
You’re devaluing the terrific improvements made by teachers
Oh God, no, no, no. Teachers are shuffling along, weighed down with lead shackles called (in the manner of a middle-brow satirical cartoon from Punch) ‘new initiatives’ and ‘policy churn’. How teachers teach has remained pretty constant since cavemen first set three part lessons in mammoth whispering. There is no ‘new science’ of teaching. Unfortunately there is a whole racket that has grown up around it, attempting to convince teachers (and their masters) that teaching students is a complex, arcane matter, that can only be achieved with a degree in neuroscience and an understanding of the latest voguish psychological theories about left/ right brain, or learning styles. What, may I say, a load of shit.
People have always complained about dumbing down.
So? It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. That’s like saying, ‘Oh , people have always complained about the weather.’ And yet the Heavens still open. Besides, the grade inflation debate isn’t that old in this country- back about forty years for the lion’s share of it, with its ancestral bones buried back in the start of the twentieth century- and before that, there wasn’t really an education system you could actually point to, so we’re not exactly talking about something older than the Norman Conquest, are we?
I possibly wouldn’t mind so much, but it also has a knock-on effect on the target grades that children are expected to achieve; they also have to acount for the increase of examination ‘success’ and subsequently the targets for children get higher and higher as well. You can laugh. You won’t be laughing when you get a phone call from the school, expressing concern because your little Billy is only getting twenty out of twenty one A*s for his mock GCSEs in year three. Don’t get me started on FFT data. One day I’ll write about it before I blow a gasket.
I hope that this has been in some way helpful to Glenys Stacey. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that grade inflation was behind this meteoric rise in exam success. I’d prefer to call it ‘magic.’
If you have been affected by any of the educational issues raised in this blog, please call the DfE.
|Is this what you want? IS IT?|
The educational establishment was up in arms today after claims that Britain was, far from being a reasonably tolerant liberal democracy with a half-decent history of inclusion, liberty and human rights, was actually a pocket universe where Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin all rubbed shoulders in a dismal, hopeless rule of despair and bondage.
|‘I trust they have all read Charlie and Lola?’|
‘This is like something out of 1984. Which is a jolly good book, incidentally. Have you read it? You must,’ he said, before lighting a match.
|‘Mehr Beatrix Potter! Mehr!’|
Advocates in the governent have been shamed into admitting that they do, indeed, ‘require some Shakespeare to be taught.’ But despite allegations that this was abuse, they were unrepentant. ‘Curse you, Reading Group 6,’ they said. ‘You have uncovered our secret plot to make sure that kids have access to a reasonable degreeof their cultural heritage. We shall return!’ he said, before vanishing in a plume of Disney sulphur.
Michael Rosen, author of Let’s Go On A Bear Hunt and apparently, some kind of authority figure on education and political philosophy, warned of further child abuse, pointing out that there might be plans to suggest a reading list at Primary School as well as at a Secondary level. ‘This is totalitarian,’ he said.
We spoke to Adelmo Hernandez, a survivor of the repressive purges of the Pinochet government in Chile, where he experienced censorship, imprisonment without trial, regular beatings for expressing political opinions, and was banned from joining a trade union. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘It’s just like that. Thank God middle-class people with their heads up their arses have noticed this before it’s too late and children grow up brainwashed by The Gruffalo and The Hungry Caterpillar. You don’t know how close you came to Fascism, you lucky b*stards.”
|Oh, he’ll get a surprise- a JACKBOOT!|
‘Except perhaps in prisons,’ he added, hastily.
‘Next thing you’ll be saying that we have the right to tell them not to bring knives in. Fascist.’
Enid Blyton is 33.