Category Archives: Research

Say what you mean and mean what you say: jargonising the education system

roadman
SMS exchange with the teen 2017

The year ahead needs a jargon buster

I attended a Year 10 “Year Ahead” meeting this week. The thing that struck me most strongly was the extent to which we have systematised, bureaucratised and jargonised the education of our children. I sat through a well-meaning PowerPoint presentation intended to demystify the new system of GCSEs for parents. I work in the education sector and felt like I was having to apply my learned edu-speak skills as they reeled off jargon to the group of parents hunkered down in their seats in the dark auditorium: SLT, Key Stage 4, A*-C, expected grade, 1-9, pastoral, learning objectives, Progress 8, Attainment 8, APS, EBACC, minus scores, buckets, and target achievement ratio…god help us…The school might have supplied us with a jargon buster, like this one put together by Lord Grey School in Milton Keynes or this one put together by the Dudley Governors Association.

When lingo is laminated

I also attended a training session for school leaders this week, which was fascinating and uplifting in equal measures. It was so good to see the passion, commitment, drive and enthusiasm of a group of senior leaders dedicated to their own professional development as well as to playing their part in the collaborative challenge and support of others around the country.

One of the exercises of the day had us working in groups, using laminated lingo cards, to build a learning model. This is where the cogs started whirring for me as an insider-outsider. This is where I rekindled my anthropologist and researcher training to be the participant observer and to examine what appeared to be unfolding. The group leaned in, silently considered the words written on the cards and started to work together to build a ‘learning model’. I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is a learning model anyway? They discussed, arranged the cards on the table, discussed again and slid certain ones from here to there. Learning, reflection, modelling, pace, behaviour, assessment, marking, ethos, culture, transition, key stages, critical thinking…

With each pause for discussion and each slide around of the cards on the table, I could feel my discomfort as I thought I might be slipping in and out of the ‘inner circle’ of pedagogical language.  So much terminology, but what does it all mean? The training facilitator moved from table to table, and eventually came round to ours and said, “So, taking pace for example, what is your definition of this? Have you come to an agreed definition?” We all hesitated for a moment, realising that we had not had any discussion of the meaning of any of these words at all. “The word pace, what do we mean by this? In what context? Pace of a lesson? Pace of the curriculum across the year? Pace of transition? Transition, what does that mean to you? Transition between key stages? Transition between activities within the lesson? Transition between lessons?”

One of the things I wondered out loud was, if we as educators, haven’t discussed and defined among ourselves what the language means, what the learning model is and what the purpose and intention of what we are doing might be, isn’t it about time this happened? And if we have discussed it in our schools in the staff room, have we ever done this exercise with the children in the classroom? Shouldn’t we be starting from common agreed language and principles?

Jargon is everywhere

It is of course useful to capture concepts into phrases, words and ideas that are commonly understood. This is how we make sense of the world and this is how language develops and becomes useful, and at times entertaining. I love some of the teen-lingo I learn from my kids. It is most certainly ‘fit for purpose’. In answer to “can you pick up some milk on your way home?” gets the response, “no, that is loooonnnnng”. Or “He looks nice” gets, “eww, he’s moist/crusty/clapped”

The world of work is full of the most ridiculous lingo you ever heard. Here are some favourites I have really and truly heard used:

“What does good look like in this space?”

“We should roadmap that issue”

“In the technology space, that’s really not my sandpit to play in”

“Yes but do we have the bandwidth to take this on?”

“Let’s kick that into the long grass”


Workplace woes

Without getting all existential and “emo” about it, the linear and limited experience of education and its bureaucratised jargonisation of language is just a continuation of the central problem we have with education in general. There is no agreement on what schooling is actually for in the first place. And I don’t mean the level of discussion we see on Twitter with false dichotomies between ‘Trad’ and ‘Prog’ approaches to learning. We have a model that was put in place to serve the need for a skilled and compliant workforce but we aren’t actually serving the workforce very well, it turns out. My overwhelming sense from the Year Ahead meeting and even from my day with inspiring senior leaders from schools across the country, is that the purpose of education is ultimately to get students to pass exams so they can move on to the next stage, pass more exams and then move into the workplace and ‘succeed’.

