Monthly Archives: September 2013

Weasel Words in Education Part 2: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Work Smarter, Not Harder!

This is an increasingly common phrase in the education world.

It means, basically, work harder! [FX: WHIP CRACK]

It is often associated, strangely enough, with very poorly thought-out initiatives. Some cosmic karmic balance demands that a lack of cognitive effort by the management is balanced by an excess of cognition by the hapless underlings affected.

Rumour has it that this is especially prevalent in schools that have added the word “Academy” to their letterheads and logos, but scholars disagree if this is a case of causation or mere correlation.

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Weasel Words in Education Part 1: Intervention

Intervention (n. and v.)

– as in “What interventions have you put in place?” or “We’ll have to intervention this!” or (even more common) “You’ll have to intervention this!”

Meaning: doing stuff of doubtful or unclear efficacy mainly for the sake of being seen to do some stuff.

Some words sound better than others. For example, “I kicked some butt at work today!” sounds better than “I wrote a stiffly-worded email to query an invoice.”

So with the word intervention. “I staged an intervention to address underachievement in the Year 10 target group” does sound more dynamic, proactive and energetic than “I got a bunch of Year 10s to stay behind after school and nagged them for a bit.”

This is a word beloved of SLTs* and similar riffraff. Essentially, it is a long-winded way of “Do something!”. The unspoken subtext that should be tacked on to the end is “…so that I don’t have to.”

Most interventions happen outside of the normal school day. After school interventions are a perennial favourite. Never mind that most researchers (correctly, in my opinion) identify such activities as “High Effort, Low Impact.”

When the test scores are down and the going gets tough, the tough get . . . some unenthusiastic kids together in a room and read some powerpoint slides at them. Or, get them to do some card sort activities, where cutting out and laminating the cards takes up to seventeen times longer than the bloody card sort activity itself takes to do. Or, nag them. Yes, nag them with as much energy, sincerity and passion as you can summon at the end of a full teaching day when you are knackered and bursting to go the loo.

This is the way to the educational promised land, my friends. To a better place that is overflowing with the milk of EBaccs and the honey of Ofsted-approval, and yet which remains free of the evil spectre of grade inflation!

Let us all put interventions in place now! Interventions today! Interventions tomorrow! Targeted interventions for all!

After all, its not as if the kids were actually taught this stuff in lessons during the normal school day, is it? I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? It’s not their fault that they weren’t listening/trying/paying attention, is it? Otherwise, they wouldn’t need all these sodding ‘interventions’ all the time…

*Senior Leadership Team

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Coe, Wilshaw and Ofsted

[T]he community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious; but if the Guardians of the laws and state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity, become a mere sham, then clearly it is completely ruined.

— Plato. The Republic 421a (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 2815-2817). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

I am not sure if I agree with Plato about cobblers and the community. As Benjamin Franklin once pointed out: “For want of a shoe…the kingdom was lost.”

However, I think his statement about the Guardians of the state stands. Equally so with the state-appointed guardians of education: Ofsted.

I think Professor Coe (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24079951) has done the education world a huge service by pointing out that the Ofsted king has no clothes. However, perhaps in the manner of scrupulous academics everywhere, Professor Coe might prefer a more nuanced “the king probably doesn’t have any clothes”.

Coe pointed out that there is no — repeat, no — valid research supporting the “Ofsted model” of classroom observation being either: (a) a reliable tool for assessing teaching quality or effectiveness when cross-referenced with other measures such as student learning gains; or (b) the observation-feedback process leading to an improvement in teaching quality. (See  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-UyGwYHhGY for the section of his talk on classroom observations and http://t.co/AqY7Xqzknw for a link to his slides.)

I don’t know about anyone else but I am staggered by this. As a working teacher who is just about maintaining a precarious foothold on the treacherous scree of middle management, I always thought my seniors and betters had reams of evidence supporting the stuff they were asking us to do. And if they didn’t, well probably their seniors and betters did.

To hear a respected academic say that classroom observation might be “the next Brain Gym” was shocking.

And the Ofsted response? “Tosh and nonsense,” said Sir Michael Wilshaw.  “I don’t know of any headteacher who doesn’t believe that classroom observation isn’t anything other than a help. The fact that we are an inspectorate and we do make judgements has made a huge amount of difference.” According to the TES (13/9/13 p.8):

He said that new figures released this week, showing a 9 percentage point rise in the proportion of schools judged to be good or outstanding, proved that the watchdog’s tougher inspection regime had “galvanised the system”

This is, to my mind, a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as petito principii or “circular reasoning”. The form of this particular logical fallacy is as follows:

Logical Form:

     Claim X assumes X is true.

     Claim X is therefore, true.

Bennett, Bo (2012-02-21). Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies (p. 82). eBookIt.com. Kindle Edition.

Let’s see what Wilshaw said again.

  • The inspectorate’s judgements make a huge amount of [presumably positive] difference.
  • Ofsted judgements show that more schools (9 percentage points!) are good or outstanding.

