If you read only one book on education, read this one: Francis Gilbert’s preface to ‘Learning Matters’

New cover with new typeIt is my firm belief this passionate polemic is one of the most important investigations into education published in the last twenty years. Why? There are two reasons:

First, Roger Titcombe really shows you more clearly than anyone else where things have gone wrong in schools.

Second, he offers genuine, practical solutions to the problems.

This is a book both about the tragedy of millions of lives scarred by educational failure, but it also offers genuine hope: it is both a rigorously researched polemic and a guide.

There are a number of things that make Roger Titcombe’s polemical guide so unique. It is written by a teacher but it is not exclusively for teachers, although, I am sure, many will find it essential reading. It combines gritty, no-nonsense analysis with powerful personal stories that show beyond doubt that a toxic cocktail of factors have poisoned our school system.

There have been many books which have outlined the problems of our system but very few have brought together so many disparate elements into a coherent whole: Titcombe’s scope is huge. He not only analyses our school system, but he shows us how children learn, how we think, how free markets work, how marketised education is linked to social disorder and how successive governments have implemented policies that have stopped learning happening in our schools.

It’s worth here going through Titcombe’s central arguments because once you’ve got the “big picture” of what he’s saying, you’ll better appreciate the masterful way he marshals his arguments and evidence.

Throughout the book Titcombe illustrates with a number of powerful examples why our examination system, school league tables and competition between schools since the late 1980s has caused a catastrophic change in the way our pupils are taught. Put bluntly, our schools are making students stupider. This isn’t primarily our teachers’ fault but the fault of a system which encourages students to learn in a very superficial fashion. Instead of learning deeply, students are drilled to pass exams and pretty much forget everything they’ve learnt after they’ve taken them.

What is exceptional about this book is the evidence Titcombe provides to back up his points. This is no woolly liberal diatribe against exams-per-se because Titcombe argues if used sensibly exams can be a powerful tool for helping students learn in a “deep fashion”. Throughout the book, Titcombe refers to Cognitive Ability Tests or CATs for short (a form of IQ test widely used for school admissions) because they are the most reliable measure we have of students’ current cognitive ability levels. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up believer in IQ tests to agree with Titcombe’s points. Personally, I think IQ tests are not always a reliable test of intelligence in individual cases but the general picture they paint is tremendously powerful: they are a much more reliable indicator of the state of intellectual development of a pupil than most external exams, like the SATs tests administered in the UK at the moment. Most serious educationalists would accept Titcombe’s diagnosis: we have a school system at the moment that is very poor at getting children to master the challenging concepts needed to become more intelligent. Titcombe believes that intelligence is plastic: it can be increased or inhibited by the nature of schooling. Sadly, we have the worst of both worlds. We have students who pass their exams with flying colours and think they’re really clever (when they’re not) and a lot of students who have failed their exams and think they’re really stupid (when they’re not). Read this book, and learn just how inane our current exam system is: it makes for damning, chilling reading.

Many commentators – both on the left and right — have said similar things to this but not many (none I would dare to say) have joined the dots in the way that Titcombe has: Learning Matters is superb at tying together many disparate threads. Titcombe manages to show that the shift from a locally accountable school system to one which is both very centralised and market-driven has meant that many schools have chucked “deep learning” out of the window in favour of “quick fixes” to get good exam results. He points out how all of us have been affected by this change: the way we’re taught has wrought an insidious, hidden change in the way we relate to each other as human beings. We have become a society which not only has a social underclass but a “cognitive” one as well. This has made us more dependent in our lives on consumerism, achieving status through spending our money on things instead of relating to each other in meaningful ways.

This is a very brave book because it will alienate people both on the left and right. Many people on the left may have serious problems with the way Titcombe suggests that poorer communities have become dumber, while those on the right won’t like his eviscerating attack on the way a market-driven school system has eroded educational standards. It is a fearless book: Titcombe goes where no serious educational commentator has dared to tread.

Read it and weep, but also note its message of hope. Titcombe shows that it wouldn’t take that much to change things. He welcomes some of the changes recent government has made to the examination system but says that they need to go further. He points out that every teacher could defy the current predilection for superficial learning and modify their practice to teach “deep learning”. I know I’ve changed the way I teach as a result of reading this book.

By Francis Gilbert

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Greta Thunberg: what we can learn from her example

The following are my personal views arising from Greta’s words.

On climate change

Like Greta, I am with David Attenborough and the climate scientists. I actually believe Greta understates the seriousness of the crisis. It seems unlikely that the increase in mean global temperature will be kept below 1.5 deg C. Here I agree with the arguments of George Monbiot in this Guardian article.

He identifies the  crux of the problem as being embedded in the nature of capitalism.

Capitalism’s failures arise from two of its defining elements. The first is perpetual growth. Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources. Last week a paper in the journal New Political Economy, by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, examined this premise. They found that while some relative decoupling took place in the 20th century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st century there has been a recoupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth. The absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Green growth is an illusion.

All life on Earth relies on the self-sustaining balance between respiration and photosynthesis that has evolved over the last 4 billion years. I was taught at school in the 1960s that this has resulted in a stable equilibrium concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 300 parts per million. This has now risen in a few decades to more than 400 parts per million and is still rising. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. Two things should be beyond dispute. The first is that the rise in concentration of this key ‘greenhouse’ gas is a result of the industrial activities of humans driven by the exploitation of fossil fuels. The second is that such a rapid and drastic change is bound to have profound global ecosystem consequences.

Even in the unlikely event that the 1.5 deg C target limit is not exceeded, so much irreversible damage has already been caused to the Earth’s climate-based ecosystems that millions of people in the parts of the world most affected by climate-driven catastrophe are now likely to either die or be driven to migrate in extreme desperation to the more temperate northern latitudes, fuelling massive political instability and the growth of state fascism.

So Greta is correct to argue for the response of extreme urgency that she articulates as ‘the need for panic’.

On the fact that she is a mildly autistic KS4 schoolgirl

Greta describes her Asbergers syndrome as a gift not a disease. Given the quality and clarity of her writing and speech making, who could argue with that?

However, in the Academised, marketised English education system, that is not how such autism is perceived by the business bosses of Multi-Academy Trusts, as indicated by the worsening off-rolling scandals that the government seems so disinclined to effectively address. However, autistic spectrum students can still experience great unhappiness even in good comprehensive schools that rightly place importance on the quality of relationships. Greta herself acknowledges that she struggles with social relationships in school. If schools rightly value social relationships as central to development and internalisation of deep understanding there is a clear challenge that must be explicitly addressed in the management of teaching and learning so as to recognise the diversity of responses of individual students.

I discovered that the Principal of Greta’s school is Sirrka Persson. She is a ‘facilitator’ within ‘Human Dynamics Sweden’. This is a quote from their website.

Many testify that they previously assumed that everyone thinks the same way, but that they now have an increased understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences. Human Dynamics has definitely benefited collaboration and is a simple aid to increase understanding of both their own and others’ way of working, being and developing.

Perhaps our schools too can learn from Ms Persson, who has posted her support for Greta on Facebook.

Until I retired in 2003, I was head of an inner urban comprehensive in Barrow-in-Furness for 14 years. We occasionally had students with Asbergers, who were supported with some success, but that was back in the days of generous SEN funding, Statementing and support from an excellent LEA local SEN team. We taught autistic spectrum awareness to all our students as part of our Anti-Bullying policy. This is important, as many serious problems can be avoided if classmates and other students are taught to be aware of the potential for social misunderstandings with students that may have a different way of thinking and responding to social contexts.

However we also had a severely autistic student with whom we could not cope.  Displays of  hostility and aggression towards other well-meaning students combined with extreme destructiveness towards the school can become too difficult to manage in a community comprehensive and require specialist provision, but what is certain is that policies of ‘silent corridors’ and solitary confinement in ‘isolation booths’ will never be acceptable solutions.

On whether school students need a right of ‘Agency’

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. While thinking about Greta Thunberg’s support for peaceful direct action, I came across this article by Tom Sherrington. I am convinced of the importance of this now that Academy MAT practice, supported by OfSTED and the DfE is so firmly moving in the opposite direction that I have copied the following from Tom’s article.

