Category Archives: Exams

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

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The Problem With Education…

In January, I wrote this post looking at the language applied to education, in particular by the media and the Government. I hoped that the negative language which seemed all pervasive in 2012 would not feature so heavily in 2013 – unfortunately, as we move through the final quarter of 2013, that does not seem to have been the case.

Crisis

Education in the UK seems to be in crisis – it’s a profession which seems to be in constant conflict with the Department for Education, sections of the media and, at times, with itself. This is a toxic situation which cannot continue without causing damage to all involved, in particular the children we teach. Why has the education sector come to this? Is there anything that can be done?

It’s Not Fair

Before we look at what may be at the root of the problem, I think it is important to make a key point about fairness. All may be fair in love and war but it certainly isn’t in education. Harsh it may be, but the brutal truth is that achieving ‘fairness’ for all pupils is a fantasy. The playing field will never be level.

This hit me forcefully when I was watching ‘Harrow: A Very British School’ on Sky 1. I find the program fascinating, a real insight into how a top private school functions – far distant from my own comprehensive school and the schools I have taught at. The grounds, the traditions, the facilities – it looks wonderful, and I am sure it is. What struck me, was the vast differences between the experiences of the Harrow boys at West Acre and some of the children I have encountered in my career.

Obviously, the best facilities that money can buy are part of the disparity, however, it was the little things that really struck me. Having a clean uniform ready for you, eating good quality food three times a day, having somewhere quiet to work, having someone checking that you are doing your homework, having a computer for your personal use – all of those little things that make a big difference to a child and their performance. The Harrow boys (as well as the majority of our  school children)  also don’t have to: care for siblings or parents, work before or after school, travel long distances to get to school, live with parents who are addicts etc. So, realistically, the children for whom these are everyday occurrences are never going to have a similar school experience.

It isn’t fair. Those who are most socially and economically deprived, those who are born with learning difficulties, those who are refugees from war torn countries (and a hundred other misfortunes), will not have the same opportunities as those who do not have these disadvantages. While we can do our best to mitigate against these disadvantages, they exist and we have to accept that, unfortunately, life isn’t fair.

What is Education For?

At the heart of the problem with education lies this question – what is the purpose of education? It seems a straightforward question at first, and I’m sure that most people will come up with a list of purposes which may include: qualifications, becoming a well rounded individual, becoming a useful and productive member of society etc. However, listening to the media and the DfE, the purpose does not seem to be clear:

  • Exams are too easy
  • Children are not achieving good enough exam results
  • Qualifications should reflect the needs of employers
  • Qualifications should enable the ranking of children and schools
  • A robust national curriculum is needed to ensure standards
  • Not all schools need to comply with the national curriculum
  • Teachers are professionals
  • Teachers don’t need to be qualified

the list goes on – contradiction after contradiction.

What Can be Done?

Before making any more statements, or changing any more policies, the Government needs to decide what the purpose of education, and in particular its examination system, is.

If it is important that, where at all possible,  all children should achieve a range of solid qualifications, then the examination system has to make this a possibility. Qualifications should be criterion referenced against a specific and public set of criteria so everyone knows that x grade means a child can do y at z level. If this is the purpose of education in the UK, then there should not be grade quotas or manipulation of results to avoid perceived grade inflation. Any child who achieves the specific criteria gets the grade.

If examinations are about ranking children (obviously taking into account that this will never be entirely fair, as I have discussed above), there needs to be a number of specific changes to the way children are assessed. Firstly, we would need to do away with the multiple exam boards and variety of qualifications in each subject – there should be only one exam in each subject which all children, from all types of school within the UK, take. How can children and their results be compared when the exams they take are different – for example the continuation of coursework for iGCSE? The nationwide results are then ranked and, perhaps a grade allocated according to norm referencing or some other formula. It may even be possible to combine the two – perhaps a grade and a national rank, or a percentage.

At the moment, however, it is not clear what the purpose is, at least from the Government’s perspective. It seems farcical to say that all schools should achieve a specific level of examination results and then make it impossible for all schools to do so. If you want an education system where all schools are ‘good or better’ then it needs to be possible – which means that the way schools are measured needs to change to reflect this. It is this pressure to achieve the impossible that seems to be at the root of many teachers’ arguments.

