Saturday, 28 November 2009

Ofsted Under Fire

Monday's edition of the Guardian reported that Ofsted was facing a crisis in public confidence as it came 'under a series of attacks on its authority this week, with the watchdog accused of being "flawed, wasteful and failing"'. (Guardian, 2009)
The report goes on to say that:

The children's services inspectorate will be criticised today by service
heads in every local authority in the country, headteachers' leaders and in a
damning forthcoming report by MPs on the government's school accountability

Its new inspection regime is accused of forcing social work departments to
focus on passing inspections instead of looking after children, giving good
schools mediocre ratings on routine technical matters – such as fences not being
high enough – and more claims that sub-contracted inspectors are not fit for the
job. (Ibid)

The critics include former Ofsted chief Mike Tomlinson (pictured above).

You can read the full report here:

I don't have much time for analysis tonight, but my initial thoughts are roughly as follows.

Few teaching staff will shed tears for Ofsted, and most will hope that the criticism leads to some genuine improvement. But I wouldn't hold my breath. But while government are under pressure to make cuts in public spending, while attempting to not reduce quality, this might be the perfect opportunity to take a close look at what Ofsted has to offer, and streamline it to focus on the things that will really make the difference to education's bottom line.

Parkinson's law says that work expands to fill the time available, but I think that there is an equivalent in the public sector that says remit and work expands to fill the funding available. If the coming round of cuts includes Ofsted we may see the inspectorate forced to focus only on the things that really matter.

Whatever happens, it brings delight to teachers everywhere to see their most ardent critic under critique themselves.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Learning Styles are "Bunk"!

Seán posted a comment on an earlier post of mine about learning styles and linked to his views on the subject. I thought I would reply.
Here's a devastating scientific criticism of the popular but groundless VAK learning style theory, which also attempts to explain why teachers love it, despite its complete lack of supporting evidence.

While the debunking of learning styles once and for all would be welcome, I would question that teachers "love" them. In my experience their use is down to an expectation that tutors use the popular methodology and in many cases it is an institutional *procedure* and has to be followed. This is what Frank Coffield (2008) would call "tactical compliance".

I think often we slavishly get students to complete the learning styles tests and file away the results, so we can bring them out when Ofsted (or whoever your education inspectorate is) comes along to prove that we 'really do care about diversification in our teaching'.

That learning styles should make much if any difference to teaching approach may well be dubious. Frank C certainly has my respect. But that they are "love[ed]" by the teaching profession at large is, certainly in my experience, a nonsense.

We do it because we are told to (because line managers and quality auditors expect/demand it).

If learning styles are "real" in any sense - even being that learners do have "preferences" or find it easier to learn in one way rather than another then they must have some value in that sense. The issue is how to apply it. But the hard reality is that no state education system has the funds, and no teacher the time, to tailor every subject to the whims of each and every student's preference in detail.

Only a superhuman could actually apply the required level of personalisation in any meaningful way. So we lip serve the tests just as we lip serve our application of their results.

I generally agree with Seán's comments in his working hypothesis that:
...a mixture of types of material and techniques seems likely to maximise the possibility of learning, and interestingness of delivery...

But I would put it the other way round - a mixture of types of material and techniques seems likely to maximise the interestingness of delivery and therefore the possibility of learning.

In my own experience of teaching and observing others, the approach to applying learning styles has been diluted to pretty much that. Use a variety of approaches (so much testing finally results in what was common sense to most of us anyway).

The final reality is of course that once a learner leaves education no one, and I mean NO ONE, is going to care for their learning preferences. They must simply get on with the job. So the final value for any learning style profile, (if you accept that they have value), may be to identify a learner's area of weakness and therefore area of required development. If they are poor at Kineasthetic - they may simply have to get better at it - their future boss simply won't care to make special allowances for them - they can either do the job or they can't.

Having said all that, while I have to do it there's no harm in seeing what correlations appear as part of teacher training - don't you find it interesting?


Finally I would like to thank Seán for his comment, otherwise I might have missed the Frank Coffield report he mentions, which is by far the best education read I have come across in a long long time - reference below. Thanks Seán... and good luck with the ongoing battle against the unnecessary.

Frank Coffield (2008). Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority.... London: Learning and Skills Network. 51

Friday, 19 June 2009

Ofsted - Part of the problem?

I am sure many (if not most) in the teaching profession would say "yes, of course" to the question above. But while the public mood is to place yet more accountability on those in the public sector (which includes teachers) it is not likely to be an easy task persuading people that actually, the very body which holds the teaching profession most accountable - is part of the problem.

