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BALD John

With education off the front pages, we have time for reflection and even for some book reviews. These disappeared from educational journalism around the millennium, when a senior journalist on the TES told me that he wasn’t interested in the likes of me, but in young women teachers, whose tastes, according to focus groups, did not run to books. The Guardian was just as bad, though they did make an exception for Arnold Wilkins’ Visual Stress, an excellent book examining a hidden factor in reading difficulty and establishing links with migraine and, in extreme cases, photosensitive epilepsy. Two teachers attending a recent training session benefited from the tinting approach contained in this and Wilkins’ other publications, and pioneered by the American Helen Irlen.

We’ll begin with Professor Robert Coe’s What Makes Teaching Great, sponsored by the Sutton Trust. This is an interesting piece of work, and its main conclusion, that traditional methods of teaching are more effective than leaving child to work things out for themselves (akas constructivism and FOFO – find out for yourself), is entirely in line with the government’s programme of reform.  It raised a storm from our opponents, who don’t like research based on measuring children’s progress.

They took comfort, though, from his endorsement of the Sutton Trust’s line that ability grouping, or setting, has a negative effect, an important point that requires examination of Professor Coe’s methodology.  To put it bluntly, his paper does not contain any research at all.  It is merely a survey of many other papers, with the unspoken assumption that any shortcomings will cancel each other out.  This is a mistake.  Birds of a feather flock together in the academic world, and shared assumptions and shared errors sustain and reinforce each other, much as they did with astronomy before Galileo.

In the case of setting, the only UK study that can be called recent was published in 1999, with a follow up in 2005.  Although it  found consistently higher scores from schools that used setting, the regression analysis technique, that strips out correlations with various factors, allowed the authors to claim that it made no difference whether schools set or not.

The finding that children made better progress in set groups in English and maths up to the age of 14 was misrepresented in the summary of the first study, and then ignored. The data also are out of date. Mossbourne Community Academy was not even open when it was collected, and its success, repeated in other ARK and Harris academies, is due in large measure to setting and banding.  Accuracy, though, does not greatly matter in reports whose main aim is to media coverage, and it is no accident that a Blairite is in charge of the Sutton Trust’s publicity.

Seven Myths About Education, by Daisy Christodoulou, ARK’s R&D manager, covers similar territory, but gets to the heart of the matter more quickly, and with less jargon – pedagogy, for example, does not even appear in the index.  The first myth – that facts prevent understanding – is the most important. Without facts, and without memory to organise them and enable us to retrieve them, we can’t think.

Ms Christodoulou’s argument that much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong, and they are encouraged to teach in ineffective ways is at the heart of the Conservative challenge to progressivism. Her approach is based on close analysis of real examples, from Rousseau onwards – give your scholar no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone – and of their practical consequences. She does not argue against analysis and understanding, but points out that they are only possible if children have something to bring to the task. I’m not sure quite what to make of Hirsch’s idea that the relationship between knowledge and skills is “like a scrambled egg”, perhaps because I find scrambled eggs less appetising than twice-boiled cabbage, but Ms Christodoulou has attracted an interesting mix of admirers, including that opponent of most things Conservative, Professor Dylan Wiliam – the man who boasted to my young friend from Teach First that he had a third-class degree. An interesting read for teachers in training and school governors.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion, based on analysis of videos of very successful teachers, is packed with ideas for getting and holding children’s interest and managing classes. These range from subtle ways of bringing children back when their attention wavers, to faster ways of giving out books. Each idea is presented in full detail, with a superb accompanying video, and is in this respect better than Ofsted’s (alas, discarded) practice of including cameos of excellent teaching in inspection reports.  We see teachers picking up on points of detail  in a way that encourages pupils while helping them to understand and correct their own mistakes, for example,  just by repeating something they say in a way that makes them think about it, so that It gots to is willingly changed by the pupil to It has to. The principle that praise has to be genuine should be applied throughout education, and is worth the price of the book in itself.

The downside is that this video evidence is occasionally taken at face value. For example, a unit on note-taking compares a detailed copied note with a much sketchier version a pupil wrote for himself, and concludes that the former is better.   An HMI report of 1979 examined the same issue, and found that copying could mask a very serious literacy problem that only appeared once the pupil had to write independently. The snapshot does not always tell the whole story.  That said, this book can be recommended to any education student or newly qualified teacher as an unrivalled source of practical ideas, and is rightly recommended by Teach First.

Finally, our opponent Michael Rosen has written a book for parents, aptly entitled Good Ideas. It is full of practical suggestions for incorporating teaching into everyday life, with instructive anecdotes from his relationship with his father, the late Professor Harold Rosen.  Some of the contents will be obvious to parents actively involved in educating their own children, but perhaps not all, and I liked some of his hints for effective internet searches. Dr Rosen’s consistently interesting analysis of his personal experience, and what he has learned from it, is a refreshing reminder that statistics are not the only path to truth.

8 comments for: John Bald: The flawed case against setting

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