Author Archives: Martin Robinson

About Martin Robinson

Author: Trivium 21c; Educationalist with an interest in culture, politics, creativity, and the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric).

A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!

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A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrated the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only six months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

Nature or Nurture? Free Will and Education.

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If everyone smoked twenty cigarettes a day the difference between those who got lung cancer and those who didn’t would be almost 100% heritable, even though the cause would be almost 100% environmental. Heritability depends on our environment.

It is believed that IQ is around 70% heritable, if all children were to have an educationally rich environment in which to grow then, due to this environment, the effect of heritability on IQ would increase. If children were brought up in an educationally damaging environment the effects of heritability on IQ would reduce dramatically.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London, says that: “Any change in environment has a much greater effect on IQ than genes.”

Twin Studies are often used to justify arguments around genetic determinism. Spector, who has been studying identical twins for over twenty years, believes that when it comes to commenting on their similarities: “We put much more importance on these things than we should,” he thinks their differences are just as important, though not often commented upon in studies. Genes are possibilities, not a story of what we will become. Our environments help write the stories.

Nature and nurture both have roles to play.

But what of free will? If we are a product of genes and of our environment do we have much of a say in what we do? Who is this ‘I’ whom we refer to? Buffeted by both, it seems we have little to do but blame or thank history, geography and biology.

This is what it comes down to at the moment of choice about something, are we responsible for what we choose to do? You might say you are guided by values, beliefs, by ‘who you are’ and yet people do change their mind about quite fundamental things. Renouncing a religion or political affiliation for example… would this be due to a change in the environment, to what you are reading or who is convincing you? Would you be different if you were born in North Korea rather than South London? Or Hampshire?

If we accept biases we are born with, are we more free to reject them? Are we more open to the feelings and beliefs of others? Or do we hate them for it?

Is freedom of will completely without constraints? What would a person be like who was not in some way a servant of his or her environment and biology? Someone completely free would probably have to be locked up for his or her own good. One minute they would murder, the next they would laugh and cry and compose a symphony, and play it loud at 1 am.

Yet, we know, when we do something that it is the ‘I’ that does it. I am a product of my environment and genes, that I might be a servant to them is one thing. It doesn’t mean I’m a slave.

Do we need schools? Yes. To create a positive environment in which all can flourish, and in which they can realise their freedom. This freedom involves constraints and becoming aware of their importance. That everyone’s environment is different makes a difference, this is where our lived humanity comes into play. In the end a society in which everyone has to smoke twenty a day is, of course, inhuman, but we should aim for everyone to have an education, and a good one. However, were we to receive exactly the same education worldwide that would be inhuman too, although our differences in IQ would be  more heritable, what would we have lost?

So teach, learn, and not worry too much about our genes… they make a difference but if you want to make a large difference teach great stuff and teach it well. It can be life-changing and life affirming.

 

NB: In writing this post I am indebted to the book Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini it is also the source of the quotes.

STEM and the Narrow Curriculum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in Schools Week reports:

A free school in Newcastle that does not teach humanities, arts or foreign languages has been branded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in its first inspection.

The education watchdog singled out the “unacceptable” absence of subjects at Discovery School, which also omits physical education, in its report from an inspection conducted in May.

“The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” it said.

The school focuses on: ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics.’

STEM, an acronym that implies narrowing of the curriculum, is meant to be all about preparing for life in the modern world, a life of robots, 21st century skills and a global market, it is good to see that OfSted believes there is more to life than just these narrow goals. Some would argue this narrow focus is a result of utilitarian thinking.

Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian, devised a curriculum for secondary schooling that emphasised science and technology rather than the subjects of Greek and Latin, a curriculum that would be clearly lacking in breadth. John Stuart Mill, a great admirer of his mentor Bentham, described him as being a great thinker but one who lacked the natural feelings that belong in a human being.

As a child Mill was home educated and kept away from other children by his domineering father. He learnt Greek at the age of three and read a lot of Plato, in the original, by the age of twelve. He was never allowed a holiday as the potential of ‘idleness’ worried his father.

His father encouraged John Stuart to think for himself: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” But this education, he thought, turned him into: “…a mere reasoning machine.”

Mill later suffered a mental breakdown and became very depressed. He said that he recovered from this crisis by reading the poems of Wordsworth:

They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under the influence. 

Mill moved on to Coleridge and was to describe him and Bentham as ‘the two great seminal minds of England in their age’.

