Flat Earth Learning

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“Welcome to the science lab, boys and girls. Today’s Learning Outcome is on the board: by the end of the lesson you will all be able to appreciate the shape of the Earth and analyse various theories as to how this shape was formed. I’m going to be the sage on the stage for thirty seconds and then we’ll do some discovery learning whereby you’ll walk around the school, in groups, and report back what gradient measures you have taken, as well as your qualitative analysis, and what these might tell us about the shape of the Earth.

As you all know,  the Earth is a big, flat circle, with scary sea-monsters near the edge bits. The sun travels around the Earth, giving us night and day…..”

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? You’d be worried if your child came home from school relating that the science teacher told them that the moon was made of cheese, or that evolution was a dubious theory. What if their SPHE teacher gave them a questionnaire to help them determine their dominant humour, and asked them to form groups with other members of their “humour” style and discuss how this was affecting their health and learning? It’s unlikely your response would be: “You got Sanguine? That is so cool. Did you know that I’m a Sanguine too? Not like your Dad, though. He’s more Phlegmatic. Totally different….”

You wouldn’t think it was cool, because you recognise an out-dated theory when you see one. How would you feel about this test, and this activity?

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These pages are from a brand-new textbook, intended to be used when teaching SPHE as part of the new Wellbeing programme.  Here a similar example from another new textbook

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And more, from a third publishing company

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The problem with these images is that the information they contain is completely false. The theory of “learning styles” has been described by Professor Paul Kirschner as nothing more than an “urban legend”, and in this letter to the Guardian leading scientists have argued for its complete removal from schooling. It could be that offerings from the other educational companies feature similar content, so I won’t say here who publishes these books.  Neither do I want to imply that the publishers did not carry out due diligence in ensuring that the content of their textbooks reflects the curriculum; it would be unfair to blame the publishers when the source of their information is the Department of Education itself.

The source of the Learning Style quiz is the Departmental website http://www.sess.ie. It is found in materials that were presented to school leaders at a conference in 2009. Now, in educational terms, 2009 is a long time ago and many of the people believed in learning styles at that time no longer do. Nevertheless these materials are still present on their website and have been used, entirely reasonably,  as resources by the authors of the textbooks.

Here is the Learning Styles questionnaire that forms the basis of that found in three of the textbooks I looked at.  Here is advice for teachers on  how to help children with special educational needs. “Establish the student’s preferred learning style” is number 3 on the list. These are from the SESS website: there is a link to the questionnaire on the Junior Cycle website that is dated April 2015. The PDST also feature learning styles in some of their material, such as here and here, even though they do caution about their use here. The section of the PDST responsible for technology recommends increased use of ICT in classrooms because it “can offer an opportunity to accommodate differing learning styles” . The department-sponsored Scoilnet website offers a learning-styles quiz resource that was uploaded in April 2017, and the Departmental website itself promotes the LCA programme as being suitable  “for those whose needs, aptitudes and learning styles are not fully catered for by the other two Leaving Certificate programmes.”  (The LCA is a useful and scandalously under-resourced programme, but the link with learning styles is entirely spurious.)

The most recent reference to learning styles in the Junior Cycle Irish Specification, a document published only months ago and which first years of 2017-2018 will be the first cohort to undergo. As pupils progress through the specification:  “They gradually become familiar with their own learning strategies and personal style of learning.”

This is Irish education policy in 2017. One of the most discredited fads of the twentieth century is a central tenet of reforms on which we are only just embarking. Even leaving out the subjection of children to the ludicrous VAK sorting-hat, the notion of personal learning styles – of each child learning in a particular way – and of the benefits of personalised instruction and personalised study strategies runs right through the Junior Cycle Framework.  For example, the theory has been used to justify portfolio-based assessment “Portfolios provide benefits for students with different preferred learning styles and capacity for oral feedback from teachers.” [italics mine] One of the guidance-related learning outcomes from the Wellbeing specification states that children must be able to “recognise their own ways of learning and their learning habits, interests, strengths and weaknesses”. [italics mine] Elsewhere is this document teachers are exhorted to  “[take] account of the diverse needs and learning approaches of students.” [italics mine] and reminded that schools should “[recognise] students as experts in their own learning”.

The photo below on the left shows where thinking of children as “experts in their own learning” might lead us. The one on the right shows us what can happen when a curriculum specifies that children will reflect on their learning, not what it is that they are actually required to learn.

 

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The photos above  are not relics. They are from new books, published in 2017, and intended for the new programmes that are being rolled out and will be taught to children just leaving primary school and those coming up through primary school. Teacher and psychologist Nick Rose describes learning styles “lack validity” and “provide no pedagogic value whatsoever”. They contradict what cognitive science tells us:

“Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn”

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia

This neuromyth not just harmless nonsense.It promotes ineffective study methods that introduce and/or widen attainment gaps. One textbook advises “kinaesthetic learners” to “take frequent breaks from study”. Breaks from study are a good idea, but you don’t learn anything during them, and the child who schedules extra breaks because she thinks they’re some kind of strategy is likely to learn less than the child who takes a break at average intervals. It also promotes the false idea that learning should be easy, enjoyable and at the very least feel “natural”. Prematurely asking children to categorise themselves is always a dangerous and counterproductive classroom activity and ironically promotes the antithesis of the “growth mindset” also mentioned in the Wellbeing specification. Most worryingly of all, attempts to assess children’s learning styles seem most prevalent in special needs education within mainstream settings, where they both provide a plausible but false explanation for low attainment, and also promote the adoption of strategies unlikely to lead to real progress.

That a pseudoscientific and completely debunked theory can be printed in  textbooks and taught to children as factual knowledge should worry everyone, including parents. It really is like a science diagram showing a flat Earth and the sun’s orbit around us. It could even be argued to be worse as this false information in one area – SPHE – has the potential to corrupt learning in every single subject from Spanish to Science to Geography. As to how this came to happen, a good place to start might be the Department of Education’s own lack of understanding of – and at times disdain for – knowledge.  We have a curriculum that does not include syllabi that specify the content that children must master. Instead we have broad frameworks that imply content matters less than whether teachers are employing approved progressive methods and children are developing “transferable skills”.

This is what happens when you downgrade knowledge and fail to specify the facts and subject content which with children should be familiar at each stage of their education. A vacuum is created, into which can rush all kinds of nonsense. When there is little culture of using evidence to inform practice, this nonsense is easily found in the materials provided by the department itself. When the time allocated for teaching academic subjects –  wherein there is a vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge built up through centuries –  is cut in favour of nascent “areas of learning”, this makes the vacuum bigger. And when this area of learning is designed to be delivered not by subject experts with degrees in the course content, but by teachers who hold any qualification at all, then you decrease the likelihood that teachers will themselves spot the fake facts and misinformation.

Purging the textbooks of false information is easy. Educating teachers about the pitfalls of neuromyths is more onerous, yet is doable: look for example at the stellar work of Tom Bennett and the ResearchEd movement. The hard part is contemplating the looming disaster of a secondary system that may speak about “high expectations” for all, but by eschewing rigour, evidence and knowledge in favour of engagement, skills and the “learner experience”, risks creating schools that resemble day-care for teenagers. It won’t seem to matter if children spend less time in real lessons than they do floating along in a tide of pseudolearning and obsession with their own subjective viewpoints. Our young people may well leave such schools knowing barely more about the wider world than they did when they entered. And it will be a tragic waste.

For more information on how learning  styles don’t exist, these are a good place to start:

http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/en-GB/Resource-library/Briefings/2014/rED-b-learning-styles-9-2014

For information about effective study skills that are based on reputable research and work for everyone, check out The Learning Scientists at www.learningscientists.org

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Visit to Michaela

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Last Friday I paid a visit to Michaela Community School, the controversial London school that is pioneering a traditional, yet innovative, approach to teaching and learning. I had heard a lot about the school, mainly through the many excellent blogs written by the teaching staff, and had read their book with interest. How would it look in real life?

I arrived  mid-morning and was buzzed in at both the gate and the door. The reception are is a calm, adults-only space where friendly staff welcomed me and gave me a Visitor badge and a set of rules. There were two other teachers on my tour, both from English schools. The day of our visit was a big one for the school. The results of their Ofsted inspection [like a WSE with higher stakes] had just been published, with the school ranked “outstanding” in every area.

One of our tour guides from Year 9, another from Year 7. [In age, year 9s are comparable to second years, but it’s their third year in secondary school.] These pupils were impeccably mannered and well-prepared, anticipating questions.  I could see that the tour guide role is itself a learning opportunity. The teachers I met during the day (special mention to Joe Kirby, Jess Lund, Michael Taylor and Damien Phelan) were extremely welcoming, keen to discuss their methods and enthusiastic about finding out how things are done elsewhere.

Our tour took us over the six floors of the school, which is in a converted office block.  Classrooms are either side of long, narrowish corridors with stairs at one end only. Ceilings are low and there’s proportionally a lot of glazing, which meant every degree of the mid-June heat was felt by all. One side of the building overlooks the rail tracks where trains rattled by every few minutes. Impressively, the more established teachers seem to teach on this side of the building.

As we passed the computer room, we learned that there are no ICT lessons in Michaela because “it’s not academic”. The computers are there for children who do not have access to the internet at home; some of the homework must be completed online. We were then brought into a series of lessons, having been asked which subjects we were most interested in seeing. Between the end of the tour and lunchtime we had some free time to wander in and out of lessons ourselves. Then it was lunch: a choreographed, highly scripted event. We then joined the pupils in the yard for their half an hour free time, and got to chat to the many staff on duty.

