In outlining some of the problems with contemporary assessment at the Festival of Education 2016, Daisy Christodoulou noted that the concept of assessment for learning has in many cases, merely become assessment of learning. This summative approach has focussed on things like students simply knowing what grade they are working at and being able to reference abstract exam board criteria without any real practical sense of how to move forward. Valerie Shute defines effective feedback as not just a diagnostic tool but rather as an ongoing conversation primarily focussed on improvement:
In seeking to help students become more independent and have more ownership of their progress, we might pause to consider the difference between marking and feedback, and whether they are the same thing at all. In some cases, marking a a set of books can mean a huge amount of effort with little reward in terms of students knowing how to progress. In addition, the opportunity cost of marking several sets of books in this way is worth looking at in light of recent concerns about teacher workload.
Students need to know where they are going wrong but by simply identifying the deficiencies within a piece of work and linking improvement to abstract assessment criteria not linked to actual examples, students are are not active stakeholders in their own improvement and can become frustrated. Feedback should ultimately be productive but as Douglas Reeves reminds us, sometimes this process is not so much a medical as a postmortem.
Furthermore, although research on feedback shows that it is one of the most fruitful ways of enabling student progress, not all feedback is the same and some of it can even have an adverse effect. The Education Endowment Foundation notes that:
In terms of thinking about independent learning and engendering students to take a more proactive role in their own progress, it is worth considering Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that this process is more effective when students are working just as hard, if not harder than the teacher:
In that sense, we might consider the use of exemplars in encouraging students to take a more metacognitive approach to their own work. A lot of research has shown that students often receive a piece of marked work and simply look at the grade without considering how to improve. One way of addressing that issue and facilitating more independence might be structuring a feedback lesson after an assessment where students have time to properly reflect on their own work against exemplars and common errors pointed out by their teacher. That process might look like this:
1. Mark work correcting any errors making a note of common misconceptions.
2. Give students the best three examples of that particular task from the class.
3. Explain common misconceptions to the class.
4. Give students time to evaluate the exemplars and reflect on their own work.
5. Students write down ways to improve with concrete examples from exemplars.
6. Teacher reviews the students reflection to inform future planning.
This excellent example from Denise Brown features a form where students complete a range of tasks based on a assessment. After looking at how well their answer fulfils assessment criteria, students then look at the best examples of that task from the class and complete the following tasks:
Now, compare your answer to the exemplar response.
Exemplar response mark out of 20:………. Your mark out of 20:………..
Choose TWO examples that worked better* than your essay, and use the language from the assessment grid to say why and how (e.g. ‘Technical term “X” is relevant and supported by an integrated quotation’):
How this works well:
How this works well:
Now, apply what you have learned about better* writing to RE-WRITE ONE PARAGRAPH from your own essay:
Of course, a vitally important aspect of marking work is not just that the student knows how to improve, but also to provide the teacher with vital information in order to inform future planning. However in moving towards a more independent learning environment we might consider the notion that students should have a more proactive role in the process of feedback where they can see their work as being something fluid within a continuum of progress rather than as a fixed point on a scale. As one colleague eloquently put it, when receiving a piece of marked work, students should be looking in a mirror rather than at a painted picture.
Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1) pp. 7-71.
Reeves, D. B. (2008). Leading to change: Effective Grading Practices. Educational
Leadership, 65(5), 85-87.
Wiliam, D.B.(2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, In.
In the last post we looked at the importance of retrieval and the testing effect. In this week’s post we will look at spaced learning and interleaving as ways of enhancing the long term retention of learning.
In 1885 Herman Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments on himself to test memory and recall. He studied the memorisation of random syllables, such as “WID” and “ZOF” by repeatedly testing himself after various time periods and recording the results. He plotted these results on a graph creating what is now known as the “forgetting curve”.
His research indicated that total recall (100%) for him was achieved only at the point of learning. Following that, the retention of what had been learned fell away very quickly:
- Within 20 minutes 42% of the memorised list was lost.
- Within 24 hours 67% of what he learned had vanished.
- A month later 79% had been forgotten.
Typically students study a unit or topic for a term (massed practice) are tested on that and then move on to a new unit only to revise that material leading up to an exam. This often takes the form of revisiting material the week or even night before in the form of cramming.