If Mr Gove and future Education Secretaries want to make a positive impact on education in this country, they need to think long and hard about what education in the UK is for. Then they can start to change the system for the better.

SOLO Research: Conclusions

What have I learnt from my research into the SOLO taxonomy?

Researching and Note Taking

At a personal level, this research has been very useful. I have found out that I really enjoy research and reading academic articles and texts. In particular, writing the literature review was an interesting, challenging and enjoyable part – far more than I had expected it to be. It was like a giant jigsaw which needed to be put together before it would make sense.

notesI tried out a variety of note taking methods for the review, the most effective one turned out to be writing key quotations onto post its which I then sorted into linked areas on large pieces of paper with lines and comments added to show the relationship. This helped organise each part of the review into paragraphs and made the links clearer to see. It was while I was doing this that I realised that this was also a SOLO task – I was moving my knowledge of the literature from the multistructural to the relational level and beyond. Thinking about the process in this way was quite useful as it mitigated some of the frustration I felt at having to go off on tangents in order to understand the bigger picture – it was simply that I didn’t have the knowledge at the multistructural level.

Twitter, the Internet and The Khan Academy

As someone who completed their undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, studying at Masters level was a very different beast. Beyond the level of complexity that obviously exists in the step up, the key difference I noticed was the availability of resources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an academic library – the smell of the books, the chance finds in the stacks, the quiet you only get in the obscure corner of the Old English section on floor 10 – but, as a distance learner, the internet has been invaluable to me.

Twitter has been a fantastic source of ideas, suggestions for academic reports and texts as well as a source of data. Without this community of educators, I think my study would have been a sad shadow, and I would have been a very lonely researcher.

One of the challenges I faced was gaining an understanding of descriptive and comparative statistics. As far as I can remember (and it was a very long time ago, so I may be wrong), this was not covered in much detail in my GCSE Maths course. Although I have used maths on a day to day basis in work and as a teacher, this was something I needed to brush up on – that is where The Khan Academy came in. One weekend watching their statistics videos and trying out a few problems, and I had a good understanding of what I needed.

Is the SOLO Taxonomy Effective?

Based on my limited research, it does appear that the SOLO taxonomy can be a useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal. The use of rubrics to identify the knowledge (both declarative and functioning) and stages of learning were particularly useful for making this explicit both for me and the students. The emphasis on looping back through the multistructural-relational-extended abstract levels in order to develop a more detailed and sophisticated understanding helped scaffold the most able and encouraged them to view learning as open-ended.

Knowledge is vital – without relevant knowledge, students cannot progress through the SOLO levels. Direct instruction, whether it is through teacher talk, rubrics or any other direct method, help to provide the  knowledge needed by the student. The rubric can keep this instruction at the forefront while students complete independent tasks – the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

A key benefit of the SOLO taxonomy is creating a common language for discussion of knowledge and feedback – used by the teacher and in self and peer assessment it can help to ensure the quality and focus of feedback.

Of the SOLO techniques I trialled with my classes, I felt that the use of rubrics, hexagons and SOLO stations were the most useful. The weaker students found the hexagons helpful to pull together their knowledge of a text and bridge the gap between knowing the text and being able to write a clear paragraph about it. SOLO Stations allowed for differentiation, student choice and teacher guidance while giving me the time to work individually with students. The HOT maps were rather hit or miss depending on which type was used – the Part/Whole Analysis was a useful structure for discussing and revising a text in detail.

Given the recent reports from Sir Michael Wilshaw, regarding the brightest students in schools failing to achieve the highest grades, it is certainly interesting that in this small scale study Level 5 students and males taught using SOLO methods did considerably better than their non-SOLO counterparts. Ev ex 2Although it is impossible to know whether SOLO was the key factor in this difference, it suggests that this may be a possibility and would warrant further investigation.Ev ex 4

 

Taken as a whole, based on my personal observations, surveys of teachers and students, a lesson observation and exam data analysis, it appears that the SOLO taxonomy may be effective. As with any teaching technique, it is not a panacea – however, it is certainly worth trying.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 2

Exam Data

In addition to the other data collection methods, I chose to analyse the modular examination results for a group of Year 10 students, one group (n=29) taught using SOLO methods, and a larger group (n=82) who were not.