These are some of the general observations I made on the day:Cbfb3bDWEAAM5jR

Knowledge

The curriculum is unabashedly knowledge-based. At a system-wide level I think this is the biggest lesson Ireland could take from Michaela. Every single lesson saw children getting to grips with challenging content. This is not mere “rote-learning”: teaching sequences and assessment are designed for long-term memory. My guides were very proud to tell me that their learning is not confined to examinable specifications: instead they see the value of knowledge itself and they strive to be educated adults. They’ll still sit their exams, and I expect they will do very well in them.

By the end of their third year in secondary school, Michaela pupils have studied five Shakespeare plays. If I remember correctly they were “Julius Caesar”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. None of these are for the GCSE exam (the English department plans on studying “The Tempest”). You can do this with five hours of English a week.

The curriculum prioritises depth over breadth. More time is devoted to fewer subjects. In French, for example, pupils benefit from three hours of tuition a week.

The most common class activity was reading, followed closely by writing. I saw children reading and writing in every lesson. I did not see any group work. I did not see anyone watching a film. I did not see any children making posters or Powerpoint presentations. Maybe I called on the wrong day? 😉

Every lesson was content-driven and teacher-led. I saw nothing that could be classified as the development of generic skills such as comprehension strategies.  The last thirty minutes of the day is form time, and tutors read with their pupils.  I saw Maths teacher, Dani Quinn, reading a history book with her form group, sending a powerful non-utilitarian message about learning.

I was told pair work does happen on occasion (pupils have lab partners in science, for example), but did not see any while I was there. This does not mean pupils were silent all the time; they read aloud, they chanted, they answered questions both individually and chorally. Children also asked questions and were quite confident in looking for clarification.

Wellbeing

The half hour form time at the end of every day contains a strong element of pastoral care, but apart from this no class time is sacrificed to Wellbeing. (They do PE –  unfortunately having to go off-site to do so –  but I don’t count this as wellbeing with a big W) Instead, as one teacher told me, wellbeing drips down through everything they do; every single lesson is an opportunity to develop resilience and perseverance. Deputy head, Joe Kirby, argued in one of their events for “embedding character education in school culture rather than putting it on the timetable” and this is the approach taken to all aspects of pupils’ wellbeing. Personal development does not sit apart from intellectual development.

Despite giving no, or very little, instruction time to social and emotional development, inspectors scored the school as highly in this area as in others, awarding it the top descriptor of “outstanding”:

The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding….Pupils know how to be successful learners because leaders and teaching staff actively encourage pupils’ social and emotional development. Pupils typically said that they understand how hard work now will help to prepare them very well for the next stages of their education….Pupils’ self-confidence matures rapidly.                    Ofsted, 23 May 2017

Constant adult supervision during the school day  helps make the school “a safe zone”. Kindness and inclusion are both modelled and expected. The daily, post-lunch expressions of appreciation that are one of the school’s hallmarks are intended to boost the children’s happiness, and I think they succeed better than vague exhortations to “think positive”would. Encouraging children to look for small good things that have been done for them – even the presence or acceptance of a friend – acknowledges that this noticing is not always automatic or easy.

There is very little on the walls of the classrooms, and only permanent displays on the corridors. Every classroom featured identical posters relating to expected behaviour. Their most famous one is below. I really love this poster and the obvious effort being made by the climber as he scales the slopes of the behaviour mountain.

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The school really loves pyramids, and famously encourages children to aspire to be “top of the pyramid people”. On the one hand, I can see why they do this: élite groups of decision-makers and influencers almost always contain an unfair proportion of privately-educated people and one of Michaela’s long-term goals is to address this. They are honest with pupils that hard-won qualifications are in some ways only a start in a world where they may face discrimination and will need to have a tough, competitive spirit to succeed. I would worry slightly, however, about presenting a vision of society that’s the same geometric shape as a food-chain or the feudal system, as sometimes it’s more complicated. Focusing on personal advancement can sometimes conflict with doing solid work that makes a contribution, and I hope that the emphasis on kindness develops with the school so that when pupils do go on and succeed, those who find themselves in leadership roles will display the values of service and justice that I think Katharine Birbalsingh and her staff hold dear.

 

Discipline

Michaela has been called “the strictest school in Britain” but the atmosphere is not oppressive. Michaela teachers are tough: they are strict and firm, but they are not cross. I did not hear a child criticised, or ridiculed, or made to feel in any way less than their peers. Pupils were rebuked and their misbehaviour narrated in terms of its impact on learning,  but voices were not raised. Even the most minor of infringements resulted in a demerit being issued. I did not see one instance of a pupil speaking out of turn or speaking to another pupil in class or while moving between classes.

Interestingly, despite its policy of “no excuses”, I saw a demerit being rescinded on the production of an excuse. How this happened was itself remarkable; a pupil received a demerit and seemed to accept it entirely, a few minutes later while the class (including him) was engaged in a task and the teacher passed his desk he said a few words I could not hear, and she  – almost as quietly – accepted what he said but warned him not to let the situation happen again. Does this blow the “no excuses” line out of the water? Far from it. The pupil’s initial response, ability to exert self-control when he felt he’d been treated unfairly, respect for everyone else’s time, respect for his own time, and confidence that he’d be listened to, were testament to a water-tight discipline system that the children experience as fair.

Merits and demerits system are logged by teachers on the attendance software, and there is absolute consistency between teachers about how they are given out. Detentions are centralised; at lunch a list of children doing a detention was called out, and just before the end of the school day, a member of the admin staff came to the classroom with a list so that the form tutor could remind those who were down for after school detention.  This consistency must go a long way to reduce pupils’ stress. Everything is fair and transparent, and no mental energy is expended on figuring out who’s a “soft touch”.

Punishment is only one side of the behaviour-management coin. Along with the list of afternoon detainees, came some postcards home. Teachers who want to particularly praise a pupil leave these in the office and they are handed out publicly. There are reward events for pupils with a positive merit v demerit balance.

All the pupils were working and they all seemed to know what school is for. Very many of them were brimming with enthusiasm and greeted me on the corridors with a cheerful “hello Miss”. One of my lunch companions expressed gratitude for how doing detentions has improved his habits. The degree to which pupils themselves buy in to The Michaela Way is one area that has met with scepticism among people I know who’ve read about the school.  Children are children and while behaviour is uniformly excellent in the school I wouldn’t say every single pupil is the archetypal Michaela student. Children differ, but the school does not drop its standards for any of them.  They trust in their robust system and in the constant cheerleading and reinforcement that bathes the pupils in encouragement to make the most out of school.

Finally

I’ve organised these observations under headings, but these divisions are artificial. The commitment to the children’s personal development, and the refusal to give up on any of them, are inextricably tied to the strict discipline system which creates the environment for focused hard work in the classroom.

During our tour we observed a few minutes of a Year 7 history lesson. The children were writing a short piece based on a question that was projected on the whiteboard “What was the greatest threat to the authority of the king in medieval England?” (or something like that).  We only stayed for a few minutes and, as we made our way to our next stop, one of the other visitors asked our guide how would she answer that question, having studied the same topic two years ago. For a long moment, she seemed flummoxed. There was no rapid-fire answer that would have proven the Michaela system worked. Had I come that far to witness a mirage? But then the hmms transformed into an articulate response wherein she explained how and why both the Church and the barons were hugely powerful in the Middle Ages and how they could use this power against the king. Therefore the question was debatable, but I think she came down on the side of the barons being the single greatest threat. Here was not only knowledge, but understanding, analysis and the ability to express a coherent thought orally. The proof really is in the pudding.

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In Praise of Discovery Learning

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no-one else can make for us, which no-one can spare us, for our wisdom  is the point of view from which we come at last to view the world.”

Marcel Proust.

 

How teaching happens matters!

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment

A quick look through the DSE inspectorate reports shows that the popularity of discovery learning is showing no signs of disappearing. One inspection report from March mentions discovery learning twice, recommending that science teachers “should increase the emphasis on discovery learning” and another published last month recommends they “encourage the use of discovery learning by students” and criticises lessons where “too much time was spent on teacher instruction that impacted on discovery learning and student motivation”. A geography inspection report recommends “limiting teacher inputs” .One mathematics inspection praises “a particular focus…inquiry-based learning” and another recommends that “the tasks set should involve more discovery learning and foster independent learning skills”.

This enthusiasm  ignores the growing body of evidence that, when it comes to teaching factual knowledge, discovery learning “ignores the structures of cognitive architecture” and is less effective than teacher-led explicit instruction.  The latest (2015) PISA report found that “teacher-directed instruction” was more effective than minimal guidance, particularly in science, as @greg_Ashman explains here better than I can.

However, there is one area of learning where I think we can embrace discovery learning. In fact, we can embrace it so much that we can all but erase the subject from the curriculum, minimise its impact on the timetable and stop preaching to the kids about it, all without damaging outcomes in this “area of learning”. This is the area of “wellbeing”. *

I have long held the view  that –  while the welfare and safety of children has to be an important concern of schools and teachers –  lessons, talks, activities and programmes that aim to “teach” traits like resilience and grit, or to explain to children the importance of  good habits of self-care, are a pointless waste of time. They are also possibly harmful to children.  Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes make this case cogently in their book  “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”.