Put aside the fact that this kind of approach can lead to severe stress around exam time, cramming the night before the GCSE exam might yield good results in the short term but will probably not lead to the kind of long term retention of knowledge required for the independent study of subjects in the 6th form and beyond.
It is common sense that when we want to learn information, we study that information multiple times. The schedules by which we space repetitions can make a huge difference, however, in how well we learn and retain information we study. The spacing effect is the finding that information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals (i.e., massed presentation). This effect is one of the most robust results in all of cognitive psychology and has been shown to be effective over a large range of stimuli and retention intervals from nonsense syllables (Ebbinghaus, 1885) to foreign language learning across many months (Bahrick, Bahrick, Bahrick & Bahrick, 1993).
Another way of thinking about the delivery and revisiting of topic material and of engendering long term retention of knowledge is through the process of interleaving where instead of delivering topics through massed practice, material is spaced out and interleaved with each other to induce regular forgetting and retrieval. This process is usually more difficult for students in the short term and requires greater responsibility and independence but leads to great gains in the long term, one reason why Bjork refers to this as a’desirable difficulty.’
What does this look like in the classroom?
There are a variety of ways to harness these benefits. Here are a series of examples from some practitioners are redesigning curricula in extraordinary new ways including this advice from Joe Kirby (who was taught by our very own Tom Wayman):
Over the last decade, eleven cognitive psychologists have taken over a hundred years of laboratory research and applied it to classrooms and subject curricula. Here’s what they recommend:
Use frequent quizzing: testing interrupts forgetting
Roll forward into each successive quiz questions on work from the previous term.
Design quizzing to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term, so retrieval practice continues and learning is cumulative.
Frequent low-stakes quizzes in class helps the instructor verify that students are in fact learning as well as they appear to be and reveal the areas where extra attention is needed. Cumulative quizzing is powerful for consolidating learning and concepts from one stage of a course into new material encountered later.
Simply including one test retrieval practice in a class yields a large improvement in final exam scores, and gains continue to increase as the frequency of testing increases.
Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, *provided that you succeed*, the more learning is strengthened by retrieval.
In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool
One of the best habits to instill in a learner is regular self-quizzing.
– Is spacing and interleaving more pertinent to some subjects than others?
– Would teaching students to harness the benefits of independent self quizzing improve wellbeing in the long term?
Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham 2011.
Repeated Retrieval Is the Key to Long-Term Retention. Karpicke & Roediger 2007
Retrieval practice is critical in long-term retention. Roediger & Butler 2010
Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Roediger & Karpicke 2006
Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid tests. Smith & Karpicke 2013
“The most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible.” – R. Bjork
One of the more counterintuitive things about learning is that when we consider matters in the long term, the kinds of activities we do in the short term might not be as effective as we think. A ‘desirable difficulty’ refers to a learning task that may prove difficult initially but that leads to greater learning and mastery over an extended period of time. Independent learners are characteristically very good at embracing desirable difficulties and view the process of retrieval or having to generate information from memory as an effective method of consolidation.
The term was coined by Robert Bjork in 1994 when he made a helpful distinction between learning and performance. Performance is something that is easily measured through cues and engagement while learning is only something we can infer. Activities like cramming, re-reading material and highlighting information can give the impression of learning but these kinds of activities are often illusory as Bjork explains:
“Basically, current performance, which is something we can observe, is an unreliable index of learning, which we must infer. Massed practice on a task, for example, often leads to rapid gains in performance, but little or no effect on learning, as measured by long-term retention or transfer.”
In helping students to become independent learners who are able to access and use a broad range of knowledge in a wide range of contexts over a long period of time, there are a number of approaches supported by evidence that are useful but can often be met with initial resistance from the student who can feel that by being ‘busy’ they are learning something when in fact they may not be using their time as productively as they could be.
The importance of retrieval:
An effective way of students consolidating learning is to engage in retrieval strategies which require the student to search their long term memory for information as opposed to using their working memory to do ‘busy work.’ Reading over or highlighting material is not as ‘difficult’ a task as trying to retrieve it as the students feel engaged and the material is often already familiar them. This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall who writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.”
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this, as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.”
The Testing Effect:
The testing effect is a well established phenomenon that has been replicated many times in cognitive psychology. This process doesn’t have to be high stakes and actually works better when students get into a regular pattern of active recall through flashcards or self quizzing in an independent manner.
“Varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas, which can, in turn, support transfer of that learning to new settings.”
Many of these findings are somewhat counterintuitive when considered in terms of traditional methods of learning where typically students study a unit of material, say a half term and then are tested at the end of that unit.
Bjork’s research found that in the above model, no. 4 was actually the most effective method of retaining knowledge over a longer period of time. He suggests that engaging students in a process of ‘non-threatening’ retrieval through low stakes testing on a regular basis, and harnessing that process as part of covering the content is a far more effective way of consolidating learning.
“difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals”
So having students generate answers rather than just re-read or highlight material, having them regularly engage in self-quizzing through the use of flashcards or multiple choice questions and ultimately have them step into the liminal space of ‘desirable difficulties’ means they will be far better prepared to remember and transfer knowledge in classroom discussions, presentations and formal exams.
– What does the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ look like in your subject?
– what are the barriers to students embracing difficulty and challenge?
- What Is the Testing Effect, and How Does It Affect Learning, Knowledge, and Retention?
- How Tests Make Us Smarter
- Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder
- Test-enhanced learning: Using retrieval practice to help students learn
- Remembering, Forgetting, and Desirable Difficulties
- Bjork, Robert ‘Desirable Difficulties Perspective on Learning’ https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/07/RBjork_inpress.pdf
- Pyc, Mary A.; Rawson, Katherine A. (May 2009). “Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory?” (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language. 60 (4): 437–447. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004.
- Roediger, H. and Karpicke, J. (2006) ‘The Power of Testing Memory, Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice’, Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume 1—Number 3
- Nutshell, Graham ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007, p.24)
This document is the culmination of a series of discussions with pupils, HODS and SLT and provides a roadmap for the broader enterprise of independent learning.
The College is committed to the wider concept of developing independence: independent thinking, learning and coping. All of these three are inter-related, and are developed holistically through the wider school experience, through pastoral care, tutoring, co-curricular interaction and parental approach. Everything that is written here about learning should also be applied to thinking and coping.
Some useful starting points:
- Independent learning can be thought of as “the ability to take charge of one’s learning” – Holec (1981)
- Independent Learning should be seen as an desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end.
- Independent learning is rooted in effective questioning and dialogue. (Coaching is a core driver here)
- The ability to make informed choices and to take responsibility for your own learning activities with planning, support and guidance from teachers.
- It represents a shift in responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student. This has to be gradual with scaffolding in place and a flexible path to independent learning with it embedded in all schemes of work.
- It should encourage the following characteristics: curiosity, passion, inspiration, discernment, self-motivation, self-examination, accountability, critical thinking and persistence.
- It should develop the ability of the pupil to know when they need support.
- To that end, strong and productive teacher-pupil relationships are key.
- Metacognition is a key element of independent learning. Students should develop the capacity to learn how to learn.
- Independent learners are able to transfer knowledge across a wide range of contexts and to that end memory and retrieval are key components in this process.
- Independent learners have strong ‘affective skills’ which refers to the ability to manage feelings – the most important of which is the ability to delay gratification.
- Independent Learners have a strong sense of purpose.
Purpose is what keeps us going. Paul Dolan tells us in Happiness by Design that we need purpose as well as pleasure to feel fulfilled. But if we’re only interested in short-term goals like passing exams, what happens when the goal is achieved? Teaching students who seem only motivated by threats and rewards and give every appearance of hating everything to do with school can be a joyless exercise. Teaching students whose purpose is to learn for its own sake is an altogether different proposition. They listen attentively, work conscientiously and strive to relate new concepts and information to what they already know. Having a purpose gives us the desire to master tricky content just because it’s there. (Didau, Rose 2016)
What is not meant by independent learning?
- It does not mean working on your own without any supervision or guidance on long term projects.
- It does not mean less teacher guidance but rather specific guidance with the end goal of student independence.
- It does not mean a rigidly predetermined path to instant independent learning for all and at all times.
- It does not mean students using technology without a clear sense of focus and direction.
“Teacher instruction is vitally necessary to become an independent learner.” (Christodoulou, 2014)
What are the benefits of independent learning?
- It is a skill that is highly valued at university and in the workplace and is vital in life preparation. Whilst the world will change, this skill and associated benefits will remain invaluable.
