As a mother of two young children, nothing pleases me more than watching my children play. I love to observe the inventiveness of their young minds as they stock pretend shops with shells, stones and leaves or fashion imaginary tools from twigs. It’s fascinating to watch as they run about, assume roles or create exciting imaginary, make-believe scenarios with just minimal resources.
My daughter is now seven years of age. She is about to start in KS2 and is considered to be academically successful, although she does not yet write with a pen, or join up her letters, neither does she speak another language. But she reads well, and and her written work is legible. Her punctuation and grammar is at, what I would describe as, a ‘fledgling’ stage. She also has a tendency to spell all words as they sound – which can be problematic. There are also a lot of basic mathematical concepts that she has not yet fully grasped. For example, she does not tell the time very well, and her understanding of distance, weights and measures is limited. Although her arithmetic is quite good, she does not know her times tables. Yet despite all of this, the school report to me that she is ‘above average’ in every single area – and ‘well above average’ in a few.
Thus, she has been at school for three years, and is, apparently meeting and often exceeding their expectations.
In the early 1540’s when the majority of the population were completely illiterate, a more fortunate child than these was also being schooled. Despite the decapitation of her mother and the absence of a father, Elizabeth I was in the process of proving what heights of academia could be possible, with the right tuition.
‘Elizabeth’s comfort with reading and writing Latin…as well as being fluent in many other languages, would suggest that she began linguistics lessons very early.. Modern studies show that the younger a child is when they learn a second language, the easier it is for them to retain other ones.’
And by the age of fourteen, under a new tutor:
‘Ascham helped Elizabeth to perfect her classical languages through his famed method of “double translation.” For instance, he would present her with the original texts of Demosthenes or Cicero, having her turn them into English, and then translating them back into their original languages …Elizabeth spent her mornings reading from the Greek New Testament, followed by a study of classical orations, and Sophocles’ tragedies. Ascham believed that his selections would help Elizabeth to ‘gain purity of style, and from her mind derive instruction that would be of value for her to meet every contingency of life. After noon, Elizabeth would study Cicero, and some Livy. Ascham also supplemented these famous works with St. Cyprian, and Melanchthon’s Commonplaces…’ (‘The Shaping of Elizabeth I through Childhood Events and Academic Pursuit‘
Born into less financially favourable circumstances than Elizabeth, Leonardo da Vinci was all-but orphaned as a child. In 1466, at the age of fourteen he was sent to be apprenticed to an artist- ‘Andrea di Cione, known as Verrocchio, whose workshop was “one of the finest in Florence’. Here, he was schooled, not only in the techniques of fine art (in which he soon surpassed his master), but also in engineering, linguistics and mathematics. Obviously a hugely talented man, but it seems that none of these skills were gained without the additional labour of academic study and strict regime.
Now, I’m not suggesting that an Elizabethan, or late-medieval method of schooling is necessarily the way we should be going about things in the modern world. but I do think it’s interesting to consider the possibility that our children may just be capable of far more than we give them credit for, or ever give them the chance to show us.
Under the current system, a varying amount of KS1 education (certainly in Reception and Y1) is devoted to play and discovery learning. Desks are usually arranged in mixed-ability groups – presumably to facilitate this. The national curriculum is followed, and there is a proportion of academic input, but I’m not certain whether it is necessarily given priority over the more ‘creative’ aspects of the curriculum, in all schools. By KS2 and above, there is undoubtably more of an academic focus – but is it enough? Some argue that it might be too much: Sir Ken Robinson is a widely respected voice on this matter. Often opposing academic regimes, he regularly posits that our modern schools may actually be far too formal and rigid:
‘In Sir Ken’s ideal school, there would be no hierarchy of subjects in the curriculum and classes would not be grouped by age. Dance would be as important as maths, and children would feel free to do what they wanted, even get up and wander around in lessons.. ..he would get rid of almost all school exams, suggesting that in chasing certificates we “over-school” and “under-educate”.’
And he has the ear of many modern academics and educationalists on this matter. It seems that many agree with him, feeling that academic rigour, routine and testing are simply stifling to creativity.
But what, then, do we now define as creativity? Does a modern creative curriculum even allow the creative arts to flourish to their fullest degree? Leonardo da Vinci clearly was one of the most creative, innovative and imaginative people who ever lived. Elizabeth I herself was famed for her love of dancing and the arts, and the Elizabethan period itself is responsible for (almost) indisputably one of the most creative literary figures ever – William Shakespeare. But presumably we would have none of those wonderful plays if Shakespeare himself hadn’t been properly schooled in grammar and linguistics. (Indeed,, when there were no words in English to suit his purpose, he made up new ones – 2,000 in fact that are still in use today!) Elizabeth I famously loved to dance and sing outside her enforced periods of academic study, and Leonardo da Vinci did not become the truly great artist, anatomist and inventor he became, without the documented long hours of study and practise.
For my own part, I’ve become more resentful of my academically-lightweight nineteen seventies and eighties education as the years have passed. I regularly wish I’d been given more regular formal grammar and mathematical instruction. My daughter, it seems to me, is faring no better. In the example of her written work, at least, I think she may even be slightly behind where I was at her age. This despite my being utterly convinced that she is naturally more academically able than I was. For children from more deprived backgrounds than her, the stakes are even higher. Academic qualifications are generally acknowledged to be the best ticket out of poverty of all. To deny pupils this opportunity on the basis that academic study, rigour, testing and hard work are somehow cruel and unnecessary could prove to be an absolute travesty for them.
Children love to play. It is also true to say that they are naturally creative. Schools should certainly provide plenty of recreational time for children to explore and discover their creativity. Creativity is also crucial for academic study. Children need to be creative in many academic disciplines – drawing, poetry, Drama and creative writing, for example. However, this is a two sided coin in which the accurate application of creativity depends hugely on acquired knowledge and skills to successfully execute. If we teach children how to draw and write well, if we equip them with the language they need, if we impart the scientific studies of previous generations, if we teach children how to calculate and measure, then they will have truly strong foundations on which to build their academic careers. If we neglect to do this, then they will only have what their limited early life experience has taught them, to build on.