If  school regimes are permanently very tight, they’re not really giving students room to develop agency. It always strikes me as odd when schools with silent corridor policies talk about this in terms of wanting their students to walk tall, matching anyone from the local grammar schools and independent schools – none of which impose silent corridor regimes. Student behaviour isn’t truly impeccable unless students are choosing to behave impeccably – is it? Hyper-controlled behaviour is still basically a deficit model, where students aren’t trusted  – not yet.  Real agency comes when, having learned to value the truer freedoms afforded by good behaviour, students continue to behave impeccably whilst having the freedom not to. And what about learning?  If you are never given the chance to make a choice, how do you learn to make a good one?  To choose a good book? To pursue a line of enquiry beyond the set curriculum in a rigorous manner rather than a shallow one?  What’s the point of placing maximum emphasis on teaching kids to read if we don’t then later allow the possibility that students can teach themselves things by reading? Perhaps even by reading things they’ve chosen to read?  Some teachers are horrified – deeply sceptical, scoffing loudly into their twitter feeds – at the suggestion that it might be instructive to ask students for their views about things they want to learn about, ideas about the kinds of activities they value in terms of their own learning.   I remember being 14 and having some pretty clear ideas about this.  As a teacher I’ve learned a great deal from students and often been surprised and delighted by their ideas about the curriculum.  In a culture of high expectations and serious pursuit of excellence, students can bring a lot to the table, using their experience or perspectives to enrich and enhance your own.

 Just because you might never have had the joy of teaching students with great ideas doesn’t mean that students can’t ever have them.  In fact it may be that your refusal to allow for student agency in relation to their curriculum has held them back. [my bold]

I’ve written about this extensively under the title ‘co-construction‘.   Of course, you don’t just dump students in the deep-end and proclaim the virtue of the great struggle.  No.  You teach them to swim, set up a ramp of incremental challenge and, when ready, you let them jump in.  You build their capacity for independent learning gradually over time, moving from being tight and structured to a more open approach as their agency develops.   If that’s not an explicit goal, I don’t think it happens.  I’d suggest the same should apply to behaviour. 

[In my headship school, this principle was a core value. It was built into our ‘Behaviour Curriculum’]

One of my all-time favourite things to see in a school was when, at KEGS, I found a group of Y9s unsupervised in a classroom during lunch.  They informed me that I’d stumbled upon the new, independently initiated, KS3 Debating Society where the motion in hand was ‘This house would invade North Korea’.  The debate was underway with a self-appointed chair, two teams and an enthusiastic audience. That seems like true agency to me.  In my view, school culture should allow things like this to happen – at least in the end.  There are safety and safeguarding considerations, of course  – and this is very context specific.

But real agency has to be fuelled by trust so at some point trust has to be given. That requires a belief that whilst students must first learn to be trustworthy, ultimately, having learned, they should be trusted. [my bold]

The concept of ‘agency’ has for too long been absent from educational discourse and Tom’s article is timely. It surely cannot any longer be ignored in the wake of 16 year-old Greta’s astonishing achievement and leadership.

On the need to confront the government with their lies and speak the truth to power

Greta clearly needs no advice on this, as is evident from her speech to MPs, from which this is an extract.

The UK is, however, very special. Not only for its mind-blowing historical carbon debt, but also for its current, very creative, carbon accounting. Since 1990 the UK has achieved a 37% reduction of its territorial CO2 emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. And that does sound very impressive. But these numbers do not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. If these numbers are included the reduction is around 10% since 1990 – or an an average of 0.4% a year, according to Tyndall Manchester. And the main reason for this reduction is not a consequence of climate policies, but rather a 2001 EU directive on air quality that essentially forced the UK to close down its very old and extremely dirty coal power plants and replace them with less dirty gas power stations. And switching from one disastrous energy source to a slightly less disastrous one will of course result in a lowering of emissions.

But perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to “lower” our emissions. Because that is far from enough. Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5-2.0 deg C of warming. The “lowering of emissions” is of course necessary but it is only the beginning of a fast process that must lead to a stop within a couple of decades, or less. And by “stop” I mean net zero – and then quickly on to negative figures. That rules out most of today’s politics.

It is not just its climate change policies that the government lies about. It is so arrogant that it feels able to constantly state obvious rubbish like, ‘cutting police budgets is not linked to the rise in violent crime’, and ‘Universal Credit is not linked to the proliferation of food banks’. An example is Damian Hinds statements about the value of KS2 SATs, which are comprehensively trashed in this article on the Reclaiming Schools website from which this is an extract.

Firstly we are told that children’s learning is assessed through national standardised tests ‘all over the world, from France to Finland and America to Australia’. This is not exactly a lie, just ‘economical with the truth’. Finland, as is well known, does not use national tests until age 18. France has recently introduced some national tests, but very light touch (20 minutes in length). ‘In most US States,  they happen annually.’ True, but anyone who thinks they raise achievement should look at the international PISA assessments where the USA, like England, bounces along the bottom.

Hinds goes on to argue that ‘these assessments do not exist to check up on our children’ but ‘to keep account of the system, and those responsible for delivering it’. If SATs are there to check the system is working, PISA does that already – and shows that it is working poorly.

The second argument is different: to check on the ‘deliverers’, the teachers. Is this supposed to reassure the parents of over-stressed children? England is a laboratory for control and surveillance. Here standardised tests link to league tables, link to Ofsted, link to performance pay, link to academisation, link to market competition… to create a total system of stress and suspicion. It is no use Hinds arguing that ‘all over the world, schools guide children through tests without them feeling pressured.’ He presides over a nightmare system which leads headteachers to pass the pressure down the line to teachers who pass it on to pupils – a system held together by fear and stress. It is disingenuous to pretend it’s just an attitude problem. Hinds continues: ‘Imagine if the government announced that it was going to ban dental exams or stop opticians measuring our eyesight. People would be rightly horrified’.

Indeed, but surely dental exams and eye tests are for the individual’s good, not to question the professionalism of dentists and opticians. [my bold]

On the wisdom of children

Our grandchildren are a great joy and this can even apply to the programmes they watch on CBBC. One such is ‘So Awkward’. This is a comprehensive school soap, but ‘Grange Hill’ it isn’t. Far from being a gritty depiction of an urban comp, this is set in a fictitious ‘smart blazer and tie’ school in an affluent suburb.

However, its writers must include ex-secondary teachers because school life and the ‘awkward’ stresses felt by teachers and their and adolescent students are so sharply and hilariously observed. There have now been a great many episodes so its brilliantly talented young cast is now suffering the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and very obviously ‘growing up’ with each new series.

The recurring theme of ‘So Awkward’ that is so relevant to this article is that the school students are always so much wiser than the adults: the parents, teachers and the headmistress.

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Greta Thunberg teaches us more than the truth about climate change

On 11 February 2019, Greta posted the following on her Facebook page. I am copying it here partly so I can link to it in future articles about education, but mainly because it is so inspiring that it brought tears to my eyes. 

As the rumours, lies and constant leaving out of well established facts continue, please share this newly updated clarification about me and my school strike. Please help me communicate this to the grown ups who lie about me and family so that I can focus on school instead.

Recently I’ve seen many rumours circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis), a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.

So let me make some things clear about my school strike. In May 2018 I was one of the winners in a writing competition about the environment held by Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper. I got my article published and some people contacted me. Among others was Bo Thorén from Fossil Free Dalsland. He had some kind of group with people, especially youth, who wanted to do something about the climate crisis.

I had a few phone meetings with other activists. The purpose was to come up with ideas of new projects that would bring attention to the climate crisis. Bo had a few ideas of things we could do. Everything from marches to a loose idea of some kind of a school strike (that school children would do something on the schoolyards or in the classrooms). That idea was inspired by the Parkland students, who had refused to go to school after the school shootings.

I liked the idea of a school strike. So I developed that idea and tried to get the other young people to join me, but no one was really interested. They thought that a Swedish version of the Zero Hour march was going to have a bigger impact. So I went on planning the school strike all by myself and after that I didn’t participate in any more meetings.

When I told my parents about my plans they weren’t very fond of it. They did not support the idea of school striking and they said that if I were to do this I would have to do it completely by myself and with no support from them. On the 20 August I sat down outside the Swedish Parliament. I handed out fliers with a long list of facts about the climate crisis and explanations on why I was striking. The first thing I did was to post on Twitter and Instagram what I was doing and it soon went viral.

