Author Archives: dmthomas90

About dmthomas90

Maths teacher in West London.

What’s wrong with Oak National Academy

One of the risks of any launch is hubris. You’re so excited about what you’ve done, and so keen to share it, that you oversell what you’ve done. You then disappoint against expectations, or worse, anger and frustrate people. We launch Oak National Academy tomorrow, and so in the spirit of avoiding hubris I thought I’d tell you what’s wrong with it.

First though, what are we doing and why? Schools are being asked to do more than ever, with fewer resources than ever. We don’t mind stepping up. It’s a national crisis, and we’re important civic institutions. But it’s hard. We are trying to teach online lessons, care for vulnerable children in school, deliver meals whilst vouchers still don’t work, check in with at-risk children at home, etc. This is at a time when many of our colleagues have caring responsibilities at home, are looking after ill relatives, or are unwell themselves. Teachers are stepping up more than ever before.

When Teacher Tapp asked teachers what would most help them help pupils, two thirds of them said two things: an online resource hub, and devices for pupils to be able to access these. At the start of the Easter holiday a group of teachers came together to try and set up that online hub. We talked about the idea on Monday 6th, we knew it needed to launch on Monday 20th, and there was the Easter Bank Holiday in the middle. This was going to be tight.

Tight timing meant we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do. As such, there are a number of things wrong with what we’ve done. Rather than pretend we got it all right and wait for people to stumble upon the problems, I want to be upfront about them. Here’s what’s wrong with the Oak National Academy.

  1. Our mainstream curriculum isn’t broad enough
    We don’t yet teach Music, DT, PE, Computing, Citizenship or PSHE (and many more). We don’t teach any KS4 options except MFL. Our Year 10 curriculum doesn’t have separate tracks for Foundation and Higher tiers in Maths, Science or MFL. Nobody would ever consider opening a school with these gaps, and I’d never pretend it is right to have these holes in a curriculum. We just couldn’t get all of this done in six working days. The “yet” at the start of this paragraph was intentional – this needs to change, and it will.
  2. Our specialist curriculum isn’t up and running yet
    There is nothing on Oak yet for children who usually attend specialist settings, and so may need either or both of an alternative curricula offer and a therapeutic offer. These children need education as much as anyone else, and their schools are likely under more pressure than many mainstream schools. We are working on a specialist curriculum, and hope to have this up as soon as possible.
  3. We don’t have anything on wellbeing
    We knew from the start that there was no way Oak could replace a school. We make and host online lessons. We don’t have relationships with children, and it would make no sense to pretend we are more than what we are. We’re not in children’s communities and don’t know their situations. We’re not the right people to try and support their wellbeing – only their schools can do this. Our hope is that if we can make life a little bit easier for teachers then it will free up time for them to support their pupils’ wellbeing without burning themselves out.
  4. This isn’t going to change the world
    I think we’ve come to expect that any new thing, especially any new thing that involves technology, believes it’s going to change the world. Every tech unicorn has a mission statement about revolutionising things. Oak won’t change the world. It’s not supposed to revolutionise teaching. We just want to make life a little bit easier during one of the most difficult periods in our lifetimes. If we can do that, then it’s mission accomplished. 

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Oak National Academy provides a sequenced plan of video lessons and curricular resources for teachers to use as they wish, to complement their existing teaching and planning. It’s been created by over 40 state school teachers from across the country, working together to respond to current school closures. It launches at 6am on Monday at https://www.thenational.academy. The curriculum overview is available from today.

How do you measure behaviour?

Business books are littered with soundbite quotations about measurement: “What you measure is what you get”; “If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it”; “You are what you measure”; etc. Although there are some risks in being over-reliant on certain measurements, the principle is true. Measurement brings you both information and accountability.

However, some things are hard to measure. How do we measure intangible things like behaviour? The most obvious answer, measuring the number of sanctions, doesn’t work. It would create perverse incentives that ultimately worsen behaviour – you’d make things look better if you stopped addressing poor behaviour, which would end up with chaos.

When deciding how to measure behaviour we stopped and thought about the particular areas we think we need to focus on. If “what you measure is what you get”, then we want to measure the outcomes we think we need to improve. This led us to two measures we’re launching this week:

1. Timing transitions
Our Assistant Heads of Year now have stopwatches to time and record how quickly we go through the end of break routine to move from social time into lessons. With three breaks a day, shaving a minute off this routine would reclaim 9.5 hours of lesson time – the equivalent of almost two school days.

