PIXL: panacea or poison?

“How the understanding is best conducted to the knowledge of science, by what steps it is to be led forwards in its pursuit, how it is to be cured of its defects, and habituated to new studies, has been the inquiry of many acute and learned men, whose observations I shall not either adopt or censure”.
–Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, April 1750

A colleague described a recent visit to a highly successful science department that has drunk mighty deep of the PIXL well. I shall summarise some of her observations and comments below. My reactions varied from intrigued to puzzled to horrified, but in keeping with the Johnson quote above, I shall endeavour to urge neither adoption nor censure — at least until I have thought about it some more.

Item the first: textbooks are forbidden. Students are taught from in-house PowerPoints and worksheets which are made available online for individual study by students. My colleague reported that she visited several classes in the same year group, and all the teachers were teaching the same topic with the same PowerPoint — and were often on exactly the same slide at the same time! Reportedly, this system was set up because science leaders were not satisfied with the quality of lessons being planned by individual teachers. For myself, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Gaullist education minister who claimed to know which page of which textbook children throughout France would be studying on that very day . . .

Item the second: science leaders have exhaustively analysed the GCSE exam board specification to produce the materials mentioned above. Every learning point is translated into “student friendly” language and covered in detail. My information is that a typical starter activity might be for students to copy down a summary of important information from a PowerPoint, before practising application using worksheets and past paper questions. These are often peer marked. Since planning and resource making have been centralised, the workload of the classroom teacher appeared to be more manageable than in many schools.

Item the third: students are regularly tested. Test papers are gone over with a fine tooth comb by the science team and areas of weakness identified. These are addressed in large, multiclass study skills sessions led by the head of science in the assembly hall, teaching from the front (brave woman!) using an old fashioned OHP and transparencies! (Sigh! Now that takes me back: I can almost smell the banda machine solvent as we speak.) Students are sat at exam desks for the session, and the hall is supervised by teaching staff and SLT (including the headteacher on the day my colleague visited). This is followed by a “walk and talk” mock (i.e. the answer is modelled by the Head of Science on her trusty OHP), followed by individual exam practice under exam conditions.

And so we come to the question: shall we adopt or censure these observations?

The truth is: I am not sure.

On the one hand, I can see how this might be a rapid and effective way to improve results, especially in a school with an inexperienced science team. And the part of me that actually likes writing schemes of work and resources would relish the challenge of developing such a scheme. And I’m told that percentage science pass rates improved significantly from the low teens to the high eighties . . . over the course of a single year! And you can’t really argue with such success, can you? (Actually, yes you can — see this post on the Halo Effect) Also as Lt. Worf of the starship Enterprise once observed: “If winning isn’t important, why keep score?”

And yet . .

Part of me rebels at such regimentation. Is this an example of the “mcdonaldisation” of education, the continuing process of deskilling the classroom practitioner? I genuinely hate to say this, but given this model maybe Sir Ken Robinson has a point; although this particular iteration seems to owe more to Taylorism rather that the nineteenth century workhouse.

Use another teacher’s PowerPoint? Ugh! I’d rather be forced to use his toothbrush . . .

And, while I grant that many examination questions are indeed fit for purpose and thoughtfully designed to expose misunderstandings and misconceptions, I cannot help the feeling that our examination system has become an overly-powerful tail wagging an emaciated dog.

Is learning truly synonymous with exam success? Have we become so enamoured of the assessment of learning rather than learning itself that we, like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, would not consider ourselves truly learnèd unless we hold a diploma saying that we are?


Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity . . . great thinkers . . . think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.

I shall leave the final word to my friend Sam Johnson:

“The great differences that disturb the peace of mankind are not about ends, but means. We have all the same general desires, but how those desires shall be accomplished will for ever be disputed.”
The Idler, December 1758



Filed under Assessment, Education, PIXL, Science, Society

12 responses to “PIXL: panacea or poison?

  1. Chris Macfarlane

    I find them objectionable and this testimonial from their website earlier in the year doesn’t do them any favours: “It was like drinking your first glass of Chateau Lafite and wondering how you had ever managed in life without it”.