To try to ensure that, as much as possible, the groups were comparable, I chose students who had started school with either a level 4 or 5 from their Key Stage 2 English tests. The students were all from one of the two parallel top sets. Students who did not have a Key Stage 2 level were excluded from the analysis.

All students in the groups selected took GCSE English Literature exam module A663 (Prose from Different Cultures) in the summer of Year 10 and studied the same text – Of Mice and Men. The results were analysed using descriptive statistics to gain an overview and identify areas where the data warranted a closer look. In areas which appeared to show a difference, a chi-square test was applied to test significance; a significance threshold level of p<0.5 was set to ensure that any significance was meaningful.

Although every attempt was made to make the analysis as unbiased as possible, for example choosing to focus on a module which was externally marked, it is important to remember that looking:

At results before and after a new intervention is rolled out…can be very misleading, as other factors may have changed at the same time. (Goldacre, 2013:9)

 

In addition, as the group selection was not randomized, or carried out over a longer period of time, the results may not be replicable, although I feel that they may provide some indications for areas which would be worth investigating further.

Analysis

The non-SOLO group shows normal distribution with a modal grade of a B. The SOLO group also shows a relatively normal distribution, which is less steep than the non-SOLO group. Ev ex 1 The tail at the higher end of the SOLO group does not drop off to the extreme of the non-SOLO group. The modal grade for the SOLO group is one grade higher, an A grade.

Comparing the results of the combined level 4 and 5 students between the SOLO and Non-SOLO groups, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 4%; a significant result. These results suggest that, based on this limited study, SOLO may have a positive impact on exam achievement.

To identify whether this impact can be pinpointed, the data was explored in subsets according to level and gender.

Exploring the subset data, it is apparent that, in this sample, the SOLO group females did not achieve significantly different grades to the non-SOLO group. 

When comparing the difference between the level 4 students, the difference is significant. Ev ex 3

However, it is when comparing the achievement of students starting school on a level 5  and male groups that a very highly significant difference is evident.

Ev ex 2

Comparing the results of the students entering school with a level 5, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 0%; a very highly significant result.Ev ex 4

As suggested by the graph there is a significant difference between the achievements of the two male groups. Looking at this distribution, using a chi-square test suggests that this distribution (p=0.0000) is very highly significant.

Although there are limitations to this particular aspect of the study, the results suggest that SOLO techniques may have a measurable impact on student exam results. Therefore, it would certainly be worth further, structured research.

SOLO, Learning and Teaching

For educators, there is a need to identify how they can best help students to achieve their potential. School makes up a significant part of students’ young lives, so it is unsurprising that:

Schools shape and change beliefs, both as purveyors of knowledge and as epistemological training grounds for developing students. (Schraw, 2001:406)

The challenge is to balance the imparting of knowledge with providing students with opportunities to develop positive epistemological beliefs. New initiatives often focus on the former, specifically teaching methods, possibly because this is an easier area to demonstrate impact. As Hattie (2012) notes, most of what we do as teachers will have some effect on the students we teach.

OfSTED’s (2012/13b:32) definition of an ‘Outstanding’ school highlights the importance of students ‘making and exceeding expected progress’, whatever their starting point. To achieve this, schools need to know what causes variance between students, both between schools and between students in the same school. Hattie (2003) identifies several elements which are responsible for potential variance in achievement. The most significant factor identified was the student themselves, being responsible for 50% of variance. Student engagement, beliefs and motivation is at the heart of the matter.

Levin (2010:89) explains that:

Schools with higher levels of engagement are more successful with students from all kinds of backgrounds.

This supports Hattie’s (2003) findings that home is less significant an influence than perhaps we might expect.

The second most significant influence was the teacher (30%):

It is what teachers know, do and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation. (Hattie, 2003:2)

However, Schraw (2001:406 summarises a key difficulty with addressing the issue:

The existing research invites the conclusion that schools should make the effort to change beliefs in positive ways, although it is less clear how those changes should occur.

Hattie’s work (2003, 2012) may give us an indication of how these changes should be approached; if both students and teachers are responsible for 80% of the variance between student outcomes, it is here that the focus needs to be. Ideally, a focus on techniques and strategies which encourage teachers to teach in the most effective manner, while encouraging students to learn and develop positive epistemological beliefs.

