The world as we know it may be ending…

Not because of the Mayan calendar, which I suspect is even less reliable than the ‘long range’ weather forecast for the next nine days, but because of what happened yesterday: The International Baccalaureate posted a message on its official Facebook page which read:

The Cheltenham Ladies’ College tops 2012 International Baccalaureate league table’

Oh dear.

The post had a link which led to the website of ‘Best Schools UK’.  Some years ago this companycontacted me to ask whether I would like my school’s IB results included in the league table they were publishing. As I was on the Governing Board of the IB at the time, I knew that no such league tables were sanctioned, and I declined to participate, despite the warning (still posted on the Best Schools website) that ‘For those schools who refuse to supply data, we have to assume they are lower graded schools.’ I also contacted the appropriate person in Geneva who subsequently ensured that ‘Best Schools UK’ were aware that they could not use any official IB logos etc. in their publications. Now, it seems, things have changed so much that the IB actually assists in disseminating these league tables, thereby appearing to give them their official blessing.

I have nothing against Cheltenham Ladies College – indeed, there is plenty of evidence that it is a fine school for those fortunate enough to afford the annual fees of approximately $37,000 (Day) or $54,000 (Boarding).  I also would not want to diminish the admirable achievement of the 18 IB students (out of a class of approximately 150) who earned an average of 41 points on their diploma. Rather, my problem is with the endorsement by the IB of the concept of league tables.

The very existence of such tables assumes that schools are in competition with each other, and that it is important to identify which ones are ‘better’ than the others to the extent of ranking them in order and declaring one the ‘best’. Furthermore, it assumes that the appropriate measure of school quality is the crude average examination score, regardless of the nature of the school or the demographic profile of the students. Is it really the case that when a young lady at Cheltenham earns 41 points, this is a ‘better’ result than when a boy from a Nepali hill village, or a Chicago housing project, earns 24 points?

If schools are to be judged and ranked solely on the examination scores, the accolades will inevitably go to schools which are highly selective (academically, economically, or both), which are well-resourced, and which limit the access to the IB to those who will do well. Does the IB really want to declare that such schools are intrinsically ‘better’ than schools which are non-selective, or which serve low-income populations, or have a preponderance of second-language students, or give open access to the IB? It is fundamental to the philosophy of the IB that the significant achievement is the gaining of a diploma; this is the indication that the demanding criteria, both academic and non-academic, have been met. Over the years there has been a creeping emphasis on the points score, particularly from the UK, but I would have hoped that the IB itself would at least have kept its distance from the travesty of the league tables.

Perhaps the Mayans saw this coming…

“The world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.” Helen Keller

Before this week I, like most people in the world, had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut  The lives of the teachers, students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School had no special significance beyond their immediate family circles.  I wish that were still the case.

I imagine that the atmosphere at Sandy Hook during the final lead up to the Christmas holidays was the same mix of excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation as in schools all over the world.  Anyone who has worked in schools would have felt at home.

No more.  Henceforth, the name ‘Sandy Hook’ will be a short-hand prompt for despair and outrage.  Each of us will feel the guilty conflict between our horror at the realisation that it could so easily have happened in our own community, and an awful feeling of guilty thankfulness that it did not.

When faced with a natural disaster such as famine, flooding or earthquake, we know how to respond:  we try to mobilise resources and send help;  we contribute to the Red Cross; we hold collections for blankets, food, clothing, or simply money.  But this week there is no help we can send; there is no outside support we can offer.  There is simply a school community that has been devastated because of a personal narrative that turned violent, and in which they have played no part except that of victims.

However, though we cannot offer help, we are not helpless.

We have been told that right now is not the time to debate the issue of gun control, and it is a safe assumption that the gun lobby will soon move into high gear to argue that the easy availability of firearms had no direct bearing on this tragedy.  We will also hear the usual defence of personal liberties and constitutional protection of the right to bear arms.  In addition, non-Americans like me will be told that this is a domestic debate in which we have no legitimate voice.

My response is that I claim a voice because I have worked in schools; I claim a voice because I know and have taught American children;  I claim a voice because I have enough working brain cells to recognise that the correlation between easy gun ownership and sky-high levels of gun crime is not a coincidence, and that a constitution written two hundred years ago for a society in which the survival of the nation was under threat may not provide a perfect blueprint for today;  I claim a voice because I view what happened at Sandy Hook in the same way I view apartheid, or the suppression of free speech, or the oppression of women, or the exploitation of children, i.e. as a violation of the standards to which the human race should aspire.

President Obama has promised ‘meaningful action’.  I hope that my voice will be added to the voices of millions around the world, rising to a deafening volume that cannot be ignored, and that will strengthen his resolve to prevail against those who will want to resist any action.  The US claims the right to exert influence beyond its borders in support of human rights, and when it considers a government is failing to protect its people.  It is time for them to hear that the rest of the humanity claims the reciprocal right.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…


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?