A book that’s very different to “The Dangerous Rise” but that touches tangentially on the same area is  Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis : Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the test of Modern Science”. Haidt explores how people managed before psychology and how some ideas about human happiness appear in remarkably similar forms in quite separate places and times.  The book, I think, works both ways: it puts the assumptions of modern psychology to the test of ancient wisdom.

Rider-elephant

 

Haidt famously conceived of the image of the “rider and the elephant” as a metaphor for the human mind. The rider can guide the elephant, but only as long as the elephant co-operates, and if the elephant ever does decide to do its own thing, there is very little the rider can do to stop it.  As teachers we focus on the rider, who is, after all, the brains of the operation. The elephant has a brain as well but its skill is in the force of its strength, not its intellectual capacity for reason. Are schools ignoring the elephant and thus failing to “holistically” educate?

I will say yes, and no more so than in the “area of learning” that is wellbeing. Proponents of Wellbeing might say that it is teaching children how to make their riders better control their elephants. Skills like managing  emotions, self-efficacy, how to be motivated, how to be nice are to be taught alongside – and even instead of – how to form the passé composé and calculate the side of a triangle. Discipline systems with even a hint of behaviourism are deemed inferior to restorative approaches that harness children’s cognitive conceptions of right and wrong.  Ironically the drive to teaching tacit knowledge explicitly co-incides with the turn towards teaching explicit knowledge through “discovery learning” where children [theoretically] work out the facts for themselves, acquiring them tacitly with minimal teacher explanation. Where the subjects don’t fit, they must be trimmed like the  ugly sisters’ feet, and where their content does not suit prescribed methods and aims, they must borrow content from areas that do. Following on from this, the time available for the subjects is itself trimmed and time is allocated to content that suits discovery learning but which previously was thought the responsibility of  parents rather than schools, or was understood to consist of the experience of life events and maturation. We end with nothing.

Haidt explains the folly of trying to take the rider off the elephant and educate him in isolation. He cites moral education, which will be familiar to anyone who has taught SPHE which has a module on “making good decisions”. The idea is that children can be trained in a decision-making procedure and then follow this procedure when faced with dilemmas like “how do I withstand the bystander effect when my best friend’s a bully?” and “should I smoke this spliff?”

“After being exposed to hours of case studies, classroom discussions about moral dilemmas, and videos about people who faced dilemmas and made the right choices, the child learns how(not what) to think. Then class ends, the rider gets back on the elephant, and nothing changes…Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail.”

What if we have this all wrong? What if explicit knowledge was best taught explicitly and tacit knowledge was best acquired tacitly, through discovery learning where teachers and schools set up a formative learning environment rather than a wellbeing syllabus that will inevitably be largely delivered through chalk and talk  and for which the publishing companies are already producing textbooks?

Many of the  learning outcomes from the Wellbeing guidelines could be better learned through experience than taught didactically. When I say “learned through experience” I do not mean a teacher-devised and managed classroom activity that takes time away from building children’s knowledge base. I mean learned  via the broad experience of school life, including classes on the structure of the atom or the formation of ox-bow lakes, and equally through every human interaction they have on the premises whether with teachers or with peers. Many of the latter type of experience will be hidden from teachers’ eyes, and to a great extent immune to our manipulations,  but are no less formative. (In terms of their classroom experience, children’s maturity and well-being are fostered through habits of work, application and organisation, and through an atmosphere that insists on respectful communication. These can happen regardless of instructional methods, the choice of which should be guided by the content being covered. Attempts such as this one to raise children’s self-esteem through group-work put the self-conceptual cart before the attainment horse). There is also a case to be made for “service learning” through blocked social placement that has minimal impact on the timetable, or even better, through extra-curricular opportunities for volunteering.  And I also mean the experience of life beyond school, both physically and temporally. The end of third year cannot be seen as a deadline for achieving the kind of wisdom, common sense and “life skills” that most of us where still acquiring well into our twenties. You could argue that  very many people die at a ripe old age without achieving half  of what we expect fifteen year olds to master (“Use good communication skills to respond to criticism and conflict” for example). Some more examples are:

-express emotions in an appropriate way [who decides which ways are “appropriate??]

-help others to feel included in the group

-recognise how gender and sexuality is [sic] part of what it means to be human

-learn from their mistakes and move on

-appreciate the importance of respectful and inclusive behaviour.

-recognise their capacity to extend and receive friendship

-appreciate the importance of talking things over

-appreciate what it means to live with mental ill-health.[It amazes me that anyone, anywhere thinks that there is any classroom activity –  including listening to a guest speaker –  that could even begin to achieve this outcome]

-use coping skills for managing life’s challenges [surely a tautology?]

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Haidt also warns against confusing people with machines, especially computers. It is tempting to see the modern educational obsession with coding as extending into the idea that children need to be programmed with the attributes we find desirable in adults. If the device comes with the software apparently missing, then some-one must install it. If parents can’t be trusted, it must then fall to schools to do the installation. There is no button (or combination of buttons) on a child that you can press to make her act like an adult. But everything she needs to be one is already there. Adolescence is a complex, biological and social process, that is barely understood by the very young science of developmental psychology. We tinker with it at our peril and the peril of the children themselves, who are not machines, but animals who are infinitely more resilient than machines, and harder to break, but conversely more challenging to repair.

Another of the book’s warnings is about over-protection. By making “staying well” an actual learning outcome, we are encouraging children to live life inside the confines of the white-picket fence. We risk trying to make teenagers into emotional self-managers who put their own comfort and welfare ahead of any cause or any ambition.  This is seen in the annual hand-wringing fest that decries the State Examinations as damaging to the mental health of candidates. The Junior Cert, in particular, was a pressurised yet ultimately low-stakes event that did more to foster resilience and confidence than any Wellbeing syllabus yet to be devised. The stakes are higher at Leaving Cert, but – as its name implies – these young people are leaving childhood behind and setting out into an adult world that will contain challenges at least as hard and often harder than sitting an exam for which there is a well-defined curriculum and marking scheme, focused tuition for the two-year lead-up and, for most candidates, is sat at a time of very few commitments or responsibilities.  We wouldn’t put ten year olds through the process (a madness currently proposed in an education system not too far away), but switching to softer, more gameable assessments could deny our teenagers what is for most of them an admittedly very stressful yet formative experience.  Haidt writes, drawing on the work of wisdom researcher Robert Sternberg,

“Shelter your children when young, but if the sheltering goes on through the child’s teens and twenties, it may keep out wisdom and growth as well as pain.”

So I would suggest a re-balancing. When it comes to Wellbeing we need to put more emphasis on the elephant through the practices and habits of daily life in school, while  allowing students to cope with challenging situations where the rider can discover the tacit skills of elephant communication. We need to realise that interventions that exclusively target the rider (such as providing factual information about personal safety) are limited in scope and are more than catered for in the time already allowed for SPHE; there is no need for an increase. Rather, the vast bulk of our time in the class room should be focused not on things children can work out for themselves but on things for which they need schools, and for which they need teachers to teach them.

 

*When I say “wellbeing” I don’t include Physical Education, even though that subject is now included under the Wellbeing umbrella. I refer instead to the psychosocial aspects of SPHE and CSPE and all learning outcomes relating to attitudes, character, mental health and “awareness”.

Anyone’s Equal. The Michaela Way

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Is Michaela Marmite? To me it’s more like the seasonal box of Roses. Lots of lovely parts, some bits that are truly yummy, and yes, more than one coffee crème. I could sit here for two hours typing out the  elements of the Michaela way with which I disagree, the parts I think they get away with only because they’ve started from scratch and those which I can see work for them but are irreplicable within an Irish context. But why would I do that?

There is much to be admired about Michaela and much to be learned from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”-  a collection of twenty essays, written mostly by teachers – which was launched in November at this live-streamed event.

Funnily, when I talk to colleagues about Michaela a common reaction is “That’s what we have here! That’s what we have and we’re getting rid of!” In many ways that is true. Irish secondary schools, particularly the voluntary sector in which I work, have long operated on the understanding that a strong, academic education delivered in an atmosphere of discipline and pastoral support is the best way we can serve both our pupils and the wider community. Much of that legacy is sadly being swept away by a wave of reforms that are explicitly less knowledge-driven and manage to be both progressively child-centred and grimly utilitarian.

So while my reading of Barry Smith’s account of the motivational speech he gives to Michaela pupils was accompanied by some eye-rolling and a fair few FFS, I was reminded of what a past-pupil of our school once told me. She had left the school in the eighties and had not had the opportunities there are there now to go to third level. Yet she said that on leaving school, this quiet girl from a large family on a small farm in North Cork felt she had learned as much as if she had attended an exclusive, private school. She told me: “I left school feeling like an educated person. I was anyone’s equal. I’ve never met anyone, in any situation, that I haven’t felt confident holding a conversation with.” This is the spirit I see in every page of “BHOTTT”: that every child they teach is anyone’s equal. Not just the equal of any other child within the education system, but the equal of any adult in the land regardless of that adult’s status or wealth. They want their children to grow into adults who can hold a conversation with anyone without being patronised or feeling inadequate, and who can not only gain admittance to the world’s most elite universities but thrive once they get there. And they do this by not treating children like adults (adults with our autonomy, our ingrained habits and our adherence to our chosen or accidental groove), but as children made up of no part bigger than potential. Katie Ashford, Michaela’s Head of Inclusion (roughly equivalent to SenCo) writes “By treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge, by harnessing the fire and ambition to succeed that everyone has within them, and by never allowing them to settle for anything other than their strongest effort, we are helping our children to overcome the barriers that some say are insurmountable.”