Now, I work in ‘the workplace’ and after the educators are done with them, I receive what are described as ‘bright graduates’ into roles that on paper they are qualified to take on. What I see as the most important thing needed to make these young people fit for the workplace is to unlearn the culture of schooling, to let go of punitive and hierarchical structures, and of linear progression. Success in the workplace involves the ability to think critically, to problem solve, to tie together previous knowledge and experiences with research into possible knowledge and understanding – and to push this through a critical lens again to shake out any bias, habit, laziness, fear or clinging to get to the right way forward. You need skills to influence, bring on side, provide evidence and build trust with your colleagues. And most of all, you need to build a shared language with those you are working with, which should be revisited and revised so you don’t fall into assumptions and jargon that become meaningless. I am a great believer in stopping once in a while and going round the table to see what each person believes just happened in any given meeting, for example. But more than this, we need to stop and ask ourselves what just happened to our education system and are we all speaking the same language that can get us where we need to go?

I have had children moving through schools in this country since 2007 and there have been so many changes, initiatives, systems, methods, acronyms in the last decade. I think that something went off in my brain in that darkened room this week and I reached saturation point at that very moment. I clapped my hands over my mouth just to stop myself screaming. I just don’t believe anyone knows what is really going on any more and I certainly am struggling to believe in the education system as it is now. From now on, I am encouraging my children to see their school experience as a social experiment. There is as much to learn from good practice as there is from bad, and there is so much to learn about the way our society is structured through the micro-climate of a school and the office. There is much to be learned from the language we use and the meaning we attribute to it. It’s not all doom and gloom. Language is fun and in the meantime, we can always amuse ourselves and play bullshit bingo.

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Summer time and the living ain’t easy

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I want to remind you, because it matters to me. I want to remind myself because thankfully, I am worlds away from where I was once, and sometimes, even I too forget what it can be like.

Students, teachers and parents/carers, bound by the rhythm of the academic year, all know the feeling leading up to the summer holidays. The absolute, bone-aching, itchy-eyed crawl through the end of year obligations and celebrations, the various milestones and rites of passage, the last logistics and then the deafening silence that ensues when it’s finally here and we can kick into a different gear for the greater part of six weeks.

“Have a great summer!” we say as we wave goodbye to the school gates, the students and staff members. Forgetting that for many, the summer is protracted period of chaos, uncertainty, hunger, vulnerability, emotional upheaval and even physical wounds. It is the wrenching away from a number of guaranteed hours of structure, predictability and protection that the school day can provide.

I’m sitting beside a river, looking at my own children, as we horse about in the south of France, where we have been for nearly two weeks. This year, we let them bring a friend each, since they are 12 and 15, knowing this would make it even more fun an experience.  We’ve done a home-swap and took the train here, so the costs are pretty modest all in all. They have little idea how lucky they are.

I keep thinking back to my own experience of summer holidays at their age. My dad saw us once a year, for two weeks, during the summer holidays. He would pull us away from our friends and familiar surroundings, rent a cottage in Dorset to be near his own research interests and community, which would give him some company and structure to the days. While he was at the library, we would spend the time roaming the fields and nearby villages, hanging around. We were getting to know “Uncle Dad” as I used to think of him. If you added up all the two week slots I had spent with him by the time I was 12, it amounts to just under six months. Seeing my dad once a year was meant to be a treat, and in a way it was because we got away from London and from our mum during that time, but it also was a painful experience. This short two-week window was a chance for the three of us children to be reminded of several things:

  • His lifestyle in America was completely different to ours. He had a young wife, no kids, a great job, ate out lots, had what seemed to us a massive circle of friends and colleagues. He even had hobbies and leisure time – we were on free school meals, my mum constantly worried about running out of money. She had no support network, social life or love life other than what could be packed into those two weeks and around her job as a teacher. She lived like a battalion commander under constant enemy fire
  • He disapproved of us. His visit inevitably began with the ritual end of year report reading and I always got a talking to from my dad. While away with him, we children squabbled, acting out the angst and frustration from our fraught home life, which he knew nothing of. He just thought we were brattish kids. We had a short window of time to prove ourselves worthy of his love and the experience was humiliating, like an annual two-week Sisyphean mountain
  • We were not lovable – if we were, he wouldn’t have gone so far away and moved abroad. If we were, he wouldn’t spend time with us once a year and then hand us back to cope alone with the horrors of our daily lives, board the plane home and not see us again for another 351 days

During the summer holidays, my mum was more stressed about money than usual. She was often on part-time or contract work which didn’t include payment in the summer holidays. This meant that we were left to our own devices much of the time while she went into a sort of exhausted, low-cost limbo. It being the 70s and early 80s, over-scheduling, playschemes and expensive childcare weren’t really a thing yet. Playing in the streets and roaming were. That was fun and exciting and there was a whole pack of us neighbourhood kids that would play for hours on end or go off on our bikes to the parks and the heath. Smoking fags, trespassing, dodging weirdos and paedophiles was just a part of life and looking back now I see that we were in real peril many, many times.