- It will enable students to feel in control of their academic studies, hence reducing stress, increasing wellbeing, and leading to improved academic performance.
- It will enhance student organisation and the ability to set tangible goals.
- It will increase student motivation and confidence.
- It will enable teachers to provide differentiated tasks.
- It is consistent with our philosophy on coaching.
- It will develop resilience for academic purposes and beyond.
- It will ultimately have a positive impact on end performance in particular in the 6th Form.
What will make independent learning successful?
- Students must develop the necessary organisational skills to work towards independence.
- Students must develop the necessary motivation and confidence to thrive in an independent learning culture.
- Students will learn how to collaborate effectively in a meaningful way.
- Teachers have subject passion and drive to lead the learning, and model independence and intellectual curiosity.
- There is a critical balance for teachers to establish between using subject specific expertise, and challenging students through effective and powerful questioning and dialogue.
- Positive relationships between teachers and students that are based on trust and a mutual responsibility for learning.
- Marking is not the same as feedback. The quality of feedback is fundamental to the success of independent learning.
- Students will need to learn cognitive and metacognitive skills.
- Teachers will all need to develop the ability to ask the right questions to elicit independent thinking.
Independent Learner characteristics:
- Independent learners are firstly well organized with a clear sense of success criteria for each subject unit.
- Independent learners have a positive relationship with their teachers and tutors and ask for help and guidance when needed.
- Independent learners have developed a robust set of digital skills to enable them to use technology and navigate the Internet in a discerning and critical manner.
- Independent learners focus less on poor revision techniques such as the storage of information (re-reading/highlighting) and more on the generation of questions and answers themselves through self-quizzing/regular low stakes testing.
- Independent learners are able to evaluate exemplar material from their peers or from the exam board to reflect and improve on their own work.
- Independent learners have a sense of agency over their future. They have strong self-regulation and metacognitive skills and are deeply reflective about their individual strengths and weaknesses.
- Independent learners have an intellectual curiosity bolstered by a wide range of extra-curricular activities.
- Independent learners have a well-developed capacity for intrinsic questioning as opposed to extrinsic questioning.
- Independent learners are empowered, unstressed, and in control.
Further discussion: Independent Learning Pathway
Independent Learning is a desired end but perhaps not the best means to that end. What might independent learning look like at different stages of pupil development?
What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (Didau, Rose 2016)
Seven Myths About Education (Christodolou, 2014)
Harkness teaching and UK education
Head of VI Form and leading Harkness practitioner Dr Guy Williams on a US-developed pedagogy which is growing in use over here.
‘Harkness’ teaching is a pedagogy based on round-the-table discussion between students, in which peer-to-peer dialogue is emphasised. This is different from a teacher-led dialogue, in which points keep being referred back to or get directed by a teacher. The whole point is to get students talking to one another, so that they become responsible for the intellectual content of the lesson. To put it visually, you can imagine a teacher-led dialogue as a map on which all roads lead to Rome: comments and questions keep coming back to the hub of the classroom, the professional educator. A Harkness map meanwhile would look like a mesh of many intersecting routes, as the impetus for the dialogue comes from all corners.
This approach to teaching was developed by a small group of private schools in the US, starting with Phillips Exeter Academy, which put in place a new system of small group teaching in the 1930’s (naming the philosophy after a major benefactor: Edward Harkness). It spread among other prominent US schools (Andover, Lawrenceville, etc.) and now table-based seminars are fairly common in American private schools. Given this success, it’s curious that Harkness teaching hasn’t been much imported into the UK education system. In fact, the Harkness method itself is partly a product of UK teaching – staff from Phillips Exeter identified good teaching with the tutorials and seminars of Oxford and Cambridge while developing what would become their philosophy. One might imagine that it would made a natural fit in British schools.
At Wellington College, we see great value in promoting Harkness as part of our tool kit for teaching and learning. The advantages are many: it puts the onus on the students, requires independence and critical thinking, it works through collaboration and constructive discussion (not point scoring), and so it develops a lot of the intellectual and social skills that we require of our students. To be successful in Harkness, you must be a good listener, a thinker, empathetic, articulate, and unashamedly intellectual. Given all of these advantages, introducing Harkness at scale would seem to be a good move for any progressive school wishing to develop an open and academic culture.
