Physics, Pigs and Pumpkins

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has many implications, including the recognition that it is not possible to measure something without affecting what is being measured.  This is as true in the ‘real’ world as it is in Quantum Physics, and has been known ever since the first cook tried to check on the progress of a soufflé by opening the oven to look at it.

Unfortunately, politicians who find themselves in charge of education must be neither cooks nor Physicists, as there seems to be an unshakeable conviction that the best way to improve children’s learning is by testing them.  Which tests will provide the magic cure to all perceived ills varies with the jurisdiction and with the political leanings of those in charge, but all seem to have become mesmerised by the ease with which we can now use technology to generate and analyse statistical data.

The latest ‘Eureka moment’ comes from the British government, who have decided, against the advice of just about anybody actually knows anything about education, that children should now be tested when they start school to provide ‘baseline data’, which will then be used to judge how well the school does in teaching those children.

For several years I was responsible for the admission decisions to a very successful and highly regarded international school in Bangkok.  Like most international schools, we existed primarily to meet the needs of the international community, and we had a fairly open admissions policy for such students.  However, we also admitted a limited number of local students, depending upon available space, and given the prevalence in Thailand of what might be termed ‘encouragement to a favourable decision’ (but which a cynic might call bribery), it was essential that our admissions process be seen to be transparent and objective, and so we were forced to develop a time-consuming assessment for the Early Years grades (our largest entry point).   Because the candidates were pre-literate and pre-numerate, we relied on conversing with the candidates and observing them in play and social situations.  Nevertheless, although we were successful in getting an objective and defensible basis for our decisions, we were well aware that the results indicated little except the ease with which the children would adjust to school, and were skewed in favour toddlers from private child-cares and pre-schools which would spend considerable time on coaching their charges for the admissions sessions.

At least in our case this meant that the pre-schools increased their focus on areas that were age appropriate:  sociability, independent and group play, communication skills etc.  Imagine the effect on pre-schools who feel that their success will be measured by how well their 3- and 4- year olds perform in the sort of mass test that will be used in the UK, which will apparently include counting and letter recognition?

Ironically,given that the declared purpose of the UK tests will be to measure how effectively the child learns in the subsequent years,  it will actually be in the interests of schools to minimise the scores of their new entrants, in order to give themselves the lowest possible baseline with which future measurements will be compared.  This could lead to some interesting planning meetings:

Principal:  So, Miss Evans, are we ready for the first Baseline Tests for the 4 year-olds tomorrow?

Vice-Principal:  Nearly.  We’ve turned the heating on, closed the widows, removed some of the lights bulbs so that the room is a hot, stuffy, and gloomy, and we’ve removed all the cheerful pictures from the wall.  We’ve replaced the kindergarten furniture with some full-size desks and chairs, so the children should feel uncomfortable and suitably stressed.

Principal:  Good. What about the grass outside the window?  They seemed to be mowing it today, which made a lot of noise.

Vice-Principal:  Yes, I’m sorry about that, they had it half finished before I could stop them.  I’ve told them to leave the other half until tomorrow, so there will be some distraction for part of the test.

Principal:  Hmmm.  I suppose that’s better than nothing.  Perhaps I could arrange for a puppy to be playing where it can be seen through the window.  What about the teachers administering the tests?

Vice-Principal:  I’m a bit concerned about them.  I’ve coached them to take sharp intakes of breath and raise their eyebrows if it looks as though the child is going to choose the right answer, but it’s been very hard to break their habit of greeting the children with a warm smile and trying to put them at ease.

Principal:  Try telling them that we are being inspected next week;  that should put them in a foul mood.

We are warned of the limitations of measurement by the proverb ‘You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.  Unfortunately, unlike weighing a pig (which may simply be unproductive), testing children distorts the whole educational process.  Tests are certainly useful, but only to measure relatively narrow, simple variables.  These can provide insight on the development of individuals in particular areas, but once they become generalised and used to make broad judgements of teacher or school effectiveness, then the specific skills being measured will inevitably come to dominate the programme of the school.  It would be professional suicide for any teacher or school not to ‘teach to the test’ if the test results will provide the basis on which their competence will be judged.

A more accurate analogy that the fattening of pigs might be the growing of prize marrows or pumpkins.  These are judged by weight and girth (both easily and objectively measurable), with the result that growers focus solely on these aspects.  As a result they succeed in producing huge vegetables;  unfortunately, they are essentially inedible, because taste is not tested.

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Conviction is a greater enemy to truth than lies  – Nietzsche

Margaret Thatcher became Minister of Education at the start of my undergraduate course, and remained in that post during my teacher training and my first year of teaching.   She and her policies made a great impression on me, to the extent that after just three years of teaching in the UK I left the country to teach overseas.  For that I suppose I should be grateful to her, as she was instrumental in launching me into international education.