Students’ Learning

To understand how students learn effectively, it is useful to be aware of a number of key areas. Firstly, how do epistemological beliefs affect learning? And secondly, which specific traits does an effective learner have?

 Hofer & Pintrich (1997:88) define personal epistemology as:

How individuals come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which such epistemological premises are a part of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning.

Resent research into students’ beliefs about learning (Pintrich, 2002; Cano & Cardelle-Elawar, 2004; Dweck, 2006; Barnard et al., 2008; Afflerbach et al., 2013) have highlighted the link between how students view learning and their academic performance. Cano & Cardelle-Elawar (2004:182) suggesting that:

The evidence that secondary school students hold immature beliefs…might go some way to explaining the poor academic achievement of many students.

As teachers, we often see this manifested as a willingness to give up when challenged, reluctance to work hard for results and the belief that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a particular subject. I know that, in the past, I have been guilty of this, especially with Maths – in reality, I’m not actually bad at Maths, I just find it harder.

However, Louca et al. (2004:58) assert, in their study of teaching science to 3rd grade students, that students are not aware of these ‘beliefs of theories’, but instead ‘have a range of cognitive resources for understanding knowledge’. With many schools implementing ‘learning to learn’ schemes, students are now more likely to have an awareness of how they learn. At the heart of this awareness, there needs to be the belief that learning is complex and requires effort.

An effective student needs to develop a wide range of skills and attributes:

Learning at school requires students to pay attention, to observe, to memorize, to understand, to set goals and to assume responsibility for their own learning. These cognitive activities are not possible without the active involvement and engagement of the learner. (Vosniadou, 2001:8)

The emphasis, for effective learning and progress to take place, is on the need for students to be self-regulated (Barnard et al., 2008; Nückles et al., 2009; Afflerbach et al., 2013) and for students to have some control over their learning (Skinner et al., 1998, cited in Yeh, 2010; Vosniadou, 2001; Zull, 2002).

What Makes a Teacher Effective?

Researchers and policymakers have often tried to define what makes an effective teacher; however arriving at a definition can be fraught with difficulties. Shulman (1987:6) notes that these definitions often ‘became items on tests or on classroom-observation scales’ which ultimately end up as a restrictive check-list. Levin (2010:90) points out that, proposals for improving teaching ‘have been made many times before’ and that merely listing suggestions is not enough – we need concrete examples of how this might be achieved.

Although our knowledge of how the brain works has developed over the past century, the topic can be a contentious one. Information processing, ‘the mental operations that come between a stimulus and response’ (Malim & Birch, 2005:25), is at the centre of discussion between cognitive psychologists, especially when related to student learning (Vygotsky, 1978 cited in Vosniadou, 2001; Kolb, 1984; Baddeley, 1999; Bischoff & Anderson, 2001; Tsai & Huang, 2001). Kirschner et al. (2006:77) highlight the importance of an understanding of the brain’s processes:

Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information, or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information, is unlikely to be effective.

 As a result of the complexities, and lack of a definitive explanation of how the brain works, there have been disagreements between academics as to the best mode of instruction, in particular between project based learning and direct instruction (Bishoff & Anderson, 2001; Wallace & Louden, 2003; Gauthier & Dembélé, 2004; Zull, 2002; Wu & Tsai, 2005; Kirschner et al., 2006; Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007; Granger et al., 2012; Hodges, 2012). These discussions can become polarised, while the most effective teaching is likely to judiciously use elements from both modes.

However, there also appear to be several areas of agreement; Hattie (2012:16) states that:

The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student; thus the key ingredients are being aware of the learning intentions, knowing when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, having sufficient understanding of the student’s prior understanding as he or she comes to the task and knowing enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is some sort of progressive development.

This suggests that an in depth knowledge of the students is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher. In addition, we can add: high expectations (Levin, 2010; OfSTED, 2012), formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 2006), differentiation (Hattie, 2003; Yeh, 2010; Hook & Mills, 2012; OfSTED, 2012) and feedback (Hattie, 2003, 2012; Black & Wiliam, 2006; OfSTED, 2012). The SOLO taxonomy can offer teachers a structure for implementing these skills in conjunction with the teacher’s existing strategies.