My mum was lonely, isolated, struggling with mental illness and a complete lack of interest, imagination, or support from those around her. She was prone to violent outbursts and we would bear the brunt of these with vicious beatings, afterwards, being locked in our rooms for sometimes a whole day and overnight, howling to be released. Or if we ran away from her grasping hands, having the contents of our rooms emptied onto the floor and ripped and trampled underfoot, being denied food, affection, an apology or even acknowledgement that that had just happened.

Term-time gave some day-time reprieve from the enemy at home (even if it was also pretty miserable for me, being in detention, in the corridor or in disgrace a lot of the school day). The summer meant always being in a cortisol-fuelled state of high alert.  I remember feeling exhausted at the end of August, and a sort of soul-deep, secret, soiled state of being. No-one knew what we endured. Not even our friends, their parents, teachers – or our own dad. The long school-shirt sleeves and knee-high socks of the autumn term covered the bruises.

“Write about what you did in your summer holidays” was always the task we started the year with. Or “write down your resolutions for the new academic year”. Every year, I composed a jolly recollection of the time we did brass rubbings in the village church or a walk we went on all together, with my dad. Every year, I could almost taste the feeling of hope and thought I could turn over a new leaf, knuckle down, be a better me. I would last a few weeks and then succumb to the deeply ingrained sense that I was the vile, unworthy, rotten-to-the-core child that had been drilled into me over the course of the year by school and my mum and finished off over the summer by my dad in his own desperate, unconscious way. The cycle began again and I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t hold my tongue, the gap widened and I didn’t understand the work and had no-one at home to work through it with me.

When I was a teacher, I made sure I was sensitive to the possibility that this sort of experience was the case for some of my students, some of their parents, some of my colleagues. I knew that at least a proportion of them would be struggling over the summer and that their return to school wouldn’t be with a glow of bronzed skin, relaxed shoulders and tales of exotic climes. I knew that they would hunker down and brace themselves for the self-satisfied tales of trips with the family and the inevitable setting of assignments and declarations of what their well-rested and re-charged selves could achieve in the year ahead.

My plea to you as teachers, as parents, as people, is to remember this. Be sensitive. Think of a way to reach out and hold tight those for whom it was summer time and the living ain’t easy.

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

What I learned from my learning styles research project back in the day 

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Photo by Penny Rabiger

 

In 2000, I was in my 5th year as a teacher, working in a high school in Jerusalem. I was also working towards my Masters in Education through the University of Leeds, which weirdly happened to have a department above a Toyota showroom in the industrial quarter of the city.

As part of the course, we were encouraged to carry out action research, which I absolutely loved. It was the perfect way to marry academic enquiry and actual practice and it was a great way to challenge my own thinking around what works by taking an interest in evidence-informed practice. In vogue at the time was the now much-maligned “learning styles”. Working in such a diverse school, I found it fascinating how I would reach each and every student in my classes and set about reading everything I could about de Bono’s thinking hats, multiple intelligence, learning styles and more.

My learning styles action research project

For my final research project, I decided to undertake a two-term study with one of my groups of students, examining the effect of learning styles on the class. Having studied anthropology for my BA, I knew this shouldn’t be structured as some kind of scientific laboratory project and I wanted to make sure that my ‘subjects’ were fully involved so that they could give me valuable insights into their very subjective and personal experiences as we went along. I began by explaining to my students with great excitement what I had been reading, and what I planned to do with them over the course of the rest of the academic year. They were interested. Not least because they hadn’t had such an interaction with a teacher before and it made them curious.

I set about testing each student in the class to see what their dominant learning style was and I did a test to see what my most comfortable teaching style was. Once we had all completed the test, we discussed what we thought this meant for each of us. It was so interesting to see best friends in the class suddenly realising that they were not the “same” in their favoured style of taking in and processing information and that they may need to part ways during lessons if they were to make real progress. I then went about the massive task of writing my lesson plans and homework assignments so that each and every child’s favoured style was catered for. Amazingly, I then taught an entire class of 27 kids, with each using their preferred learning style as identified by the test.

