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 Minister for Exams

Sometimes other people say it for you, and here are two examples.  The first was published in 1996 .  It pretty much nails what is wrong with the way we assess students.

The Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam.

The test was so simple

There was no way I could fail.


Q1.  Describe the taste of the moon.


It tastes like creation, I wrote,

It has the flavour of starlight.


Q2.  What colour is Love?


Love is the colour of the water a man lost in the desert finds, I wrote.


Q3.  Why do snowflakes melt?


I wrote, they melt because they fall onto the warm tongue of God.


There were other questions.

They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden.

I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant’s dream.

Yet today, many years later,

for my living I sweep the streets

or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.

Why?  Because constantly I failed my exams.

Why?  Well, let me set a test.


Q1.  How large is a child’s imagination?


Q2.  How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams.

Brian Patten

(from ‘Armada’, 1996)

The second, on the same theme, comes from a recent speech by Matt Damon:

“I had incredible teachers. And as I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all of these things came from how I was parent…ed and taught. And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested. I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers. Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that. I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes. I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was not based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that. This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me. So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”

Matt Damon, Save Our Schools March 7/30/2011
A video of the full speech can be viewed here:

I knew him when…

I don’t often get the chance to drop the name of an Oscar winner who was once a student of mine, but in the tradition of the Academy Awards, I will not open that envelope until the end.

I will say that I remember this student as an intelligent, articulate, friendly and independent-minded young man, and it is no surprise that he has been successful. However, I doubt anyone (except, possibly, his mother) who claims that they foresaw, without the benefit of hindsight, that this particular successful student, more than any of his equally successful classmates, was destined to rise to the very top of his profession.

There is no shortage of stories about successful people who were poor at school, or who failed initially in their chosen field. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are most cited examples (although in Einstein’s case the claim is dubious), but the list includes Jon Stewart (now, officially, ‘the most trusted man in America’), Michael Jordan (cut from his High School basketball team), Sir Richard Branson and Simon Cowell (both dropped out of school at 16), and Beppe Grillo (dismissed as ‘stupid’ by his father and his school, fired from his first job as a jeans salesman, and now the leader of the largest single party in the Italian parliament.)

I certainly don’t believe that failure at school is a predictor of success, but I have never seen a convincing demonstration of any correlation between school marks and future achievement (however defined).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop us teachers from being far too ready to make judgements and predictions. Too often school reports go beyond simply describing the learning that has taken place (or not), and wander into making supposedly insightful comments about the innate ability, or even the personality of the student.  Partly this happens because parents demand to know where their child ranks in the competitive struggle, and schools therefore spend an inordinate amount of time in making comparative measurements, with other students, other schools, and now other countries. (I used to tell parents who demanded to know where their child ranked as a student, that I would give them this information once they told me where they ranked as parents. This did not always end well!)  At best these pronouncements and predictions are of little significance, but at worst they can create a self-sustaining label that will get in the way, particularly in the case of school systems and programmes that are selective.

People leave school with most of their lives still ahead of them, and while we try hard to equip our students for life, the reality is that they carry on learning, carry on growing, and carry on developing long after they have left us. The best we can do is to give them the values and attitudes that will make that process as natural and productive as possible, and point them in a good direction. If we miss out on particular skills or knowledge, our students will correct that for themselves if and when they need them. However, if we kill their curiosity, their enthusiasm, their independence, or their capacity for critical thought, then these attributes may never be rekindled. Perhaps teachers need their own version of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘First, do no harm’.

And so, to the envelope…

Huge congratulations to David Klawans, the Executive Producer of Argo, who was a student at the International School of Brussels when I taught there in the 70’s and 80’s. Much as I would like to, I can claim no influence on David, but as his mother was a good friend and colleague of mine I remember him well. It is certainly no surprise that he took the hard, independent road to well-deserved success. He did take the wise precaution of having a gifted English teacher as a mother and an equally gifted jazz musician as a step-father, which I suspect provided a perfect foundation for life as a film producer.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

[subscribe2]I see that the International Baccalaureate is running a competition for student films promoting academic honesty, using the tag line ‘Be a content creator, not a content imitator’.  The decline in academic honesty is universally regarded as one of the major problems that we face in education, to the extent that it probably belongs in the Monty Python ‘Three Yorkshiremen’ sketch:

1st Yorkshireman: ‘In my day we were beaten if we copied answers from an encyclopaedia!’

2nd Yorkshireman: ‘A beating would have been luxury to us; when I was at school we were expelled if we copied the teacher’s notes off the blackboard!’

