Month: April 2014

ResearchEd14: The EEF…with great budgets come great responsibility.

“If ResearchEd had existed in 2011, we would have launched the toolkit here.”

So said Dr. Lee Elliot Major in the opening session of this year’s conference. The aims of both organisations are similar – although, as more than one speaker pointed out, the budgets certainly aren’t – working out what works in schools and making sure practitioners’ decisions are based on evidence. It should be noted that ‘what works’, in this context, relates to improved academic attainment. Whether or not this is a valid outcome, or one that is shared by all practitioners, is explored by Robert Peal here, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to assume that everyone is on board with undertaking research to see what best raises academic attainment. 

What I want to argue is this: if the EEF, through large research projects, identify incredibly effective practice(s) in schools, do they have a moral imperative to prescribe these practices? I would have thought it uncontroversial to suggest that the answer is in the affirmative, and at last week’s conference asked Dr Major:

“As your work continues, and your evidence base increases, you will presumably be able to more reliably assert that one practice or another (for example peer tutoring) is the most effective in helping students make progress. Won’t the EEF become more prescriptive, almost quasi-policymakers, to ensure schools use such practices?”

“No,” Dr. Major replied emphatically. “Our role is to undertake research and present the results. We would never say to a school you need to do this or that. That’s not our role.”

Image

Prescription is bundled up with the ‘bad old days’. But it isn’t the prescriptive part that is the problem, it’s that it was uninformed.

This seemed a measured enough response, and I think that I may have been the only person in the audience disappointed with it. After all, we don’t want to go back to the ‘bad old days’ of national prescription. And besides, it’s not in the EEF’s mandate to tell teachers how to teach.

But the goal of ResearchEd, it seems to me, is to ensure school leaders and teachers are making decisions based on evidence. Having only entered the profession recently, I was delighted to discover the toolkit. I didn’t need to weigh up conflicting advice from experienced teachers (“You need to put your children in ability sets” / “Mixed ability groups are the best way”). I had a shortcut to what actually works in the classroom. But what if my senior leadership team disagree with my evidence based approach?

It is possible that the evidence will be ignored simply because it conflicts with the ideologies or philosophies of senior leadership teams. Consider, for example, Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that hand-washing in hospitals dramatically reduced mortality rates. He collected data and published his findings, but it wasn’t until years after his death that the practice was fully adopted. If, following this analogy, the EEF are Semmelweis, is it acceptable for them to refuse to prescribe hand-washing to schools, stating that they have published the data and it is up to schools to decide what to do with it?

I don’t think that it is.

ResearchEd14: Michael Slavinsky and Alex Weatherall are the right kind of crazy.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Chinese Proverb

I don’t know what a meeting between Michael Slavinsky and Alex Weatherall sounds like, but I imagine it would be a Google executive’s wet dream. At ResearchED Midlands, we were given a window into their world and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the ‘completely mad idea’ that they were proposing. They were cautious, and repeatedly asked their audience “Is this completely stupid? Is there any way that this will work?”

I don’t think that anyone was qualified to say, we were watching innovators at work, and it was magic. Slavinksy and Weatherall possess a kind of cleverness that I will never really understand. They take complex ideas and concepts and connect them like a crossword, but driving all of this is a simple and powerful idea; a goal of giving the teaching profession a very special gift.

The Problem

At last year’s ResearchEd conference Laura McInerney proposed a list of 7 Touchpaper Problems, which if solved would have a huge benefit on education. Slavinsky and Weatherall have chosen problem 4, ‘What determines the complexity of a problem?’

touchpaper-problems

They define complexity as made up of more than one part, and brought attention to the fact that many of the concepts that we teach demand requisite knowledge or understanding. At times in education, this is obvious and straightforward, for instance I should not teach my year three class about collective nouns until they fully understand what a noun is. But with much of what we teach, the underlying concepts are not as obvious. Thus: What even determines the complexity of a given concept?