2. Surveying staff satisfaction
I now send out a weekly one question survey to every member of staff who had to send a student to the behaviour team, asking how satisfied they are with the resolution of that situation on a scale of 1-10. Our systems are only working if our staff feel supported to teach great lessons without interruption. If they don’t then their morale will be low and our students will learn less

Of course there are dangers lurking when we become over-reliant on certain measures. The pitfalls of the public sector target-driven culture are well-documented, and we don’t want to become a place where the only thing that matters is a slim set of numbers. Our intention is to avoid this by changing the measures we use on a regular basis. When we are trying to measure something that we can only get at indirectly, like behaviour, then every measurement gives us a different angle on it. Switching between measurements gives us a more holistic view, and prevents us from working towards a distorted version of our end goal.

A final consequence of picking measurements is that they communicate what you care about. We choose to measure staff satisfaction because we care about it. I could repeat that we care about it every day, but that would have less power than deciding to measure satisfaction and using that measurement to hold ourselves accountable for how good a job we’re doing.

Over the coming few weeks we’ll see how well this works, and start thinking about how we measure other elements of the school.

PS: One thing we’re not yet sure of is whether and how we should use student insights as a measurement. We haven’t thought of the right question to ask yet, or the most efficient way to ask it, but we’re by no means closed to the idea.

How exams took the joy, and the learning, out of our classrooms

Originally published on the Parents and Teachers for Excellence blog here.

Two trends have dominated how British exams have changed over recent decades: they have become more high-stakes, and they have become more skills-based. The two have combined to create a perfect storm that slows down learning and makes school less joyful. School leaders are under pressure to achieve good exam results, and so orient their schools around exam performance. They measure pupils in all year groups against the assessment objectives from exams, and expect teachers to teach to these objectives too. Every piece of work is a mini-GCSE exam.

This would make sense if the assessment objectives could be taught directly, but they can’t because they’re based on generic skills. Skills can only be acquired indirectly: by learning the component parts that build up to make the whole such as pieces of contextual knowledge, rules of grammar, or fluency in procedures. These components look very different to the skill being sought – just as doing drills in football practice looks very different to playing a football match, and playing scales on a violin looks very different to giving a recital. Yet in these analogies exam objectives would be something like “play with flair”, “keep possession” or “hit notes accurately”, and the instruction given to teachers is to directly teach these skills. Not to spend time on passing drills and scales, but to spend time on “having more flair”.

Most teachers see that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Consider the plight of a typical English teacher. They’re told that their pupils aren’t good enough at understanding the author’s purpose, so as a result they need to teach more lessons on understanding the author’s purpose. They’re given lesson plans that tell their pupils to identify words which illustrate the author’s purpose, and to write paragraphs explaining why they do so. Maybe they include a handy mnemonic for remembering the model “author’s purpose” paragraph. But it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because you cannot teach generic skills directly.

To become better at understanding the author’s purpose you need to know more words, so you can understand the fullness of what the author has written, and you need to know more contexts, so you can understand the significance of those words to the author’s life and times. If you know that the gunpowder plot happened in 1605 and that Macbeth was first performed to an audience in 1606, then The Scottish Play becomes a warning against regicide. If you know that “to twist” was Victorian slang for “to hang”, then Oliver Twist becomes a tale about a boy destined for the gallows. If you know that Dickens first came up with the plot when appalled by the experience of attending a young criminal’s public hanging, then it becomes a campaign for social justice. You cannot infer this from practising to understand the author’s purpose. You can only infer it if you have the knowledge.

Becoming a better reader requires investing time in learning a wider vocabulary and building deeper contextual knowledge, but it would be a brave teacher who puts this maxim wholly into action in today’s schools. With the pressure of high-stakes exams there is no room to teach anything except the assessment objectives being examined, and the assessment objectives only measure generic skills. Instead of exciting lessons where pupils learn knowledge that opens up new worlds of history and literature, their teachers are pressured to push them through yet more rounds of dry and soulless skills practice. Pupils and teachers suffer with frustration as they try to become better at inference by doing lots of failed inferring. They rarely have the chance to learn the knowledge they’d need to imagine what was in the author’s head. Both pupils and teachers leave school unhappy as a result.

The same problem occurs in mathematics. Pupils fail exam questions involving problem-solving, so their teachers are told to teach them problem-solving. They’re expected to make their classes discover Pythagoras’s Theorem at the start of the lesson, as if the great breakthrough of a pioneering mathematician could be reliably and spontaneously reproduced by every fourteen year old on a given Thursday afternoon. Having to do this gives them less time to teach Pythagoras’ Theorem, and so jeopardises their pupils’ chance of successfully solving a problem about it in the future. Once again the pressure to teach generic, skill-based exam objectives directly undermines teachers’ attempts to make their pupils better at their subjects – and better in exams as a result.