References:

Afflerbach, P., Cho, B-Y., Kim, J-Y., Crassas, M., & Doyle, B. (2013) ‘Reading: What else matters besides strategies and skills?’ The Reading Teacher, 66 (6), pp. 440–448. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/TRTR.1146 [Accessed March 2, 2013].

Baddeley, A. D. (1999) Essentials of Human Memory. Hove: Psychology Press

Barnard, L., Lan, W., Crooks, S., & Paton, V. (2008) ‘The relationship between epistemological beliefs and self-regulated learning skills in the online course environment’. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4 (3) pp. 261-266

Bischoff, P.J. & Anderson, O.R. (2001) ‘Development of knowledge frameworks and higher order cognitive operations among secondary school students who studied a unit on ecology’. Journal of Biological Education 35 (2), pp. 81-88.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1119/. [accessed 23 August 2012]

Cano, F. & Cardelle-Elawar, M. (2004) ‘An integrated analysis of secondary school student’s conceptions and beliefs about learning’. European Journal of Psychology of Education 19 (2) pp. 167-187.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Gauthier, C. & Dembélé, M. (2004) ‘Quality of teaching and quality of education: a review of research findings. UNESCO. Education for All Global Monitoring Report. 2005/ED/EFA/MRT/PI/18

Granger, E. M., Bevis, T. H., Saka, Y., Southerland, S. A., Sampson, V., & Tate, R. L. (2012) ‘The efficacy of student-centered instruction in supporting science learning’. Science (New York, N.Y.), 338 (6103), pp. 105–8. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23042893 [Accessed March 11, 2013].

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R.G. & Chinn, C. A. (2007) ‘Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)’. Educational Psychologist  42 (2) pp. 99–107. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00461520701263368.

Hodges, G. C., (2012) ‘Research and the teaching of English: Spaces where reading histories meet’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (1), pp. 7–25.

Hofer, B., & Pintrich, P. (1997) ‘The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning’. Review of Educational Research 67 (1) pp. 88-140.

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2012) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 2: Planning for differentiation. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006) ‘Work : An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’. Learning  41 (2), pp. 75–86. Available at: http://www.informaworld.com/openurl?genre=article&doi=10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1&magic=crossref.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

 Louca, L., Elby, A., Hammer, D., & Kagey, T. (2004) ‘Epistemological resources: Applying a new epistemological framework to science instruction’. Educational Psychologist 39 (1) pp. 57-68.

Malim, T., & Birch, A. (2005) Introductory Psychology. Baisingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

OfSTED (2012/13a) The framework for school inspection. HMI 120100. London: OfSTED publications.  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/framework-for-school-inspection [accessed 15 April 2013]

OfSTED (2012/13b) School Inspection Handbook. HMI 120101. London: OfSTED publications.  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/school-inspection-handbook  [accessed 15 April 2013]

Pintrich, P. (2002) Future challenges and directions for theory and research on personal epistemology. In B. Hofer and P. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp.389-414). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schraw, G. (2001) ‘Current themes and future directions in epistemological research: A commentary.’ Educational Psychology Review. 13 (4) pp. 451-464.

Shulman, L.S., (1987) ‘Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform’. Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1), pp. 1–21.

Tsai, C-C. and Huang, C-M. (2001) ‘Development of cognitive structures and information processing strategies of elementary school students learning about biological reproduction’. Journal of Biological Education 36 (1) pp. 21-26.

Vosniadou, S. (2001) How Children Learn. UNESCO. Educational Practices Series 7. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/archive/publications/EducationalPracticesSeriesPdf/prac07e.pdf [accessed 12 December 2012]

Wallace, J. & Louden, W. (2003) ‘What we don’t understand about teaching for understanding: questions from science education’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35, 5 pp. 545-566

Wu, Y-T. and Tsai, C-C. (2005) ‘Effect of Constructivist Oriented Instruction on Elementary School Students’ Cognitive Structures’. Journal of Biological Education 39 (3), pp. 113-119.

Yeh, S. (2010) ‘Understanding and addressing the achievement gap through individualized instruction and formative assessment.’ Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 17 (2) pp. 169-182

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. USA: Stylus Publishing.

Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

The Language of Education

Over the past year or so, there has been a subtle (and at times, not so subtle) drift in the language used in education. There have been references to attainment, progress and achievement for some time – and, although measuring these can be fraught with difficulty, this is no bad thing. All teachers, I’m sure, want their students to make progress and to improve.