Sir Ken argues that we are doing our children a disservice by ‘over schooling’ them. Surely the opposite is actually the case? I think the purpose of schools is to educate young people in disciplines, and provide knowledge and skills in areas that they may not otherwise discover for themselves. To view learning and academic study as the enemy – the bad guy – might just be a huge mistake. It’s entirely possible that the gift of learning may just be the most valuable gift of all.
Onderwijs. Kan begrijpend lezen aangeleerd worden?
Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?
by Daniel T. Willingham & Gail Lovette — September 26, 2014
In this commentary we suggest that reading comprehension strategy instruction does not actually improve general-purpose comprehension skills. Rather, this strategy represents a bag of tricks that are useful and worth teaching, but that that are quickly learned and require minimal practice.
The funny thing about reading comprehension strategy instruction is that it really shouldn’t work, but it does. This commentary seeks to provide insight into how it should work and guidance on effective strategies for implementation.
Consider some common reasons why a student who decodes well might fail to understand what he reads. The student (a) doesn’t know the meaning of some words; (b) doesn’t notice that he does not comprehend the text; or (c) fails to make inferences. The importance of vocabulary is easy to appreciate; we can see why it’s helpful to notice if you do not understand what you are reading. The importance of inferences may be less obvious.
Inferences matter because writers omit a good deal of what they mean. For example, take a simple sentence pair like this: “I can’t convince my boys that their beds aren’t trampolines. The building manager is pressuring us to move to the ground floor.” To understand this brief text the reader must infer that the jumping would be noisy for the downstairs neighbors, that the neighbors have complained about it, that the building manager is motivated to satisfy the neighbors, and that no one would hear the noise were the family living on the ground floor. So linking the first and second sentence is essential to meaning, but the writer has omitted the connective tissue on the assumption that the reader has the relevant knowledge about bed-jumping and building managers. Absent that knowledge the reader might puzzle out the connection, but if that happens it will take time and mental effort.
Reading comprehension strategies (RCS) focus on these three trouble areas: vocabulary, noticing understanding, and connecting ideas. To address vocabulary, students are encouraged to use contextual cues to make educated guesses about the unfamiliar word (Jenkins, Matlock, Slocum, Jenkins, & Slocum, 1989). For monitoring comprehension, they are, well, urged to monitor their comprehension during and after reading a text (Baker & Zimlin, 1989). When it comes to making inferences, there are two families of strategies. Some set tasks can only be accomplished if the student ties together meaning across sentences: the student might be asked to summarize the text (Armbruster, Anderson, & Ostertag, 1987) or to create a visual mental image as she reads (Borduin, Borduin, & Manley, 1994). Other strategies focus on the fact that inferences usually require knowledge about the content; using the title of the text as a cue, the reader might be encouraged to think about what she knows about the topic (Dole, Valencia, Greer, & Wardrop, 1991) or to generate both explicit and inferential questions about the text that she will answer as she reads (Davey & McBride, 1989).
There’s a temptation to think of RCS instruction as improving students’ reading skills. As students practice, we do see some hallmarks of skill improvement like increased automaticity and self-regulation; low-level tasks (e.g., decoding) no longer require much attention, and readers become increasingly aware of strategies they might deploy to become more effective. Thus, it’s easy to assume that RCS instruction is akin to instruction in other skills, such as golf. The coach describes how a competent performer executes the task, and the novice tries to follow suit: use a grip that’s firm but not too tight, pay attention to gaze direction, and so forth. The coach provides instruction on how to execute the swing in the right way, and the novice practices executing with these instructions in mind. Eventually execution becomes automatic, and is seamlessly incorporated into the skill.
But RCS instruction can’t work this way. It can’t tell a reader the specifics of how to achieve reading comprehension because comprehension depends on connecting the meaning of sentences, and doing that depends on sentence content. No RCS can offer general guidelines about how to connect sentences; you need to know that the first sentence is about bed trampolines and second sentence is about apartment managers before you know how they relate.
So RCS instruction is not like coaching. Suppose you got home from Ikea with a desk to be assembled, and found the instructions said no more than “Put stuff together. Every so often, stop, look at it, and evaluate how it’s going. It may also help to think back on other pieces of furniture you’ve built before.”
These instructions don’t tell you how to build the desk—for that you need to know whether piece A attaches to B or C. Rather, it’s advice regarding what to think about as you’re putting the pieces together. That is what RCS instruction does; it tells you what to think about as you’re trying to understand a text.
So how in the world does that help comprehension?
RCS instruction undeniably works. Ample research demonstrating this is summarized in the National Reading Panel report and in more recent reviews (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Suggate, 2010). What gives?
Here’s our interpretation. The vague Ikea instructions aren’t bad advice. You’re better off taking an occasional look at the big picture as opposed to keeping your head down and your little hex wrench turning. Likewise, RCS encourage you to pause as you’re reading, evaluate the big picture, and think about where the text is going. And if the answer is unclear, RCS give students something concrete to try and a way to organize their cognitive resources when they recognize that they do not understand.
RCS instruction may be at its best in telling students what reading is supposed to be. Reading is not just about decoding; you are meant to understand something. The purpose is communication. This message may be particularly powerful for struggling readers, whose criterion for “understanding” is often too low (Markman, 1979). One of us works extensively with struggling adolescent readers who frequently approach the task of reading as getting to the last word on the page.
This is all to the good, but if we’re right, RCS instruction has a serious limitation. Its success is not due to the slow-but-steady improvement of comprehension skills, but rather to the learning of a bag of tricks. The strategies are helpful but they are quickly learned and don’t require a lot of practice.
And there is actually plenty of data showing that extended practice of RCS instruction yields no benefit compared to briefer review. We know of eight quantitative reviews of RCS instruction, some summarizing studies of typically developing children (Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998; Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996; Rosenshine & Meister, 1994) and some summarizing studies of at-risk children or those identified with a learning disability (Berkeley, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2009; Elbaum, Vaughn, Tejero Hughes, & Watson Moody, 2000; Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007; Suggate, 2010; Talbott, Lloyd, & Tankersley, 1994); none of these reviews show that more practice with a strategy provides an advantage. Ten sessions yield the same benefit as fifty sessions. The implication seems obvious; RCS instruction should be explicit and brief.
Far from a let-down, this strikes us as wonderful news. To the extent that educators have been devoting time to RCS instruction, they can now focus on other, more fruitful activities, such as generative vocabulary instruction, deep content exploration, and opportunities for reading across genres and content areas. When it comes to improving reading comprehension, strategy instruction may have an upper limit, but building background knowledge does not; the more students know, the broader the range of texts they can comprehend.