We now need to realise what high-stakes, skills-based exams have done to our schools and how to recover from it. This will involve moving away from trying to teach skills directly, and from focusing on measuring them at every juncture. Instead we should plan the knowledge (e.g. vocabulary, historical context) and specific micro-skills (e.g. recognising whether the result of an addition will be negative, or re-writing a sentence to be active not passive) that our pupils need to learn in order to perform at a high-level in their exams. We can still target strong exam performance, but we should do so without expecting every lesson to resemble a mini-exam task. Doing so will mean creating schools where pupils learn more tangible things they can go home proud of, and where teachers teach more of the exciting content that brought them into teaching in the first place.

Why Nicky Morgan needs to set a curriculum for teacher training

In many ways, this will be a Parliament of consolidation at the Department for Education. The policies of the last five years are coming into force, and Nicky Morgan will need to put her political energy into seeing them through. But there is one area that does need reforming, and it needs it now. It is possibly the biggest opportunity to improve education in this Parliament, and one that would last well beyond 2020. It doesn’t sound glamorous or exciting, and won’t make the headlines. But its potential should not be underestimated. Nicky Morgan should use this Parliament to set a curriculum for teacher training.

Teacher workload is already extremely high, as Morgan has publically recognised. This means that government can’t improve outcomes in a way that puts pressure on schools – there are no more gains to be made from making teachers work harder. Instead, government has to look for ways to help teachers be more effective; and it should start by making sure every new teacher gets the training they deserve.

When I did my teacher training we spent laughably little time learning about learning. We discussed what made a good lesson (in the lecturer’s opinion…) but rarely why those components were good. We were often given quasi-moral justifications, like the assertions that “it is better to discover things for yourself” or “children learn better when they work in groups”, but I cannot recall a single time I heard something explained in terms of how a child’s brain would be responding.

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

We can’t afford to ignore the lessons from Chinese school

Imagine I told you there was a way to make our children perform 10% better in their exams after just four weeks of study. It involves changing a school’s timetable and teaching style, but still leaving plenty of room for leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities. You’d expect to hear a clamour insisting that we roll this out in all schools immediately. Instead, Chinese School has earned itself a long list of critics. They don’t like Chinese education because it of its values. Or more precisely, because it values knowledge.

They argue that we should not be seeking to learn from Chinese teaching, despite its superior results. They concede that doing so would make our children learn more, but that this would come at too high a cost. Any improvement in our teaching of knowledge, they argue, would stop pupils being creative thinkers or challengers of the status quo. Yes, Chinese teaching may improve the learning of rules and information, but it does nothing to teach originality.

They seriously appear to be arguing that in a system in which 35% of 16 year olds failed English GCSE this year our problem is learning too much vocabulary, knowing the laws of grammar too well, and sticking too rigidly to the traditions of the literary canon. Otherwise why complain that Chinese teaching is good at helping pupils learn information?

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

If we want to build character, we must challenge children

Character is the new fad in education. We all want to develop good character in our children, but the policy that achieves this has proven elusive. Proponents of every conceivable activity have queued up to explain how their pet project develops character (and so should get to dip their hands in the pot of government gold). But while many of these are perfectly good things, building our children’s character requires much more fundamental change.

So instead of looking for new projects to fund, let us ask a different question: why is there a deficit that needs to be made up in the first place?

The deficit exists because the core activity of schools – lessons – can become too easy and too self-consciously fun to need any character at all. Take resilience as an example. A child learns resilience by practising. They try tasks that are difficult, fail at them, and keep trying again. Eventually they learn that you do not need to give up when you face difficulty but can be successful if you invest enough effort.

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

Be scared of the myth of big data

Last night I attended a lecture by Yuval Noah Harari – historian and author of the popular book ‘Sapiens’. Harari’s thesis is that human society is built on shared myths, and that without these we wouldn’t be able to organise ourselves into groups of more than a couple of hundred people. These myths are things like religion, social caste, political ideologies, and money.

During questions a member of the audience asked Harari what he predicted the next great myth would be. He answered, “Data.”

Harari’s contention is that with the growth of big data we are moving towards deifying quantitative information. Just as money has become something in which we unanimously place our trust (and therefore grant great power to otherwise valueless slips of paper) so we will begin to place our faith in data.

I can see signs of this myth emerging already, and I think it goes something like this: “if we get enough data we will be able to predict the future.”