It might seem ridiculous to talk about “treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge”. Surely they know that this an unrealistic goal for any but their brightest pupils? The answer may be that they share the view expressed in this post by Tom Bennett in which he explains how he tells all his pupils that his target for them is to get an “A”. Not because he thinks they’re all going to get an “A”, but because he understands what the word target means. It means the thing that you aim for. I tried archery once, and I wasn’t very good at it. If an arrow landed on the board, I was pleased. If one landed on the coloured part, I was delighted. I was, of course, aiming at the bullseye the whole time, because if I’d just aimed for  “hitting blue, and possibly red if I’m lucky” my arrows would have fallen short or gone astray. Michaela are aiming high for all their pupils because they feel that’s the best way to maximise attainment all round. Another justification for such aspirations brings me back to the woman quoted above who for financial and circumstantial reasons didn’t make it to university but still feels like “an educated person”. If we see challenging, traditional academic content only as preparatory groundwork for university and not for every child, then we will end up with a societal educational cliff, where there is a huge gap between those with degrees, and those who we decided at twelve would never need to know even the basics of history, poetry or physics.

If there’s one aspect of life at Michaela that I’m most jealous of, it’s the amount of class time given to subjects. They have a whopping five hours of English a week, compared to our 2.6 hours in first year and 3.33 hours in second and third year. This allows for a full one-hour class of grammar a week, leaving four hours for tackling challenging texts like “Julius Caesar” [read at an age when ours are still in primary], “Frankenstein” and “Oliver Twist”. Very cleverly – and this is something I think is possible anywhere – they “select subject knowledge to dovetail cohesively across and between subjects”. This works especially well between History, English and Religion, but also manages to bring in Science.  They have cut the curriculum down to focus on key subjects. I think this idea was also present at the inception of Junior Cycle reform. Previously it was not uncommon for candidates to take twelve or thirteen subjects, leading to a crammed school day of short classes and a rushed pace that saw some fall behind and didn’t leave time for discussion and deep understanding. Reducing the number of subjects and enforcing longer classes was a good idea but these gains are being negated by not allocating the saved time to the subjects that are left. Instead that time came, somehow, to look like “empty time” that has since been filled with short-courses (often with little academic content) and well-being. Frustratingly, the move to longer classes and the requirement to include new “areas of learning” have for many classes meant a net decrease in contact-time per week. The phrase “time is our most precious resource” appears numerous times in “BHOTTH” and it’s a phrase that should echo through every school and every education system. We cannot improve outcomes without giving teachers the time and the space in which to teach.

It is worth remembering that Michaela is operating in the context of a system that is currently being outperformed by our own (depending how much credence we give PISA). There are many reasons for this, one probable one being our small population, with countries/systems of around 5m inhabitants tending to do well in international tests. Another possible reason is that in Ireland teaching continues to attract well-qualified graduates and school-leavers and – for the time being at least –  our retention rates are good. There is one area in which Michaela almost looks like it could have taken lessons from Irish schools, and that is in Jess Lund’s chapter on teacher workload and burnout. For on the list of things they eschew that are common practice in other UK schools, there are many items that we never did here to start with, and which don’t seem to have hurt progress. In particular, we don’t waste time converting class test results into “data” and entering these into meaningless spreadsheets. Neither do we live in the dread of internal, high-stakes graded observations.

There’s been an awful lot of discussion around discipline at Michaela. It has unsurprisingly been the focus of media coverage of the school, given that this aspect of school life is emotive and highly visible. They do, as Jonathan Porter writes, “sweat the small stuff” and if the many visitor blogs that I have read about the school can be believed, their system of strong support and narration around expectations mean that warm relationships are not mutually exclusive to consistently applied consequences like detention.

But there is much more to “BHOTTT” than a general call for a stricter discipline and a knowledge-rich curriculum. The book is also an insight into “the Michaela Way” of school improvement, which centres on collaboration, ethical experimentation and constant fine-tuning of their practice. One of the most interesting passages is in “Homework as Revision” by Joe Kirby. I had seen the promo for the school in which Katie Ashford declared with confidence that the children read every night. A reliable way to check that pupils are engaging in independent reading would be the Holy Grail for English teachers. Had Michaela found it? It turns out that they hadn’t, but the rigour and imagination with which they went about this quest are impressive in themselves. They tried “reading logs, MCQs, open-answer questions, sanctions, vocabulary logs and incentives-only with no sanctions”. None of these methods proved entirely satisfactory but each trial yielded insights that informed later teaching and planning.

“Homework as Revision” will never make headlines the way that “Girl Gets Detention for Dropped Pencil-Case” or “Boy Gets Free Sandwich” can. Yet the book is full of these unshowy, well-thought out strategies that might not work for every class in every school, but are well worth trying. I’ve been banging on to the kids for years about the value of self-quizzing and retrieval practice, even showing them PPT slides of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, but since November I’ve been quieter on the subject because they now do self-quizzing for homework. It takes minutes to check the following day, they like it, and it seems to be effective.

I have touched only briefly on some excerpts from some chapters of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.  It is a remarkable book put together by a remarkable group of people. I doubt there is a teacher anywhere who would nod along in agreement with everything they say, but it’s a book that made me think and that made me look at things I would have taken for granted in a new light. Buy it. Read it. Think about it.

 

 

 

 

Reads of 2016

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“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

The education book of the year. I plan, over the holidays, to write a post on this book so won’t say a lot here beyond that you should buy it. Every-one should buy it. I’m reading it for the second time, this time systematically cover-to-cover taking notes, while the first time I went straight for the well-known favorites/ enticing chapter titles. That’s why books win over chocolates, every time.

“What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology” by David Didau and Nick Rose.

I can remember only one thing from my psychology lectures on the HDip. This was that the lecturer used the OHP, but covered the bottom half with a modesty sheet, so that we couldn’t read ahead. There was a textbook (which I still have somewhere) and I learned off useful phrases like “scaffolding in the ZPD” with little understanding of how these could be practically applied. We could have done with Didau and Rose’s book comprehensive and user-friendly book that puts together al the important findings of cognitive, social behavioural psychology as they are relevant to the classroom. It is all aimed towards the daily reality of teaching real material to real children,  never descending into lists of “tips and tricks” and crucially, differentiates from what we “know” and what we “suspect is probably true”.

“The Language Teachers’ Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti

Absent from photo as has gone on its Chrismas holidays to my French department colleague’s house. The book is a very practical manual for all language teachers, including I would think, teachers of Irish. For a long time, while confident in the English classroom, I floundered as a French teacher, thinking I must be doing “the communicative method” all wrong, as they weren’t just picking it up, wrote in what I can only call “verb soup” and games n’ group work led to early success followed by subsequent incomprehension. Two things have changed this: one is coming across @BarryNSmith79 on Twitter and his personal, very kind and useful advice, the other was Gianfranco Conti’s blog which picks apart many of the misconceptions around language teaching and argues for more evidence-based approaches. Conti and Smith collaborate here on a treasure-trove of useful methods and the concepts behind them.  There really are, it turns out “plus d’une façon d’accommoder un lapin” .

“Reading Reconsidered” by Doug Lemov

A fabulous resource that’s not just for English teachers. Reading is something we secondary teachers take for granted far too much of the time. Not only that, we downgrade it so that reading from the textbook is the last thing you’d do if being inspected and reading the class text in English class is often seen as something to wade through before “the teaching bit”. Here Lemov successfully raises the status of reading to its proper primordial place. All pupils can gain if we prioritise it more; from the very weakest who still struggle to decode, to the pupil on the path to university who will there encounter “a challenging text – sometimes at the margins of his comfort level – that he must read and master, alone”.  Lemov believes, as I do, that if we want to improve reading we must  select books that challenge and stretch our pupils, and eschew those texts they might well read on their own.

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport

Not an education book, or aimed at teachers, nevertheless this gets one of my books of the year award. Newport is an IT professor at Georgetown University and author of books with such emetic titles as “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “How to Become a  Straight-A Student”. It’s breezily written and has lots of those anecdotes beloved of American self-help authors. Yet it’s also full of common sense and useful advice on how to get things done. Newport is a social media refusnik. He’s not even on Twitter. (This is where we diverge somewhat. Twitter is the best CPD out there for teachers). He recommends flipping the idea of scheduling “breaks from distraction” and instead taking “breaks from focus”, so that focus becomes the default. Another idea that he writes about in the book, which was new to me, is to differentiate between “lead measures” and “lag measures”.  This could be potentially interesting in these days of SSE. Exam results are a good example of lag measures; by the time we find out how a particular cohort has gotten on, our ability to affect that measure is over. That’s not to say that’s not our end goal, but we could also come up with “lead measures”: smaller, precise measurements taken along the way that inform us how to tweak our approach.

“Grit” by Angela Duckworth

Surprisingly, not really an education book at all. Teaching appears only as a subsection in the chapter on how to “parent for grit”. Nevertheless the educational world has leapt on Duckworth’s work and grit is the biggest thing since “growth mindset” (if possibly a little woollier, if grit can be woolly). This is, in essence, a really interesting and enjoyable read about the author’s research area, and how most of us could do with developing our strengths of resilience and perseverance. She offers sensibly tentative advice on how we might help the younger people in our lives develop these strengths, and elsewhere has laudably come out against putting character traits on the curriculum or using psychometric tests for assessment purposes in schools.

“Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan

Also absent from photo as I bought the Kindle version. I’m half way through this and it is remarkable. Just the other day the Irish Times featured yet another article about how our curriculum (primary this time) is being remodelled along Finnish lines. We hear this all the time and any objections are met with “but Finland”. Crehan writes of her travels not only to  Finland but also Japan, Singapore and Canada and she looks at their education systems in spirit of genuine inquiry and curiosity. There is, unsurprisingly, lots to learn and not, equally unsurprisingly, any easily imported, universally effective educational panacea.

Fiction

My 2016 resolution to read more classic fiction has provided hours of pleasure and enlightenment and is being carried over to 2017. I read “Bleak House”, reread “Dombey and Son” and “Frankenstein”, started and gave up “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and finally got around to Dostoyevsky. “Crime and Punishment” was a slow start as each character is known by several names, but once I got going it was a rattling read and the third year pupil I lent it to afterwards agrees. I can’t say the same of “The Brothers Karamazov” which was slow going for quite long stretches and I just about managed to finish in time for Christmas. Modern fiction that impressed me along the way included Patrick DeWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”, Kate Tempest’s “The Bricks that Built the Houses” and the short story collection “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin.

Happy 2017 🙂

 

Well-being isn’t just about health. It’s about everything.

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Consultation closes tomorrow on Junior Cycle Wellbeing . The only way I was aware of this consultation was its appearance in my Twitter feed. The document is an interesting read and I urge to you to have a look and respond.

I’m in favour of academic learning, but the document is quick to reassure me that this doesn’t mean I can’t also be in favour of Wellbeing with a capital W. This is both a new “area of learning”, allotted a whopping 400 hours of school time (to put this in context Maths and English get 240 hours each), and a set of guidelines on how schools should be run. The introduction quotes from Katherine Weare’s 2000 book “Promoting Mental, Emotional and Social Health: A Whole School Approach”.

“It is vital that those who seek to promote high academic standards and those who see to promote mental, emotional and social health realise that they are on the same side, and that social and affective education can support academic learning, not simply take time away from it. There is overwhelming evidence that students learn more effectively, including their academic subjects , if they are happy in their work, believe in themselves, their teacher and feel school is supporting them.”

I would like to challenge the notion that we are “on the same side”. I have not read Weare’s book so cannot comment on the “overwhelming evidence”, but let’s start by conceding that it’s true, or at least that it’s not implausible. Children do learn better when they’re “happy in their work”, have self-belief and feel supported by staff and the overall school. Let’s say I accept all that is true. But it does not follow that I am thus “on the same side” as those advocating and planning to devote swathes of class contact time to mental, emotional and social health promotion. I’d say I was on the opposite side, because what there doesn’t seem to be “overwhelming evidence” for is that directly teaching and promoting mental health leads to children who are “happy in their work”. In fact, I’d say the prerequisite for having children who are happy in their work is that they have actual work to engage in and being the passive recipients of awareness-raising and promotional activities is not work.

The aims of happy, confident children who feel supported on a personal and institutional level are worthy aims of any school. How well these are met comes down largely to the personal relationship between a child and his teachers, and between the child and the overall way his school is run. The extent to which these relationships can be engineered through remote departmental policy is limited. And  calling these aims an “area of learning” and setting up a pseudo-subject, complete with learning objectives and assessment criteria, is not supporting children in their learning and will do nothing for their self-belief, confidence or happiness.

What the consultative policy document actually does is provide a charter for “progressive education”. It is incredibly far-reaching, covering topics such as discipline, assessment, pedagogical approaches, student voice, staff development, sustainable development and timetabling. It is quite clear in insisting “the Well-being indicators should inform all planning.” By gathering the progressive ends of thinking in these areas together, the Junior Cycle team are attempting to legitimise them as being beneficial to children’s health, particularly their mental health. It is hard to see how this is justified unless there are teaching methods and forms of assessment that do pose a threat to mental health. There are people who believe learning facts and taking tests damages the brain but such fears do not stand up to scrutiny.

The consultation document advocates that school should endeavour to be “a more democratic learning environment in which students have a voice” and that children be consulted when “policies are being developed, implemented ore reviewed”. It recommends that

“students and teachers engage in ongoing dialogue about learning, teaching and assessment. These conversations can have significant benefits for student wellbeing. By engaging in authentic listening to students at both whole school and classroom level, the school is recognising students as experts in their own learning and hearing what it is like to be a student in the school.” [italics mine]

It goes on “Teaching and learning that is supportive of student well-being is democratic…engages students through the use of a variety of approaches including active, co-operative and peer learning, takes account of the diverse needs and learning approaches of students.” [italics mine] This implies that if, as a teacher, you do not take account of the “diverse learning approaches of students” you are failing to protect their well-being. They will be unhappy in whatever little work they might actually do doing, feel unsupported and make begin to doubt themselves.

On assessment, there is no specific mention of AfL, but the authors seem fairly definite that formative assessment is not just a miracle when it comes to learning, it is also has hitherto unseen health benefits. The one thing assessment must avoid doing is any kind of measurement of what students have learned. And we must be careful not to test them too much: “it is important to consider the volume of assessment activities that students are faced with. This can act as a considerable source of stress, especially when assessment is almost exclusively associated with testing, marking and grading”. Never mind the considerable evidence for the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing to learning, or the reality, as Carl Hendrick writes here, that this kind of stress is not harmful to anyone’s mental health.

Now you might think that one aspect of making pupils feel supported by their school would be a strong behaviour policy with high expectations and the reinforcement of adult authority. School principals recognise this: “The policy that school leaders tend to identify as being most important for student wellbeing is the behaviour policy”. This makes sense, as the behaviour policy goes a long way towards pupils feeling safe in school, and towards enabling a classroom atmosphere of work and concentration. How can children feel “happy in their work” if that work is being disrupted by their peers?

The document is full of impressive footnotes but the most outrageous assertion of all is supported only by the preface “Research shows”, with no citation whatsoever. “Research shows that in schools where student wellbeing is optimised, supportive rather than punitive approaches to behaviour are adopted.” Firstly, the opposition between “supportive” and “punitive” is completely false, unless they’re suggesting children be supported to behave badly. Sanctions for poor behaviour are an essential part of any workable behaviour policy, although they are of course, only a part and not the whole. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale. Or be an educationalist. Even when it comes to behaviour management, adult authority is undermined as the policy checklist includes “Do students have a voice?” It says “Policy development, in support of wellbeing, should be a collaborative, inclusive and democratic process.” It goes on to say such policies “might be easier to implement”. Of course they would, if the student referendum on detention swings towards “Out”. But it won’t make the job of teachers any easier, or protect pupils at risk of bullying, or promote the right of all in the school community to a safe and dignified environment.

I have focused here more on the practical implications of the consultation document – how it aligns teaching, assessment and discipline with progressive ideology – and its lack of appreciation for the role of adult authority in making schools safe, productive places of learning. The introduction of “Wellbeing” will indeed, take time away from the classroom contact time that pupils need to develop as learners and to gain academic confidence. It will replace SPHE, CSPE and PE. The combined time allocation for these is currently c. 280 hours. Well-being will take up a mandatory 400 hours. If you are an English teacher, or a Maths teacher, think how even twenty of those 120 hours would make covering the new, longer courses a more efficient and enriching experience. If you teach a modern foreign language, ask how you feel about this non-subject being allocated exactly twice the time you have been given to open children’s minds to a new culture and to help them  acquire oral and written proficiency in its language.

There are deeper issues at play here around the adoption this represents of “therapeutic education”, that is the acceptance that there is an epidemic of mental illness, that all teenagers are vulnerable when it comes to mental health, and that it is necessary to requisition the education system to provide (often prophylactic) classroom-based psychotherapy, even if that means young people leaving school knowing less. I am not denying that there are schoolchildren, particularly at second level, who are struggling with mental health problems. How schools support liaise with CAMHS and support these students on a personal level, is a worthy subject for discussion. I support the reinstatement of guidance counselling hours. Guidance counsellors provide an essential service as informal listening within a non-clinical setting is often enough to relieve what can seem to a naïve teenager to be an unsurmountable issue, and with less access to this (combined with ever-increasing “awareness”) more and more children are joining the long queue for intervention. However, we should remember that the business of schools remains education, that the job of the teacher is to impart knowledge and that while adolescence can be fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, most children derive no benefit from “the curriculum of the self” and may even be harmed by it.

The phrase “the curriculum of the self” comes from Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes’ excellent 2009 book “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”. Far from developing resilience, Ecclestone and Hayes argue that classes where children focus on their own emotional well-being encourages them “to come to terms with being a feeble, vulnerable subject and then to allow the state to coach the appropriate dispositions and attitudes of the emotionally well citizen.” They propose instead a radical, humanist curriculum where pupils are encouraged to look outward to the wider world (including the world of the past) beyond their immediate experience.