This conclusion is perhaps the most important; most educators feel that the curriculum has narrowed in the last ten years, with a frantic emphasis on reading and math. That may be true, but even fifteen years ago, scant time was devoted to history, civics, science, drama, and art in the early elementary years (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). To make time, we must curtail English language arts activities that offer the smallest payoff. Reading comprehension strategy instruction appears to be a particularly good candidate.
Armbruster, B. B., Anderson, T. H., & Ostertag, J. (1987). Does text structure/summarization instruction facilitate learning from expository text? Retrieved September 17, 2014, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/747972
Baker, L., & Zimlin, L. (1989). Instructional effects on children’s use of two levels of standards for evaluating their comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 340–346.
Berkeley, S., Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. a. (2009). Reading comprehension instruction for students with learning disabilities, 1995--2006: A Meta-Analysis. Remedial and Special Education, 31(6), 423–436. doi:10.1177/0741932509355988
Borduin, B. J., Borduin, C. M., & Manley, C. M. (1994). The use of imagery training to improve reading comprehension of second graders. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 155(1), 115–8. doi:10.1080/00221325.1994.9914764
Dole, J. A., Valencia, S. W., Greer, E. A., & Wardrop, J. L. (1991). Effects of two types of prereading instruction on comprehension of narrative and expository text. Retrieved September 17, 2014, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/747979
Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Tejero Hughes, M., & Watson Moody, S. (2000). How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students at risk for reading failure? A meta-analysis of the intervention research. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 605–619. doi:10.1037//0022-06220.127.116.115
Fukkink, R. G., & de Glopper, K. (1998). Effects of instruction in deriving word meaning from context : A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 68, 450–469.
Gajria, M., Jitendra, a. K., Sood, S., & Sacks, G. (2007). Improving Comprehension of Expository Text in Students With LD: A Research Synthesis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(3), 210–225. doi:10.1177/00222194070400030301
Jenkins, J. R., Matlock, B., Slocum, T. A., Jenkins, J. R., & Slocum, T. A. (1989). Two approaches to vocabulary instruction: The teaching of individual word meanings and practice in deriving word meaning from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(2), 215–235.
Markman, E. M. (1979). Realizing that you don’t understand : Elementary school children’s awareness of inconsistencies. Child Development, 50(3), 643–655.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evdience-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Report of the subgroups. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/Pages/nrp.aspx/
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network. (2005). A day in third grade : A large-scale study of classroom quality and teacher and student behavior. The Elementary School Journal, 105(3), 305–323.
Rosenshine, B., & Meister, C. (1994). Reciprocal teaching: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 64(4), 479–530.
Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of Educational Research, 66(2), 181–221. doi:10.3102/00346543066002181
Suggate, S. P. (2010). Why what we teach depends on when: grade and reading intervention modality moderate effect size. Developmental Psychology, 46(6), 1556–79. doi:10.1037/a0020612
Talbott, E., Lloyd, J. W., & Tankersley, M. (1994). Effects of reading comprehension interventions for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 17(3), 223–232.
Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 26, 2014 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17701, Date Accessed: 10/4/2014
Onderwijs. Relativiteit van statistieken over zittenblijven e.d.
Over de relativiteit van cijfers en statistieken over onderwijs vanwege OESO, Nicaise en andere onderzoekers …
1.In Knack van deze week. Volgens Dirk van Damme en de OESO zijn de baten van een diploma hoger onderwijs voor de overheid 6x groter dan de investering in die studies. Volgens onderwijs-economist Ides Nicaise (HIVA-Leuven) daarentegen levert een investering van de overheid €100 in een diploma amper €103,5 op voor de overheid.
Volgens de berekening Van Damme en de OESO zouden veel meer studenten hoger/universitair onderwijs moeten volgen – minstens 60% en liefst nog meer. Volgens de logica in de berekening van Nicaise zou de overheid bijna beter af zijn als er geen studenten hoger/universitair onderwijs zouden volgen en zou men zelfs aan de studenten moeten vragen om hun studies zelf en integraal te betalen.
2.De uitspraken van de OESO (PISA) i.v.m. sociale gelijkheid zijn uiterst relatief. Finland wordt er ten onrechte als een superieur toonbeeld van sociale gelijkheid (=lees: lage SES-correlatie) voorgesteld. Vergelijkingen van de correlatie tussen afkomst (SES) en leerresultaten hangen echter heel sterk af van de leeftijd waarop men dat meet : bij PISA is dit 15-jarigen, maar bij meting op het einde van het s.o. zouden we een ander beeld krijgen. In landen als Finland wordt de differentiatie/selectie in de eerste graad wat uitgesteld en laat men de betere leerlingen (veelal dus ook deze uit hogere milieus) onderpresteren, maar bij de start van de hogere cyclus is er wel een sterke selectie en stijgt de SES-correlatie in de hogere cyclus enorm.
In punt 4 zullen we ook aantonen dat de PISA-cijfers inzake leervertraging/zittenblijven eveneens een vertekend beeld opleveren, omdat men enkel vergelijkt bij 15-jarigen en niet bij de aankomst, op het einde van het s.o.
3 .Statistieken en vergelijkingen over zittenblijven en de eraan gekoppelde besluiten kloppen zelden. Enkele voorbeelden.
*Finland, Zweden… landen met weinig ‘officiële” zittenblijvers, sparen volgens tal van onderzoekers en de OESO vele honderden miljoenen euro’s uit per jaar. Toch zijn de leerlingen in die landen bij het afstuderen op het einde van het secundair en hoger onderwijs opvallend ouder dan de Vlaamse leerlingen/studenten en hebben ze dus ook meer gekost.
*De Leuvense auteurs van het OBPWO-zittenblijversrapport van 2012 verwijzen naar Zweden als gidsland inzake zittenblijven. Zittenblijven leidt volgens hen ook tot meer schooluitval. Welnu: in 2010 was er in gidsland Zweden 40% meer schooluitval dan in Vlaanderen (14,1 versus 8,7% ) volgens Eurostat( = 20-à 24-jarigen zonder diploma.)