The problem is that we won’t. There are some things data cannot tell us; there are limits to its power. Bigger sample sizes can take us so far, but there are certain frontiers that no sample size can help us cross. My fear is that if the data myth grows we will increasingly find ourselves basing decisions on statistical fallacies, and in a false sense of security end up with all of our eggs in a very unstable basket.

There are four reasons this myth is wrong:

The way we use statistical significance is logically flawed – so we cannot trust our results
Many social scientists use statistical significance tests to answer the question “Given the hypothesis is true, what is the probability of observing these results?”. However the question it should be used to answer is “Given these results have been observed, what is the probability that the hypothesis is true?”. Though similar, these questions are fundamentally different.

Ziliak & McCloskey (2008) liken this to the difference between saying “Given a person has been hanged, what is the probability they are dead?” (~100%) and “Given a person is dead, what is the probability they have been hanged?” (<1%). Although these questions sound similar they give completely different answers; and we could be using our statistical significance testing to make mistakes as big as these.

The laws of societies are not fixed – so we cannot predict the impact of our actions
We use data to estimate parameters about society and the economy, such as the relationship between inflation and unemployment, or between income inequality and crime. Although we can measure the parameters of these relationships at the moment, these parameters are not fixed. In fact they are highly prone to change whenever we alter something like technology or government policy.

So for example we cannot predict the impact of a new invention on society, because our prediction would be using parameters from the pre-invention world and not accounting for the invention’s impact on the deeper structures of society. This means that the times we most want to use data to predict the future – those times of significant change – are precisely those times when to do so would be utterly invalid.

No amount of data can capture the complexity of human systems – so we cannot make predictions beyond very short time horizons
Non-linear systems suffer from what mathematicians call “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, popularly known as the butterfly effect. In a linear system measurement error is not a big problem. As long as a measurement falls within reasonable bounds of error we can make predictions within similarly reasonable boundaries because we know how much the error can be magnified. In a non-linear system, however, measurement error, even if utterly minuscule, can completely dominate a prediction. This is because the feedback loops in such a system continually transform and magnify the error until the resulting behaviour of the model is totally divorced from that of reality.

Human systems are so complex that we cannot measure them accurately. There will always be a measurement error, no matter how much data we obtain. They are also extremely non-linear. And this means that our predictions will quickly deviate from reality.

We don’t know how to handle uncertainty – so we cannot forecast probabilities
Our forecasting models are built on probabilities. We manage risk by assigning probabilities to all possible outcomes, based on historical data. What we can’t do is manage uncertainty. Uncertainty is different to risk because it describes a situation where the possible range of outcomes and/or their probabilities are not known. If we don’t know the probability of an outcome, or we don’t even know what the outcome is, then we can’t build it into a model. And if our models only take a subset of possible outcomes, and assume that the probabilities of the past are unchanged in the future, then the probabilities they forecast will be wrong.

3 Teaching Techniques That Made My 2014

At the start of this academic year I wanted to really put the theory of learning I knew into practice. Here are three teaching techniques I tried that I’ll be taking with me into 2015.

1. Interleave *everything*
We know that interleaving concepts and procedures is a desirable difficulty that improves learning. This year I’ve made it my aim to never teach a lesson that uses only one topic. Extension work doesn’t count: the main bulk of a lesson must include multiple concepts. In practice, this means that every set of questions I write includes applying the new thing being learned to problems involving other concepts from earlier on in the curriculum. I found this daunting at first – “what if it’s just too confusing for them?” – but I’ve found there’s tremendous power in my expectation that they can competently use everything I have taught them, at any time.

It’s also made the questions I write far richer and more interesting than ever before. A standard lesson on volume would include questions on upper and lower bounds, percentage changes to a volume when dimensions change by different percentages, and using Pythagoras’ Theorem to find missing dimensions before calculating a volume. These questions were the normal ones. They were not special extension questions for the top 20%. The message this broadcast, combined with the cognitive effect of the desirable difficulty, has made a noticeable impact on learning.

2. Spaced testing of *everything*
We know that spacing and testing are two of the most powerful tools in an educators’ arsenal. So I’ve made it my aim to space out testing of everything my students’ have studied.

The first way I’ve done this is through our departmental testing. This year we’re using low-stakes quizzes on each topic as a replacement for the half-termly summative tests we used to use. What’s great about this is that each topic has two quizzes: one taken at the end of the topic, and one a month later. This reinforces the expectation that students should remember what they’ve been taught, and incentivises them to revisit their learning when it will have the biggest impact on longer-term retention.

