In many ways, this will be a Parliament of consolidation at the Department for Education. The policies of the last five years are coming into force, and Nicky Morgan will need to put her political energy into seeing them through. But there is one area that does need reforming, and it needs it now. It is possibly the biggest opportunity to improve education in this Parliament, and one that would last well beyond 2020. It doesn’t sound glamorous or exciting, and won’t make the headlines. But its potential should not be underestimated. Nicky Morgan should use this Parliament to set a curriculum for teacher training.
Teacher workload is already extremely high, as Morgan has publically recognised. This means that government can’t improve outcomes in a way that puts pressure on schools – there are no more gains to be made from making teachers work harder. Instead, government has to look for ways to help teachers be more effective; and it should start by making sure every new teacher gets the training they deserve.
When I did my teacher training we spent laughably little time learning about learning. We discussed what made a good lesson (in the lecturer’s opinion…) but rarely why those components were good. We were often given quasi-moral justifications, like the assertions that “it is better to discover things for yourself” or “children learn better when they work in groups”, but I cannot recall a single time I heard something explained in terms of how a child’s brain would be responding.
Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.
I admit that I began reading to find evidence that supported my view. I was sure science would back me up. And then I, complete with a list of Harvard-format references, would win the next debate. The problem was that science didn’t agree with me. I could find pockets of supporting evidence, but the overwhelming consensus was that I was wrong. It made me phenomenally uncomfortable to see a consensus emerging that directly contradicted my beliefs about how the world should be. But ultimately, science is not about how the world should be. Science is about how the world is. And if I want to make it different, I need an accurate picture of how it is now.
This is a blog on reading about genetics – what I’ve learned, and what I want to do about it. The lessons are the things that struck me as a teacher most, and are largely based on reading about intelligence or other cognitive characteristics. I want to note up front that I am not an expert, and that writing this is part of my attempt to learn more. If and when I’ve made a mistake please let me know and I will rectify it as quickly as possible.
Lesson #1: Genetics explains much more of the variation between people than I was willing to accept
The most influential type of study for this blog is the twin study, which looks to explain the variation between people and attribute it to one of three categories of cause: the shared environment (factors that would be common to a pair of twins living in the same household and attending the same school); the non-shared environment (all other environmental factors); and genetics. Studies of cognitive ability tend to find that variation is 10-20% shared environment, 30-40% non-shared environment, and 50-60% genetics.
This was hard for me to accept. I wanted to believe that most variation is caused by things within our control. Instead the shared environment, of which school is only one part, explains under a fifth of the variation between people.
Before moving on to Lesson #2 it is important to stress that we are talking about variation here – not absolute levels. We can say that 50% of variation in intelligence is genetic in origin, we can say nothing about how much of your intelligence is caused by your genes.
Lesson #2: Environments change how genes are expressed
Your genetic code is fixed, but what you do with it isn’t. Geneticist Nessa Carey likens your genetic code to the script of a play, which is then interpreted extensively by the actors and director before becoming the performance that eventually appears on stage. Epigenetics is the study of these interpretations, which are as crucial to our biological functioning as the genetic code itself.
One thing we learn from epigenetics is that our environment shapes how we interpret our genetic code, and that these interpretations stick. Once we have scrawled annotations over our genetic script they will stay unless we actively rub them out – and when our children inherit our scripts they will find many of our annotations still in place.
Extreme or consistent environmental stimuli can create epigenetic modifications that change how your genes are expressed. For example, a stressful environment can lead to genes that control the production of cortisol (a stress hormone) becoming over-expressed, meaning that you become much more easily stressed in the future. Such a change will then persist, shutting off chunks of working memory and reducing executive function in years to come.
As many epigenetic modifications are heritable it is difficult for twin studies to separate their effect from the effect of genes themselves, and so it is possible that some of the causal impact of genetics is actually environmental in origin. As our ability to do more complex analysis with the genome itself increases we will no doubt find out whether this possibility means anything in practice.
Lesson #3: Environments correlate with genes
A tall child is more likely than a short child to be asked to try out for the basketball team. Where we may have a genetic propensity towards a certain area we tend to seek out (or be pushed towards) an environment that increases that propensity. This means that a small effect that begins life as just an inkling of interest or talent can easily grow into a specialised environment that exaggerates initially small effects. It is possible that correlations like this are responsible for a significant proportion of our genes’ impact. If we adapt environments, whether consciously or not, we will be magnifying genetic differences.