Then journalists and newspapers started to come. A Swedish entrepreneur and business man active in the climate movement, Ingmar Rentzhog, was among the first to arrive. He spoke with me and took pictures that he posted on Facebook. That was the first time I had ever met or spoken with him. I had not communicated or encountered with him ever before. Many people love to spread rumours saying that I have people ”behind me” or that I’m being ”paid” or ”used” to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ”behind” me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself. And I do what I do completely for free, I have not received any money or any promise of future payments in any form at all. And nor has anyone linked to me or my family done so. And of course it will stay this way. I have not met one single climate activist who is fighting for the climate for money. That idea is completely absurd.
Furthermore I only travel with permission from my school and my parents pay for tickets and accommodations.

My family has written a book together about our family and how me and my sister Beata have influenced my parents way of thinking and seeing the world, especially when it comes to the climate. And about our diagnoses. That book was due to be released in May [2018]. But since there was a major disagreement with the book company, we ended up changing to a new publisher and so the book was released in August instead. Before the book was released my parents made it clear that their possible profits from the book ”Scener ur hjärtat” will be going to 8 different charities working with environment, children with diagnoses and animal rights.

And yes, I write my own speeches. But since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.

Some people mock me for my diagnosis. But Aspergers is not a disease, it’s a gift. People also say that since I have Aspergers I couldn’t possibly have put myself in this position. But that’s exactly why I did this. Because if I would have been ”normal” and social I would have organized myself in an organisation, or started an organisation by myself. But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead.

I was so frustrated that nothing was being done about the climate crisis and I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things – like just sitting down outside the parliament – speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper sometimes is louder than shouting.

Also there is one complaint that I ”sound and write like an adult”. And to that I can only say; don’t you think that a 16-year old can speak for herself? There’s also some people who say that I oversimplify things. For example when I say that “the climate crisis is a black and white issue”, ”we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases” and ”I want you to panic”. But I only say that because it’s true. Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ”stop it”. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Because either we limit the warming to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. And when I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis. When your house is on fire you don’t sit down and talk about how nice you can rebuild it once you put out the fire. If your house is on fire you run outside and make sure that everyone is out while you call the fire department. That requires some level of panic.

There is one other argument that I can’t do anything about. And that is the fact that I’m ”just a child and we shouldn’t be listening to children.” But that is easily fixed – just start to listen to the rock solid science instead. Because if everyone listened to the scientists and the facts that I constantly refer to – then no one would have to listen to me or any of the other hundreds of thousands of school children on strike for the climate across the world. Then we could all go back to school.

I am just a messenger, and yet I get all this hate. I am not saying anything new, I am just saying what scientists have repeatedly said for decades. And I agree with you, I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this. But since almost no one is doing anything, and our very future is at risk, we feel like we have to continue.

And if you have any other concern or doubt about me, then you can listen to my TED talk ( https://www.ted.com/search?q=greta+thunberg+the+disarming ), in which I talk about how my interest for the climate and environment began.

And thank you everyone for your kind support! It brings me hope.

PS I was briefly a youth adviser for the board of the non profit foundation “We don’t have time”. It turns out they used my name as part of another branch of their organisation that is a start up business. They have admitted clearly that they did so without the knowledge of me or my family. I no longer have any connection to “We don’t have time”. Nor does anyone in my family. They have deeply apologised for what has happened and I have accepted their apology.

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What’s not to like?

When this question is asked by a politician, an unsolicited social media post, or someone selling you something, it is always wise to think about it very carefully. Here are some examples with answers in italics.

Selling council houses to their tenants at huge discounts.

Loss of public housing stock leading to unaffordable rents and no security of tenure.

Record levels of employment.

But also record levels of in-work family poverty.

Record numbers of children in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools.

But are these schools really good at anything other than attracting the bright children of affluent parents and keeping less able and Special Needs kids out?

Taking back control of our national affairs from the European Union.

That didn’t go so well did it?

Here is an ‘educational success’ story from our local newspaper with a quote in italics.

Latest data from the Market Intelligence Data Exchange Service shows Furness College is in the top 15 per cent of further education colleges nationally for GCSEs in English and maths. Almost 40 per cent of learners at the college achieve higher grades in maths – exceeding the national average of 17 per cent – while English pass rates are at 45 per cent, bucking the national trend of 26 per cent. Principal and chief executive Andrew Wren said: “The improvements that have been made have helped far more students to achieve the higher grades in English and maths, which they need to progress”. “More than 80 per cent of our students at the Channelside campus do not have English and/or Maths GCSE grade 4 or more when they join us. “The fact that so many go on to secure the all-important subjects is a testament to the quality of teaching here and our experienced team who are relentlessly focused on helping students achieve.”

What’s not to like?

In 1989, when I was interviewed for the headship of a Barrow secondary school, this took place at Barrow-in-Furness College of Further Education, which was then funded and regulated by Cumbria County Council. However, this was not to last. See this celebratory article from the April 2013 edition of ‘FE Week’.

Twenty years ago radical change took place as colleges were freed from local authority control. The revolution had started five years earlier when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced market forces into state schools. After the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 and the resultant Incorporation the following year, however, colleges rapidly overtook schools and could now teach them a lesson or two — no wonder [Labour] government officials were imploring college leaders to sponsor a new generation of academies at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in Birmingham last November.

In fact Furness College, as it is now called, was much faster off the mark than that, taking the lead sponsor role in a major Academisation re-organisation resulting in the closure of three secondary schools in Barrow-in-Furness and the transfer of their 2,500 pupils to other schools and the new Furness Academy. That this was not a success is a massive understatement. The town is yet to recover.

Of the four remaining Barrow secondary schools the 2018 top performer at Grade 5+ in English and maths with 46% was the only remaining non-Academy school. The other (all Academy) schools came in at 41%, 28% with Furness Academy (the new school sponsored by Furness College) lowest at 26%. And this a full nine years after its opening in 2009.

Thorncliffe and Parkview schools, with catchments serving the most affluent and highest Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) scores postcodes of Barrow, were closed as part of the Academy plan and their sites sold for executive private housing. However their former catchment parents have largely rejected the Academy such that hundreds of Barrow pupils now travel every day by bus or train to the highly regarded LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston, forcing Furness Academy to recruit from the lower CATs score postcodes of Barrow.

After repeated OfSTED failure Furness College was removed from sponsorship by the DfE in 2015 to be replaced by nuclear submarine manufacturer BAE Systems. This is how it was reported by ‘Schools Week’.

BAE Systems – Europe’s biggest arms company, turning over £15.4bn last year – is set to take over Furness Academy in Barrow, Cumbria, in September. It has set up a trust to run the school under its submarine-building arm, which is based in the town. The company will build new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, should the UK’s Trident programme get the go-ahead next year. BAE Systems Marine Submarines Academy Trust will be tasked with turning around the troubled school that has been in special measures since March 2012. Despite a subsequent Ofsted inspection in May 2013 and five monitoring visits, inspectors say it is still not improving enough. Tony Johns, the managing director of BAE Systems Submarines, said in a statement: “We have for a long time supported local education at primary, secondary and college level, and see this positive step as an extension to our commitment in helping Furness Academy provide its students with the best possible education.”

I couldn’t find data on 2018 Grade 4+ pass rates in Barrow but, given that 80% of its students do not have these qualifications on entry, it seems to suggest that the involvement of Furness College in the Barrow secondary education system since 2009 has been successful in ensuring plenty of business for its 16+ English and maths GCSE re-take courses. Loath as I am to provide excuses for the failed Academisation of the town’s education system, this is not entirely fair. Local Labour councillors didn’t like the poorer, Labour voting, parts of the town being ‘stigmatised’ by the Cumbria wide CATs testing policy, so it was withdrawn, so removing the key valid evidence that the alleged GCSE ‘under-performance’ was actually consistent with the very low catchment CATs scores, which were and remain the real, unaddressed educational issue.

This is the ‘attainment gap’ fallacy described here and in subsequent articles informed by evidence obtained by my colleague John Mountford.

But what’s not to like about the success achieved by Furness College in halving the proportion of its students without a ‘good’ GCSE grade in English and maths?