*Zittenblijven betekent volgens de onderzoekers minder leerwinst. Is dit het geval in hun gidsland Zweden? Net het omgekeerde. De Vlaamse 15-jarigen behaalde voor PISA-2012-wiskunde de Europe topscore (531 punten) en Zweden de staartscore (478). Vlaanderen telt 25% toppers en Zweden amper 3%.
*Volgens de Leuvense onderzoekers zijn er in Vlaanderen veel zittenblijvers in het eerste leerjaar (in 2013: 5,4 %) en zijn er weinig in Zweden & Finland. Ze houden er geen rekening mee dat kinderen in Zweden ten volle 7 jaar moeten zijn om het eerste leerjaar te starten. In Zweden starten ze tussen 6 en 8 jaar naargelang van de schoolrijpheid. In Vlaanderen is 1/3 van de leerlingen bij de start nog geen 6 jaar. Op het einde van de lagere school zijn de Vlaamse leerlingen gemiddeld een jaar jonger dan in Finland. (De Leuvense onderzoekers vermelden ook niet uitdrukkelijk dat er in de leerjaren 2 tot en met 6 maar gemiddeld 1,73% zittenblijvers zijn per jaar – 3x minder dan in 1ste leerjaar.)
4. In OESO-studies over zittenblijven verwijzen veelal naar de situatie bij 15-jarigen (bij afname van PISA). Een statistiek omtrent leervertraging en leeftijd op einde s.o zou een ander beeld opleveren!
In de eerste 2 jaar van het s.o. zijn er in Finland en Zweden vermoedelijk wel minder leerlingen die een leervertraging oplopen dan in Vlaanderen (Vlaanderen 2013: 1ste jaar: 2,89% , 2, 58%). Bij de afname van PISA zitten de 15-jarigen in Finland b.v. pas in 3de leerjaar , maar in Vlaanderen zitten ze al in het 4de jaar. Men kan dus het aantal zittenblijvers moeilijk vergelijken, omdat in Finland het overzitten/de leervertraging vooral optreedt op het einde van het derde jaar en in de hogere cyclus. Het gaat om een soort uitgestelde leervertraging. Toch doet de OESO-PISA-studie dat.
Een vergelijking met Finland op het einde van het s.o. inzake leervertraging, leeftijd … zou een totaal ander beeld opleveren dan een vergelijking bij de 15-jarigen (voor Finse leerlingen midden derde jaar: slaat dus enkel op zittenblijven in 1ste en 2de jaar.) Vermoedelijk zou men dan zelfs vaststellen dat Finse leerlingen zelfs gemiddeld meer tijd doen over de 6 jaar s.o. i.p.v. minder.
Op het einde van het derde jaar zijn er in Finland een 5% leerlingen die hun studies na hun schoolplichtdiploma stopzetten. 9% volgt een complementair jaar om vooralsnog aan dit diploma te geraken, of om toegang te krijgen tot aso-scholen. In de loop van de hogere cyclus loopt 30% leervertraging op.
5. Leidt minder zittenblijven tot leerwinst en minder schooluitval in Finland?: Finland behaalde voor PISA-wiskunde 519 punten (Vlaanderen 531) en telde amper 14% toppers (Vlaanderen 25%. Volgens Eurostat is ook de schooluitval in Finland groter: voor 2013: 7,4-5% in Vlaanderen en 9% in Finland.
6.In het OBPWO-zittenblijvers rapport wekken de opstellers ook ten onrechte de indruk dat Vlaanderen Europees kampioen zittenblijven is. Men vermeldt niet uitdrukkelijk dat er bij de Vlaamse 15-jarigen nog meer leerlingen op leeftijd zitten (74%) dan in Duitsland, Oostenrijk, Luxemburg, Portugal, Nederland, Franstalig België (amper 46%) ….
Zo zie je maar hoe relatief statistische vergelijkingen veelal zijn!
Onderwijs. Reform Teacher Training: The Manifesto : focussing on basics
Website: Reform Teacher Training: The Manifesto : focussing
September 27, 2014
Chris J Read
Kerngedachte: Firstly, they should be focussing on the
basics, and the basics only. Nobody who hasn’t yet attained a teaching
qualification should be worrying at night about having to perform pedagogical
acrobatics in the classroom. …Teacher training is focussing on the wrong things
and it needs to be reformed.So, what should teacher training institutions be
doing? Firstly, they should be focussing on the basics, and the basics only.
Nobody who hasn’t yet attained a teaching qualification should be worrying at
night about having to perform pedagogical acrobatics in the classroom....At
teacher training institutions around the country, committed, intelligent people
who have chosen to teach are being taught by committed, intelligent teacher
Perhaps they’re clustered around A1 sheets of sugar paper
making mind-maps about ‘what makes a good teacher’, or they’re being modelled
an exciting teaching technique in which one uses Plasticine to teach Romeo and
Juliet. Perhaps they’re watching some of their peers pretend to be students,
acting out a scenario where the characters of The Tempest are on Jeremy Kyle.
They might be trying out a ‘tunnel of consciousness’, or be sitting
back-to-back as one describes a photograph of a room, whilst the other attempts
to draw it. They might be being told about learning styles and making ‘VAK
bobbins’, or chuckling at a list of completely invented ‘rules for teachers
from 1914.’ They might be nodding along to an RSC video of one of Ken
Robinson’s TED talks, or watching the ‘Shift Happens’ video. Some will be
engaged and inspired by these activities, and other less so.They’re all wasting
I recently read Daisy Christodoulou’s Spectator article
(thanks Webs of Substance) in which she describes her anger at realising that
there already exists a body of evidence and cognitive science on how students
learn best, and that none of it was even hinted at during her teacher training.
As a recently qualified teacher myself who has trained with,
worked with and spoken to many, many NQTs and trainees, I commonly hear the
complaint that on ITT course fundamental topics such as behaviour are dealt
with summarily (if at all), and that the many hours discussing Vygotsky,
Piaget, Taxonomies and ‘VAK learning’ seem to have no practical relevance to
life in the classroom.
Whilst I was training, and before I’d actually had to take
charge of a class, the aspect of our training I found most useful was learning
‘how to teach.’ We learnt about, and practiced, a myriad of fun, child-centred
activities such as the ‘ambassador’ activity, or the ‘relay’ activity. We
listened, impressed, as we were told about Socratic Circles (especially when
the trainer told us that she’d been observed by Ofsted several times using this
technique and it had never failed to bag her an Outstanding).