Science and technology should be a central part of the curriculum AND so should poetry, the arts, humanities, languages and physical pursuits. This is the right sort of education for the human being. As Charles Darwin put it:

If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry & listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, & may possibly be injurious to the intellect, & more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Where Ofsted says: “The curriculum is failing to meet pupils’ needs and does not prepare them for life in modern Britain,” they are referring to life beyond the narrow confines of utility and this is to be applauded.

And don’t think that by turning STEM into STEAM you solve this problem. STEAM is a bastardised acronym in which the arts are subsumed into some sort of cross curricular service of commerce, science and/or tech, this is not art, it is subterfuge.

The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly

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Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’. How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?

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In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’ has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:

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The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has drawn the best butterfly already in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?

 

History of Thought

In these days of very little time or space on a timetable it is still heartening to know that some schools are trying to make a space where children can be taught in a way that celebrates education for its own sake. An introduction to cultural capital, literacy, or whatever you like to call it in your context, where children can learn, discuss and make connections across the curriculum. It is with this aim in mind that I have been working on ‘History of Thought’, a course that enriches and stretches even the keenest of minds.

Please see below for details:

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The History of Thought (Ideas)

Purpose:

To connect ideas and thoughts across disciplines. (Inter-disciplinary)
To stretch and challenge pupils and widen their horizons.
To give pupils an in depth appreciation and knowledge of the ‘Great Western Tradition’ through a ‘Grand Tour’ of ideas and historical epochs.
To develop independent learning.
To develop pupils skills in writing and verbal communication.
To develop confidence and ability for university entrance procedures.
To enable pupils to develop their own interests and character, education for ‘freedom’.
To use the trivium as a teaching methodology.
To train staff and to encourage collaboration across departments.
To enable staff to think strategically about curriculum design and delivery.

History of ideas is intended to run alongside other disciplines. It could take the place of Religious Studies and PSHE or it could be given curriculum time of its own. The course takes a ‘liberal arts’ approach, in that it aims to ‘free’ the pupil to think for themselves and be able to make thoughtful criticisms, follow their developing ‘unique’ modes of thought, and become confident academically and be able to develop the art of conversation.

“liberal learning… above all else, is an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation…”

Michael Oakeshott

Content:

A series of historical epochs, such as: ‘Classical’, ‘Medieval’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Romantic’, ‘Modern’, ‘Contemporary’. The study could be frame by ‘what was distinct about the —— period’? or ‘what might we mean by the — – mind’?
Each of these could include a look at: science, art, architecture, geography, philosophy, literature, language, politics, ’events’ etc. in the UK, Europe, the ‘West’ and the world.
Other strands could be incorporated: ‘civilisation’, ‘trade’, ‘moral truths’, (or indeed ‘truth’ itself), ‘people’ – themes such as the growth of the individual, the nation state, ‘empire’, ‘democracy’, race, class, gender, sexuality etc.
Introducing Great Books/Objects (And discussing What is great? Why? Is this great? What is excluded/included, why might this be? Challenges to the canon) Context and Argument)

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Trivium:
The teaching of the course is designed to fit with the ‘trivium’: Pupils are introduced to the ‘knowledge’ of the era, they look at the main arguments, explore things in their context and also, maybe, with a contemporary eye (as long as that distortion is made clear). They are then invited to debate, write, argue and question one another, with the teacher ensuring that ‘the facts’ are always at the root of the discussions rather than ‘mere opinion’. Speeches, projects, essays and also products in a range of different media can then be produced – either for each epoch and/or at the end of the whole course.

EPQ:
The course can fit alongside the EPQ and be a good way of introducing it.
In Harvard all students follow a ‘programme in general education’ which, they argue: ‘…seeks to connect in an explicit way what students learn in Harvard classrooms to life outside the ivied walls and beyond the college years. The material taught in general education courses is continuous with the material taught in the rest of the curriculum, but the approach is different. These courses aim not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives. The Program in General Education introduces students to subject matter and skills from across the University, and does so in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.’

NB: The ‘History of Thought’ is intended as an academic core, not a second rate addendum. It is meant to be ‘highbrow’ and to furnish pupils with a good amount of cultural capital as well as give them a context to all their studies in the wider curriculum.

“Reading makes a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Francis Bacon

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If you’re interested in seeing whether this course can be tailor made to fit in with your needs: please do get in touch here.