But is GCSE Grade 4  ‘a good grade’ in any meaningful sense as a sound foundation for credible BSc degree courses in Nursing and Midwifery, or any other science-based profession? Let us turn the clock back fifty years to the 1960s when nursing and midwifery were not ‘graduate entry’ professions. State Registered Nurse (SRN) was the equivalent of today’s  Registered Nurse status. Entry to SRN training was in non-university training institutions requiring five or more GCE passes at grade C or above. In those days only grammar school pupils that had passed the 11 plus exam took GCE exams. The 11 plus was and remains a Cognitive Ability test passed by the top 20-25% of the local population depending on the number of grammar school places in the Local Education Authority area. Given that not all grammar school pupils achieved five or more GCEs at C grade or above, SRN training then drew from at most the top 20% of the population.

I am not an expert on nursing and midwifery training and I have no doubt that massive changes for the better have taken place since the 1960s. However, the arguments about ‘graduate training’ remain and are set out in this article.

When the GCSE was created in 1988, grade C was the third tier down on the seven point A – G pass scale. The date is significant as the 1988 Education Reform Act marked the creation of the artificially devised and imposed marketisation of the English education system, which has resulted in extreme grade inflation as the privatised exam boards have competed with each other to offer ‘accessible’ GCSE syllabuses to schools that have been forced to compete and be judged by OfSTED on the basis of their %5+ A*-C including English and maths GCSE performance.

The current Grade 4 is the sixth tier down on a nine point scale and is now the ‘expected minimum’ attainment for the whole school population incorporated into the seriously flawed ‘Progress 8’ measure.

Of even more concern is the widespread ‘success’ that schools have achieved in hitting the key high stakes ‘good GCSE’ Grade C (now Grade 4) threshold. A well-established ‘formula’ for such ‘success’ is to only teach the easiest topics on the syllabus needed to exceed the (low) Grade C raw mark threshold, concentrating on these through intense regimes of rote learning, repetition, revision and cramming. This is a major factor in the continuing decline in the uptake of A Levels in maths and the STEM subjects for which maths understanding is the essential foundation.

So while the success of Furness College in getting its 16+ students over the GCSE Grade 4 hurdles in English and maths may be good for Furness College, for filling places on University of Cumbria degree courses and (possibly) for the students themselves, the ‘What’s not to like’ list is rather long.

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You can’t remember your way to understanding hard stuff

Probably the most important short statement ever made about teaching and learning is this from Vygotsky.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

Which brings me back to the recommendations of EEF and its misunderstandings about ‘metacognition’, which do indeed focus on associative bonds formed by memory and mental habits. And that’s the problem.

Here are simplified versions of Newton’s Laws of Motion.

First Law

A body remains motionless or continues to move in a straight line at constant speed unless subject to an external force

Second Law

Force = Mass x Acceleration

Third Law

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

Now match the following counter-intuitive phenomena to the appropriate Law.

A – Small, heavy-ish objects of different weights simultaneously dropped from the same height, hit the floor together

B – A child riding in a child’s seat on the back of mum’s bike cannot help her pedal up-hill by pushing on her bum

C – Above a few hundred metres, if you jump out of an aeroplane at a great height you hit the ground at the same speed as you would if you jumped from half the height.

If you are struggling, ask yourself how helpful it is to remember the three Laws of Motion by heart. Not helpful at all right? (answers: A – 2nd Law, B – 3rd Law, C – 1st Law).

Why did it take hominids more than a million years to notice that large, heavy rocks and small, light ones fall to earth at the same rate when dropped?

It is because it’s so profoundly counter-intuitive, which is the same reason why modern school students can’t understand it either, despite the well recorded efforts of Galileo (between 1589 and 1592), and successive generations of their  teachers making them memorise Newton’s Laws of Motion. (His Principia was published in 1687).

This is the reason.

Hold a heavy weight in your hand above a table. It presses down on your hand with a large force right? Now get your friend to push down on your empty hand with a similar large force. Then suddenly take your hand away. Your friend’s hand then crashes down onto the table. The harder your friend was pushing down, the faster his hand crashes down when you take your hand away. So it’s the same when holding heavy objects – the heavier they are, the greater the force on your hand and so the faster they ‘crash down’ when you release them.

Except that it isn’t: but why not?

It’s all to do with Piaget and the transition between Concrete and Formal Operational Thinking. Concrete stage minds can cope with one independent variable at a time. Hanging a heavy weight on a spring stretches it more than does a lighter weight (Hooke’s Law). Larger masses (kilograms) have a larger downward force of gravity (newtons) on them. This is called the weight of the object. How much things weigh depends on the strength of gravity g, which is the gravitational force (newtons) per kilogram of mass. On earth, gravity makes one kilogram weigh 9.8 newtons. If you  hold more kilograms in your hand the weight increases, just as a spring stretches more if you hang a bigger weight on it. Students that have reached Piaget’s Concrete stage are capable of understanding one on one patterns like this if taught competently.

Dropping objects is more complicated than this because there are two variables operating simultaneously. Two variables take the level of difficulty into the Formal Operational stage. Unless the minds of such students have reached this developmental level, they will not be able to construct personal mental models that make sense because their personal schema are not up to the job. This is the proper ‘constructivist’ meaning of ‘metacognition’ – consciously thinking about how to make sense of unexpected observations.

Alex Quigley, in the sixth instalment of his EEF ‘metacognition’ series, discusses ‘long term memory’, ‘cognitive load theory’ and chunking’. The idea is that to aid long term memorising you must not give the learner too much to learn in one go. Instead you should chop it into ‘chunks’. This really isn’t a profound idea worthy of a ‘learning theory’.

I am sure it is good advice if you want a student to memorise stuff, but it won’t of itself bring about understanding. To quote Vygotsky, such high level understanding can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has reached the requisite level. The real value of ‘metacognition’, lies in its power to help students develop their cognition from the concrete to the formal level (so they can understand it), not in helping them remember stuff. This is because without a conceptual framework that is up to the job, no amount of memorising brings about understanding.

So what are the two variables involved in dropping things?

The first is the weight of the object.

The second is its inertia. What’s that? Where did that come from? It too, comes from Newton’s 2nd Law of motion.

Force (weight) = Mass x Acceleration.

This tells you how much force is needed to get an object moving.

Change it round to Acceleration = Force/Mass and you see that larger masses (which weigh more) also take more force to get them moving. This resistance to moving is called the inertia of the object.

So you there you have your two variables, weight and inertia, and what’s more they cancel each other out, so heavy objects have lots of gravitational force on them, but they also have lots of inertia, so the extra inertia cancels out the heavier weight so all objects (that do not have significant air resistance) fall at the same rate.

What is that ‘same rate of fall’ for all objects? It is ‘g’, the strength of gravity (newtons per kilogram), whose equivalent units are metres per second squared, which is the unit of acceleration.

How beautifully brilliant is that? Why wouldn’t any student get an orgasmic flush of pleasure from realising that? It is what Archimedes must have felt when he leapt from his bath having suddenly understood the principle of flotation. What a fantastic job it is to lead school students to such insights; and not just science and maths students. For example, see the work of Deborah Kidd in the humanities and other subjects.

But such understanding does not accrue at a steady rate as more and more knowledge is emptied by the teacher into the mind of the student, like filling a bucket. It is important to note the experience of the student when taught on the knowledge/memory-based model. The teacher expects the student to gradually accrue more and more understanding with each ‘chunk’ of new knowledge shovelled in. EEF measures this process in ‘months of progress’.

But, unless the cognitive framework of the learner can assimilate the new knowledge in a way that makes sense to the learner, it is unlikely that there will be any growth of understanding. I don’t want to go all Marxist, but learning is a ‘dialectical’ process that arises from the tensions that contradictions cause in the mind (cognitive dissonance). Metacognition is the conscious process of thinking about such personal contradictions, so becoming able to express them to peers, and to debate the metacognition that others are able to express. This is a powerful learning process. It does not result in incremental gains over months, but sudden, joyous leaps of personal insight – altogether a more rewarding experience that builds motivation at the same time as expanding the general cognitive capability of the learner. This is the principle of ‘plastic intelligence’.

The importance of hands-on practical work

On 21 November 2013, OfSTED published a report entitled, Maintaining curiosity: a survey into science education in schools. They found that dull teaching – accompanied by a lack of practical work in the subject – was putting pupils off the science subjects. In some schools, not enough time had been set aside in the timetable for pupils to do practical work. Girls, in particular, were likely to ditch physics – with only 11,390 going on to do it in the sixth-form in 2011 despite 159,745 getting two good GCSE passes in science. In addition, a minority of secondary schools were ‘pre-occupied with tests and examination results as ends in themselves’ rather than aiming to improve pupils’ deeper knowledge of the subject. The report points out that getting good grades in science is not necessarily the same as “getting” science.