Lesson #4: Genetics does not determine outcomes
Twin studies observe the differences we see today and explain their origins. They do not have any say in how big these differences are or will be in the future. So the fact that 50% of variation in a characteristic is due to genetic causes today does not mean that it must be tomorrow. Nor does it mean that we must accept present levels of difference as necessary. The numbers we find in these studies are not natural constants.
Behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin says that studies tell you what is, not what could be. He likens our genetic understanding of intelligence to our understanding of weight. Whilst it is obviously the case that people can be genetically predisposed to put on more or less weight than each other, it is also true that with the right interventions almost anybody can achieve a healthy weight. The same is true for intelligence. There may be genetic predispositions, but we can make sure that everybody achieves an acceptable level by providing the right environment.
Lesson #5: Genetics assumes determinism
If a study assumes that all difference is caused by either genetics, the shared environment or the non-shared environment, then it is also making one other underlying assumption: that everything about a person has an external cause. It assumes that your intelligence or success is a function solely of your genes and your environment. But what if everything about us is not 100% deterministic?
I was hesitant to write this lesson down, for fear of seeming to criticise the entire body of work genetics has given us. Science has to operate by studying the relationship between cause and effect. I cannot challenge it for failing to account for independent free will. But I am nonetheless uncomfortable not accounting for it. I do not know nearly enough in this area to do anything more than speculate. But I do wonder whether the large influence of the non-shared environment, that bucket for everything we can’t put our finger on, may be substantially down to things like attitude and motivation that may not be fully caused by an external mechanism.
So what do I take from all this?
Firstly, that genetics plays an unquestionably big role in explaining who we are, and how our brains work. Even if some of the effect attributed to genes is in fact environmental in origin (due to epigenetics or gene-environment correlations) there is no doubt that genes have a huge influence.
But secondly, even though genes make us all different, they don’t determine our cognitive future. Long-term memory still has unlimited capacity; brain plasticity is still immense; and good teaching can still take advantage of this. Genes determine difference, but they’re no excuse for educational inequality.
Imagine I told you there was a way to make our children perform 10% better in their exams after just four weeks of study. It involves changing a school’s timetable and teaching style, but still leaving plenty of room for leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities. You’d expect to hear a clamour insisting that we roll this out in all schools immediately. Instead, Chinese School has earned itself a long list of critics. They don’t like Chinese education because it of its values. Or more precisely, because it values knowledge.
They argue that we should not be seeking to learn from Chinese teaching, despite its superior results. They concede that doing so would make our children learn more, but that this would come at too high a cost. Any improvement in our teaching of knowledge, they argue, would stop pupils being creative thinkers or challengers of the status quo. Yes, Chinese teaching may improve the learning of rules and information, but it does nothing to teach originality.
They seriously appear to be arguing that in a system in which 35% of 16 year olds failed English GCSE this year our problem is learning too much vocabulary, knowing the laws of grammar too well, and sticking too rigidly to the traditions of the literary canon. Otherwise why complain that Chinese teaching is good at helping pupils learn information?
Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.
At the start of this academic year I wanted to really put the theory of learning I knew into practice. Here are three teaching techniques I tried that I’ll be taking with me into 2015.
1. Interleave *everything*
We know that interleaving concepts and procedures is a desirable difficulty that improves learning. This year I’ve made it my aim to never teach a lesson that uses only one topic. Extension work doesn’t count: the main bulk of a lesson must include multiple concepts. In practice, this means that every set of questions I write includes applying the new thing being learned to problems involving other concepts from earlier on in the curriculum. I found this daunting at first – “what if it’s just too confusing for them?” – but I’ve found there’s tremendous power in my expectation that they can competently use everything I have taught them, at any time.
It’s also made the questions I write far richer and more interesting than ever before. A standard lesson on volume would include questions on upper and lower bounds, percentage changes to a volume when dimensions change by different percentages, and using Pythagoras’ Theorem to find missing dimensions before calculating a volume. These questions were the normal ones. They were not special extension questions for the top 20%. The message this broadcast, combined with the cognitive effect of the desirable difficulty, has made a noticeable impact on learning.
2. Spaced testing of *everything*
We know that spacing and testing are two of the most powerful tools in an educators’ arsenal. So I’ve made it my aim to space out testing of everything my students’ have studied.
The first way I’ve done this is through our departmental testing. This year we’re using low-stakes quizzes on each topic as a replacement for the half-termly summative tests we used to use. What’s great about this is that each topic has two quizzes: one taken at the end of the topic, and one a month later. This reinforces the expectation that students should remember what they’ve been taught, and incentivises them to revisit their learning when it will have the biggest impact on longer-term retention.
