A new dynamic in education research

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On a Saturday in May 2014, an educational research conference in a York secondary school was attended by well over a hundred people, the great majority of whom were practising teachers.   The conference organisers, researchED and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), want to use research evidence to improve the quality of teaching and learning. More than twenty-five speakers addressed delegates in a programme that offered a wide choice of topics from ‘the learning brain’ through ‘classrooms as complex systems’ to ‘evidence-based teaching: making the prize a reality’.  All the presentations I attended were engaging and thoughtful, and I thoroughly enjoyed Debra Kidd’s drama-inspired way of demonstrating the complex systemics of the classroom (with respect to the teaching of reading, a particular interest of mine).

The means of communication and debate that united most of the delegates at the conference was neither membership of a professional association such as the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), nor an academic affiliation.   Whether or not they had met before, many of the delegates knew each other virtually through Twitter and shared blogs. Indeed, several used their Twitter hashtag to identify them on their name badge.   Most importantly, they were united by a commitment to learning how to become better teachers through grounded educational research. Prompt questions offered in the programme included: What is the evidence-base behind this speaker’s presentation? Is their point of view contested?   What further research do you need to undertake to ensure you have a balanced picture?

This is a world of virtual connection and debate by enthusiastic practitioners with a shared commitment to the well-being of their students. Existing networks need to consider how they can work with this new dynamic. Recently I have been working with Sarah Wilkin on the English in Education archive. The journal is 50 years old this year, and NATE has commissioned work to make the archive more readily accessible to members and others. Like the delegates at the York conference, the teachers and researchers who have written for English in Education over the last fifty years share a commitment to education as a means of supporting, developing and enhancing the lives of their students. The purpose of the journal is evident from its name: it is about language in education (not only the teaching of English), and many of the papers and debates have enduring relevance to the classroom. We shall shortly publish an account of the first fifty years of the journal and intend to supplement this by a new thematic database. We hope that this work will provide a source of ideas and evidence for teachers whose attachments may be less to traditional research and teacher networks than to the blogosphere.

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Time to call Gove to account

I’m writing early in the morning, after an exceptionally disturbing dream.  In my dream, I was driving in bad light through countryside and came to a section of road where I knew I had to stop because ahead was something unknown and indistinct.  The road ahead was exceptionally dark, and, as I edged forward, I found myself approaching a scene of massacre.  Farm animals – horses, sheep and cows, their skins all a dense, shiny black – were lying in tortured positions,  scattered over the road and on the fields on either side.

I’m sure there may be many reasons for my disturbance, but one of them is the BBC news bulletin that I watched shortly before going to bed last night. In a short item, towards the end of the news, the reporter explained to the newscaster (on behalf of the audience) the government proposal to return GCSE examinations to something resembling the O-level of 50 years ago.  Assessment, we were told, would be entirely by end of course examination, and there would be a new grading system.  The current A-E scale will be replaced by a numerical scale, 8-1, where 8 represented the highest achievement.

I have recently published a paper analysing in detail the professional views of the 730 English teachers who responded to an online survey on the government’s current changes to teacher training.   Trying to find a title for the paper, I came up with “Surveying the Wreckage”. These changes to teacher-training, which shift the burden of responsibility from university Departments of Education to the schools, in which trainees will normally be employed as unqualified teachers, are regarded by the vast majority of respondents to the survey as disastrous.  Now we have to contemplate 50 years’ work improving assessments, making them more fit for purpose, making them more sensitive to the range of real life work that pupils will undertake, being similarly wrecked effectively by the fiat of one man, Michael Gove.

The intellectual paucity of these proposals is signified by the absurd belief that changing the assessment system from an alphabetical to a numerical progression will somehow improve matters.  What matters is the kind of work that students are asked to do, and the way it is assessed.  Certainly, moving from an alphabetical system where A (a letter universally recognised as signifying high achievement)  is replaced by the number 8, has less than nothing to recommend it.  One understands that room has been left for the addition of further numbers in the future, to allow for a further refinement of the grading system.  A kind of institutionalised grade inflation, in fact.

David Cameron must call in his Secretary of State for Education and prevent him from single-handedly destroying cultures of teaching and assessment that have been constructed over many years by professionals concerned to improve the education of young people.  Rab Butler tells in his autobiography The Art of the Possible of the day in 1942 when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister during the Second World War, asked him whether there was anything that could be done to make schoolchildren more patriotic. Butler told him that the curriculum was the responsibility of the schools and that ministers should not interfere.  Churchill rejoined: “Oh, quite.  But can’t we at least tell them that Wolfe won Québec?”

An element of Conservative reticence, building on rather than destroying the best that has been thought and said, would be welcome at present.

Curriculum and assessment

The ongoing debate about student assessment now has an international dimension.  Owing in part to the agenda of the current Secretary of State for Education, comparisons are increasingly made between assessment systems in the UK and other countries.  The US system often gets a bad press in the UK because it is so dependent upon the judgement of the individual teacher.  Having worked in an California high school and as a moderator/examiner in the UK, I think the US system would have much to commend it — if a proper local system of moderation could be developed.  Local assessment, which becomes part of the teaching and learning process, is surely better than the spurious objectivity of a national “external” assessment system which (one hopes) could never be made to work in the US.  I want to quote a paragraph from the NATE  book text message:  the Future of A level English (2005), which emphasises the importance of a community of practice:

So how can curriculum, pedagogy and assessment best be integrated?  How might an effective community of practice be realised?  Clearly, the way forward is to recognise teachers’ expertise and experience in this area, and, by doing so, to acknowledge the usefulness of assessment in promoting teaching and learning as well as in measuring achievement.  Recognition of teachers’ roles in assessment also means giving credibility and status to this activity.  Logistically, if for no other reason, this is the only way forward, as the present system is unsustainable, even if it helps protect the Post Office from bankruptcy.  Validity and reliability could be achieved through the provision of regional networks (perhaps along the lines of the consortium system already run by the AQA) and through the accreditation of appropriate individuals and institutions.