Since 2013 there has certainly been no improvement. I wrote about this in March 2017 and since then things have only got worse, with the shortage science teachers now dire, compounded by concerns about quality and experience, with so many teachers now ‘trained’ on the job in Academy MATs where practical science is getting ever rarer. I also wrote about the importance of practical work here.

I was fortunate to start my teaching career in 1971, just as schools were being lavishly equipped with the brilliantly designed apparatus for the new Nuffield Science courses. This equipment remained the mainstay of science practical work right up to my retirement in 2003, after 32 years of continuously teaching GCE, CSE, GCSE and A Level for the whole of that period.

In 1981/82, Along with many other Leicestershire LEA teachers, I was seconded onto the Leicester University M.Ed Studies course (full time, on full pay, with expenses). It was here that I became aware of the work of Philip Adey and Michael Shayer, who both had prior associations with Leicester University. We were taught about their work in developing the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Programme (CASE). Adey and Shayer were science teachers that had become obsessed with the problem of difficulty. Why is it that some students can understand hard stuff and some can’t? They realised that the answer is primarily to do with the current cognitive ability of the student, not their motivation, work rate, dedication or exposure to ‘memory aids’ and disciplines of the sort advocated by EEF. CASE is about teaching for cognitive development and understanding, rather than passing memory tests. It is still going strong.

After ten years of teaching science, this made immediate sense to me, so I bought their book, ‘Towards a Science Teaching’ (1981)This includes an annex containing their Curriculum Analysis Taxonomy that classifies the cognitive demand of scientific topics/concepts on a Piagetian scale 1-Pre-operational, 2A-Early Concrete, 2B-Late Concrete, 3A-Early Formal, 3B Late Formal.

For my M Ed dissertation I decided to test if this taxonomy was robust in practice. I recruited four experienced Heads of Science (plus myself) to use the taxonomy to rate the cognitive demands of the syllabus items in each of three ‘General Science’ CSE exam courses. My most important objective was to produce a statistical calculation of the degree of agreement between the five raters. I managed to gain the interest of Michael Shayer in this work and he helped me with the statistics of reliability. The result was that the raters agreed to a high degree, thus providing strong support for the validity and pedagogic utility of both Piagetian theory and its application to classroom practice.

There was much else in the results that was discussed in my dissertation, including the degree of ‘cognitive matching’ of the syllabus items to the likely distribution of Piagetian Levels in secondary school populations that had been determined by earlier work of Shayer and Adey. They had previously done their own analysis of the cognitive demand of GCE, Biology, Chemistry,  and Physics syllabuses and found a large mismatch with the likely cognitive ability distributions in the schools.

Nearly 40 years later this remains a crucial, issue for schools and their teachers. The difference now is that nobody at the DfE, OfSTED, EEF or anybody else supported and funded by the DfE has any interest in it, because the knowledge-based approach required by the ideology  of marketisation misunderstands the true relationship between teaching, learning and understanding.



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Is the mental health crisis in English schools being driven by the changes in teaching methods demanded by marketisation?

School refusal, school exclusions, self harm, drug culture, gang violence, social media and child suicides all appear to be linked, but there is no consensus on either the main causes, or effective responses, as is clear from this Guardian article.

The missing element from the debate is any coherent investigation and analysis of the perceptions of individual students of their school experiences. I have become interested in such issues following correspondence with Dr Jennifer Hawkins, who argues that emotional responses play a significant role in both learning and mental health issues and that this fact needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. Dr Hawkins’ book has recently been published and a preview can be found here. In it she analyses student voice, behaviour and context as a result of researching  the effects of empowering students by acknowledging and taking into account (though not necessarily agreeing with) their feelings as they learn.

My recent articles have raised concerns about ‘knowledge-based’ learning, its links to behaviourist ideology and how fundamental aspects of constructivist models that emphasise the role of metacognition, are being distorted and hijacked to support instructional approaches.

This may appear complex and abstruse, but such issues are at the heart of the ideological, government directed educational regime change that is threatening the education systems of the US and the UK. My personal career-long and continuing educational interest is with the potential for plastic cognitive ability/general intelligence to be enhanced through constructivist approaches to teaching and learning that were once mainstream in Western European and US schools.

Our schools are increasingly threatened by the march of neo-liberal political and economic ideologies that  require ‘educational regime change‘ in order for them to be implemented. I argue that the mental health crisis in our schools is ‘collateral damage’ that arises from this regime change process, which is led by the ‘Charter School’ movement in the US and ‘Academisation’ in the UK.

The ‘battlefields’ are the minds of children with their private mental crises arising from both cognitive and emotional responses to the culture of their schooling. My interests have previously focussed on how ‘knowledge-based’ pedagogy limits understanding and cognitive development. The work of Dr Hawkins has drawn my attention to important parallels with personal emotional responses, which can also limit learning and give rise to mental health issues. There is a paradox here, because ‘cognitive dissonance’ is necessary in order to trigger the metacognitive processes necessary for deep learning and understanding. But we don’t want such dissonance also to trigger negative feelings of failure leading to the questioning of ‘self worth’.

Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It is a personal mental habit essential for the resolution of cognitive dissonance.  It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. As learners experience the resulting cognitive growth they develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised in the education context as higher general cognitive ability (the student gains in general intelligence). Cognitive Conflict/Dissonance is central to all teaching for deep understanding. The teacher deliberately creates dissonance in the minds of students by exposing them to learning experiences that they struggle to make sense of. This is followed by supporting them in resolving this personal dissonance through encouraging and facilitating open peer to peer debate in the face of the evidence they have directly experienced. In order for a cognitive conflict to be resolved within the mind of an individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is usually necessary. Cognitive development (growth of general intelligence) arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs, each of which is like mounting a cognitive staircase. If there is insufficient cognitive conflict then the learner will just assimilate experiences at a shallow level and there will be no conceptual or cognitive gain.

The work of the Russian learning theorist Vygotsky provides a structure to help the teacher plan such learning, through his ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD). The ZPD is the level of cognitive challenge beyond which the learner cannot manage unaided, but not beyond what can be understood with the assistance of a teacher or peers that possess the relevant understanding. The teacher and/or peer group members can assist in a variety of ways that involve discussion (peers) and skilfully constructed leading questions (teacher). This is a key role of the teacher. It is only by experiencing this type of teaching and subsequently discussing it in departmental teams that the necessary teaching expertise can be built within a school.

If the cognitive conflict is too great then the learner might ‘close down’ and withdraw co-operation. This could be at a conscious or subconscious level. In education, hostility to the whole subject area is therefore a possible consequence. This is a commonly reported reaction to students of science and maths when subjected to instruction-based teaching methods.  Highly skilled teaching and managing of learning is essential to avoid such an outcome. In schools with a healthy co-operative learning culture, cognitive conflict brings about cognitive development. However, within the toxic, disciplinarian culture of ‘knowledge-based’ instruction, cognitive conflict can trigger dangerously powerful emotional responses of  ‘low self worth’ and hopelessness that can regress into mental illness.

Such toxic school cultures now abound and are spreading.

They are mainly to be found in Academy schools run by particular Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), but the culture is contagious and is spreading to LA schools. It is likely to be popular with new teachers recruited to Academy MATs to ‘learn on the job’ in schools that lack both an interest as well as expertise in the complexities and counter-intuitive nature of constructivist approaches that would formerly have been experienced by teachers trained in academic University Schools of Education. This is the reason why the government proponents of educational regime change are moving teacher training away from academic university centres of research and teaching excellence and gifting it to Academy MATs. Former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, famously stated that he ‘didn’t believe in experts’ preferring to ‘let the free market do the work of raising standards’ by forcing schools to compete with each other.

We need schools to be secure

Compared to most of my teaching career, which took place largely over the last three decades of the 20th century, our schools are now obsessed with security. Most of the secondary schools in which I taught had sites that were completely open to the public. The Leicestershire 14-19 Community College in which most of my teaching years were spent ran adult classes during the school day. Some of these involved adults learning alongside school students in the same classrooms. The large campus was unfenced, and the school had many external doors none of which were locked during the school day.