However, the change recently has been more insidious, more negative in its tone. We have heard of ‘the race to the bottom’, ‘cheating’, ‘dumbing down’. The implication is clear, education is in a mess and the Government need to ride in and take swift ruthless action before it is too late.

The Powers That Be

A brief look at some of the loudest voices illustrates my point. Ofqual‘s press release regarding the problems with the Summer 2012 GCSE results included the following:

Glenys Stacey said: “It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

A barbed little comment – is it ‘clear’? Are teachers being ‘forced to choose’? Although conciliatory in tone, the underlying implication is that lots of teachers are cheating – but where is the evidence? Which teachers have had to choose to cheat or risk their career? If this is true, then it is a scandal…if. The implication is enough to fuel sensationalist headlines, even without evidence.

Wordle: Ofqual

In his ‘Good to Great’ speech, Michael Wilshaw said:

“we need radical improvements to the education system”

Is this really the case in most schools? Or is it a man, who has a passion for education, overstating the case – a rhetorical device?

If the system was so bad where did all these “brightest and best graduates” come from? That in itself is an unpleasant myth – writing off pretty much everyone already in the profession at the moment – a quick glance at twitter will show that new teachers don’t have the monopoly on innovation, motivation and passion for the job.

Wordle: OfSted

The current Education Minister (current, as we have had 8 different ministers in the past 10 years – this in itself could explain some of the problems in education, as each one wants to make their mark), Michael Gove, in his speech to Brighton College said:

“And because we recognise that Governments must take sides in debates – we must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence – for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.”

Truly a comment worthy of Orwell’s Squealer – disagree with us and you want the opposite. The image of the rabid, stike-ready, trade unionist teacher, who cares only for their pension and doing as little work as possible, is lurking in the background. No grey areas, no acknowledgement that we may want the same but disagree with the methods, especially the methods espoused by a man with no teaching experience, a love of the independent sector and little experience of the English state system.

The Truth?

The real situation is probably somewhere between the extremes. Some schools, some individual teachers, some students may well cheat; some may look for the easiest route to tick the boxes on the performance tables. Realistically, most schools will push the boundaries as far as they can, while still staying within the rules.

What is the motivation for this? We have to look at the way schools are judged/ If we don’t want a system where each school focuses on league tables, then we need to remove them – or change the way the tables work. Schools are not created equal, so judgements made on the numbers of top grades will only reveal what we expect to see – selective schools and those with a more affluent intake doing better than those in deprived areas. Teaching alone is not sufficient to change this pattern. Looking at value-added impact gives a more balanced view, but again is fraught with problems – not least who this information is for and how understandable it is.

There are no easy solutions here, but the bottom line is that schools will do their best to meet the standards set for them. It is churlish for ministers to criticize schools for trying to meet standards that they, or their predecessors, have set for them.

Schools

Beyond the Government and the press hounds slavering for a juicy headline, the language used within schools also seems to be taking a disturbing turn. Now, these are my personal bug-bears (right up there with the usual culprits of BS bingo). I can live with the shift from ‘Teaching and Learning’ to ‘Learning and Teaching’ – obviously little learning took place until this semantic change! The BLP ‘learning muscles’ set my teeth on edge, however, the two phrases that I find the most poisonous are ‘customer service’ and any reference to ‘getting them their C grade’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that poor quality teaching should be accepted, I have issue with the language itself. Both phrases have the suggestion of something being ‘done’ to a ‘customer’ – a customer who doesn’t have to put in any effort themselves – rather like an expensive massage.

The danger is that all language contains messages – and sometimes the message received is not the one intended. Phrases like ‘getting them their C grade’ suggests the student is entitled to the grade, there is no suggestion of work, of effort, of mastery – and, sadly, this is a message that is received loud and clear by some of our young people. They believe the hype and headlines, and their chances are negatively affected (admittedly, largely through their own lack of work). We are failing our ‘customers’ if we let them think this, but that is the message of this type of language, as well as those easy to pass exam equivalents.

So, what is my point? Really, that language is powerful. It is easy to accidentally, flippantly or deliberately create a damaging impression. This was where education in the UK seemed to be at the end of 2012 – hopefully 2013 can be more positive.