The second way is through an idea I’ve borrowed from Bruno Reddy and Kris Boulton at KSA. Long ago they told me about “Only 100% Will Do” starters: simple recall or procedural questions that had been previously studied. Now my students begin every lesson with an “Only 100% Will Do” sheet where they work on concepts from any past year group to make sure that they’re keeping up to speed.
3. Lightning fast in-class assessment
I have always been a big fan of in-class assessment, and could singlehandedly prop up the UK’s mini-whiteboard industry. But over the summer Joe Kirby introduced me to an app called Quick Key. It changed my life!
Quick Key is an optical scanning app for mobile phones. It works by scanning in students’ answer sheets to a multiple choice quiz, and giving you great analytics on your phone or in a spreadsheet. It’s also fast – I can scan a whole class set of answers in about a minute. This lets me pinpoint exactly how well the class are doing at a topic. I will discover that one mistake or misconception is bogging down the whole room, or that four students need extra support in this lesson and another five need extra challenge. The laser-like precision with which I can adapt during a lesson or plan the next one is having a big impact on my teaching.
Like any technique, these three have worked well because I made them a habit. We do these three things in the same way in almost every lesson. This consistency no doubt aids their effectiveness. But they are nonetheless three real techniques that put into practice the theory of learning we know to be so powerful.
Teaching is a tough job, with a tough workload. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t going to become easy either. But it can and should be manageable. Sadly in too many schools workload can become excessive, and can do so without improving teaching. But there is one policy that would reduce teacher workload and improve lessons in English schools:
Abolish the Quality of Teaching judgment in Ofsted inspections.
We should do this because:
It incentivises bad leadership
It is easier to tick QoT tick boxes than it is to actually improve results. It is easier to produce an evidence trail than it is to produce an impact. And it is easier to force teachers to work ever harder than it is to make their effort more productive. School leaders who face a grilling from external inspectors, be they Ofsted or otherwise, will find it much easier to create an illusion of performance and score well on QoT than to create actual performance and score well on Achievement.
So why not insist that all staff plan all lessons in detail and in writing on a school proforma? It might not improve learning, but it’s good way to demonstrate QoT. Why not make all staff mark all books every night in four different colours of pen? It might not improve feedback, but it’s a good way to demonstrate QoT. And before you know it, terrified leaders in many schools are imposing dreadful policies on their staff; because it’s easier to put on a show for an inspector than it is to improve results.
It makes teachers teach worse lessons
QoT judges teaching by how it looks, not by what it achieves. This makes teachers ensure teaching looks better, even if that doesn’t make it achieve more. So teachers spend their time on appearances. They buy books on 100 ways to make their lesson look outstanding, and trade chinese whispers about what Ofsted want to see. The time they would spend increasing the impact of their teaching they spend implementing new fads; not because they work, but because they look good.
It harms the quality of teaching – and causes excessive workload
The QoT grade doesn’t improve impact, just appearances. But even if some of this pressure does rub off on impact, that impact doesn’t come for free. There is a huge opportunity cost to everything that a teacher does. If they’re spending their time on appearances then they’re not spending their time improving learning. And that matters. It matters because teachers can’t work infinite hours, and so something has to give. When that something was improving the actual quality of teaching, not the illusory QoT, it’s children who lose out.
So instead we should lose the QoT grade. Judge schools on the impact they have, not on how they look. Then we can lose the smoke and mirrors policies that look good but make real improvement harder. Leaders and teachers will have one aim – to improve the impact they have on children. And there will be no perverse incentive to distract them from it.
But it’s not because I couldn’t write one. I have quite strong views on private schools, and I even think they’re well-reasoned. But I’m not going to write about them.
Because this debate doesn’t matter. Will forcing reluctant private schools to share their theatres change education? Would an extra £150 million for the DfE budget really improve the system? No.
One day we might reach the point where the next most important change is reform of private schools, in which case we can have this debate. But until then we should focus on bigger things. Like:
- Over a third of schools either Require Improvement or are Inadequate
- Over a third of 16 year-olds don’t get at least 5 A*-C with English and Maths
- Our alternative provision fails almost everyone who needs it
- Teacher Training fails to teach you about how people learn
- CPD tells teachers piles of rubbish pseudo-science
- Teachers spend much of their time doing things without an evidence-base to please various interest groups
Sharing theatres might be nice, but it won’t solve these.
Let’s postpone the debate until we have.
Here is my presentation from Saturday 27th September’s National Maths Conference in Kettering.