However, there are a few hurdles to overcome before Harkness can take off over here, partly based on the way in which we perceive the educational cultures of our schools.
It could be argued that Harkness is skills-based and process-driven, chiefly interested in how students behave in a learning environment, whereas the UK system puts emphasis on performance and outcomes. Most teaching in US schools is not related to a specific, external, high-stakes assessment, whereas UK 6th formers are all taking A Level or IB courses. In other words, Harkness is how we would like to teach in an ideal world, but we are trapped in the iron cage of league tables, inspections, UCAS, and other performance-driven systems. Harkness is a luxury we cannot afford.
There are a couple of misconceptions at work here.
Firstly, it’s wrong to assume that student-led dialogue is light on content. Quite the contrary, successful dialogues are all knowledge-based. A good dialogical teacher understands this and so puts in place a consistency of expectation and assessment that prevents a blind-leading-the-blind scenario. A good Harkness lesson starts from significant preparatory work, student questions, rigorous standards for participation, and a teacher who guards the process carefully. Teachers who set the prep work and demand that students follow through will cover prescribed course content just fine. It’s not a soft regime, except where it’s misunderstood.
Secondly, it’s just an assumption that teacher-led lessons are necessary to meet performance outcomes. We often think this way: teachers ‘know the system,’ can ‘explain the exam,’ and so on. Teachers act as a kind of guide through dangerous territory. Perhaps there is some truth in this and there is something to be said for teachers speaking frankly to a class about their experience and insight of an assessment system, having been through it many times before. Nevertheless, it is also perfectly possible to construct a genuine dialogue around the system itself, with students taking responsibility for interpreting the course, its components, assessment system, etc. It’s a question of setting up that dialogue carefully and thoughtfully, rather than just leading the class on a guided tour.
So, Harkness can nurture genuine academic performance and isn’t just a cosy learning environment. But the question then arises of how schools can make the shift towards this philosophy. The most important step is obvious – just give it a go! Set up the parameters of your dialogue, explain your objectives to the class, and take the risk of trying something.
However, the wider process of introducing an educational philosophy is subtle and difficult. One interesting idea for engineering a school in which Harkness can succeed is the use of Harkness for admissions. At Wellington, we have started to use Harkness discussions as part of our interview process, putting less emphasis on plain interviews and taking more of an interest in the academic virtues on display in the classroom. Can candidates work constructively, engage with material, and respond positively to each other in discussion? Having run both admissions interviews and admissions Harkness sessions, I have a sense that it is actually the latter that is more revealing of candidates, rather than their thoroughly prepared interview pitch.
It might be better to see this in terms of shifting the academic culture of a school and setting expectations to students, rather than mastering a new ‘technique’ for teaching. Can you educate your students to be independent, confident, open learners? Can you get them to buy-in to the kind of change you want to make in teaching? If you can do that, your lessons will break out into serious academic dialogue of their own accord.
So, will we finally see Harkness teaching take off in UK schools? To some extent, I think it’s just a matter of time until we catch on to the importance of a grown-up learning environment, remodelling our learning spaces with seminar tables, and shifting some of the dynamics between the students and the teachers. Having said that, there are also fundamental challenges that should not be underestimated, not the least of which is financial. But with some creativity and investment, it may be possible to make positive changes to the academic culture of our schools through learning from and, as far as possible, implementing the Harkness ideal.
Guy Williams, Feb 2016
Want to find out more about Harkness teaching? Consider taking part in one of the exciting Harkness courses for educators taking place this summer. Both courses will be led by expert Harkness teachers from the US.
Humanities and Social Science: http://wctsp.org.uk/course-detail.php/Humanities-Social-Sciences-CPD-course-with-The-Lawrenceville-School-USA-69/
By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington.
I wonder if you noticed the recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University. It should have rung a loud alarm bell and yet seemed to slip by largely unnoticed in the Christmas rush. The findings of the study suggest that the UK are among the world’s worst (or best) at teaching students to pass the exam at the expense of nurturing deep and lasting knowledge and understanding. According to the leader of the research, Professor Dorling, UK schools focus on short term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests; knowledge which is quickly forgotten.