According to the BBC this view is supported by the NASUWT in response to Ofsted's report on standards of English teaching in Primary and Secondary school.

While Ofsted is reported as saying:

"progress has been made in the past five years and standards have risen - but
not fast enough." (BBC)

The response from the NASUWT was according to the BBC "extremely sceptical" about the value of such reports from Ofsted. Its general secretary, Chris Keates, said:

"Ofsted's definition of what is 'good' changes on an annual basis, making
it impossible to compare results over any period of time.

"This report says results are not improving fast enough. What does that actually mean? No matter how much or how quickly results improve, Ofsted will continue to move the goalposts. It's a race teachers can never win.

"One of the biggest single factors which undermine the efforts of teachers to raise standards is the amount of time they have to spend meeting the real or perceived needs of Ofsted rather than being able to prioritise the needs of pupils. Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution."

If you have been in the teaching profession long enough to feel the impact of an Ofsted report you will probably understand where Chris Keates is coming from. If you have never worked as a teacher you may never understand what it is to have government demand performance targets of teachers, when much of that is in fact out of the teacher's direct control (things such as upbringing, parental support, funding, whether the student even has breakfast...).

For the non-teachers I put it this way. Which do you think more likely to increase your child's performance at school, and what would you prefer your child's teacher did?

  • Focus on and worry about Ofsted, and the admin Ofsted values?
  • Or focus on and worry about your child, and how their education is getting on?
Common sense makes the answer pretty clear. But while we have a government and educational system that values top-down management from afar, over local teachers responding to local needs in creative ways (commonly called empowerment), then what Ofsted is looking for will always take priority over your child's needs.

With that in mind you'd better hope Ofsted knows what your child needs more than your child's teacher does. And you'd better hope that if teachers focus on what Ofsted calls "good practice" and fill in all the paperwork to prove that "good practice " takes place, that somehow, miraculously this will have the desired effect on your child's education.

It is simply a matter of trust - Ofsted don't trust the teachers to do it, they only believe the paper that says it was done, they call that evidence.

Personally, I would prefer to spend more time planning and actually giving quality lessons, than taking time away from that to create paper trails that make it look like I did. But for Ofsted, the audit trail is more real. To be fair, they probably want both the good teaching and the paper trail. But there is only so much time in a week, so while the paper trail is more important, guess where the teacher's attention will be?

Monday, 15 June 2009

Hoorah for Knighted Head Teacher - Now untie the hands of the rest of us...

In this years list of knighthoods is included the Head Teacher of Robert Clack School in Dagenham, Paul Grant. I for one applaud this move. He certainly deserves it if the achievements reported by the BBC are anything to go by:
Head teacher Paul Grant is credited with restoring discipline to a failing Essex secondary school.

In his first week as head teacher at Robert Clack School in Dagenham, Mr Grant excluded 300 pupils in a drive to consistently enforce discipline.

But last year the proportion of students achieving five or more good GCSEs was just above the average and the government named it as one of 12 schools "excelling against the odds".

Wonderful. If 300 students need excluding for their behaviour then yes, the Head Teacher should be allowed to exclude them.

Unfortunately many Heads are not taking this kind of action, even on a much smaller scale. Some cite targets to reduce exclusions and expulsions for this, but whatever the reason, to fail to consistently enforce discipline is to fail every student at the most basic level.

If targets really are preventing Heads taking action, then they should ignore them and enforce discipline anyway. Why wait until 300 need excluding in one week? There is no excuse for that.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

"Disappointed" that young people are "Concerned" about the economy?

One has to wonder what the DCSF really expects anyone to do about this, and why they even think this is a problem. The BBC reports that:
A spokesperson for the Department of Children, Schools and Families, said
it was "disappointing" that some young people were concerned about the economy.

Well deary me, young people are actually aware of what is going on around them and it causes them concern. Pardon me for being a little dismissive but isn't this a good thing? When we say "young people" these days we are refering usually to those up to the age of 19. Surely an 18 or 19 year old should be shouldering some concern about the state of the economy. Why does the DCSF think this is cause for concern?

I say, get your students to take it on the chin, face the world and make their own futures against all odds. No namby pamby molly coddling from me. Tell them this is how the world is, but they can still make it.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Learning Styles, Hidden Secrets

Learning style questionnaires, if we are not careful, can be little more than a technicality, especially in my area. After all, how many ways can you teach someone to draw? Explaining how only goes so far, this is not English comprehension, you have to get the students to see it, and do it.

