Month: June 2015

Will this spread? 349 students at Scottish High School challenge Christianity’s monopoly

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A very interesting development!

Primate's Progress

North Berwick High SchoolMore than a third of the students at North Berwick High have signed a petition challenging Christianity’s monopoly in Religious Observance and School Assemblies. In order to express their views more freely, they have set up their own newspaper, The Contender, of which the first two numbers are available on line here and here, and obtained a grant to pay for a print edition. These actions have attracted well-deserved media attention both locally and UK-wide, and are likely to be discussed by the Scottish Youth Parliament.

Here is what they’ve signed:

 Petition for the Secularisation or Religious Diversity of School Assemblies and/or Functions

By signing this petition you, as a North Berwick student, are agreeing that there should either be no religious influence (in assemblies, other events) in school or that all religious denominations should be represented, and that it is inappropriate for only one religion…

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Is Cheating Really Endemic In Our Schools?

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800px-CheatingChannel Four’s recent Dispatches programme (June 15th) unveiled a (not so) hidden world of league table manipulation and deliberate cheating in our schools. What it exposed was not the odd problem, but systematic cheating by all parties from the point where a child enters our education system until they leave (hopefully) with a degree. From supressing achievement in baseline and other tests, to enable claims of higher than average progress for children with large scale copying of textbook content submitted as coursework. Our schools appear to be hotbeds of cheating. The manipulation of pupil registrations in school to artificially inflate GCSE or A level outcomes was also exposed. We were left with the impression of an education system in desperate need of reform and stringent control.

As a former teacher, now lecturer in education, I can say, yes there is gaming of the system when it comes to examination results. It’s not new. Twenty five years ago I recall, as a head of department, being told by senior managers to ensure that coursework was always ‘of the highest standard’ (that was code for highest possible grades) and to organise ‘coursework days’ (code for make them sit down and do it all). As teachers we didn’t write it for them, but perhaps our ‘guidance’ trod a fine line between helping and prescribing. I would sign up to ‘trial’ key stage three tests, knowing full well that the trial test would be very similar to the actual test. We would have a head’s up on what was coming up that year. Did I think I was cheating the system? No. I was merely taking full advantage of any permissible means that I could to bump up the grades for my school. My job depended on it. Falling results was an issue that could have cost me my job. Today the situation is worse with much greater pressure placed on Heads who transfer this down to Heads of Department and, finally, teachers.

The current mantra is that, ultimately, it’s the Head and the classroom teachers who are responsible for the examination results and the performance of the pupils.

I disagree.

Teachers are not responsible for the examination results. The only person who can be held responsible for the outcome of any examination is the person who sits it. This is where our system has gone wrong. We are foisting responsibility on the wrong people.

Teachers, Heads of Department and Heads should be held accountable for the education they deliver, but being accountable is not the same as being responsible. Schools must be accountable for what they teach (making sure they teach the correct specification for example), for the quality of teaching – ensuring that the teachers they have are properly trained, kept up to date etc. Heads must be accountable for the resourcing of their schools so that the staff and pupils have the right access to equipment, textbooks and materials. Teachers are accountable for the classroom environment, ensuring good discipline, planning, teaching and assessing the work that their pupils do. If the school delivers on all these things, they must also ensure that the pupils and parents are clear on their responsibilities. Parental support of the school and their own children is vital and, eventually, the children themselves must come to understand that they are responsible for their actions when it comes to working hard and revising for and sitting the examinations.

There’s a cartoon that I show trainee teachers. In the first panel, dated 1961 we have two angry parents waving an inadequate set of exam results in the face of a trembling child. ‘What’s the meaning of these grades?!’ they declare angrily. Move then to 2011 where the parents utter the same words, wave the same poor results, but this time, not in the face of the child, but the child’s teacher.

The biggest obstacle to tackling cheating and gaming of the system is the use of examination results and league tables as the main measure of school success. When teacher and school effectiveness is only measured by pupil progress and results, teachers will ensure that progress, whether real or not, is shown and that results will, by hook or by crook, improve.