Then in recent days, the World Education Forum focused its conference around what it calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the digitisation and automation of the workplace over the next five years and the changing skill set that will be needed to thrive in the new landscape. The WEF thinking resonates with a view I expressed in a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph (hyperlink here), in which I argued that the UK education system, which began to take on its present form in the mid-19th century, has stopped evolving, and the result is that we are failing to fully prepare the young people of today for the world they will live in tomorrow.
It is clear that all schools have to genuinely commit to an education which goes way beyond simply the acquisition of grades A*-C. We have to equip our children with the skills and aptitudes they need to live, thrive and survive in the future. Skills such a critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and learning, leadership and creativity.
It all sounds very seductive so why does it seem so hard for schools to adopt this approach? It is perhaps easier to understand when we remember that our examination system – established in 1858, and little changed since – does not fully recognise these attributes but instead seems to place higher value on the recall of information and the application of the standard methods required to satisfy an overworked marker. I believe that it is time for government and leading educators to come together to create a new strategic vision of how school and student assessment could evolve to meet the needs of current and future generations.
The problem is compounded by the annual beauty parade of newspaper league tables, in which schools are numbered and ranked based on statistics which take little or no account of a school’s context or its success in creating well-rounded, interesting, inspired students. The same students who will be happy and successful in their lives beyond school.
Schools, driven by the need to hit targets, satisfy stakeholders and compare well with their competitors, are often tempted to withdraw to the safest and easiest method of achieving good grades – “teaching to the test”. Worse still, there is often a temptation to make educational decisions which maximise grades at the expense of the students’ best interests. The greatest betrayal of all.
All of which makes the school league table – at least in its current form – much worse than an unnecessary distraction but, in fact, a key driver for poor educational practice.
Who is to blame? J’accuse….me (and probably you too). Anyone who has ever used the tables of raw results to compare one school over another. Anyone who has ever thought that School A is better than School B because it is 30 places higher in the list. We should recognise that there are exceptional schools outside the top 200 just as there may be mediocre schools inside the top 50. We simply cannot tell from the information provided. Yet we all collude in this harmful merry-go-round through our seemingly unquenchable fascination with measurement and comparison.
I have higher aspirations for Wellington College students than top examination results on their own, which is why we will no longer be conspicuous by our presence in the newspaper league tables. This simply means that we will not be providing data on request to newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the exam results season. At the same time, we will make sure that our results are clear for all to see, no more than one click away from the home page of our website. If people wish to make comparisons they are welcome to do so, but our own focus will be on other, more important, indicators of educational success.
The irony of all of this is that outstanding results and outstanding education do not have to be mutually exclusive. Changes to the curriculum and assessment procedures would be welcome but with the will, it is not impossible to provide a great education within the current system. What is required is for UK schools to approach teaching in a way that truly nurtures and inspires every child’s all-round potential. Excellent examination results will follow naturally. It is a bold step away from the comfort blanket of “teaching to the test” but one that all educators must take if we are to fulfil the Secretary of State’s vision of the UK as a world leader in character education. We still have a long way to go.
Despite the weight of evidence around Growth Mindset as a strong indicator of student achievement, there remains a lack of hard evidence as to how exactly affect that disposition. The EEF trialled various interventions in 2013 and found that the results were not statistically significant. Whilst researchers may be able to observe Growth Mindset as a valid psychological state, how to actually have an impact on that state remains somewhat unclear.
Many Growth Mindset interventions take the form of superficial interpretations of the original research in the form of posters, assemblies and simplistic tasks. This appropriated approach can often lead to students switching off to the core messages behind the research and the interventions not having any real impact.
After our initial year 1 study which sought to get some larger baseline data on exactly what dispositions our students had in these areas, we wanted to ‘zoom in’ and test a specific approach with a smaller group, and look closely at the effect of teaching this theory explicitly as opposed to tangentially.
This pilot study proposes to evaluate the impact of teaching an intervention group of students the theory around Growth Mindset in an academically rigorous way using research literature and articles in the form of a course designed by Harvard faculty of education researchers.
Control and intervention groups comprising of year 12 students selected randomly will take a baseline test using Dweck’s scales before and after the study. The intervention group will receive a term’s worth of weekly sessions looking closely at the research on Growth Mindset and applying it to their own context. These sessions will feature explicit instruction of the theory in its raw form, and follow-up coaching conversations with individual students.