3rd Yorkshireman: ’We used to dream of being expelled; we had our hands cut off if we made a neat copy of our own work!

Rarely, if ever, do we question the assumption that using the product of someone else’s thinking is bad, despite clear indications that it is regarded as a natural thing to do by students who have grown up with cut-and-paste word processing, internet downloading and music file-sharing.

A survey by the Duke University Centre for Academic Integrity found that 70% of High School students acknowledged cheating at least once within the previous year.  Over 30% admitted to regularly using the internet to plagiarise material for an assignment.   There are literally thousands of websites offering ‘help’ with essay assignments, including the purchase of complete essays on any title under the sun.  To combat this, many schools use a commercial service called ‘Turnitin’ that matches student work against a database of over 22 million essays and texts from around the world, searching for indications of copying.  However, students in Virginia were recently successfully in preventing their school from introducing the Turnitin service.  They argued that it was an infringement of their rights and the presumption of innocence if their work was checked for cheating..

Our concept of plagiarism (along with many other features of our education system) is rooted in the medieval university, where a scholar’s livelihood depended upon jealously protecting his (never her) work from theft by colleagues and competitors.  For those engaged in original research, for whom the potential financial or reputational rewards may be significant, this concept is as valid today as ever.  However, I wonder whether it really applies in the field of education.  It does not sit well with our emphasis on the value of collaboration as opposed to competition, nor does it fit with the shift from the memorisation of large bodies of knowledge to the mastery of skills of research, scanning and synthesis.  Of course, we have successfully devised rules for the proper attribution of sources, but these are patently artificial and hard to enforce, hence the need for services such as Turnitin.

Students are not blind to the extent to which adults use the work of others without attribution.  How many teachers go online for teaching ideas, but do not add a footnote to their presentations citing the source?  How many executives fail to meticulously cite every source of their ideas?  It is ironic that it is the IB that is leading a crusade for academic honesty, given that the Director General himself fell foul of the standards of academic honesty of the Chatauqua Institution in New York State when he ‘drew heavily upon and quoted extensively from a speech given earlier in the year [and] neglected to cite his source or reveal the quotations for what they were.(Public statement given by Chatauqua Institution spokesperson, August 6th, 2010).

To make matters worse, the IB was later found to have ‘plagiarised large chunks of its marking guides from Wikipedia’ (Times Educational Supplement, October 8th, 2010).  If the IB has difficulty meeting its own standards of academic honesty, what chance do its students stand?

It cannot be seriously argued that young people are less ethical or moral than they used to be.  Instead, the problem may be that different generations do not share the same definition of what is ethical.  From a student’s perspective, it may be ethical to make use of publicly and freely available information in answering a question, but unethical to contribute to the destruction of the environment by driving an unnecessarily large car.

The fundamentals of ethical behaviour, of course, do not change, and it is notable that there is a great deal of commonality between different cultures on the principles, as opposed to the details, of what constitutes ‘good’ behaviour.  Unfortunately, it tends to be the details that are most evident, not the underlying principles, and details do vary, not only from culture to culture but over time.   Plagiarism is a good example of such an ethical technicality;  if this is as widespread as is reported, are we in fact setting the wrong sort of assignments?  Many of our assignments would be easily recognised by an earlier generation of students, and do not reflect the changing reality of the highly connected world that our students inhabit.

Perhaps we need to focus on what it is we want to achieve with an assignment.  If we want to assess a student’s understanding, let that student do all the research they want at home  and then assign a manageable in-class essay, or an in-class preparation of an oral presentation, ideally with unlimited time (within reason) asking for a synthesis of the ideas.  If the topic is well chosen and the specifics are not known beforehand, then it should be possible to distinguish between the sources of information and the student’s mastery of those sources.  On the other hand, if the intent is to challenge the ability of a group to analyse and solve a problem, does it matter where the ideas come from?

There are not any easy answers (oh, what a surprise), and I would love to hear from readers about their creative, original, derivative or borrowed  ideas.

Plagiarism presupposes that a ‘right’ answer exists, and that the answer is more important than the process of achieving it (hence the value in stealing someone else’s answer).  If, however, we are serious in our claimed emphasis on process in education, should it not be the quality of process that we observe and assess, regardless of answer?