How times have changed. The local LA secondary school my eldest granddaughter now attends once had such an open campus. It is now surrounded by eight feet high security fences with vehicle and pedestrian access through electronically controlled gates. The neighbouring LA junior school attended by her sister recently had a ‘lock down’ drill.

So what is my point? I realise that we now live in less secure times, so we must accept the need to protect our children from new dangers.

But what about their emotional security?

The only case of serious harm being caused to pupils by an intruder to a British School took place in Dunblane in 1996 when an armed man shot and killed 16 children and a teacher. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history and the only one involving an adult intruder to a school. I remember this incident very clearly as I am sure do the residents of Dunblane. Of course our schools must be protected against such an event ever happening again and it is right that they have been.

But how many UK schoolchildren have since suffered serious, sometimes fatal, mental illness since 1996? It must number thousands and appears to be getting worse.

The Leicestershire Community College, where I taught had two full time School Councillors (a male and a female). The culture was very informal. Staff and students, including the Principal, were know to each other by their forenames. ‘Careers and Guidance’ was a compulsory weekly lesson for all students. It included Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). Teachers were kindly and approachable. There was a School Council and classrooms had carpets. Desks were usually arranged in groups in rooms that were set out in ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ format with the teacher addressing the class from one of the longer sides of the room.

However in some major subject areas of the school the pedagogy was ineffective. While not ‘toxic’, it was certainly tedious. The worst example was the teaching of maths. This used the principle of ‘individualised learning’, which was regarded as radical and was popular at the time in ‘progressive’ school cultures. Maths was taught in a huge room to about 70 students, with three teachers. There was some direct instruction (not easy in such a large space to so many students), but the curriculum was based on students individually progressing through worksheets, which they retrieved from and returned to large filing cabinets, while the teachers circulated in the room responding to requests for assistance. A significant proportion of students coped with the tedium by quietly chatting. They found that if they did not attract attention they could get away with little engagement with the ‘hard stuff’ on the worksheet.

A version of this took place in ‘Core Humanities’, an integrated Mode 3 (locally devised and assessed) double award CSE course, that included English language and a ‘social studies’ approach to history and geography. It took up six lessons (two doubles and two singles) per week. These lessons were taught in ‘humanities suites’ (three classrooms that could be made into one by opening folding screens). These suites surrounded the ‘Resources Centre’ (library). As well as books there were ‘boxes’ designed to support the Humanities CSE course. These boxes were available for each topic on the syllabus and the idea was that students would retrieve and use the contents to write the ‘coursework assignments’ that were assessed by their teachers for the awarding of grades. The same avoidance of engagement with difficult ideas strategies (ie avoiding the attention of the teacher while quietly chatting), worked in both subjects.

I must stress that other parts of the school (eg, science, design and technology, GCE/CSE and ‘options’) did not use these methods and were very effective in both engaging students and getting excellent exam results, benefiting from the very good teacher-student relationships in the school.

Not only were these individualised learning approaches ineffective (because they made minimal cognitive demands), they were  essentially ‘knowledge-based’. They created the foundation for the computerised versions of the same basic approach now being developed in US Charter Schools and some English Academy MATs on the ‘knowledge-based’ model. ‘Edu-businesses’ are now busy pushing such ‘tech-based’ learning systems for the purpose of creating ‘for-profit’ schools. The business model relies on the need for far fewer and much less qualified teachers, who could be paid much less, so reducing running costs while making the same demands on funding from the taxpayer, so generating large profits and dividends for their investors.

Nancy Bailey in the US writes about this a lot on her US website. Here is an example.

The relevance of this 1970s diversion is that for all the weaknesses of this Leicestershire Community College, student indiscipline was not one of them. Neither, as far as I was aware, were large scale student mental health issues.

If we are to make progress in addressing the growing mental health crisis in our schools, and this is not yet happening, then DfE, OfSTED and/or the Children’s Commissioner must address the relationship between school cultures and student mental illness. Or will government policies of educational regime change rumble on and continue to take their toll on the mental health of our children?

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Where does EEF stand on knowledge-based teaching?

The value of metacogition has been recognised by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and followers can sign up to receive a ten part briefing on the subject by Alex Quigley. This is from the introduction to the first instalment.

Since we launched our Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the strand on metacognition and self-regulation has consistently ranked as one of the most popular, read by almost 60,000 of you in the past year alone. Little wonder: the approach ranks as ‘high impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence’. This is why, in 2018, we published a new EEF guidance report, ‘Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning‘, offering 7 practical, evidence-based recommendations to support teachers to develop metacognitive skills in their pupils.

Metacognition may seem an abstruse issue, but it is at the heart of the difference between ‘knowledge-based’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches to teaching and learning discussed in my last article. While my website normally gets 30-50 views per day, since this article was published on 17 Feb, it  alone had nearly 700 views in the first three days, with a similar number of referrals from Twitter, where a fierce debate has raged.

However the EEF’s version appears to be metacognition as appropriated by the ‘knowledge-based’ learning movement. It is metacognition reduced to ‘a learning skill’, not metacognition as a vital element of the constructivist process by which learners create and develop their own framework of understanding. Here are some examples from the EEF’s metacognition briefing instalments so far published.

From 1st instalment – metacognition confused with remembering memory aids

By cognitive strategies, we mean skills like memorisation techniques, or subject-specific strategies like making different marks with a brush or different methods to solve equations in maths. This is the bread and butter of good teaching; cognitive strategies are fundamental to acquiring knowledge and completing learning tasks. By metacognitive strategies, we mean the strategies we use to monitor or control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate. Motivational strategies will include convincing oneself to undertake a tricky revision task now – affecting our current well-being – as a way of improving our future well-being in the test tomorrow.

There is nothing wrong with acquiring memorising techniques (eg Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, ROYGBIV, for remembering the colours of the spectrum, Red,Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet), but this helps not one iota in understanding the wave nature of light and refraction, which requires the learner to build a personal schema that can accommodate photons and the quantum theory alongside ‘wave’ properties like refraction and diffraction. While always necessary, remembering is a low order aspect of constructivist metacognition, as explained in this article from which the following is an extract.

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict/dissonance  is central to constructivist teaching for cognitive development. It provides an approach to learning through the deliberate creation of cognitive dissonance in the minds of students followed by supporting them in resolving this dissonance through open peer to peer debate in the face of the evidence they as students have directly experienced from lessons designed by their teachers for that purpose. Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It is a personal mental habit essential for the resolution of cognitive dissonance.  It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. As learners experience the resulting cognitive development they develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised in the education context as a higher general cognitive ability (the student becomes cleverer). Metacognition is a lot more than the memorising of ‘memory aid’ skills.

Cognitive dissonance and metacognition are intrinsically linked in constructivist teaching. Metacognition is the process of consciously debating with oneself to try to identify and resolve the perceived contradictions in factual knowledge that are preventing understanding. Being able to verbalise these contradictions and share them with peers who may be themselves mentally struggling with the same issues, results in the upgrading of personal schemas through social interaction (Vygotsky). Think Greek philosophers debating with each other and what the Lunar Society of enlightenment thinkers were doing at their monthly meetings in Birmingham. The EEF’s version of metacognition, rooted in the knowledge-based ideology, is a pale shadow of the constructivist version. It appears to be distorted to accommodate the favoured ‘knowledge-based’  reforms being imposed on our schools by the DfE and OfSTED. I now go on to list some extracts from the later EEF instalments, from which the connections to the knowledge-based approach is fairly obvious.

From 2nd instalment – teaching simultaneous equations

In this example, John starts with some knowledge of the task (word problems in maths are often solved by expressing them as equations) and of strategies (how to turn sentences into an equation). His knowledge of the task then develops as it emerges from being a word problem into a simultaneous equation. He would then continue through this cycle if he has learned/memorised  the strategies for solving simultaneous equations. He could then evaluate his overall success by substituting his answers into the word problem and checking they are correct. If this was wrong, he could attempt other strategies and once more update his metacognitive knowledge. [But metacognition is about making sense of knowledge, not ‘updating’ it].

This is how in 1960, I was taught simultaneous equations. We had a text book with lots of examples that could readily be solved this way. We memorised the method set out above and did lots of examples neatly set out in our exercise books. The hard bit is constructing the word equation, when it is not obvious. This is where a bit of proper metacognition combined with peer-peer debate would help. This never happened in my maths classes in 1960, and I suspect never happens now in the Academy schools where talking in class is strictly forbidden for fear of draconian punishments. See the example in the second part of this article.