One of her brainwaves was to cancel the free milk which at that time was distributed in schools, leading to protests against ‘Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher’ and earning her the soubriquet ‘Thatcher the Snatcher’.   I had not been particularly political while at university, most of my time being divided  between the river, the rugby field and the Rowing Club bar (with the occasional detour to lectures and labs.)  However, when I was assigned a period of teaching practice at a school in a Category D village in County Durham it was an eye-opener.  Category D villages were ex-mining communities where the pit had been closed, and a government decision taken to make no further investment in any public infrastructure.  Pot holes were not filled in, bulbs in street lamps were not replaced, bus services were curtailed and families for whom the village had been home for generations were left to get the message that they should move out.  The inhabitants were desperately, and hopelessly, trying to hang on to the remnants of their community, but there was no shop, no pub, no café, the school had minimal resources, and now we could not even give them free milk!

The children at the school were normal, lively youngsters, with as much potential as could be found anywhere else (after all, it takes intelligence to transcribe a Geordie accent with accuracy, and my students did this in their spelling all the time;  I leave it to the reader  to decipher the official spelling  of the phonetically accurate ‘ejog’ and  ‘yrntn’.)  Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that their potential was unlikely to be fulfilled, and that the creeping despair all around them would almost certainly snuff out their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their hope.

Category D villages were not invented by Margaret Thatcher, but they certainly fitted in with her proudly stated conviction that ‘society does not exist’, and that individuals must look out for themselves.  As Prime Minister she went on to do all she could to make that viewpoint a reality, destroying much of the social fabric of the UK and laying the foundations for the obscene excesses of the financial sector.  She would be delighted by the efforts of Michael Gove, the current UK Minister of Education, to make schools more competitive, more selective, and more focussed on enabling the few to succeed at the expense of the many.

As teachers we are always urged to criticise the work, not the student, and I remind myself to limit my loathing to what Margaret Thatcher stood for and believed in, rather than her as a person.  She was undoubtedly a ‘conviction politician’, and as Nietzsche’s quote indicates, they are the most dangerous, because they cannot be dissuaded.  Margaret Thatcher has left a legacy in education as much as anywhere, and her views are worryingly evident in the educational policies of many jurisdictions;  I, for one, regret it.

PS  ‘ejog’ = hedgehog,  ‘yrntn’ = wire-netting


The world is a complicated place

In a recent column in the Observer newspaper, humorist David Mitchell took aim at the Heads of English Public Schools who, apparently, are fed up with not being recognised for the good work their schools do (    (For those not familiar with the oddities of British labelling, in the UK the term ‘Public School’ is reserved for private institutions catering to those who can afford them; the remainder attend ‘state’ schools).   Like Mitchell, I attended an independent school (only a mile or two from his, as it happens), where I benefitted from an excellent education;  I concur with his suggestion that ‘if there was no independent sector, our state school system would serve us better’, and with his characterisation of the privileged tax status accorded to UK independent schools as ‘the establishment taking care of its own’.

Mitchell’s purpose is to entertain, but his sarcasm makes a serious point:  independent schools are, by and large, far more comfortable places to teach than state schools, and those who work in them must live with the fact that the moral high ground is reserved, rightly, for those who struggle daily to educate the most needy in society in the most difficult circumstances.

Mitchell mentions Anthony Seldon, the Head of Wellington College, who has complained of jealousy and hostility towards Public Schools.   Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, Seldon also stated that ‘British public life would be unthinkable without the contributions made by [Public Schools]’.  He was quite right, but I question the assumption that British public life, as shaped by the Public Schools, is an asset to the nation.  After all, as he points out:  ‘…many senior politicians, newspaper editors and proprietors attended them’;  the list should also include bankers and financiers, and comprehensively covers those segments of society which are widely held to have failed!

Mitchell rant singled out for particular attention the ex-Heads of Roedean and Cheltenham  Ladies College, who are ‘flouncing off to the moral sinkholes of the world’  (such as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia) to take charge of international schools, and it is here that he goes wrong.  His lack of awareness of the international education scene leads him to assume that all international schools are similar in nature, the sort of ‘cushy school for the rich’ to which he would expect the Heads of Cheltenham Ladies College and Roedean to migrate.

Such schools certainly exist, and in ever-growing numbers.  The ‘for-profit’ sector in international education is a booming business, particularly in the field of franchising the names of famous Public Schools to cater to wealthy elites (either expat. or local) in the Middle East and Asia.   However, many international schools operate on a not-for-profit basis, and in many cases costs are borne by the institutions or companies whose employees insist on the availability of an English-medium school before they will take a post abroad.  This results in such schools having more in common with a good suburban state school, rather than an elite private school.   They take very seriously the idea of diversity, whether of nationality, language, ability or economic status, and they benefit from one huge advantage:  they need not be constrained by political oversight or national curriculum.