…therefore Ofsted judgements make a huge amount of positive difference.

Now please note that this does not necessarily mean that the conclusion (that Ofsted helps schools improve) is false, but merely that the argument put forward by the Chief Inspector to support that conclusion is fallacious. And it hopefully goes without saying that a fallacious argument is by definition invalid and must be dropped immediately.

The character Chief Brody in the film Jaws once remarked that they needed “a bigger boat”. The Chief Inspector needs a better argument. And in view of the large amount of taxpayers’ money going to support Ofsted, that new argument should be supplied sooner rather than later. As Professor Coe remarked (somewhat plaintively) in his excellent talk: “Just one would be nice.”

H’mm. More rigour, anyone?

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Filed under Assessment, Classroom Observation, Education, Ofsted, Research ED, Robert Coe

Bloom Schloom; or, some research what I have auto-didactically done

“Use Bloom’s taxonomy here for a quick win with Ofsted!!!!”
— AHT giving lesson observation preparation advice, sometime in 2013. [Note: the multiple exclamation points are to give the reader some indication of the evangelical zeal with which this advice was imparted.]

 

 “I can’t remember the last time I met a teacher who knew if Bloom’s taxonomy was ever criticised”   — Tom Bennett, Teacher Proof, Kindle Locations 191-192. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition 2013

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I must confess, at the outset, that Bloom’s taxonomy has never sat right with me: for example, is it always the case that creating is always more cognitively demanding than (say) applying? So, creating a story about how the dog ate my homework is more cognitively demanding than applying Einstein’s time dilation equation?

I thought I was alone in my scepticism until I came across Tom Bennett’s comment (quoted above). However, even our very own Ben Goldacre-style enfant terrible of the educational research world doesn’t put the boot in to Bloom’s flipping taxonomy any further, although he does do a good job on knocking down de Bono’s coloured hats (as well as several other pieces of educational “wisdom” that he reveals to be not so wise  — read the book!)

And so I present my Bennett-ian take on Bloom’s taxonomy, the fruit of at least one afternoon of casual internet research — I’m sorry I’ll rephrase that, Ernie Wise-style, as “the research what I have auto-didactically done”. (And please note that I do not mean to imply in any way shape or form that Tom Bennett’s research for his book was as slapdash and cursory as mine…)

A taxonomy is, in its essence, nothing more or less than a system of sorting or classifying. To my mind, Bloom’s taxonomy has more of the feel of a folk taxonomy than a scientific taxonomy. For example, the folk classification of the large plants in a garden as trees, shrubs or flowers would be more than adequate for the average layperson. However, a botanist or gardener would probably require a more rigorous classification system using actual detailed scientific observations of the characteristics of the plants, rather than a handwaving “it’s a bit bushy” or “it looks tree-y”.

At first glance, it might seem obvious that creating is more cognitively demanding than (say) applying. But is it? How do we know? It seems to me that in order to accept this as a fact we need a sound model of how the human mind actually works. Is it always the case that creating always trumps applying? From my (admittedly limited) understanding of neuroscience, it seems to me that creating involves many brain processes and that these are currently poorly understood. The same can be said of the brain processes involved in applying. As a consequence, to place the two in any sort of cognitive hierarchy is, at best, premature.

The danger is that Bloom’s taxonomy is prejudicial in the sense that it assigns relative value to certain nebulously-defined types of thinking. As psychologist Robert J. Sternberg says, such theories “often do not have the clarity in epistemological status” that is required of a scientific taxonomy. So what we are left with is a folk taxonomy common among educational practitioners.

But how common? As Brenda Sugrue notes, even fans of Bloom’s taxonomy do not always agree on the level of a given learning objective: “it might be classified into either of the two lowest levels [ . . . ] or into any of the four highest levels [ . . . ] by different designers.” Sugrue argues that Bloom’s taxonomy:

was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance. The categories or “levels” of Bloom’s taxonomy … are not supported by any research on learning. The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction between declarative/conceptual knowledge … and procedural knowledge (which enables application or task performance).

It might seem, therefore, that possibly Bloom’s taxonomy is not even a folk taxonomy within the educational community, but rather it is simply a taxonomy of personal preference with regard to educational objectives.

David Morrison-Love makes the point that “the contribution made by Bloom’s Taxonomy cannot be underestimated, as a communication system derived from classifying different types of exam questions”; but goes on to say that  he does “not view the elements in Bloom’s Taxonomy as successive levels, but simply a collection of equally important intellectual processes I wish to promote and develop in learners; the challenge of which I control.”

Many of the authors cited propose alternative systems to replace Bloom’s taxonomy. At the moment, I am not sure whether any of these are worth considering.

However, the point of this blog post is to warn you that if that ubiquitous multicoloured triangle is flashed without a caveat on to a training screen near you, it could be an indication that the presenter has not done his or her homework, and that his or her assurances that what they say is based on  what ” research shows” may not be as rock solid as they might appear.

REFERENCES

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