From 3rd Instalment – resource-based learning

Amy’s geography teacher has asked the class to prepare a short presentation about rainforest ecosystems. To plan this, Amy reflects on how she learned best on the last topic—using the school textbooks—and decides to read the relevant chapter before drafting her presentation points. However, when reading it she decides that the chapter does not really improve her understanding. She starts to panic as she was relying on this. Then Amy remembers a geography website her teacher mentioned. She adapts her strategy and searches the website. This provides a more useful overview and she uses the information to summarise some interesting facts. [Amy’s problem is not in locating the knowledge, but understanding it.]

 Translation: Amy looks up the topic in her textbook hoping to find something she can copy to make a presentation that would keep her teacher happy. However, she finds she can neither understand what she reads (cognitive dissonance), nor can she find a section to copy that she is sure will please her teacher. This is the opportunity for some proper metacognition. This needs her to think about what it is in the textbook that she doesn’t understand. She should then discuss her cognitive discomfort within a group of her peers. If they are all struggling then they should ask the teacher for help, who should respond by prompting them with further questions for them to think about. This could only happen with a teacher in a school that supports and encourages constructivist approaches.

She reflects on the experience and decides that next time she will gather a range of resources before starting to research a topic, rather than relying on one source.

 Translation: Next time her teacher asks for a ‘presentation’ she needs to look through a range of sources before choosing something to copy that she thinks will please her teacher. This is a very impoverished version of metacognition compared to the richness of a constructivist approach.

From 4th Instalment – remembering and practising, but where is the metacognition?

  1. Activating prior knowledge. The teacher discusses with pupils the different causes that led to World War One while making notes on the whiteboard.
  2. Explicit strategy instruction. The teacher then explains how the fishbone diagram will help organise their ideas, with the emphasis on the cognitive strategy of using a ‘cause and effect model’ in history that will help them to organise and plan a better written response.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy. The teacher uses the initial notes on the causes of the war to model one part of the fishbone diagram.
  4. Memorisation of learned strategy. The teacher tests if pupils have understood and memorised the key aspects of the fishbone strategy, and its main purpose, through questions and discussion.
  5. Guided practice. The teacher models one further fishbone cause with the whole group, with pupils verbally contributing their ideas.
  6. Independent practice. Pupils complete their own fishbone diagram analysis.
  7. Structured reflection. The teacher encourages pupils to reflect on how appropriate the model was, how successfully they applied it, and how they might use it in the future.

Translation: The teacher manipulates a question and answer session writing the ‘correct’ answers onto the whiteboard until all the desired ones (of the teacher) are in place, leaving out the ones not in the lesson plan. This illustrates some of the greatest weaknesses of  the classic instruction/knowledge-based approach.

This approach allows the teacher to develop solid knowledge and understanding, which then forms the basis of increasingly independent practice as the teacher changes their guidance and gradually withdraws the scaffolding.

 Translation: The teacher trains the class to use the fishbone format to successfully obtain the list of causes of World War I that are in the lesson plan, in a form that they can then memorise to produce as an answer to a standard history exam question.

But history is an especially rich subject for the constructivist approach, because beyond the historical facts (which even for modern history may well still be in dispute), there is no factual knowledge; only opinions that are open to debate.

I am not a history teacher, but here is an alternative lesson plan that I found on the Internet.

Description:  Students as a group will present a persuasive argument for which of the 4 MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism, nationalism) causes was primarily responsible for leading to World War I.

Rationale:  World War I makes a major change in the progression of history into the modern world.  Understanding the causes of this war and how it changed history is necessary for students to understand how history is linked and how current issues are linked to this pivotal point in history.

Secondary Materials:  Maps of alliances, maps of imperial possessions, visual chart linking countries through alliances, accounts of treatment of minority and foreign groups.

Primary Sources:  Political cartoons showing European imperialism, charts indicating military build up including the dreadnaught crisis, treaties allying nations, publications of or on, the Black Hand, newspaper accounts to include reactions in various cities to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, documentation of war plans (Schlieffen and others), propaganda posters used to incite nationalist fervor.

Technology required:  Primary and secondary sources may be acquired via the Internet.  Students may want to present with PowerPoint, video, or other media.

 Description:  Students will be divided into groups.  Student groups will be asked to determine which of the MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism, or nationalism) was primarily responsible for leading to World War I.  The student groups will then develop a presentation for the purpose to persuade others that the cause they choose was the most significant in the development of the war.

Students will then be provided copies of documents and research materials to use as evidence to support their argument.  These materials include: maps of alliances, maps of imperial possessions, visual chart linking countries through alliances, accounts of treatment of minority and foreign groups, political cartoons showing European imperialism, charts indicating military build up including the dreadnaught crisis, treaties allying nations, publications of or on the Black Hand, newspaper accounts to include reactions in various cities to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, documentation of war plans (Schlieffen and others), and propaganda posters used to incite nationalist fervor.

Once students have familiarized themselves with the materials, I will begin teaching the first phases of World War I.  An open discussion will follow examining who should have been blamed for starting World War I.

The lesson will conclude with student groups presenting their thesis on what was the most important MAIN cause of World War I.  In addition to presenting their theory in class, each group will be required to turn in a written document summarizing their findings.  The paper and presentation much include three arguments to support their thesis and be supported with evidence supplied and additional group research.  Also, each paper must provide an argument to dispel each of the other three theories and the groups must be prepared to defend their thesis from these sources in their presentation.

Unlike the EEF proposal, this plan provides rich opportunities for proper metacognition, peer-peer debate and co-operation. It would work well, but only with a teacher/school with a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was founded in 2011 by lead charity The Sutton Trust, in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus–Private Equity Foundation), with a £125 million founding grant from the Department for Education.

The EEF was initiated in November 2010, when the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced plans to establish an education endowment foundation intended to help raise standards in challenging schools, inspired by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative in the USA that encouraged the expansion of high-quality charter schools, (on which our Academisation programme is based) turning around the lowest-performing schools, and building and using data systems. EEF was formally launched in July 2011, with Chairman Sir Peter Lampl declaring its aim would be to ‘develop initiatives to raise the attainment of the poorest pupils in the most challenging schools’. It took over from the Sutton Trust the development of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and Sir Kevan Collins, former Chief Executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was appointed the EEF’s first Chief Executive. In 2012, the EEF was awarded a further £10 million by the Department for Education to identify and evaluate high-potential interventions aimed at improving literacy for 10 and 11 year-olds at the transition from primary to secondary school.


EEF appears to  have appropriated ‘metacognition’ to support the knowledge-based approach. My concerns that EEF could be struggling to reconcile the outcomes of its research with the ideological regime change strategy of the DfE arose some time ago and are expressed in this 2017 article.

I invite teachers to sign up for the rest of the EEF metacognition instalments. I would be interested to find out the extent to which other teachers share my concerns.

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The knowledge-based curriculum: self evident, or a Trojan horse for educational regime change?

The purpose of schools is to fill the heads of children with knowledge. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

 ‘Self evident’ has always been a slippery and transient concept.

Ships cannot be made out of iron. Iron sinks, wood floats, so ships have to be made out of wood. It’s obvious, right? Even though iron had been readily available in industrial amounts since 1709, it took another 146 years before Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron passenger ship made its maiden voyage in 1845.

The 18th century theologian, William Paley, famously made the ‘watchmaker’ argument for  the existence of a god. He postulated that if a watch were to be found “on a heath” that we would be forced to conclude that:

the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually answers, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

He then went on to argue that the human eye, and human beings in general, could not have arisen by chance and that the existence of a divine creator was therefore proven. Who could argue with that? It’s obvious right?

The ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ and ‘creationism’ have believers/supporters in high places. The former is the default assumption of the DfE and now apparently, also OfSTED. The latter continue to allow religious schools to sow doubt in the minds of their pupils about the science of evolution, allowing it to be taught as a ‘theory’ that is contrary to their religious belief and scripture. This, despite ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ now being accepted beyond doubt within the scientifically literate international community through gene science, which reproduces Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ in precise detail complete with the identification of ‘common ancestors’ and the dating of the branching points.

Professor Colin Richards wrote this in the TES of  11 February 2019.

He challenges the ‘self evident’ assumptions of the DfE and OfSTED. Here are some examples (in italics) from his TES article.