The best international schools (and all of my international teacher friends reading this teach in the best international schools!) really do provide a setting in which education and children can thrive.  Of course, expat. parents can be as demanding as any in the world, but the international educators I know find huge satisfaction in simply being treated as professionals and being able concentrate on helping students learn.  The diversity of students, staff and parents also gives them a distinct edge when dealing with global issues;  tolerance and international understanding become a part of daily life rather than an theoretical ideal.

There is no doubt that Switzerland has more than a few moral issues to deal with, particularly in the financial sector, but it also plays host to more than a few international organisations whose moral credentials are impeccable.  International schools in Switzerland cover just as wide a spectrum, from elitist to idealist, and Mitchell’s generalisation is inaccurate and unfair (though, admittedly, complicating his argument with nuance and shades of grey would probably spoil the humour.)  Nevertheless, there really are schools that actively strive to make the world a better place, and those who teach in them consider themselves fortunate indeed.

Tinkering (What should we teach, Part ii)

I had planned to write this post about the value of out-of-class education, but Pete Westwood, in his blog ‘A Wandering Mind’ ( has posted a link, Tinkering School, which I highly recommend and which ties in with my theme of ‘What we should teach’.  In this TED talk the founder of the school, Gene Tulley, shows what can be achieved by young children if they are given the opportunity to use materials, tools and their own imagination if they are freed of the constraints of a formal curriculum or adult-defined goals.

As Pete writes, this sort of ‘tinkering’ is now a rare pastime for most children.   I suspect that this is largely because the increasing technological sophistication of our everyday lives has meant that most adults now spend little time ‘tinkering’ ourselves.  Many of our parents considered it normal to service the car, repair a bicycle, or build a woodshed, and we had the opportunity to watch and ‘help’, whereas today each of these things is more likely to be done professionally.  When modern technology fails it is not designed to be taken apart and fiddled with, but to be ditched and replaced.

Fortunately, if technology has created this problem, it also offers the solution.  Schools used to be the source of information and knowledge in a child’s life;  it was widely regarded as boring because there was no way of knowing which information or knowledge might be needed, so it all had to be learned.  The fun stuff happened outside of school.

However, just as technology has made possible the ‘just-in-time’ delivery chain used by modern industry, so it has also made it possible for information and knowledge to be accessed whenever and wherever needed.  This, potentially, frees up the school curriculum to focus more on those skills that we now know are at the heart of ‘real’ learning – the fun stuff that no longer happens at home!

The irony of this shown by the Waldkinder programme found in some schools around the world.  The details vary from place to place, but the key element remains the same:  Kindergarten children get to spend all or part of the school day in the woods and fields exploring and investigating the world around them.  This is just what four- and five-year-olds might have done in the past instead of going to school, but the important difference is the presence of a teacher who knows how to channel their curiosity and imagination into effective learning.

We live in an era when any one of us, including our students, can access any piece of information instantaneously on our ‘phone, so why do we still talk about traditional, content-heavy subjects as the ‘core’, as though subject content remained the most important element of education?  The need is no longer to know subject content, but to know how to find, select, modify, assemble and use that content to achieve a desired goal – exactly what students learn at Gene Tulley’s school.

Is Maths the new Latin? (What should we teach, Part i)

Maths may not be as important as we think.

Consider the following claims that were made for the study of Latin when I was at school (yes, as recently as that!):

  • ‘It’s an essential part of a proper education.’
  • ‘It’s a requirement for university entry.’
  • ‘It’s a difficult subject, and is a good indicator of overall student ability’.
  • ‘It’s the perfect tool for learning logic thought and intellectual rigour.’
  • ‘Even though it is of no use in everyday life, it forms the basis of all the Romance languages, and so lays the necessary foundations for other studies’.

However, coincident with (and possibly caused by) the rise of comprehensive schools, these ‘truths’ were questioned and the Roman emperor was seen to be without a toga.  The study of Latin then underwent a precipitous decline.  Though still a viable subject studied for its inherent interest by those with an affinity for it, few would now promote making Latin compulsory for all students.

Now consider the position of Maths in our curriculum.  A 2008 report for the British government, ‘The Value of Maths’, proclaimed that Maths ‘develops the fundamental skills of logical and critical reasoning, training the mind to be highly analytical and to deal with complex problems. It provides the basic language, structures and theories for understanding the world around us.’ These are precisely the claims that were made for Latin when ‘Greats’ (i.e. Classical Languages and Ancient History) was the most prestigious (and lucrative) degree at Oxford, supposedly equipping a steady supply of colonial masters with the structures and theories for not only understanding the world around them, but for ruling it!