    • One for the “poison” column then…
      I am conflicted. Recently, an old schoolfriend and me compared our old English teachers. He preferred Mr Y as Mr Y told you what the poems meant. I preferred Mr X as Mr X asked you what the poems meant. I suppose Mr Y was preparing us for exams whereas Mr X was attempting to get us to love poetry. Many, many students prefer the Mr Y type of teacher, as do many schools and SLTs. But in my heart, I’d prefer to be like Mr X.

      • Chris Macfarlane

        I find posing questions such as “Why is this a good question? How does it allow you to show that you understand the content knowledge? What are the misconceptions associated with question?” All allow a conversation that draw out thought. Perhaps this is easier in science than some subjects though.

      • I agree. To do as you suggest you need subject expertise, which is currently woefully undervalued, methinks.

  2. Requires Improvement

    I was sent to a Pixl seminar this week… I’m still not sure what I think. On one had, it was useful to share physics-teacher-stuff and experience. And if it delivers results to students that help them open doors, that can’t be bad (can it?). And yet…

    First off, the Pixl model is very much about extracting as much exam result as possible from a given amount of learning. The physicist in me ought to appreciate the efficiency and elegance of identifying the 100-or-so things a student needs to be able to do, finding out which ones they can do, and doing really targeted interventions on the others. I can appreciate it, but not without wondering if this isn’t entirely the point. It’s not just woolly romanticism; it’s also the physicist in me that gets sad when data which should have error bars get over-interpreted.

    On top of that, some of the ways of extracting lots of exam result (the resits, the sitting multiple versions of the same exam, the stretching of coursework rules) have felt like Taking The Mickey leading to Us Not Being Allowed Nice Things Any More. Saying that it’s all for the sake of the children doesn’t entirely wash. It’s a valid justification, but not a complete one.

    The other facet which leaves me feeling uncomfortable is the fetishisation of leadership of the “go and do this, unless you don’t really care for the children” type. Whilst I don’t think Pixl has a desired pedagogy for normal lessons (their really big thing is testing and subsequent intervention), the idea that a school or department has a fixed way of doing things seems consistent with their outlook on life. It’s better than either a complete mess or “make some specific things happen but we’re not going to tell you what or how”, but the loss of space for questions and alternatives would bother me.

    • I agree — there are some positives in the PIXL approach, but there seems to be a disturbing vacuum at its heart. It certainly seems to “work” on its own terms, but again it seems to be making a fetish of exams and examination-technique, which makes me uneasy. I suspect that PIXL may turn into the new VKA learning styles which we’ll all have to pay lip service to.

  3. Great post. The two people I mention in this post http://wp.me/p2z9Lp-xz are very much involved with Pixl, it’s a whole ideology build on driving up results without losing at the bigger picture and it worries me.

  4. ijstock

    “…an overly-powerful tail wagging an emaciated dog.” Now that’s imagery I can relate to!

  5. I recently wrote a post about PiXL’s approach. Their idea seems to be that all learning can be reduced to “can do” statements, ie levels under another name. The fact that “can do” statements can be interpreted in different ways is irrelevant – teachers will be required to carry out interventions on the basis of inadequate data. PiXl’s response to this will be that their system has proven worth, but I would suggest further research is needed as to whether the improved results are the direct consequence of this, or because of other things. PiXL schools are traditionally schools with low results – in a sense the only way is up!
    On another note, and I am aware that I sound like some romantic progressive (perhaps I am not so traditionalist after all!), there is something deeply disturbing about killing off the academic fascination of a subject discipline by making “a fetish of exams and examination technique.” I almost wonder whether it is designed to make learning academic subjects so mind-numbingly boring that students and teachers will gratefully acquiesce in a “Claxtonite” curriculum!

  6. There is that received wisdom, isn’t there, that to get from bad to good you need to tighten up (i.e. regiment things), but to get from good to excellent you need to loosen up (i.e. allow innovation and variety).

    There’s probably an element of that here. You can improve things by telling people what to do, *if* it’s better than what they already do. But there will be limits, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s easier to use this approach to game the tests than to give students a lasting grasp of the content.

    • Agreed. My concern is that such game playing will push out some better practice — I grant the effectiveness and utility of the approach, but I worry that the approach will be universally applied.

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