Typically we have students for art that have high visual and high kineasthetic prefference, and this makes sense given what art & design entails. Typically they have a lower relative auditory preference. Something like this:

This is what we expect for art. However we have 2 students with the reverse.

When they clearly have a preference for auditory learning, and they are less strong on a visual or kineasthetic approach, why choose Art? I might expect this profile from an English Literature student or something.

A quick peep at their Literacy diagnostic showed them both to still have strong L2 literacy skills, with one of them exhibiting some L3 literacy skills. So, I ask again, why Art?

I believe the answer is that they both have a disability which makes learning via their preferred method difficult. One is Dyslexic and the other Dysgraphic (writing is an issue).

Basically, they don't have as strong a natural leaning to learning art the way art learning works (visually, and by doing), so it seems they picked art because their disability means they are prevented from learning other subjects that better match their natural learning style.

These learners will need particular help (lots more describing than is normal for an art student) since in some ways it appears that they are choosing to go against their own nature by doing art. (That's my view, but I welcome your comments.)

I wonder how much support this lends to my theory that some students choose art, not because they are great at it, but because they simply found other subjects even more difficult (on account of Dyslexia for instance). What do you think?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Teaching Art or Multimedia (Unit by Unit or Everything Linked?)

When I first started teaching multimedia after working for several years in industry, I was pushed in the direction of teaching each unit of the course separately from the other. The college approach seemed to be one of individual teachers taking responsibility for individuals units (or subjects) and each being taught independent of the others during different sessions across the week.

At the time (several years ago now) I was so new to teaching that I didn't argue. After all, I am the newbie, what do I know? However as my teacher training progressed (now complete I am glad to say) I came to see how this approach was not really the ideal for our students. I did not feel the approach would adequately make the students into what I call whole creatives. Instead of seeing the course as 18 units, I began to see teaching and learning in multimedia as being essentially split into just 2 main areas:
  • Design Processes/Design Thinking
  • Tools and Tool Techniques
These areas appear in each unit in different degrees. Some are very strongly focused on design thinking, while others on tools. While the titles of these two areas could probably do with some refinement, the idea is that while different types of knowledge or skills can be taught independently initially, ultimately learners need to be able to use these together to be a whole creative individual. We call this bringing of knowledge or skills of different kinds together synthesis.

I have developed a model to explain this below:

Synthesis of skills over time allows greater learner maturity, freedom and creativity

For instance a learner can be taught how to use Photoshop during one session or unit, and methods for generating ideas in another session or unit. But this only goes so far, they must then be able to use those two skill areas together to meet creative objectives.

I did not feel that teaching units independently of each other was going to achieve this.

In changing the unit by unit approach however, it needs to be understood that you still can't pour everything together into a big pot straight away either. The problem there is that the concept of using skill areas together is too large and complex to be a good starting point and learners will simply drown. Initially then learners must be taught some different skill areas independently but then (as soon as possible and as they become ready) they should be guided so that their understanding in these different areas becomes linked together

This is essential for several reasons.

Learners who remain strong in design processes are usually good at understanding design problems, and generating and refining ideas - but unless they learn about production tools (e.g. Photoshop or Studio Max) they will not fully understand how the technology impacts on the suitability or production of their ideas.

Learners who are strong on tools and techniques for using tools are able to use technology efficiently - but unless they learn to apply the design process they will be under-developed creatively and relegate themselves to the role of technician, essentially reproducing the ideas of others. They may be efficient, but not as effective as they could be.

The aim then is for learners to be able to use tools and techniques in conjunction with design process and design thinking, thus making them whole creative individuals.

So I don't worry about one unit per lecturer any more, or one unit per session. Instead we teach by project, we link units to projects and work on them in every session, and every tutor brings their expertise to each project.

This is actually one of the benefits of the BTEC National Diploma system. While the whole qualification is made up of 18 units (each one being a different subject), we are free (and encouraged to by Edexcel, if not your particular college) to link these units together wherever possible.

I like to teach new tools or skills separately and give short projects or homework to ensure these new skills are understood. Then I like to feed these new skills into larger projects where they must be used in conjunction with the design thinking and design process skills, or other tools skills the learner has.

In this way learners get to learn processes, and tools, and bring them together. It is not always easy, but learners do have the opportunity to become better creatives who can see how everything they learn fits together, and can make intelligent decisions based on a real understanding of the whole picture.