It seems just another cheesy educational quote, but Sydney J Harris was correct when he said that “The purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows”. Turning their own well-being and their own preoccupations into a quasi-subject is letting our pupils down. It invites those who are already (often painfully) self-absorbed to look into full-length, wrap-around mirrors and includes the magnifying lens of asking teenagers to assess their own well-being, “mindsets” and coping skills. The document does not put forward evidence that increasing classroom instruction on “learning about well-being” will result in better health outcomes, on any measure. Rather it is justified on the basis of “making commitment to well-being visible”. If you are a child (or the child’s parent) and the main indication that your school cares about your well-being is that it’s written on your timetable, then I’m not sure you know that they care.

Let’s embed children’s well-being and welfare at the heart of our school culture. Let’s think about how we can foster good working relationships with pupils, remembering that such relationships are enhanced when adults are not afraid to exercise authority. Let’s focus on teaching well so pupils feel a sense of achievement and control. But let’s not bow to the lifestyle-supplement Zeitgeist that puts looking into mental and physical mirrors above learning, creating and connecting. Let’s keep opening windows and inviting young people to look out at what awaits them.

 

 

The link to the consultation document is here, and it is open “until the end of June”.

 

“Get Off That See-Saw.” How Junior Cycle Reform and the English Specification Fail to Solve the Pip/Bruno Problem

“Knowledge is…important, because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least for the sort of imagination that leads to problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.”  Daniel Willingham

“It is wrong to conceive of knowledge and skill as polar opposites.” Daisy Christodoulou

Junior Cycle Reform is on the agenda today, the second day of the 2016 ASTI convention. Here is my take, as an English teacher, on why the alleged goals of the reform will not be met. It will succeed only in dumbing down a generation and in saving a modest amount of cash for the Department of Education and Skills. The aims themselves are mistaken, and so from there, the proposed reforms are will lower standards and increase inequality of outcomes.

“At the heart of junior cycle reform lies the need to build on our understanding of education, to provide students with quality learning opportunities that strike a balance between learning knowledge and developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities.” Framework for Junior Cycle Reform, Department of Education and Skills, 2015

Where is the evidence for a balance between subject knowledge and skills? Why are “thinking abilities” aligned with skills rather than knowledge? As American cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham explains, it is knowledge that makes us able to think critically. Even the idea of the balance itself is faulty; it presents us with the image of a scales or a seesaw. This image implies that when knowledge is high, skills go down, and that if we wish to focus on building skill, we will have to counter this by putting less stress on knowledge.

The balance analogy is completely false. In his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Willingham writes “to think is a transitive verb. You need something to think about.” [italics author’s own] and that “Factual knowledge must precede skill”. He goes on “Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable; thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care most about – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

An alternative to the balance analogy is the “double helix” advocated by Joe Kirby. This makes a lot of sense. If we accept that knowledge must precede skills, should we just get students to accumulate the maximum of knowledge at Junior Cycle before turning towards Skills in Senior Cycle? The problem is that if knowledge is not thought about and used, it may start to fade from long-term memory. Building in some skill-based work, where the focus is on pupils using their new knowledge rather than expanding it, helps retention in the long-term. The important points are that skills are not in opposition to knowledge and that there is not a hierarchy of higher-order skills over “mere” knowledge. Skills cannot be weighted equally with knowledge in the balance, but are – at best – the visible tip of a deep, knowledge ice-berg.

Image from Joe Kirby’s blog. https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/

The skills v knowledge see-saw lies “at the heart of Junior Cycle reform” .In its very core of inception there is a false analogy and a mistaken understanding of learning. It believes that schoolchildren can behave like experts, once they are given the opportunity. They can “engage in research, investigation and experimentation”, “critically respond to texts”, “synthesise information” and “be entrepreneurial and innovative”. Not just pretend to be, or emulate or replicate, but actually do all these things in a meaningful and worthwhile way.

This false separation of skills and knowledge – what Kirby calls “unzipping” – is evident in the Junior Cycle English specification. The specification is written entirely in learning outcomes, using verbs. The learners will X. The learners will Y. There is no specific body of knowledge. This was a problem with the Junior Cert syllabus, which gave teachers great and welcome freedom but which posed a problem when it came to assessment. Instead of  the problem of generic questions being fixed, it has been exacerbated. English teachers were pleased with the idea of a prescribed list of texts. We thought this would bring the new course in line with the Leaving Cert, with questions akin to the Single Text section. It would solve the Pip/Bruno problem. The Pip/Bruno problem was how, on the old paper, candidates can be asked to write about a novel they have studied in which a young person learns an important lesson, or that features a young person, or something similar. A candidate who bases the answer on Bruno from “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” theoretically stands the same chance of achieving an A grade as a candidate who writes about Pip from “Great Expectations”.

Neither “Great Expectations”* nor “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is on the new list, but  the problem persists as teachers can choose freely from a list where “Jane Eyre” and “Animal Farm” jostle with children’s books like “Trash”, “Chalkline” and “The Dare”. The new, skills-based approach means that as long as pupils are hitting their learning outcomes such as “Read their texts for understanding and appreciation of character, setting, story and action” and “use an appropriate critical vocabulary” it does not matter if they have acquired any literary or historical knowledge. The Pip/Bruno problem is embedded in the new Specification, although there is room to improve this when the current list of prescribed texts comes up for renewal in 2020.

At least the skills mentioned above are appropriate to this level, and could be worth developing once the texts themselves are sufficiently rich and challenging. Other Learning Outcomes show evidence of the novice-as-expert fallacy. For example “Identify, appreciate and compare the ways in which different literary, digital and visual genres and sub-genres shape texts and shape the reader’s experience of them.” This is what we expect from children who we also accept cannot read at an adult level, despite having almost reached the end of compulsory education. “Write a grammatically correct sentence” does not appear in the specification. Grammar is mentioned here and there; one sensible outcome is “Use and apply their knowledge of language structures, for example sentence structure, paragraphing, grammar, to make their writing a richer experience for themselves and the reader.” (At least the first half is sensible, the second half could be omitted and entirely misses the point that correct grammar makes meaning clearer, regardless of whether or not the reader finds a second year poetry answer “a rich experience”). It is hard to see where the time (see Conor Murphy’s analysis) to teach the most fundamental skill of coherent expression will be found amid exploring digital sub-genres and “engaging in extended and constructive discussion of their own and other students’ work”. Yet the authors of the Specification are so confident in the expertise of the learners that they also specify that the children will be “creative with syntax”. You know, like James Joyce or William Faulkner. Or Yoda.

Leap-frogging over the demanding work of learning grammar and of studying full-length challenging texts (with sufficient time to explore the cultural context of these texts) will incur a substantial opportunity cost for pupils. This will be exacerbated by the large amounts of class-time necessarily given over to preparing and evaluating oral assessments, and worst of all, by the inclusion of non-domain specific content such as multi-modal texts and film studies. Now, I have nothing against film studies but what kind of madness is it that will have children watching “School of Rock” when they could be studying all of “Much Ado About Nothing” instead of reducing the play to “key moments”?

As Peter Lydon tweeted last week “We cannot improve education outcomes by asking students to learn less”. Yet this is exactly what the Framework for Junior Cycle reform sets out to do. It decouples skills from the knowledge needed for those skills to be used in a meaningful way, it aims to engage children by having them act as experts in fields where they are novices, thereby diminishing their chances of ever becoming actual experts in anything, it wastes the time gained by reducing the number of subjects by allowing this time to be spent on “short courses” taught by non-specialists, it favours knowledge-lite content, it overloads teachers with long lists of learning-outcomes and encourages gaming as they only way I can see how anyone could tick all the 39 boxes of the English Specification is by sticking to short novels and poems with a low reading age.

Learning is hard. There are no skills-based shortcuts that will transform first-year pupils into expert practitioners of anything – literary criticism, historical research, scientific enquiry – without the slow, arduous but rewarding task of building a base of subject-specific, meaningful knowledge.

 

 

*Thanks to Gary Abrahamian for correction here. Previously the post said “Great Expectations” was on the new list. My mistake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accommodating Difference

“I welcome the aspects of the proposed curriculum that will allow schools something that they currently do not have. It will allow schools flexibility to design their own Junior Cycle programme. This will empower schools to meet the interests, and the needs, and indeed the curiosity of their students. This is how we can accommodate difference in our society. This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.”

Thus spoke Ruairí Quinn addressing an NCCA conference in 2012. It’s a vision that’s still alive and is reiterated in last week’s Circular to Schools.

The document contradicts itself. It speaks of subject specifications (which are replacing syllabi) as being “designed to be as universal and inclusive as feasible, providing meaningful and valuable learning opportunities for students from all cultural and social backgrounds and from a wide variety of individual circumstances”. But what does this actually mean? The document goes on to say that while subjects and short courses may be designed to be universally appropriate to students, schools are to feel free to decide for themselves that they’re not really suitable for their student body, based on the children’s “backgrounds, interests and abilities”.

The Framework document itself is also clear on this point: “The greater degree of flexibility afforded by the Framework will allow schools to take account of the  school’s local context and the backgrounds, interests, and abilities of their students when planning their junior cycle programme.” [italics mine] A principal is free to decide that, given his students’ backgrounds, they mightn’t have much “interest” in studying history. They might also decide not to offer geography to lower-ability students. The document implies that there are schools where the general ability level of the students is so much lower than average that this will influence curricular decisions. Or perhaps the converse is true, and principals may decide that the pupils’ cultural and social background calls for a short course on Chaucer or particle physics.