This was incredibly reassuring. All you needed to do to
become an outstanding teacher was successfully run one of these creative
activities, deliver it with personality and aplomb, and all would be just
gravy. We spent relatively little time on behaviour and were told to give
students little jobs to keep them occupied, like monitoring the ‘noise dial’ in
the classroom. I was told by various sources that students would behave as long
as the lesson was fast-paced enough, or as long as I was in a good mood myself,
and (and this advice was absolute Kryptonite) that I shouldn’t begin my first
lesson with The Rules because the kids would have had this a thousand times and
I should just crack on with the lesson because it would show I meant business.
If you were to delve into the mind of many trainees (and
practicing teachers who have been through this system) to find their mental
picture of an incredible teacher, you’d probably draw out an image of someone
prancing entertainingly around the classroom setting off smoke bombs and
throwing tennis balls around as the children hula-hoop whilst singing a song
about fractions. This impression is one which is encouraged (or perhaps
created) by the fact that whilst training you are told that lessons need to
have pizazz, or fizz, and that above all they must be engaging.
I emerged into the classroom brimming with ideas, and sure
that I’d be able to get kids to buy into my lessons by the force of my
personality and the sheer fun of what I’d planned.
It was a disaster.
In my first lesson I tried to teach some of the context of
Of Mice and Men using ‘The Relay’ activity. I tried to teach my Year 8s war
poetry by getting them to act out the events of Dulce et Decorum est. I hadn’t
given them “The Rules” talk. I hadn’t shown them I was an authority figure to
be respected. The ensuing results were exactly as you’d imagine.
Whenever I now come across a PGCE student on school
placement heading enthusiastically into the classroom with an armful of Diamond
9 cards, a washing line and Plasticine, my heart sinks. Later on I know that
they’ll beat themselves up for not being good enough, not being engaging
enough, and not being able to control the class.
So, what should teacher training institutions be doing?
Firstly, they should be focussing on the basics, and the
basics only. Nobody who hasn’t yet attained a teaching qualification should be
worrying at night about having to perform pedagogical acrobatics in the
There should be a huge focus on behaviour. I wouldn’t talk
about anything else for the first few weeks. As David Didau notes, behaviour is
the key. If you can’t control the room, it doesn’t matter how good the lesson
you’ve planned is.
Observations should be purely formative and focus only on
the behaviour and progress of students and the quality of work which is
produced. Training institutions should tell partner schools that if they assign
a grade to any ITT lessons they observe, then they won’t be partner schools any
Trainees should learn what quality marking and feedback look
like, and why they should demand the highest quality in students’ written and
Trainees should know about the big debates taking place in
the educational sphere, about developments in educational policy in the UK and
around the world, and about the history of our education system. Trainees
should know about what cognitive evidence thinks about how we learn, and know
that they should have the confidence to teach in a way which most suits them –
it’s the outcome, not the method which is key.
Luckily, I joined Twitter, read blogs, and happened to be
placed in a school which has a principal who is plugged into the educational
zeitgeist and who introduced staff to Willingham, Christodoulou and the
But if I hadn’t, and only had my PGCE studies to go on, I
wouldn’t know that there was a debate taking place around knowledge education.
I wouldn’t know that learning styles have been discredited. I wouldn’t know
that the primacy of child-centred learning and Vygotskian theory were fallible.
I wouldn’t know that there has been a teacher-driven wave of pressure which has
helped to convince Ofsted (and by extension many school SLTs) to abandon a
requirement to teach in a certain way. I wouldn’t have thought to question The
Gods of the three-part lesson with an ‘AFL opportunity’ every twenty minutes.
I’m incredibly grateful (and lucky) to have stumbled upon the Learning Spy and
Hunting English blogs in the Spring term of 2013, and from them to have found
my way to Andrew Old, Tom Bennett, Webs of Substance and then Joe Kirby’s and
Daisy Christodoulou’s blogs.
I learnt about the knowledge/skills debate, the fact that
Daniel Willingham exists, the content of recent DFE and Ofsted reforms, how to
design a knowledge scheme of work, practicable ways to manage behaviour, get
students to write well and what effective marking looks like from the
internet.That shouldn’t have been the
Here I’ll try to re-blog what people are saying about
Teacher training is focussing on the wrong things and it
needs to be reformed.
Christodoulou: Teacher training’s war on
science (the Spectatot, 15.03. 2014)
Christodoulou stelt dat de Engelse erarenopleidingen nog steeds verkeerde/modieuze opvattingen over
effectief onderwijs propageren. En hoe zit het in Vlaanderen en in de
universitaire opleiding van pedagogen en van masters-leraars ?
There’s an increasing amount of evidence about how we
learn.But you won’t hear about it at teacher training collegeWhen I trained as
a teacher, seven years ago, these are some of the things I was taught: it’s
better for pupils to discover a fact than to be told it. Children learn best
working on authentic, real-world projects. Schools and traditional subject
boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us.
And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge,
because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the
what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive
and unhappy pupils.
This, to a large degree, is still what most teachers are
taught. So it’s unfortunate that these ideas are deeply flawed. There’s solid
evidence that mostly, the exact opposite is true. Discovery learning is hugely
inefficient and ineffective. Authentic projects overload working memory and
confuse pupils. Skills are domain-specific and depend on a well-organised body of
knowledge securely committed to long-term memory. Deliberate practice — what
might be called ‘drill’ — is necessary for mastery. Here’s the real truth:
direct teacher instruction is good for pupils’ academic achievement and their
Over the past 50 or so years, scientists have discovered
more about how the brain learns than ever before. Their findings have profound
implications for education, but too few of these are known or taught within
One of the interesting things about the prevailing myths of
teacher training is that they are not new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was pushing
them in the 18th century. Since then, despite a consistent lack of success,
they’ve persisted, under different names and with different justifications.
For example, one popular buzzword at the moment is
‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it
gets. It’s often defined in terms of modern technology and the demands of the
modern economy. Generally, it tends to mean not burdening pupils with
knowledge, because facts are so easy to look up on the internet and now change
so fast. But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911,
a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass
of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them
must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of
‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s,
the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should
be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be
acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing
with them, for a very long time.