Previous studies have shown the efficacy of ‘stealth’ interventions where students were not made to feel stigmatised by being singled out for interventions based on poor attainment, enabling the students to bring more of an open mind to the project. This was an important consideration in this project.
This pilot study was trialled in the winter term and will be evaluated by researchers from Harvard GSE in the spring with the results published later this year. If successful, a larger trial may be rolled out to other year groups and time built into tutorials to use the same approach. This same course is also being run at Highbury Grove under the supervision of head of research Sara Stafford and head teacher Tom Sherrington to be able to test the impact in different contexts.
By Alastair Dunn.
As I have noted in a previous post, there is no single effective way to deliver extension teaching, especially in the Humanities. One model that has long interested me, as a History teacher, is the potential for cross-subject extension. For many years the debate that has pitted skills against content in teaching and learning has perhaps excluded an even more important issue – the interdependence of academic disciplines. While I am far from uncritical in my view of some university teaching, the tertiary sector (partly impelled by research needs) has for decades been more open than many schools to cross-disciplinary work.
The capacity to frame an argument, to interrogate evidence, to draw together materials, and to derive broader conclusions are, of course, all important skills, but the historian must also be adaptable to operating in the territory of other disciplines. There is no single discrete and self-contained set of skills for the historian due to the diversity and heterogeneity of the subject. Languages, both modern and ancient, are of critical importance to the work of so many historians. All sixth form history study should include the use of material in a language other than English, and teachers from these subject areas should collaborate to make this happen. Of course, the flow of knowledge can go in many directions, and MFL teachers should make use of historians, art historians and economists to give context to their study of French, Spanish and German, or of any other language.
Over the past year I have been working with a group of sixth form students of French to explore the historical context behind some of their texts, and also to give some general background. This was delivered through four extension sessions on: France’s revolutions, 1789-1958; the Dreyfus case; France under occupation and Vichy Rule; and French politics since 1945.
The sessions were structured as presentations followed by questions and discussions, and the supporting materials such as images and texts were shared via Office 365. In future I would hope to make direct use of original printed sources and examples of material culture during the sessions.
Resourcing the sessions required some creativity but only limited expense. Trawling the brocante (France’s own unique take on the car-boot sale), can – with patient dredging – yield up extraordinary treasures at little cost, including bundles of cheaply priced news magazines such as L’Illustration and Le Miroir, from the two world wars, and even original Second World War documents such as curfew passes signed and stamped by the German police. A second fantastic resource for French-language history, at all levels of difficulty, is the charity Emmaüs, where an entire box of books may only cost a few Euros. However perhaps the finest resource of all is the extraordinary Gallica digitisation project of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), now in its eighteenth year, and a very well established tool in university teaching and learning.
Using original primary sources in Extension teaching – Curfew pass in French and German, issued in Le Mans, 1941
In terms of impact the course was delivered to a fairly small group and so it has not yet been possible to track the input against public exam results or university offers. However if this mini-extension course does result in any of the participants reading History in French beyond the literary set texts, then my objective will have been fulfilled. I would hope to extend this programme through further sessions, such as on the social and political context of French art at key moments in its history.
Make do and mend. It was my Nan’s mantra. She lived through the shortages of the Second World War, and the rationing that extended well beyond, and she just couldn’t shake it despite living into the 1990s. Make do and mend she certainly did, which is why nothing ever got discarded, no matter how outdated or unfit for purpose it had become. My poor Grandad would thus go walking in the rain looking like Captain Scott, weighed down by a patched-up heavy woollen pullover and canvas smock – all the rage for intrepid adventurers at the turn of the 19th century but, sadly, not fit for purpose in the era of Gore-Tex.
Luckily, my Nan was not involved in the modernisation and improvement of our examination and assessment system, but she might as well have been. Make do and mend seems to have been the principle underpinning successive attempts to fix the system by which our school leavers are judged and ranked. It is time for a dramatic re-think in our approach.
It is not as if the alarm bells haven’t been ringing loudly enough. Rarely, if ever, do we have consensus across the educational spectrum about important issues. This is a glorious exception. Everyone, it would seem, knows that the exams our children take do not support the education we know we need to give nor give them the skills employers value the most, yet we continue to tinker and patch up a system which is now woefully outdated and getting more so as the pace of change quickens.