Each of the claims made for Latin is now made about Maths, except that instead of being ‘the basis of all the Romance languages’ it is ‘the basis of all of the sciences’.  Indeed, Maths is held in such esteem that it is largely on the basis of Maths scores in international tests that national school systems are judged.  Of course, only a hopeless cynic (such as me) would suggest that this is because Maths tests are relatively easy to ‘standardise’ across languages and cultures, simply because they do not measure anything that requires the complex judgements that shape, and depend upon, our social structures.

Elementary Maths does have a key role in early education.  In recent years the teaching of Maths in Primary schools has been transformed for the better by our increased understanding of how children learn.  An increased use of manipulative equipment, the recognition of different learning styles, and an emphasis on providing children with the experience of success and satisfaction rather than failure and stress has been shown to result in a better grasp of the underlying concepts of number and space.  Nevertheless, even where such strategies are successfully implemented the take up of Maths at the secondary level has continued to decline, and the majority of students drop it when they can.  Furthermore, many of those who do choose to continue with Maths do so only as a required qualification, rather than  because the subject itself is attractive. Even where Maths is compulsory, the most popular choices tend to be the most basic options.  Could this possibly indicate that, beyond numeracy skills and spatial awareness, more advanced mathematical concepts have little natural relevance for most people?  When did you last solve a quadratic equation or perform vector addition?

If success in international Maths tests really measures something more meaningful than how closely each educational system correlates with the tests, why is there no correlation between the ranking of the participating countries and the economic and social health of those countries?  Finland, the current international poster child for its performance on the tests, faces criticism at home for large classes, short hours, and a failure to respond to the socialisation and language needs of an increasingly multi-ethnic population.  Hungary, which consistently ranks at or near the top, is hardly a beacon of economic dynamism or social stability, and Singapore (another shining example of high Maths scores) is rarely suggested as a model of democracy and human rights.

Of course Maths should be taught schools, and taught well, but it should not be regarded as more important than other areas of learning, and the goal must be to enable students to achieve their potential and become balanced, fulfilled individuals.

In the Middle Ages the study of Latin met a very practical need by providing the means of communication for scholars throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, i.e. most of Europe and beyond.  Its status as the mark of an educated person became so entrenched, however, that it outlived its actual usefulness.  Are we now witnessing the same phenomenon in the case of Maths?  In an age when the sum total of human knowledge has become accessible on a mobile telephone, and when there is likely to be an ‘app’ available to carry out any desired manipulation of that knowledge, is it really wise to seek to restore an earlier educational emphasis on academic Maths, rather than questioning how to equip the next generation in terms of values and judgement, rather than with skills that most will never have a use for?

(By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I was a Maths teacher.)

The Big Picture

Exactly one year ago my wife and I took up permanent residence on the edge of Desolation Sound.  Our house is surrounded by forest and looks out on an ocean inlet, but has limited internet connectivity, no TV reception, and picking up mail involves a 10 km round trip.  When we retired here I feared that I would lose touch with the field of education in which I had been thoroughly immersed for the previous forty years, particularly as the turnover of issues and ideas is supposedly so rapid in today’s high-tech, fast-response world.

However, over the past year I have come to realise that the underlying issues and ideas actually remain fairly constant.   The environment of education is certainly evolving rapidly;  schools and colleges must adjust to the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the best use of smart phones and social media create more and more challenges for school policy makers, and brain research continues to extend our understanding of the physiology of learning.  Nevertheless, the major debate remains the same, and can be condensed down to the problem of how to reconcile three groups:

  • Educators, who by research, training and practice know that learning is a natural process, best accomplished in a supportive, stimulating, stress-free and non-competitive environment.  Assessment is important to determine the optimal teaching & learning strategy, but doesn’t work either as motivation or selection tool.
  • Parents, who want the best outcome for their own children, and whose concept of a ‘good’ education is usually shaped by their own school experience.   They are aware that resources such as college places and jobs are in short supply, and would prefer a curriculum that focuses on successful university entry over one that aims to produce compassionate, reflective and responsible citizens.
  • Politicians, for whom education is a pragmatic matter of cost/benefit, with the costs being measured in money and the benefits in votes.

All we have to do, of course, is to persuade the second group (parents) that the first group (educators) really do have expertise in how children learn, at which point the third group (politicians) will want to court the votes of the second group (parents) by meeting the needs of the first group (educators).  Got that?  Easy!!!

If anything, my year away from the day-to-day challenge of working in a school has given me a broader perspective and an unobstructed view of what is important.  I can only hope that, in the years to come, this blog will contribute to the debate.