The second way is through an idea I’ve borrowed from Bruno Reddy and Kris Boulton at KSA. Long ago they told me about “Only 100% Will Do” starters: simple recall or procedural questions that had been previously studied. Now my students begin every lesson with an “Only 100% Will Do” sheet where they work on concepts from any past year group to make sure that they’re keeping up to speed.

3. Lightning fast in-class assessment
I have always been a big fan of in-class assessment, and could singlehandedly prop up the UK’s mini-whiteboard industry. But over the summer Joe Kirby introduced me to an app called Quick Key. It changed my life!

Quick Key is an optical scanning app for mobile phones. It works by scanning in students’ answer sheets to a multiple choice quiz, and giving you great analytics on your phone or in a spreadsheet. It’s also fast – I can scan a whole class set of answers in about a minute. This lets me pinpoint exactly how well the class are doing at a topic. I will discover that one mistake or misconception is bogging down the whole room, or that four students need extra support in this lesson and another five need extra challenge. The laser-like precision with which I can adapt during a lesson or plan the next one is having a big impact on my teaching.


 
Like any technique, these three have worked well because I made them a habit. We do these three things in the same way in almost every lesson. This consistency no doubt aids their effectiveness. But they are nonetheless three real techniques that put into practice the theory of learning we know to be so powerful.

There Is a Magic Bullet: how to reduce teacher workload in one fell swoop

Teaching is a tough job, with a tough workload. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t going to become easy either. But it can and should be manageable. Sadly in too many schools workload can become excessive, and can do so without improving teaching. But there is one policy that would reduce teacher workload and improve lessons in English schools:

Abolish the Quality of Teaching judgment in Ofsted inspections.

We should do this because:

It incentivises bad leadership
It is easier to tick QoT tick boxes than it is to actually improve results. It is easier to produce an evidence trail than it is to produce an impact. And it is easier to force teachers to work ever harder than it is to make their effort more productive. School leaders who face a grilling from external inspectors, be they Ofsted or otherwise, will find it much easier to create an illusion of performance and score well on QoT than to create actual performance and score well on Achievement.

So why not insist that all staff plan all lessons in detail and in writing on a school proforma? It might not improve learning, but it’s good way to demonstrate QoT. Why not make all staff mark all books every night in four different colours of pen? It might not improve feedback, but it’s a good way to demonstrate QoT. And before you know it, terrified leaders in many schools are imposing dreadful policies on their staff; because it’s easier to put on a show for an inspector than it is to improve results.

It makes teachers teach worse lessons
QoT judges teaching by how it looks, not by what it achieves. This makes teachers ensure teaching looks better, even if that doesn’t make it achieve more. So teachers spend their time on appearances. They buy books on 100 ways to make their lesson look outstanding, and trade chinese whispers about what Ofsted want to see. The time they would spend increasing the impact of their teaching they spend implementing new fads; not because they work, but because they look good.

It harms the quality of teaching – and causes excessive workload
The QoT grade doesn’t improve impact, just appearances. But even if some of this pressure does rub off on impact, that impact doesn’t come for free. There is a huge opportunity cost to everything that a teacher does. If they’re spending their time on appearances then they’re not spending their time improving learning. And that matters. It matters because teachers can’t work infinite hours, and so something has to give. When that something was improving the actual quality of teaching, not the illusory QoT, it’s children who lose out.

So instead we should lose the QoT grade. Judge schools on the impact they have, not on how they look. Then we can lose the smoke and mirrors policies that look good but make real improvement harder. Leaders and teachers will have one aim – to improve the impact they have on children. And there will be no perverse incentive to distract them from it.

This isn’t a blog about private schools

But it’s not because I couldn’t write one. I have quite strong views on private schools, and I even think they’re well-reasoned. But I’m not going to write about them.

Why?

Because this debate doesn’t matter. Will forcing reluctant private schools to share their theatres change education? Would an extra £150 million for the DfE budget really improve the system? No.

One day we might reach the point where the next most important change is reform of private schools, in which case we can have this debate. But until then we should focus on bigger things. Like:

  • Over a third of schools either Require Improvement or are Inadequate
  • Over a third of 16 year-olds don’t get at least 5 A*-C with English and Maths
  • Our alternative provision fails almost everyone who needs it
  • Teacher Training fails to teach you about how people learn
  • CPD tells teachers piles of rubbish pseudo-science
  • Teachers spend much of their time doing things without an evidence-base to please various interest groups

Sharing theatres might be nice, but it won’t solve these.

Let’s postpone the debate until we have.