I distinctly remember stepping back one afternoon to proudly behold my bold creation as some students were huddled in a small group, one was pacing the room, a couple had headphones on and were lying on mats on the floor and one lone student, who learned best through traditional face-the-front teacher-talk had me and her working one opposite the other.

 What actually happened was encouraging

Some amazing things started to happen. Firstly, I had been nervous about this experiment as the class was not easy to manage at the best of times. There was a small core of boys who misbehaved and some disengaged girls who were really struggling and therefore would switch off or egg the boys on to muck about and provide some distraction. But suddenly, there was a buzz of purposeful activity, the kids were arriving on time and getting stuck in, eager to receive their very personalised instructions for the lesson.

Secondly, they were all doing their homework and handing it in. Again, the personalised nature of the tasks and their knowledge of “what works for me” meant that they were now getting organised at home and trying out their newfound learning style preference without the intervention of the teacher. They were starting to take ownership.

Thirdly, their grades were improving. And the most stunning thing was that as their form tutor, I was being informed that their grades were improving across the board as was their engagement and behaviour in other classes.

I also learned that arranging every lesson in such a detailed, multi-faceted and involved way would kill me if I had to do it for every lesson and for every child. I taught English full time to Year 7 through to Year 10. This would not be realistic or sustainable.

What I learned about learning

We did a lot of talking about learning. Since these students were also my form tutor class, I had an hour a week to do what I wanted with them and we explored issues around learning a lot in discussions. I also carried out an in-depth interview with each child and recorded the interviews as part of my research evidence. I was delighted that each child seemed so much more engaged and motivated by learning and not just in my lessons, but across the board. I wanted to know why this was and asked the class what they thought were the reasons.

Reason 1: Enthusiasm
My own tangible excitement and enthusiasm for the project was contagious. The children were swept along. It also meant I had massive energy to prepare intricate and individualised lesson materials, which the children appreciated. My own conviction that this was going to work, probably made me completely focused on the elements of it that were working, and made me less anxious about any behaviour or other issues that might have escalated if I had paid any attention to them!

Reason 2: Trust
My attitude towards the students was completely trusting. I was ready to let them have some freedom and I trusted them to behave well and respect the experiment we were undertaking together. We had taken the time to talk through the evidence behind the reason for this experiment in the first place, I had trusted them to be equal partners in the process and they trusted me to be responsible and responsive to their needs. Compared with the sometimes very didactic and controlled learning experience these students were having in other classes, this was very enticing.

Reason 3: Metacognition
Recently, a study of 1,850 pupils in 30 primary schools, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), tested a programme intended to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. In my opinion, this is the single most valuable thing about learning styles. Learning styles themselves are about as useful as knowing your horoscope and then trying to arrange the world around it. But the simple act of engaging deeply and meaningfully with yourself as a learner is absolutely vital to learning. In my in-depth interviews with the students, each of them had gone through a deep realisation that they were the masters of their own destiny as far as learning was concerned. And not in the usual blamey “it’s up to you so pull yourself together” kind of way.

It is the learning and not necessarily the style that matters

My students had been given an opportunity to think about the reasons why they found certain things interesting and other things difficult and had been pushed to think of ways to make things work better for themselves. The language had changed from “the teacher doesn’t teach in an interesting way” or “the subject is boring” or “I am not good at x” to thinking about what they needed to learn and how they could ensure that this learning stuck, allowing them to engage, encouraging greater depth and progress. One student found taking notes while listening virtually impossible. She opted instead to record the lessons and then make notes later at home when she was under less pressure. It freed her up to engage in discussion, ask questions and be fully present in lessons, knowing she had the rest recorded to refer back to. Another student found the skill of asking for further explanation, after years of pretending he knew what was going on because he was too embarrassed to appear slow. We had created a culture whereby there was no standard one-size fits all learner and different needs were acceptable. A huge part of real learning is ownership. It is thinking about thinking and knowing about knowing. It is knowing about yourself as a learner and owning that.

Even though it might be hugely embarrassing now to admit that I ever dabbled in the dark arts of learning styles, I am really grateful that I did. In a roundabout way, I discovered what I only learned a decade later to be called metacognition. It also reinforced my own belief that teaching is about relationships and that includes not only the students’ relationship to their teacher and each other in the class, but their own relationship with themselves as learners.