So how have the myths survived? One reason may be that they
tell us something that we want to hear. They sell a vision of a world in which
we all have fantastic talent just waiting to be unleashed; in which learning is
as natural and as inevitable as growing up. Education, the myth-peddlers will
tell you, means ‘drawing out’. In fact, that’s not the word’s real etymology —
and what is ‘put in’ is vitally important.
Compared to the myths, the reality can sound a bit
depressing. While we learn to speak and to understand speech naturally, most of
the other things we want our pupils to learn — including reading and writing —
will always require effort, and there are few shortcuts. However, there are
also some encouraging aspects of this research. Because learning is about hard
work and quality of instruction more than it is about innate genius, all pupils
are capable of achieving academically. There will always be differences in
innate talent, of course, but we have more in common than we have apart, and so
it is possible to identify teaching methods that will succeed for most pupils.
And just because learning is hard work doesn’t mean it isn’t
enjoyable. Quite the contrary: often we derive the most satisfaction when we
put in the most effort. We also derive satisfaction from success. That’s why
‘direct instruction’ teaching has been shown not only to result in more
academic success than other methods, but also in pupils having more
One other reason why these myths have proved so pervasive is
because, unfortunately, so much of the research evidence to the contrary is not
part of teacher training in the UK or the US. Some of the scientists who did
the research have noticed this, and protested. Take Herbert Simon. Simon is one
of the major intellectual figures of the 20th century. He was a pioneer of
artificial intelligence, and won a Nobel prize for his work on decision-making.
His research into memory forms the basis of much of the evidence I’ve
summarised above, and he was deeply concerned about the failure of the American
educational establishment to consider his findings. Together with two
colleagues, he wrote an article challenging what he called some of the
‘frightening’ misconceptions of modern education.
Likewise, the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued
that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating
disputes is political rather than scientific’. In his view, this has left
education susceptible to romantic fads such as whole language reading methods.
Since I put out an ebook on education myths last summer — it
is now published in print — I’ve heard from teachers saying how grateful they
are to have evidence for the ideas they’d suspected were right but had always
been told were wrong. But there’s also been a lot of criticism. For some
readers, direct instruction, teaching knowledge and memorisation are simply
beyond the pale.
Given the history, that doesn’t surprise me. The evidence I
gather challenges the status quo of English education, and challenges to the
status quo are rarely met with equanimity. But my impression is that we are at
a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap
between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and
more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science
and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the
warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see
evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.
P.S. Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education was
published last week by Routledge.
Onderwijs. Nefaste evoluties in hoger onderwijs als gevolg van hervormingen & efficiëntiediscours
Reclaim your school!
(De Wereld Morgen, 24 september)
Karel Vanhaesebrouck ,docent theater en cultuur aan de
Université Libre de Bruxelles en aan het RITS | School of Arts, over: hoe een
'efficiëntiediscours' het onderwijs heeft overweldigd.
De exacte cijfers kennen we (nog) niet, maar zeker is wel
dat het hoger onderwijs het binnenkort met een pak minder zal moeten doen. Dat
budgettaire gat dient vervolgens dichtgereden te worden met hogere inschrijvingsgelden.
Het hoger onderwijs wordt met andere woorden opnieuw een beetje minder publiek.
Ziedaar de kern van ons maatschappelijk bestel: terwijl winsten meer dan ooit
geprivatiseerd zijn (elk voor zich), worden de lasten – het woord alleen al! –
steeds nadrukkelijker gesocialiseerd, en dus op de samenleving afgewimpeld.
Ik schrijf op dit moment aan een visitatierapport voor
diezelfde Vlaamse overheid. In de instructies die me door de diverse instanties
aangereikt worden, bots ik op woorden als 'efficiëntie', 'marcrodoelmatigheid',
'studierendement', 'jaaractieplan', 'competentiebeleid',
'competentie-portefeuille', 'zelfevaluatie', 'arbeidsmarktgerichtheid',
'welbevindingscurve', 'bevraging', 'output', 'leerresultaten', 'human resources
management' – de lijst is lachwekkend eindeloos, mijn resistentievermogen is
dat helaas niet.
Geen van die woorden heeft iets te maken met de zorgen en
verlangens die docenten en studenten delen: bijdragen aan inspirerend en
prikkelend onderwijs waarin kennis en vaardigheden niet altijd onmiddellijk en
meetbaar nut hebben, maar dat van elk van ons wel een rijker, voller mens, ja
zelfs burger zal maken. En die ambitie staat haaks op het efficiëntie-denken
dat thans tal van maatschappelijke sectoren terroriseert en zelfs wezenlijk
Die kwalijke evolutie is uiteraard niet de
verantwoordelijkheid van de nieuwe Vlaamse regering. De baarlijke duivel heet
wat mij betreft Bologna. Sinds de invoering van Bologna heeft een
uniformiserend marktdenken het volledige hoger onderwijs in zijn greep.
Hogescholen en universiteiten kwamen terecht in een snoeiharde productie- en
competitielogica met een blinde obsessie voor een zo hoog mogelijk output. En
die output moet zo efficiënt en zo snel als mogelijk geleverd worden.
De overheid verwacht een duidelijke return-on-investment
(nog zo’n woord!). Die return moet strikt kwantificeerbaar zijn (aantal
diploma’s, een zo kort mogelijk studietraject, aantal publicaties, aantal
studenten per vierkante meter infrastructuur en ga zo maar door). En dus moet
er gemeten worden en hebben we een uitgebreid overhead-apparaat nodig dat
instaat voor al die monitoring, terwijl de kernactoren – studenten en docenten
– hun leer- en doceertijd verkwanselen met het verzamelen van bewijslast.
Vooral in Vlaanderen, zowat de enige regio ter wereld waar
je al na drie jaar Bachelor en na een bijkomend jaar Master wordt (we zijn
blijkbaar sneller dan alle andere Europese landen samen), zijn we kampioenen
van dit soort efficiëntiedenken. Hoe minder tijd en geld een leerproces kost,
hoe beter! En hoe meer men de mond vol heeft over kwaliteitszorg, hoe weinig
men wezenlijk geïnteresseerd is in de kwaliteit van ons hoger onderwijs. Met
begrippen als 'excellentie' en 'innovatie' als ultieme dooddoeners.