Throughout human history, the nature of assessment of individuals has been remarkably nimble: adjusting to each era to respond to changing needs. Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors would look for bravery, strength and co-operation. All very important in bringing down a woolly mammoth! Assessment was brutal but simple. If you didn’t have these characteristics – if you happened to be timid, weak and uncooperative – you wouldn’t last too long in the group and your genes would disappear along with you.
During the age of agriculture what mattered was having one skill and doing it well. A ploughman hiring a plough hand would worry only if his new employee could hold a plough straight and true for a day, and it didn’t matter a jot if in the evening he wrote sonnets to his true love or could kick a pig’s bladder clean across the yard! For centuries having a single skill and performing it well was enough to keep you fed and clothed for life.
Then as the age of information dawned and humanity moved from the field to the office, two skills became incredibly important: method and recall. In the absence of computers, the ability to hold large amounts of knowledge or information and then apply this knowledge to a task was paramount to success. The more skilled the job the greater the need to use these two skills and the more important it became to show that you had them. So in 1858, a system of public examinations was introduced in order to assess and rank school leavers in these two aptitudes. Children would go into a large room where they would pen answers to examination which were split into subjects: English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, Latin, French German, Sciences, Art, Music and Religious Studies. Recognise this? You should, because it is basically the same system that we employ today. Like my Grandad’s de-mob suit, it has been patched up and re-shaped many times but underneath it is still the same old suit. We have made do; we have mended. Children remain valued and recognised largely for their ability to recall knowledge and apply method.
The modern world has changed beyond all comprehension since 1858. A time traveller from the mid-19th century would be discombobulated by almost every aspect of the world we live in but would take comfort from the familiarity of the education system, and even more so from the nature of the examinations that mark the end of a child’s schooling. Should our time-traveller stumble upon an examination room in June, they would feel very at home.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Except it is broke and we need to take a radical approach to fixing it.
Fast forward now to 2015 and a report by Oxford University and Deloitte suggesting that huge numbers of professions and jobs are at risk to automation and digitisation in the next two decades. Robots are in and humans are out! At least, they are in the jobs that require certain skill sets that robots can do particularly well: method and recall. Precisely the same skills that each summer we ask our children to demonstrate during two months of stressful and potentially life-changing assessment.
The good news is that whilst computers are remarkably good at some things, they are also remarkably inept at others. They can’t adapt – at least, not outside of a small range (try asking a robot on the car production line to diagnose an illness). They have no emotional intelligence (you wouldn’t ask a robot to support an employee with a stress). They are incapable of leading (would you want a computer running your company?). Public speaking, critical thinking, creative writing…I could go on. In fact, there are a huge number of aptitudes computers don’t have which in the digital age are becoming increasingly valued and important. The latest study may well prove to be as accurate as an episode of Tomorrow’s World in the 1970s but the core principles strike a chord with me. It is the same message I hear time and again when I talk with employers: don’t send us robots, they say, send us school leavers with skills that are truly relevant.
People like Richard Branson and Michelle Mone are often cited as great examples of success against the odds having left school with no qualifications, but really this shouldn’t be a surprise. Their strengths lie in different areas – areas which matter today. They possess skills like adaptability, leadership and empathy and independence of thought.
It follows therefore that we need an education system that nurtures and assesses these skills, but instead we’re stuck with a system designed for a different era. The very best schools will continue to educate in a way that values soft skills knowing that, despite the lack of recognition in the assessment system, the skills their students learn will hold them in good stead for their futures. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that this is the norm. Despite the oft-heard rhetoric, most schools – independent and state – driven by the funding imperatives of featuring high in the league tables, adopt a safe and narrow approach which they calculate will provide the greatest chance of success in the summer round of testing.
A good starting point would be to have exam markers who are trained, qualified and have the time to spot truly creative and original thinking. Most importantly, we should take a completely fresh look at our national examination system starting with a vision of where we would like to be before working backwards to create the system that best supports it. It is a huge undertaking but not impossible; the International Baccalaureate, for example, already goes some way to achieving this aim by placing emphasis on skills such as critical thinking, service and independent learning.
At Wellington College we say “do not ask how intelligent is this child, but how is this child intelligent?” Until our examination system does the same we are doing tomorrow’s generation a great disservice. It’s time to stop the make do and mend approach and create a system which recognises and values the skills required for a modern world.