The Completely Mad Solution

First, list every concept that we teach, in every subject. Then link together related concepts. Next, order whether one concept rests on another (i.e. the first concept is unintelligible without it). Finally, assign a value strength to the relationship between two concepts. So Romeo and Juliet would strongly rest on an understanding of tragedy, and Newton’s Second Law would be very strongly underpinned by acceleration (which in turn is underpinned by the concept of velocity etc).

neurone map

We would be left with a sparse and interconnected map, which I couldn’t help but feel would resemble those fancy pictures of neurone maps. Add in to this the notion of weighting the strength of the relationship between concepts (which sounds a lot like a firing threshold) and the analogy becomes even more striking. “Are you just going to end up mapping the brain?” I asked Weatherall. He shrugged, unintimidated by the similarity in task, “Not really. But we had to use software that was originally created for mapping genes.”

How It Would Help

Once the concepts are inputted, a computer programme does magic and processes the relationships, which would give teachers at least 3 really useful tools:

  1. It could create an index of complexity, and assign each concept with a number on this scale. So if you are teaching adverbial phrases, you would be able to check the complexity number and make decisions about how much lesson time this will need.
  2. It could order concepts to ensure schemes of work do not feature more complex concepts before prerequisite concepts.
  3. It could identify ‘threshold concepts’. These are ideas that, once understood, open the understanding for many, many more concepts. For example, I would suggest that the Inverse Law is a threshold concept in mathematics.

(Michael gives a better and more detailed outline of the utility of this project here)

Potential Problems (And Solutions)

It is undeniable that the results of such a map would be of huge use to the profession. But it’s obviously a huge piece of work to map all of these concepts. Weatherall suggested crowd-sourcing as a solution to this, and cited the Zooniverse project as an example of how millions of internet users have all played a small role in contributing towards a solution of an unfathomably vast and seemingly unending problem.

But I wasn’t convinced by this answer. The Zooniverse is popular because it’s about space and has stunning visuals of galaxies and stars and such. I’m not sure that this project would have that cool appeal. It would rest on teachers dedicating unpaid hours on laborious work for the benefit of the profession at large.

Then again, most teachers are quite used to doing just that.

There is a second, more fundamental problem which may prove to be completely irrelevant. This map rests epistemological and linguistic assumptions: that knowledge is defined by its coherence with other knowledge, and that all we need is better definitions and more foundational understanding to make the next learning step. Both of these are open-questions within the philosophical and psychological literature, and are likely to remain that way. It may well be that attempting to map anything leads us “down the rabbit-hole”, as Weatherall poetically put it. In all likelihood, however, these questions can remain academic, and won’t affect the overall map.

Conclusion

This was a fascinating talk of an embryonic project attempting to answer one of the most difficult problems in education. It’s perhaps unfair of me to assess it to the extent that I have here, but its importance and potential compels me to get it out there.

Is it completely crazy? Yes.

And that’s what makes it so exciting.

UKIP’s Education Policy

I wasted an hour of my life listening to the Farage/Clegg debate yesterday. Clearly, it was a real win for Farage. Perhaps they are, as they claim, the party of the people. Perhaps a march on parliament is inevitable.

The format was reminiscent of the television debates before the 2010 General Election. This similarity made it easy to miss the obvious difference. This debate rested on one topic: the EU. This is UKIP’s area of expertise, and so it should be unsurprising that Farage performed well.

But if we want to take UKIP seriously as a political party in its own right, and not simply as a protest group to the EU membership, we should take a look at all of their policies. As a teacher, I was interested in what they had to say about education.

So here is UKIP’s full education policy:

“Allow the creation of new grammar schools.”

That’s it.

Of course, we’ll be treated to greater exposition in the upcoming full manifesto (we’re not, Farage tells us, supposed to look at the ‘drivel’ in the previous effort) but if recent form is any guide, we’re likely to see surprising neglect in the area that Blair used three times to take the premiership.

Is this a glaring political oversight? Ineptitude and lack of expertise? Or is it the laissez-faire policy approach that the teaching profession has been screaming out for?