Saturday, September 07, 2013

2 issues with education

Rant time.
I have a lot of issues with teaching, Ofsted, Gove etc.  Here are just two of the more major ones.

Number One.

Back in the day, teaching was very different from how it is now.  The teacher would stand at the front and either dictate or write on a blackboard.  The class would copy the notes down in silence, then learn them by heart and regurgitate them in an exam.  Memory was rewarded.  It was flawed, but there was a kind of logic to it.  The idea was to move knowledge from the teacher's head into that of the pupils, and the test assessed how well the pupils had absorbed the knowledge.

These days, teaching is almost unrecognisable.  There are discussions, role plays, projects, posters, experiments, games.  There is coursework (for now).  It's a more difficult way of teaching, but it's a more effective way of teaching.  Understanding, rather than memory, is the key.  There are still tests, but there is also coursework - project-style assignments completed over a few weeks, with access to notes, books, the internet, and teacher guidance.  The sort of thing that might be required in an actual job.  This reminds me of a tweet I saw a few months ago:

"Today at work I memorised huge quantities of facts and then regurgitated them with pen & paper over 3 hours. #Saidnoone #courseworkmatters"

Exams used to be focused on the task of 'spew-everything-you-know-about-this-topic-onto-your-exam-paper'.  Interestingly, most university courses seem to operate this style of exam.  The assessment style of recent years includes exams, but exams that go at least some way to assessing understanding as well as knowledge.  It also includes coursework, which assesses understanding of a topic and also skills such as communication and time-management.  This is a better method of assessment, and is also more suited to the more modern, interactive, learner-centered teaching style.

TANGENT: I originally wrote the above paragraph as one hideously complicated sentence.  I thought I'd keep it in here in case you want to read it and marvel at it's sub-clauses:
The assessment style of recent years, which includes exams - but exams that go at least some way to assessing understanding as well as knowledge, rather than the older-style (and, interestingly, university-style) exams focused on the task of 'spew-everything-you-know-about-this-topic-onto-your-exam-paper' - but also coursework, which assesses understanding of a topic and also skills such as communication and a better one, and is also more suited to the more modern, interactive, learner-centered teaching style.

But my main point is not that things are better today than they used to be.  My main point is about whether the assessment is suited to the teaching.  In yesteryear, the assessment ('spewing') kind of matched the teaching (dictation).  Then both changed, and the assessment, with the inclusion of coursework, matched the interactive teaching.  And the plan for the future?  Make teaching more and more interactive, fun, learner-centred, insert-jargon-here, but move assessment back to the traditional method of learning and regurgitating facts.  These two styles do not match.  Traditional teaching and traditional exams, while flawed, do match each other in their flawedness.  Modern teaching and modern exams also kind of match.  Making the teaching more modern and the exams more traditional makes no sense.  This is not about which method is better, it's that the future proposals surrounding assessment of pupils in this country, before they are mad, over-demanding, out-of-touch, are simply illogical.

Number Two

I recently saw a news article about how nurses and midwives will face three-yearly checks, basically to make sure they're doing a good job.  Doctors have a similar system.  Okay, fair enough.  But this got me thinking about doctors and nurses would be assessed.  Observations?  Interviews?  Maybe they should be assessed on whether the patient they are caring for lives or dies.  Yes, that would be good.  If the patient lives, the doctor is a good doctor.  If the patient dies, the doctor is clearly not up to scratch and should at least be monitored closely, and possibly removed from his or her job.

Clearly madness.  A doctor should not be judged by whether the patient lives or dies, because such things are only partly in the doctors control.  Some patients, no matter what treatment they are given, are sadly going to die sooner or later.  In fact, we all die eventually.

What does this have to do with teaching?  Let me explain from the perspective of my school.  But first, some context.  When teachers and schools are inspected or observed - by Ofsted, or the local authority, or just other teachers, they are graded on a scale: 1 (outstanding), 2 (good), 3 (used to be 'satisfactory' but is now 'requires improvement'), and 4 (inadequate).  A lesson can be judged as any of these four levels, and the school as a whole can also be given a level.

Last year in my school, all teachers were observed as part of performance management, and also in other contexts.  78% of lessons were judged as good or outstanding.  Not bad.  So, you'd think that the school as a whole would probably be good or outstanding, yes?  No.  Because, if the exam results are level 3, nothing else can be graded above a three.  So a school could be observed by Ofsted, who might grade every single lesson and teacher, and every other aspect of the school, as outstanding, but if their results 'require improvement', then the school will get a level 3.  And how are the results levelled?  In absolute terms.  Not compared to pupils' levels upon entry to the school, not in terms of progress, but simply by the number of pupils who get the 'magic' 5A*-C grades, including English and Maths.

So, regardless of who the pupils are, what their skills were when they arrived from primary school, what special needs or disabilities they have, how academic they are...they, their teachers and their school are judged on how many grades they get.  It's the equivalent of judging a doctor solely on whether the patient lives or dies.  Schools are judged by something over which they have limited control.  Teachers can make a difference to the grades that a pupil achieves, but probably not as much difference as parents can make, and certainly not as much difference as the pupil themselves can make.  It is, again, illogical, to judge teachers and schools by something over which they have such limited control.

End of rant.  For now.

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