En zo is het (hoger) onderwijs in een onmogelijke spagaat
terecht gekomen: een loodzwaar overhead-apparaat staat in voor de
disciplinering en monitoring van studenten en docenten en drijft ons paradoxaal
genoeg steeds verder weg van de echte kerntaak: onze jongeren opleiden tot
kritische burgers die hun specifieke kennis en vaardigheden kunnen inzetten op
een manier die hun eigen particuliere belang overstijgt. De huidige
besparingswoede maar vooral de argumenten waarmee die besparingen doorgevoerd
worden, zullen dat probleem alleen maar vergroten.
De kloof tussen het discours over het onderwijs vandaag
(innovatie! excellentie! out of the box! project!) en de realiteit op de
werkvloer is groter dan ooit. Pijnlijker nog, docenten en studenten hebben het
laten gebeuren: ze zijn de gevangenen geworden van de modieuze Newspeak die ze
zelf gretig hanteren en zijn, bovenal, al lang geen eigenaar meer van hun eigen
Meer dan ooit heeft het onderwijs nood aan een daadwerkelijk
kritische ingesteldheid, die niet alleen dat dominante discours benoemt maar
ook ontmaskert. Enkel zo kunnen studenten en docenten opnieuw het eigenaarschap
opeisen van hun eigen werkomgeving. Docenten moeten vechten voor die omgeving
en mogen dat werk niet langer uit handen geven of ‘outsourcen’. Ze moeten die
verantwoordelijkheid ten volle nemen, zonder zich daarbij te laten sussen door
de illusie van interne democratie of medezeggenschap, om zo opnieuw de
parameters te bepalen waarbinnen ‘geleerd’ en ‘geoefend’ wordt. Ze moeten de
faciliterende centrale diensten dwingen (opnieuw) faciliterend te werken, in
functie van hun particuliere agenda, om hun specifieke biotoop te vrijwaren.
Daarom zullen hogescholen en universiteiten, en vooral
kunstscholen, bewust onmodieus moeten en durven zijn, uit de tijd en tegen de
tijd. Enkel zo kan een school opnieuw zijn wat ze etymologisch is: vrije tijd.
Daarom moet het onderwijs expliciet ideologisch worden. Het
hele apparaat waarbinnen het hoger onderwijs functioneert is immers zelf
ideologisch. Woorden als ‘kwaliteit’, ‘output’, ‘ondernemerschap’,
‘evidence-based policy’ hebben wel degelijk een ideologische signatuur, ook al
wordt die steevast verborgen achter een moeilijk te ontkrachten aura van
neutraliteit. Het enige mogelijke antwoord op die schijnbare neutraliteit kan
alleen maar ideologisch en dus politiek van aard zijn.
En, nogmaals, hiervoor is de huidige Vlaamse regering niet
zelf verantwoordelijk. Erger nog, het waren grotendeels socialistische
onderwijsministers die het hoger onderwijs op neoliberale leest geschoeid
hebben. De geplande verhoging van het inschrijvingsgeld is echter wél
symptomatisch voor de maatschappijvisie van deze nieuwe Vlaamse regering, een
maatschappij waarin toegang tot kennis en expertise steeds nadrukkelijker
bepaald zal worden door economische parameters.
Daarom deze oproep aan alle mogelijke actoren: bevrijd ons
onderwijs van het economische efficiëntiediscours. Stop met turven en meten, ga
voor echte kwaliteit. Houd het hoger onderwijs fundamenteel toegankelijk voor
iedereen maar geef aan universiteiten en (kunst)hogescholen de vrijheid en de
autonomie om écht veeleisend zijn, om écht bekommerd te zijn om de kwaliteit
van het eigen onderwijs en onderzoek. En vooral: laat het onderwijs opnieuw
Laat ons ophouden studenten te reduceren tot boekhouders van
hun eigen competentie-portefeuille. Laat onderwijs opnieuw écht vormend zijn.
Neem uw verantwoordelijkheid. Reclaim your school! En durf échte excellentie te
stimuleren, niet met besparingen, maar met vertrouwen, vanuit het belang dat een
publieke overheid kan en moet hechten aan onderwijs.
Onderwijs. Geen toekomst meer voor leerkrachten die jong zijn en volgende 10 jaar afstuderen?!
Niet alleen voor de beginnende leerkrachten, maar ook voor deze die de komende 10 jaar afstuderen is er geen plaats meer. En wat met de lerarenopleidingen?
Dat er geen toekomst meer is voor beginnende/jonge leerkrachten én voor voor de studenten die momenteel en de komende jaren de lerarenopleiding volgen, is een ware ramp voor ons onderwijs. Vooral ook het feit dat ook de leerkrachten steeds langer moeten werken, zorgt er voor dat er de komende jaren weinig aflossing zal nodig zijn. We betreuren in dit verband ook dat de koepels bij hun voorstel om een uur meer te werken vooraf niet hebben overlegd met de achterban. De nieuwe chef van het katholiek onderwijs had dit nochtans bij zijn aantreden beloofd.
nderwijs. Harry Webb over differentiatiesprookjes: The burden of differentiation
Harry Webb over differentiatiesprookjes in het onderwijs Blog, 27 juni 2014
I was interested to
read Liz Truss’s article in the Telegraph yesterday (see here). Yet again, she
made clear her support for the use of good quality textbooks, something that I
have been promoting for some time (see here and here). And she did so on
similar grounds to my own; they enable great efficiencies: Instead of teachers
reinventing the wheel, designing new resources all the time, a good textbook
can allow a teacher to focus on actually teaching.
Many of you, conditioned into the ‘textbooks are bad’ myth,
won’t agree with me. If you believe that a teacher’s job is to facilitate
learning then the selection and production of resources such as worksheets,
card sorts and the rest will seem central to that. But remember, other
conceptions of the role of the teacher are available. A teacher can be seen as
an instructor, a guide and an explainer of things.
In Siegfried Engelmann’s form of Direct Instruction, this
distinction is made plain (see here). The qualities required in a teacher are
not the same as those required in an instructional designer and so the roles
are separate; designers plan the sequencing of lessons and resources whilst
teachers deliver them. And remember just how extraordinarily successful
Engelmann’s programmes have been.
So I am glad that this view is being given some prominence.
I am also interested that Truss links these ideas to those
surrounding lesson planning and differentiation and I think these last points
are worth further discussion.