Breaking the rules governing use of unoriginal materials is clearly wrong, but if those rules are seen as artificial then we run the risk that they will be regarded as technicalities rather than as matters of principle, to be broken when convenient  (much as adults regard speed limits).  Perhaps we should redraft the rules to better reflect the type of world we are trying to promote, in which knowledge is shared and effort is collaborative, and the ethical test relates to whether the outcome is beneficial to society.  Isaac Newton is quoted as saying that ‘If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’, and one of my own teachers was fond of proclaiming that very few people were ever fortunate enough to have as many as two truly original, creative ideas in their lives.  Perhaps the IB should recognise that being a content imitator is a necessary part of being a content creator.

The fish ladder

Following on from my last post, and from Momster‘s comment, there is no doubt that learning would be better served by ongoing communication between teacher, parent and student, ratter than a periodic summary report card.  However, whereas in an ideal world, that would be the only consideration, in the real world the twin spectres of university admissions and job applications hang over the whole educational process, particularly in the final years.  We have fallen into the habit of regarding education as a selection process in which the weakest must be filtered out by a series of increasingly difficult obstacles.  Rather like salmon fighting their way up the rapids in autumn, those who overcome each barrier are permitted to go on to the next stage, until the survivors reach the ultimate goal of the spawning bed (that’s the salmon, of course;  nobody would want to liken university life to a spawning bed!)

The unpalatable truth is that much of the activity in schools is directed to providing the means for universities and employers to select their candidates without needing to invest any resources in preparing them, and all too often they still complain about the quality of that preparation.

Universities have always complained that their students arrive without sufficient academic skills – back in the fifteenth century the colleges of Oxford were appalled by the lack of grasp of Latin grammar among those entering the university.  However, they did at least put their money where their mouth was, by providing facilities, funds and staff for a school with the sole purpose of ensuring a steady supply of young men with the necessary mastery of Latin.  (By the time I graduated from that same school five hundred years later the founders would once again have been appalled by the standard of my Latin).

Perhaps that model could be revived, with universities providing the funding for ‘pre-admission’ programmes, thus letting them take direct charge of the final preparation and selection of students, and freeing the schools from the contradiction of trying to educate and weed out at the same time?  I realise that this is, in effect, what already happens in those systems where universities admit far more students to the first year than they can accommodate in the second  (Canada and Switzerland spring to mind), but would it not be better for all concerned, and especially for the schools, if the whole process was a little more honest and transparent?



Works hard, but could do better.

It’s a safe bet that in any given month somewhere in the world teachers are writing, or preparing to write, reports.  It is an even safer bet that, regardless of the reporting system used in their school, the majority of teachers are complaining about it, and that many are considering a career change to something that less demanding, such as coal-mining.

When term-end exams were regarded as a meaningful and sufficient way of measuring learning, it made sense to issue a report card that simply summarised the results of those exams, together with a couple of words from the teacher to personalise the exercise (as in the title of this post).  However, although we now recognise that exam results are at best inadequate and at worst irrelevant as a measure of learning, we stick with the termly report card to which they gave rise.  Furthermore, as report cards were conceived as a simple summary of objective results, our efforts to force them to serve the completely different purpose of an anecdotal commentary on a progress actually makes things worse.  A student’s learning is a complex and constantly evolving process, and any attempt to generate an accurate ‘freeze frame’ account is doomed to failure.  Generalities are of little value, and specifics are likely to be unrepresentative, no longer applicable, open to misinterpretation,  or all three.  Hence the stress on teachers, who feel obliged to fill the yawning space allocated, yet who know that everything they write will be scrutinised, analysed and given meaning and significance that was never intended.  Small wonder that what used to be an end of term chore of a couple of hours is now a two week (or longer) wordsmithing  nightmare.

Report cards are the bane of teachers’ existence, and school administrators are caught between the preference of the faculty not to have to work late into the night after a full day of teaching and the demand from parents for detailed information on the progress of their children.  They could be forgiven for wanting to scrap report cards completely.

So why don’t they?

Technology has given us the means of communicating with parents and students in a way that properly mirrors what is happening in school, i.e. an ongoing commentary made up of small observations that, when taken together, provide a realistic narrative of the development of the student.  Of course, many Elementary (and some Secondary) teachers already do this for themselves in the form of running records, class notes etc., but they tend not to be shared with parents or students.  If a permanent three-way conversation were to be established, parents and student would gain a much clearer understanding of the complexity and inherent messiness of learning, as well as a more meaningful picture of the student’s progress.

Of course, tweeting parents regularly would add to the daily workload, but at least it would be work that had a clear purpose, and could be structured sensibly into the working day, instead of the present artificial exercise that ruins the lives of teachers for a month, and then ruins the lives of many students for the weeks following!