Common courses in all subjects apart from the big three will pose a problem as the bar below which children are deemed unable to study academic subjects will be raised. I have very successfully taught Ordinary Level Junior Cycle History to a small group; I was able to do that because of the support of management and the SencCo in my school, who recognised that knowledge of our country’s past should not be the preserve of an intellectual elite. Those pupils would have struggled with a common course and would most likely opt instead for learning how to care for a notional pet.

I’ll return now to Quinn’s speech and its idea of “empowering schools to meet the curiosity of their students”. “Empowering” is a lovely word, isn’t it? But perhaps we should talk less about empowering schools and more about empowering children with powerful knowledge. The kind of knowledge they might not be curious about, but which will serve them in life, and serve us all by having a knowledgeable citizenry. “Curiosity” is another lovely word, bringing to mind miniature Ken Robinsons, little light-bulbs over their adorable heads, enraptured by individualised projects and driven by the love – the sheer joy- of learning and discovery. Except we tend to be curious about things we already know quite a lot about. Knowledge drives curiosity, not vice versa. Children who have been to France tend to be more curious to learn French, children whose parents discuss politics with them tend to be more interested in history. Middle-class children with university-educated parents will quite likely be curious about things that will help them achieve academically. Disadvantaged children may not only be less curious about science and geography; they might never even have been to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The difference in interests and aspirations that arises from difference in social background should be something the education system seeks to combat, not reinforce. Surely a child’s chance of studying the Renaissance, or German, or the structure of a plant cell, should not be eliminated before she even reaches first year, on the basis that the curriculum in her local school has been “tailored” to exclude subjects thought unlikely to interest some-one of “her background”? The framework for Junior Cycle still states explicitly that the range of subjects to be offered in the junior cycle programme “will vary in accordance with the teaching resources in the school and the needs and interests of the students.” Differences will not be challenged; they will be “accommodated”. Once the curriculum is established within a school it will be difficult to steer it in a more academic direction, if that doesn’t fit well with “the teaching resources”. Students from different backgrounds do not have different learning needs and there is nothing wrong in coercing children into studying subjects that do not pique their passing interests.  References to “the local context” do not make sense when we remember that, as Michael Fordham  (@mfordhamhistory) expresses  eloquently,  “teachers are there to lift children up into a global conversation about the reality in which we live.”

“This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.” This quote from Quinn is a bit dated now, and you might wonder why I rely on it. I’m including it because I think this vision for accommodating and enshrining educational inequity remains central to Junior Cycle reform. Inequality is a huge challenge within the system. So is motivation. It is tempting to imagine that the behaviour crisis felt in certain schools will be resolved once the learners are engaged in relevant, “real-life”, skills-based learning. It is tempting to throw up our hands and pragmatically decide that as long as enough schools opt to tailor their curriculum along academic lines, and continue to offer the maximum number of real subjects and the minimum of short courses, then the country will not run short of educated professionals. It is tempting to pretend that it’s unfair to impose an academic curriculum on children whose parents aren’t already steering them on the path to third-level education. It is a temptation we must resist. The Department should remove all reference to interests and social background from the Junior Cycle Framework and instead insist on all mainstream schools providing a curriculum based on breadth and balance.

 

Reads of 2015

photo2.JPGHere are some of the books – educational and otherwise –  that have made an impact on me in 2015. These are in no particular order, and you may spot that some were published last year or even earlier. My criterion is that I read them for the first time this year, and I admit freely to being chronically behind the curve.

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Maddaddam” by Margaret Atwood.

My contemporary fiction reads of the year. Very different genres, equally engrossing. I sped through the former in less than twenty-four hours. Waters is unparalleled in her ability to recreate distinctive eras from Britain’s past – so much so her novels read almost like contemporary texts of the period  – and this time she turns her attention to the London suburbs of 1922. The Great War has been over for four years and Frances and her widowed mother are still coming to terms with a dramatically changed social and economic order. They do the previously unthinkable and take in lodgers: the “paying guests” of the title. The genteel term is typical of the language of sheltered women who speak mostly in euphemisms; their home, and Frances’ world, is invaded by  a young couple who bring passion and drama along with a gramophone and some cheap “pseudo-Persian rugs”. The plot is satisfyingly clever and Waters’ pacing is impeccable. It is rare indeed to find such a breakneck page-turner so beautifully written.

Atwood’s “Maddadam” is the third instalment in the dystopian trilogy she began with “Oryx and Crake”. I haven’t read the middle book “The Year of the Flood” (on the list for 2016) but caught up fairly lively. Having said that, I do feel that had I not read “Oryx and Crake”, albeit some years ago now, then a struggle with the underlying premise would have undermined my reading pleasure. And what pleasure! Atwood is an adept at this genre; her grotesque inventions always have enough recognisable elements to let them ring disturbingly true. In “Oryx and Crake” she showed us a new world in the not too distant future. It’s a controlled world of surveillance and medical miracles, most notably the engineering and breeding of Pigoons to supply organs for transplant into humans. This corrupt and unnatural order splinters and by “Maddadam” we are roaming a lawless, despoiled landscape only vaguely identifiable as America. Amid the science fiction and the cartoon violence, Atwood fills the book with introspective and very human characters, such as Toby a woman rendered infertile following botched egg-donation, and Zeb, who wonders if the plan devised by his mastermind brother, Adam, will save or doom what remains of humanity. We feel their confusion, their jealousies, their fears and ultimately their hope that some kind of future will emerge from the chaos.

Honourable fiction mentions include Colin Barrett’s “Young Skins”, Belinda McKeon’s “Tender”, Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and Richard Ford’s “Independence Day” (I told you I was behind the curve).

Eric Kalenze “Education is Upside-Down”

I missed Kalenze’s talk at ResearchEd and was quite cross with myself afterwards as it was widely reported as one of the highlights. Reading this book, I can see why. It deals with the US education system and provides many interesting points of contrast and comparison. The book’s central metaphor is that education acts like an upside-down funnel; instead of bringing in those who set out(for whatever reason) on the margins and ensuring they’re ready to participate fully in society and its institutions, the funnel is positioned so these students slide off and only those who start out with every advantage fully profit from the system. Good for them (us, really. I was one such student), less good for society as a whole.

“Making Every Lesson Count” by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison

How excited was I to learn that Tharby – author of this eminently practical and insightful blog  – was bringing out a book? This collaboration with his colleague Allison broadens the English-specific advice in the blog and applies it to all subjects. Allison and Tharby are classroom teachers rather than researchers or academics and this shows in every line of this book. It’s based on six principles – challenge, explanation modelling, practice, feedback, questioning – each of which is clearly explained with realistic examples.

“Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan.

As recommended here by Andy Tharby, this is a very, very useful book on how to extract maximum vocabulary-extending value out of texts used in the classroom. My copy is in school, where I’ve used it this term in conjunction with Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” with my first years. Thanks to techniques in BWtL, the kids are now confident using words like “treason”, “writhing” and “reprehensible”. They also know what “offal”is, though they’re as likely to eat it as they are to enjoy a plate of  “carrion”.

“What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?” by David Didau.

Eye-catching fuschia antidote to the tuar tairbh we were all fed on during the HDip and which keeps on giving through Department of Education and Skills. Didau, aka the Learning Spy,  provides a comprehensive survey of ideas in education from feedback to lesson observation to how best to motivate students and takes well-earned delight in such heresies as “why formative assessment might be wrong”.  As well as dispelling myths there’s plenty of information here about what might actually work.

“The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal

Not a teaching book, but being able to see the upside of stress is bound to make any teacher’s life easier. Although life’s not supposed to be easy, which is one the book’s central ideas. In the future I intend to draw heavily on McGonigal’s work for my upcoming companion-piece to Didau’s book. Mine will be called “What if Everything You Knew About Well-being was Wrong?” “The Upside of Stress” is a reasoned and compassionate book that recognises that facile calls for “resilience lessons” and “mental fitness” are less useful than seeing that, for most of us, stress is inextricably linked to the areas of our life that have the greatest potential to bring us meaning, purpose and even joy.

“Raising Kids Who Read” by Daniel Willingham.

Another book by the author of one of the my favourite books about teaching “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here, but as the title suggests, aimed mostly at parents.

“Teach Like a Champion 2.0” by Doug Lemov

I’m probably the only teacher on Earth who preferred the original version of this book. That might be because “Teach Like a Champion” was the first ever book about teaching I ever bought (apart from mandated HDip books and useless behaviour-management manuals written by idealistic gurus) and it opened my eyes to the possibility that teacher-led instruction might work better than buzzy, carousel, engaging, groupe-worke, relevant child-minding. In fairness, this probably is objectively better than the original, containing all the information in that one and even more.

“Make it Stick” By Peter C. Brown, Henry Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel.

Not a teaching manual like Lemov’s book but of a theoretical exploration of learning. How to make it stick is a question that’s asked scandalously infrequently in teaching; we’re much more likely to be asked to consider how to make it interesting? how to engage pupils? (okay, we’re never asked this, I meant “how to engage learners?”), how can reinvent the group-work wheel? or how many acronyms can I fit into this forty-minute presentation? Making knowledge stick is largely what teaching aims to do, however, and there’s lots here to take into the classroom. One study referred to in the book that I found particularly interesting is about history of art students learning about the “defining characteristics of each artist’s style”. They were tested on how well they could attribute paintings. Interleaved practice, where students studied a painting by one artist, and then a painting by a different artist, was shown in the study to be more successful than massed practice where students studied one artist in a block before moving on to the next. I think this has implications for how we teach Leaving Cert poetry, where traditionally we “do” a poet, then move on to some other part of the course, before returning to “do” another poet.