It’s a fact of life that progression in learning is never continual, smooth and nicely incremental. It’s a bumpy ride that does not always move forwards, sometimes it goes into reverse. It’s also a fact of life that different cohorts of children, year on year, will perform differently in high stakes examinations, even when all other factors, such as the teachers etc. remain the same. School examination results should only be one factor in our accountability system. They should be looked at over time, say a five year period, not year by year. What we are now developing in our education system is ‘football manager/league syndrome’ where Heads are hired and fired, seemingly on the basis of a results blip and schools are ‘brokered’ across private companies, bought and sold like a faceless commodity with little or no reference to parents.

Choosing a primary or secondary school is a long term investment for children. Over five years the best schools can easily slip from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Requires Improvement’. Assessing how good a school is shouldn’t rely on short-term exam data only, but a long-term holistic assessment of the education provision.

Global warming: Science-denying Senator tells scientist Pope to listen to scientists

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The Pope as a chemist is almost as crazy as Margaret Thatcher as a chemist… oh wait, she was wasn’t she!

Primate's Progress

Coat of arms of Franciscus.svg Pope Francis’ Coat of Arms

Well, perhaps not quite a scientist, but Pope Francis really does have, on his CV, a chemistry lab technician’s diploma and related work experience. And Rick Santorum is not quite a Senator, either, more of an ex-Senator, having lost his seat in 2006, but nonetheless a candidate (yet again) for the Presidency of the United States.

Pope Francis also worked for a while as a nightclub bouncer. Nothing to do with the matter in hand, but I thought I’d mention it.

One further irony is that Santorum is a devout Catholic, who describes Catholicism as the source of his politics, and attends Mass almost daily.

Galileo Galilei, age 60, by Ottavio Leoni

As Santorum should know, Popes have for quite a while had a reasonably good record of listening to scientists. There was, of course, that unfortunate business of Galileo, but that…

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BBC Perpetuates Learning Styles Myth – an update

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My last blog bemoaned the use of Learning Styles in a BBC iWonder blog, following on from a ‘One Show’ item on memory and learning.

I submitted a complaint to the BBC. The complaint form limited how much detail could be given but my complaint as sent in was as follows:

Complaint Summary: Misleading information on Learning Styles

Full Complaint: In education we are fighting hard to dispel the myth of learning styles (LS).The reality is that there is no such thing! People may describe or provide a ‘preference’ but research shows that this in no way aids their learning. Pashler et al (2008) state: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the LS approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing… it remains to be demonstrated.” Riener &Willingham (2010) “students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning” Coffield (2004) also concluded that there is a dearth of rigorously controlled experiments and longitudinal studies to test the claims of supporters. Henry (2007) Susan Greenfield: “After more than 30 years of educational research in to LS there is no independent evidence that VAK or indeed any other LS inventory, has any direct educational benefits.” References Coffield, F. et al (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Centre Henry, J. (2007) Professor pans ‘learning style’ teaching Daily Telegraph Pashler H et al (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science,9(3) Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. Please consider removing this section from the website.

I have now received a reply from the BBC in relation to this complaint. It is not as I had hoped (unsurprisingly), an agreement to remove the section in question.

Dear Mr Williams

Thank you for taking the time to share your comment with us. We value your opinion and we’ll review the ‘Live and learn’ step in the iWonder guide in question. (my emphasis)

Our aim was to explore different learning techniques and not say definitively that people will be able to learn information by using a specific style.

The section you mentioned was the opinion of a chartered clinical psychologist working in neurology, and was clearly stated as such. We are therefore happy for it to remain as part of the guide. (my emphasis) We appreciate that there may not be unanimous consensus among scientists and educationalists.

BBC iWonder team

So, the outcome is that the Learning styles section will remain, but that they will ‘review it’. The review simply adds, at the end of the item, the following statement:

Not everyone agrees with the idea that an individual has one specific learning style, particularly within the education sector. Some believe that people learn through a mix of styles and apply different techniques depending on what information they want to learn.

I find it disappointing that hard evidence to the contrary is ‘over-ruled’ by the ‘opinion’ of one clinical psychologist. I’m pleased that they have put in the statement, but feel it should be at the top of the piece, not at the end.

Dr Jess Quirke, the clinical psychologist in question, submitted her doctoral thesis in 2007 on Psychological adjustment through the epilepsy surgery process. I have been unable to find out more about her online or why she was the best person to advise on this aspect of learning.