Classroom Talk, Some Thoughts on the EEF Report…

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I think the three ‘Rs’ of Reading wRiting and aRithmetic should be expanded to the four Rs and include Rhetoric or oRacy, in other words: talk should be an essential core component of a good education. Schools should do their utmost to ensure children read well, write well, do their sums well and talk well.

The EEF reported this week that modest gains in English, science and maths can be made in upper primary school if pupils are taught in a way that uses the dialogic teaching methods as proposed by Robin Alexander. As it puts it, in the interim report, ‘Changing Talk, Changing Thinking‘, the approach to classroom talk is a specific method:

defined and developed by Robin Alexander, [which is] in contrast with some other approaches to oracy…

So this is not just about talk in the classroom, nor about just any method of approaching talk, it is specific to Alexander’s version of dialogic teaching. His approach:

attends as closely to the talk of the teacher as to that of the pupil, because it is through the teacher’s talk that the pupil’s talk is either confined within the tightly controlled boundaries of recitation or encouraged through discussion and dialogue to enlarge its discursive and semantic repertoire and hence its cognitive power. Hence the focus… on the balance of closed and open questions, recitation and dialogue, and brief and extended pupil contributions. For while dialogic teaching, again unlike some other approaches, accepts the need in certain circumstances for closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions, it also affirms that unless the quantity and quality of pupil talk is extended well beyond these traditional patterns of exchange into a much more extensive interactive repertoire the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk will remain largely unrealised. In the end, therefore, it is the pupil’s talk that matters most, and it is to the teacher’s agency in securing the enhancement of pupil talk that dialogic teaching is directed…   

Alexander’s 11 categories of ‘learning talk’ (narrate, explain, analyse, speculate, imagine, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue, justify, question)… were modified for coding purposes as 12 sub-types of extended pupil contributions which also include pupil responses to some of the key teacher talk moves. The modified coding categories for pupil learning talk were: expand/add, connect, explain/analyse, rephrase, narrate, evaluate, argue, justify, speculate, challenge, imagine, shift position. These were applied… to video transcript samples from both the intervention and the control groups at the mid-point of phase 2.

…the differences by that stage of the intervention were striking. Intervention group pupils were markedly more expansive in their contributions and exhibited much higher levels of explanation, analysis, argumentation, challenge and justification. Their talk, then, was clearly much more dialogic than that of their control group peers. Though there were between-subject differences, the overall pattern of intervention/control contrast obtained across all three subjects tested…

the intervention impacted positively on teacher questioning, teacher talk moves for probing pupil responses, the balance of recitation and discussion/dialogue, the length of pupil contributions and – critically for the quality of pupil thinking, understanding and learning – the pupils’ repertoire of what Alexander defines as ‘learning talk’. 

Because the interventions were so wide ranging and the results so modest it is difficult to come to any conclusion about dialogic teaching as an approach to teaching and learning. There are also many imponderables, including the age of the children involved in the study. If they were older would the results have been more or less impressive? If the pupils were more secure in their subject knowledge, more expert, would they have gained more or less from Alexander’s methods?

The EEF report states that:

The approach, termed ‘dialogic teaching’, emphasises dialogue through which pupils learn to reason, discuss, argue, and explain in order to develop their higher order thinking as well as their articulacy.

When people talk about ‘higher order thinking’ I assume they are referring to some sort of taxonomy where ‘knowing stuff’ is at the bottom and ‘analysing or arguing about stuff’ is nearer the top. If so, is it then possible for teachers and pupils to move onto arguing about stuff too quickly and give the impression that ‘higher order thinking’ is being engaged, when in fact it isn’t? Can pupils ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’? A rejoinder to this might be but that is what the higher order thinking is for: to secure the knowledge. But, instead, could we be securing a method, beloved of some politicians, that of avoiding deep analysis because they want to avoid exposing a level of ignorance? I haven’t seen the videos and would love to see how probing the questioning was, how analytical the pupils were, how well constructed the arguing was, and also how all this talk reflected the quality of their ‘knowing their stuff’.

If we look at extracts from the ‘Coding Frame’ for analysis of video data we can see what was being measured. As far as I can ascertain it was the style of talk that was being analysed and not whether the talk was ‘correct’:

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The analysis of the evidence seems to be of the talk and not its explicit connection to content. It is thus possible to suggest that whilst much of the talk might have been qualitative in terms of its performative nature, it might not be so in terms of the knowledge being discussed. Whilst the teacher asking ‘where’s your evidence?’ etc. might elicit the correct response, it might also elicit one that is completely wrong.  Of course, this might not be the remit of the study, but it should be of crucial concern to the quality of teaching and learning. Data that connects talk to the knowledge being discussed might help us evaluate what type of talk is helping or, maybe, hindering understanding. Or it might be too difficult to compile.