Nowhere is it acknowledged that the curriculum could be described and transacted in other terms [than clearly presented subject knowledge] : [eg] as broad areas, as knowledge domains, as areas of experience or whatever.

Nowhere is the possibility raised of interdisciplinary or, dare I say it, “integrated” work. Those who do not share inspectors’ default subject-centred model are likely to have difficulty convincing them of the value of their approaches.

The idea that the curriculum at any level could be co-constructed or even, on occasion, negotiated with students has formed no part of the thinking of the framework’s constructors. Schools that willingly find at least some curriculum time for students pursuing their own enquiries could find that practice questioned and adversely judged.

The curriculum is to be delivered through whole class teaching. Nowhere in the framework is the possibility raised of either group or individual work.

The challenge for those not sharing one or other, or all of the four (OfSTED/DfE) assumptions, is likely to be an existential one, with threats to their professional identity along with a very heavy workload in the short-to-medium term.

Unwittingly, or perhaps not, the OfSTED framework  currently being consulted on embodies a model of curriculum that is far from value-free or uncontroversial. Some may see it as a positive representation of cultural capital; others as exemplifying back-to-the-Ark thinking.

While having personal sympathy with aspects of the default model, I [Professor Richards] believe that its controversial nature needs to be acknowledged, confronted and, if necessary, contested. The chief inspector is wrong in claiming that the proposed inspection framework represents “evolution, not revolution”. Its default position could perhaps be best characterised as “counter-revolution” or even as “counter-reformation”. [My bold]

To what Professor Richards characterises as a possible ‘counter-revolution’, I pose the question: is it in fact state imposed ideological, educational regime change? I suggest that just such a pattern appears to be emerging.

As I am writing this article, this must read blog by ‘Disidealist’ on the same subject has just arrived in my inbox, from which this is an extract.

Do not underestimate the degree to which education policy is being influenced by the same strains of right-wing authoritarianism which have been festering elsewhere over the last decade. The growth of the “No Excuses” or “Zero Tolerance” cultures which cause so much misery to so many children – particularly vulnerable ones – is not divorced from the resurgence of intolerant authoritarianism elsewhere. And just as such intolerance is encouraged and amplified by the Tory Party over Brexit, social security recipients and immigration, so it is in education. Gibb and Spielman increasingly deliver speeches which sound like Daily Mail comment pieces, extolling the virtues of “tough leaders” who should be praised for saving the deserving children from the undeserving rabble. School “leaders”, always looking for protection from the next Ofsted judgment, know exactly how to sound if seeking the approval of an increasingly belligerent and neo-Victorian DFE and HMCI.

So what is the nature of the school curriculum and assumptions that the DfE and Ofsted wish to overthrow?

Take the proverb, You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Think of the child as the horse,  factual knowledge as the water, and assume that the absorption of factual knowledge is good for children just as drinking water is good for horses.

The assumption of the ‘knowledge-based curriculum’ is that the problem must lie either with the water (the knowledge) or the way in which it is presented to the horse (the child).

The alternative is to focus on the horse (child). Why would it be disinclined to drink the water? Is it possible to develop the thirst reflex of the horse (child)? I write about this here.

This is rightly referred to as a ‘child centred’ approach and dismissed as such by definition as dangerously radical, subversive and threatening to ‘good order’, discipline and ‘right thinking’.

So what is the historic nature of this educational philosophy that is seen as so threatening to our government? The history is that of ‘Constructivism’ as interpreted by Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner in the US, and many others, some of whose work is described in Part 5 of my book.

Constructivism is basically a theory — based on observation and scientific study — about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know. Read more here. 

In my book, and in the many articles on my website that discuss theories of learning, I use the term ‘developmentalism’ to describe constructivist approaches, because they all have in common the development of personal ‘schemas’ by means of which individuals remodel and refine their individual cognitive framework so as to make sense of their perceptions of the world and the factual knowledge that they encounter. This leads to both deep understanding and cognitive growth, such that the individual becomes wiser and cleverer, and therefore better equipped to evaluate and challenge. This is presumably why authoritarian governments and education regimes regard such approaches by teachers to be so dangerous.

This issue is addressed in depth in three of my articles. Here are the links together with an extract from each one.

The Growth Mindset misunderstood

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict is central to all teaching for cognitive development. It essentially comprises presenting pupils with factual evidence that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously make initial sense to them, so creating a state of discomforting mental tension. In order for the conflict to be resolved within the mind of the individual learner a personal conceptual breakthrough is necessary. Cognitive development arises from the accumulation of such conceptual breakthroughs. It is in this context that ‘The Growth Mindset’ defines the learning resilience needed to persevere with the struggle to make sense of facts, phenomena and evidence, with the expectation of failures along the way. ‘Hard work’ is indeed required on the part of learners, but to be useful it has to be directed towards achieving understanding, not ’empty toil’ through repetition, rote learning, revision and testing.

Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

While assimilation of facts and knowledge is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious cumulative weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by universal academisation.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides a further explanation of this process. This is what Vygotsky wrote.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

Vygotsky argues that in schools, knowledge is first presented to learners ‘on the social plane’, which at the most basic level could indeed just mean listening to the teacher. For students to acquire understanding they have to individually ‘internalise’ this knowledge. This requires assimilating the new ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

 Constructivism  was the foundation of mainstream learning theory prior to the marketisation paradigm’s increasing rejection of such ‘complicated theorising’ in favour of ‘common sense’ behaviourism.

Why mistakes must be celebrated

Note that lessons that ‘cognitively develop’, require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems ‘just above’ the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models (Vygotsky). Teachers within the ‘closed loop’ behaviourist culture penalise (or humiliate)  children who make mistakes because both punishments and rewards are part of that culture. Behaviourist learning is much more likely to be based on repetition and practising problems they can already do, rather than risking failure and cognitive dissonance from presenting students with problems they cannot readily solve.

History is repeating itself

The following is extracted from this article.

The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university.  In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire.

He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later constructivists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: ‘Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction’. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line:

This book is remarkable, not just for its advanced approach to teaching and learning, but for its vast subject range, from English, through the humanities and the arts, to maths and science, demonstrating great scholarship and eclecticism in every subject area combined with a consistent pedagogic wisdom that pervades every chapter. As a retired teacher I continue to be inspired by it, and would dearly wish to repeat some of his lesson ideas. It should be compulsory reading for every trainee teacher today.

The following is taken from Education in England: a brief history by Derek Gillard, which is highly recommended.

A provision was introduced by the Committee of Council on Education into the Revised Code for 1862 (often called ‘Lowe’s Code’ after the Committee’s vice-president who devised it). The result of this regulation was the organisation of elementary schools on the basis of annual promotion. Classes in the senior department were named standards I to VI, roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 12. Right from the start there was much opposition to these arrangements. Teachers objected partly to the method of testing, but mainly to the principle of ‘payment by results’ because it linked money for schools with the criterion of a minimum standard. Thus the higher primary work  which was beginning to appear before 1861 in the best elementary schools [for example as in Dawes’ school at Kings Somborne] was seriously discouraged by Lowe’s Code. The curriculum became largely restricted to the three Rs, and the only form of practical instruction that survived was needlework.

Furthermore, the standards themselves were defective because they were based not on an experimental enquiry into what children of a given age actually knew, but on an a priori notion of what they ought to know. They largely ignored the wide range of individual capacity, and the detailed formulations for the several ages were not always precise or appropriate. [sounds familiar?]

 The philosophy of this dark period was shockingly close to the ideology of marketisation that now dominates the education systems of England and the US. How can recent government education policy be so ignorant not just of how children learn, but of the history of English education itself?

Fans of Charles Dickens will be reminded of the wretched pupils at the mercy of Thomas Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’. Although gloriously over the top, Gradgrind exemplifies the absurdity of the ‘knowledge based’ curriculum that is seeing a revival in our Academies and Free Schools. It is also worth comparing Gradgrind’s pure form of ‘bucket filling’ as a theory of learning, with the richness of developmental practice in Richard Dawes’ school in Kings Somborne.

The dates are interesting. Hard Times was first published in 1854. Dawes’ masterpiece, Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction was first published in 1847. The historical pedagogical tussle between the Dawes and Gradgrind approaches was resolved firmly in favour of Gradgrind.

The darkest aspects of that history are  being repeated 150 years later.

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