Many of us will have been exhorted to differentiate our
lessons at some point. To a degree, this seems reasonable and I suspect that
most teachers will have an extension activity available for those who grasp the
ideas quickly. Many will also have support materials for those who struggle
although, in reality, this support is often more likely to come in the form of
increased teacher attention.
We need to ask on what basis decisions about differentiation
are being made.
Indeed, students do vary in their ability. Just how much of
this is down to innate intelligence and how much is related to prior knowledge
(and thus the quality of previous teaching) is, at present, unclear. The two
factors obviously interact and, whatever the balance, it has to contain a
little of both. However, determining this balance is still quite important.
For instance, if students are behind their peers mainly due
to prior knowledge then we should simultaneously seek to improve teaching at
lower levels – making elementary school teaching the first line of defence – as
well as instituting interventions to help them catch-up. If it is more about
innate intelligence then we may decide that some areas of study are just not
suitable for certain students. I dislike the implications of the latter
approach and this is why a bristle when people call for more vocational routes
for children who ‘aren’t academic’.
One of the key proponents of ‘differentiated instruction’ is
Carol Ann Tomlinson. She favours a model where students are often grouped and
the groups then carry-out different tasks (see here). This avoids the
unmanageable process of every student completing a different task (the logical
conclusion of differentiation). Yet it still allows for difference whilst
having the added bonus – as some would see it – of promoting cooperative
learning. Tomlinson also promotes differentiation according to ‘learner
profiles’ which includes the notion of learning styles; so it’s not just about
ability. I do not accept the evidence for learning styles i.e. that if students
are taught through a preferred mode or ‘style’ then they will learn better.
However, Tomlinson would dispute the value of such evidence (see here). For
her, it seems as if it is less about sound scientific tests of efficacy and
more about recognising student difference.
The appeal of learning styles is the same as the appeal of
multiple intelligences and is reflected in those who call for parity of esteem
between vocational and academic education. All of these theories posit that
students are different but that these differences are not in any
hierarchy;they are not as a result of
different levels of knowledge or intelligence. Instead, we are to accept that
‘kinaesthetic’ learners are no better or worse than ‘auditory’ learners or
whatever; they are just different. Although I admire the egalitarian impulse
behind such notions, I see no evidence to support the existence of categories
based upon anything other than knowledge, intelligence and perhaps physical
The burden that the forms of differentiation promoted by
Tomlinson and others places upon teachers is extreme. For each lesson, instead
of selecting a relevant resource from a textbook, instead of even preparing a
resource for our students, we are required to select or prepare multiple
resources. Personally, I would not select a mathematics resource without
thinking about the common misconceptions and difficulties that are likely to
arise. A teacher in the humanities may spend some time considering what a high
quality response to a question might look like. So we would need to multiply
this conceptual planning work by the number of different resources. Time will
In class, the teacher will then need to administer the
running of the groups (which will take time away from teaching), monitor the
work of the groups (because students don’t always work very hard when the
teacher’s attention is focused elsewhere) and attend to instructing the
different groups in their different tasks. We are therefore choosing quite
short periods of targeted instruction over more extensive instruction that is
not as targeted. If you believe that teacher instruction should be limited –
that teachers should talk less – then this may seem reasonable. But where is
the evidence to support such a view? If you limit teacher talk in this way then
you limit the number of different ways that a teacher can explain a concept,
cycling back and forth between the well-established and the new. You limit
We also have the problem of targeting. How do we know that
our groupings accurately reflect what our students most need? We may use
assessment data but what, exactly, does that tell us? Often, we may have a view
as to the way that students should progress in their understanding of a subject
but I suspect that real learning is a lot messier than that with much looping
backward and forward and with some ideas more fully developed and connected
than others. If we get this wrong, we run the risk of misjudging things and
I suspect that in many classrooms, attempts at this kind of
differentiation leave a lot to be desired. Done well, perhaps it has its
advantages, but the practical difficulties suggest that such a teaching style
is a lot harder to get right than a more whole-class approach. We should not
underestimate the damage that this does to our profession: Those teachers who
do as they are told end up exhausted and probably teach less effectively than
they could. Those teachers who ignore the exhortations feel guilty and
constantly worry about being found out.
Let us return briefly to the evidence that we use to
differentiate. I strongly suspect that in England, black boys are more often
identified as ‘kinaesthetic’ learners than individuals from other social
groupings. How would we differentiate for such a learner? Well, I suspect we
would get them to move around a lot more and require them to sit still and
write a lot less. We might even excuse some of their behaviour on the basis
that they are kinaesthetic learners who will struggle if not appropriately
Why is this a problem? Black boys need the same things that
every other child needs; a rigorous education and clear boundaries. In fact,
evidence is emerging that a shift in England towards a more academic education
has had a positive impact for black students (see here).
Where moral dangers and practicalities collide
There is one area where both of these dangers play out in
conflicting ways. This is when students are selected into a class based upon
their ability and it comes with various names such as ‘ability grouping’,
‘setting’, and ‘tracking’.
For some – but definitely not all – subjects such as
mathematics, student arrive at secondary school with manifest differences in
ability. Some students in a year or grade level may be as much as five years
ahead of others. Again, how much of this could be mitigated by a better
elementary education is unclear but it is likely to be due to a mixture of
intelligence and knowledge factors.
If these students are then placed in the same class you will
either need to differentiate, with all of the practical problems that this
entails, or you will be teaching to a level that is inappropriate to most
students in the class. The case for ability grouping is therefore clear.
However, on what evidence do you place students in the lower
classes? What happens to them there? Is there a poverty of expectation where
students are given simplistic busy work rather than being challenged to
improve? Are these classes allocated to new teachers or less effective
teachers? I think that this is a real danger and one that must be addressed. I
suspect that this is why the data on ability grouping strategies is equivocal.
Part of the problem is that we are too accepting of such
divergence; so accepting that we allow it to grow to monster proportions where
early intervention – using explicit teaching strategies – may have helped.
However, I also do not think that underperformance can be effectively tackled
by having less able students marginalised in a mixed ability class. Instead,
these lower ability classes should be the target of sustained attention. They
should get the best teachers, the heads of department and the senior leaders
and they should have clear progress targets base upon standardised tests.
As educators, we need to focus on bringing all students up
to a common standard rather than on perpetuating and excusing wide variations
in what students know and can do.