In which case, I put my finger in the air and say that clearly classroom talk is a good thing but, there could be superior methods of classroom talk especially for children of upper primary age where garnering a level of knowledge might be more important than being able to argue about it straight away. What if the

closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions

were helping pupils make more substantial gains in their learning than the use of a:

much more extensive interactive repertoire [using] the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk ?

I don’t know.

I just think sometimes I, and maybe other teachers, like to get on to the arguing, analysing and all the ‘fun’ stuff before enough knowledge has been secured. This can result in pupil confusion. In trivium terms I think of this as trying to get through the grammar quickly so that we can get onto the dialectic where the engaging stuff might be. Yet it’s not so engaging to discuss things that you don’t know anything about, and it’s better to listen a bit more to an expert talking about it, in other words, the teacher, or read a bit more about it in a book before one gets involved in a debate.

You Can’t Teach the Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College on 22nd June 2017:

You Can’t Teach The Best That Has Been Thought and Said

Spielman’s OFSTED Game Changer: The Importance of the Curriculum.

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Perhaps I had a bit of sunstroke but it seemed to me that what the new OFSTED supremo, Amanda Spielman had to say was a ‘game’ changer. In her gloriously uplifting speech at the, equally gloriously uplifting, Wellington Festival of Education she said that:

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.

To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.

Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:

“Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”

Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?

I think the reason that some leaders might have overlooked this question is due to a number of reasons, for example, it might be assumed that the body of knowledge is down to individual teachers or departments; leaders might assume that the national curriculum and exam rubrics ‘are’ the curriculum; and in our recent obsession with ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning leaders might have focused on the ‘performativity’ of teaching rather than the substance, the script*, that is being ‘performed’. Learning walks, lesson observations, CPD focused on ‘pedagogical’ gimmicks and tricks have all added to the impression that teaching is a performance accompanied by engaging activities through which children are entertained or kept busy. I have argued for a long time that pedagogy is not separate to curriculum, the two are intertwined, and if you focus merely on pedagogy then you are neglecting the most important of the two. Curriculum must come first.

Spielman went on to say:

I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.

For many teachers this is not a surprise at all, in fact for a lot of us in the classroom this has become the dominant mode of ‘efficient’ teaching, soundly teaching to the test to deliver results. This is inevitable in a high stakes culture and though for many it is the high stakes nature that causes this problem, I wonder that without that culture richer curricula would be the order of the day? I doubt it. For a number of teachers teaching has become a short term exercise where the lesson plan, scheme of work/topic and ‘getting them through the test’ approach has become the norm and the slow unfolding of the narrative of a rich curriculum has become a lost art.

And make no mistake, it is an art.

A great curriculum not only unfolds within subjects it occurs across subjects too. Spielman recognises this:

All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

A rich, broad, curriculum, experienced by children, giving them a variety of knowledge and experiences to enrich their lives is a precious thing and it is the primary reason for a school to exist.

How to ensure this happens?

One could do worse than begin with the recommendations made by Amanda Spielman’s colleague at Ofsted, Sean Harford. He recommended that:

Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding, ‘need for numbers’? that’s up to the school, best way of ‘knowing’ (not ‘demonstrating’) the above.

This is something I have been working on for sometime, I would argue that a ‘trivium’ curriculum approach ensures that schools can provide a broad, rich curriculum with a focused design and intent with a variety of ways to know the impact that it’s having. To this end Tom Sherrington and I have, somewhat fortuitously, put together a ‘powerful curriculum’ day course in London on July 7th. Planned before the Spielman speech, this day will nevertheless look at its potential implications for schools. If you are interested in attending click here for the link.

If you are unable to make it and there are only a few places left we hope to do more in the future.

It is heartening to see that OFSTED ‘s explicit recognition of  curriculum breadth and education for the sake of the knowledge learnt and its importance might help counteract the damaging effects of narrowing teaching and learning to ‘gaming’ the accountability system. That Ofsted has been part of the problem in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution in the future. I hope that Spielman’s speech will turn out to be a significant step in the right direction in which all children are able to access a broad rich curriculum that will help them live interested and interesting lives.

 

 

*NB, I am not advocating the scripting of lessons here.