“Better than Before” by Gretchen Rubin.

I’ve had heated debates about Rubin and her books. At least one friend of mine finds her self-improvement books insufferable, focused as they on the minutae of first-world problems like whether one can justify taking a taxi to the gym. While I disagree with the author and say “no, you can’t”, I also disagree with my friend and say that Rubin’s books are well-written and not meant to be taken too seriously. She does not promise to change the reader’s life and cleverly avoids all discussion of cognitive psychology or neuroscience as she’s intelligent enough to not fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect. Her latest is a light read that’s strangely satisfying with its mix of pop-psychology, highbrow references, life-hacks and mundane details from Rubin’s own life.

“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens.

I studied this for the Inter, and am rereading it to get an early start on my first resolution for 2016, which is to read more classic fiction. More Austen and less Xposé. More Dostoyevsky and less DailyMailOnline. More George Eliot and fewer articles about how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

Happy 2016 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

Government-Sponsored Agencies Dispense Harmful Advice

I was slightly bemused a few weeks ago when RTE invited well-known Dr. Harry Barry and Enda Murphy to offer advice on exam preparation, as the former is a GP and author, and the latter a therapist. Were no teachers available? Since then things have become clear. Exams are no longer an educational issue, they’re a health crisis, and preparation no longer means revising, it means getting your head in the right place so to speak.  Here are some examples of exam tips that have surfaced in the past fortnight. All of these organisations receive HSE funding.

“Exam stress can be overwhelming, while confusing and exhausting you”. (ReachOut)

“Extrenal pressures around exams can be huge. These can be hard to deal with”

“Here’s how to keep that stress to a minimum”(SpunOut)

“Stress can prevent you from doing your best. Learn a good relaxation technique and practice it well ahead of the exam so that it will come easy to you on the day. Get help from a counsellor if you need to.” (SpunOut)

“don’t set yourself crazy goals like “600 points or I’m not happy” or “Four As is what I want. If you set the standards very high, you’re putting yourself under massive stress. Look at the results you need for what you want to do and aim for this.”

“If exam results stress is getting you down, you can talk to your doctor, ask your doctor to refer you to a counsellor. Alternatively, you can contact the Irish Association for Counselling and Therapy or talk to Samaritans who provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair.” (SpunOut)

“The top issue for Leaving Cert students we see across the whole year is exam stress. And exam tensions impact not only on the student and parents but the whole family so it’s really important to try and keep the home place calm.”  Dr. Tony Bates

Find out which routine suits you the best – alone or with a friend or parent/carer; early morning or late at night; short, sharp bursts or longer sessions; with music or without noise.” (Mental Health Ireland via Dept of Education)

“Set realistic goals. Go out and do something different. Have a positive affirmation “I can do this”. Breathing exercises” (Jigsaw Donegal)

and my personal favourite…

“Knowing what kind of learner you are can help you study effectively. There are three main types of learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic” (Jigsaw Donegal)

Jigsaw’s next leaflet will move on from the three learning styles to the latest medical research that the body is made of four humours. This advice is not only silly and without any basis in educational research or practice, it is creating the very problem it claims to be tackling. As sociologist Frank Furedi wrote recently in The Independent “Advocacy groups intent on raising awareness about an epidemic of exam stress may well unintentionally contribute to its further intensification.”

If students followed the exam advice I’ve come across in recent weeks they’d be so busy going for long walks, meditating, doing breathing exercises under parental supervision, ensuring all meals contain complex carbohydrates, making wall-chart revision timetables, calling help-lines, seeing the doctor, seeing a counsellor, checking out inane infographics, and writing to do lists, that it’s no wonder so many of them are getting an early night, eating a nutritious breakfast (both no longer things we should all do every day but now “exam tips”), checking the timetable and arriving on time, only to panic when they realise “O fuck, I forgot to actually learn anything!!!!”

The Department of Education is colluding in this demonization of the Leaving Cert as detrimental to human health. Rather than writing their own tips for the exams run by the SEC they tweeted tips from an entirely different department. These tips included studying while listening to music, and highlighting. They have been quite open about the long-term plans to reform the Leaving, and are co-opting the exam-stress epidemic to their own ends. Now you can argue quite cogently against the Leaving Cert as a mode of assessment, or against the points system as a means of allocating places in third level education. You could look into the research and thinking around assessment. You could look at other countries’ models of third level entry. You could do some hard thinking around this issue, or you could go with the easy reason “Let’s get rid of the Leaving because it’s stressing out the kids and stress is bad for them.”

The government’s commitment to the stress-justification for assessment reform is seen by their commissioning of the ESRI to write a report “Your Whole Life Depends on It: Academic Stress and High-Stakes Testing in Ireland”. See what they did there? High-stakes testing causes stress and stress is bad so high stakes testing is bad. The stakes are so high that teenagers in Ireland are executed if they get under 550 points, that’s why “your whole life depends on it”.

In the study 6th year students were asked to what extent they agree with statements such as “I feel I’m not playing a part in useful things”, “I’m constantly under strain” and “I feel incapable of making decisions”. The Leaving Cert’s awful, isn’t it? Young people “under strain”? We can’t have it. 6th years focusing on their studies instead of community painting projects and coaching the under-5s? This can’t go on, we need some other fluffy form of assessment, ideally a Nordic-antipodean hybrid.

The authors say that “stress is contagious among particular groups of (often high-performing) girls”. The author use a clever metaphor with “contagious”, implying very clearly that stress is a pathogen. They also miss the blindingly obvious in their observation. These groups of stressed-out girls are the ones who go on to perform well. How can this be if they’re debilitated with anxiety and possibly failing to do breathing exercises before every exam?

Part of the answer may lie in a new book by Stanford psychologist, Kelly McGonigal “The Upside of Stress”. McGonigal defines stress as something “that arises when something you care about is at stake”. So we shouldn’t be surprised that students who work hard and are aiming high will report higher stress levels than those who have already conceded that they won’t do well. (And I’m suspicious of the ESRI’s sudden concern for female 6th years when we’ve been told along that the students we need to worry about are those 2nd-year boys Ruairi Quinn used to describe as “in the departure lounge”).

McGonigal cites several studies that contradict the advice that students need to reduce stress levels, whether that’s in order to maximise performance or to protect their well-being. One is from the University of Zurich which found that when it comes to exams “those with the strongest desire to avoid stress were the most likely to report declines in concentration, physical energy and self-control”. McGonigal has spoken elsewhere that “if we try to control our inner experiences it almost always backfires. It tends to strengthen those experiences and we feel even more self-doubt and more stressed and more anxious…we get pulled away from the energy we need to simply take action in the direction of our goals”. This is extremely applicable to the run-up to exams when students would be better advised to concentrate on the task at hand than on monitoring and attempting to control their stress levels.

The idea that a little bit of exam pressure is good for you but when it comes to the crunch you need to get your nerves under control, stems from the myth of the elite athlete struggling to focus and avoid choking. But, as McGonigal writes “Contrary to what many people might expect, top performers aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather they have strong challenge responses. The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the released confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance.” It is this “challenge-response”, not a relaxed “exams-don’t-define-me-and-there’s-an-alternative-path-into-every-career” attitude, that we should hope to see in the final lead-up.

Tips on How to Mange your Exam Stress are not just a useless distraction, they may actually be harmful. In the short term fear of stress can impede performance. “The Upside of Stress” features another psychologist Jeremy Jamieson who gave the following pre-exam pep-talk to a group of college students

“People think that feeling anxious when taking a standardised test will make them do poorly. However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance. People who feel anxious before a test might actually do better, This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well”

Even though the group who received the talk showed higher levels of stress bio-markers, they outperformed the control group both in this test, which was a mock, and in the real thing.

One thing I and the Cassandras of exam-stress doom agree on is that exams are not the be-all-and-end-all and that there is more to life. And it is when it comes to life in general that the real damage of the take-it-easy, stress-is-toxic advice is done. For many students, the State exams represent the first serious, stressful event of their lives. (Others, of course will already have met with serious challenges often unfortunately beyond their young coping levels.) What effect is the never-ending stream of media commentary having on their view of this challenge? What does it say that mental-health organisations choose this important time in their lives to bombard them with “tips” on how to reduce their levels of stress? I think the effect is that challenge is bad, and that the government and their schools have little care for their welfare that they put them through such an ordeal. I think the targeting of exam-students by mental-health organisations is venal and irresponsible.  As Frank Furedi writes in the same article quoted above: “Many children do suffer from mental health problems and we should do our best to provide good quality care to deal with their conditions. We should also remember that the constant imperative to medicalise exam anxiety serves to trivialise the experience of those suffering from mental illness.”

Giving students the idea that stress is a sign something is going wrong, and that they need to learn to control their anxiety as a prerequisite to success, sets students on a path of fear and limitation. It is interesting that the ESRI report concludes that girls themselves report the negative effects that stress is having on them; they have been conditioned to think of themselves as inadequate to challenge and to psychologically intense situations. What if instead we acknowledged their stress but saw it as a positive sign of commitment and ambition? McGonigal proposes “Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeing stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.”

In life the stakes are often high, the task daunting and the resources limited. But is only by chasing meaning –  and not safety –  that our students will achieve their goals and contribute to society.