Can online learning save lives?

Well, here we are, four weeks of online learning are done and we enter the fifth. I know some colleagues around the world have endured a lot longer than we have. My son, teaching in Hong Kong has been teaching from home since mid-January. In Peru, the clampdown came quite suddenly. On one Wednesday, we were told the students wouldn’t be coming in the next day. On the following Sunday afternoon, the whole country was put in lockdown. We are only allowed out between 5am and 6pm to buy food or pharmaceuticals, go to the bank or the hospital. Nobody outside these professions can work from anywhere but home. The police were quite draconian. The number of arrests and jailings far exceeds the confirmed Covid cases at the moment!

At Markham College we have been learning as we go along, and continually surveying students, parents and staff to see how we are doing. So, I thought it was time to reflect on the value of what we have been doing. The reflection is based on my current experiences as a teacher and a leader, the copious survey data as well as contact with colleagues around the world in outstanding schools who have been doing this since mid-January.

We were a bit ahead of the game and had been preparing for a shutdown since mid-February. This involved planning which platforms to use, setting up the data and training teachers in their use. When the announcement of school closure eventually came, it was still sudden and a bit of a shock, but at least we had some preparation under our belt. Once we started online learning, it probably took about a week for all the teachers to be confident and for routines to be settled at school (virtual school that is) and at home.

By then I was completely confident that the academic aspect of learning was going really well. Students are learning as much as they would at school and their skills are progressing as quickly. They are hitting the assessment targets across the board, and completing assessed work on time. We have been clear to ensure that we are replicating the full curriculum at Markham. This means that alongside the core subjects we are also teaching everything else from Arts to Sport, from project-based trans-disciplinary learning to personal and social education. Teachers are working incredibly hard to make this work. In most cases, we are putting in more hours than we would at school!

Of course, school is more than this. When we are in session, important parts of the educational process are social and outside the timetable. This includes the extracurricular activities, the outdoor education programme and the basic social interaction that happens on a school campus. We are steadily introducing more extracurricular education, with sports coaches giving video classes, instrumental music lessons starting up, and online sessions in yoga, chess and other activities now in place. The outdoor education is tricky of course, but we are introducing different challenges through our connections with schools across the world. The Round Square Schools Leadership Challenge and Service Challenge are examples.

The social issue is a bit more complex to understand. Of course, in normal times students meet and interact with other students and adults in school on a continuing basis. This is part of what makes them want to come to school and a great deal of what they get out of it. Is this just lost in a time of quarantine and isolation? We don’t think so. The demands are different, but what the school offers is just as important, perhaps even more so.

When children are isolated with their family, that social interaction is the most important missing element. These days, of course, they can communicate with friends over social media but we know that can also be negative and limiting. They need to be with people who are not just close friends and not just their age group. Without that problems of depression and anxiety will set in. The relationships between members of a family can easily become strained, and they are strained enough in this situation as it is. So the online communal sessions with classes, interest groups and teachers, that the school prepares, provides and manages are absolutely vital to help young people and their families keep their equanimity. Is it the same as normal school? No, but these are not normal times and we believe strongly that what we are doing is as important for isolated children and families as normal school is in normal times. Studies around the world show that isolation endangers mental health, and there is a rise in suicide rates and domestic violence. Are we saving lives? I don’t know. But we are certainly providing a service that helps include young people in a community and stave off some of the risk of depression.

As I mentioned at the start, we have done several surveys, which our community have been keen to respond to. For the first parent survey after the first week, 81% of families responded and the vast majority felt the experience of online learning is a positive one, even then. The second survey this week shows that there is a recognition, from parents and students, of significant improvement across the board since then.

All this having been said, we are all keen to get back to school and back to normal as soon as we can. I wish you all the best during this challenging time.

Some thoughts about using technology in schools

There is no doubt that the use of technology presents problems to us as educators. The environment in which our students, and indeed we ourselves, live has changed dramatically in recent years with relation to technology. The question for us is how to react to this change. I think this means we need to try to answer the following questions.

  • What are we trying to get the children to learn?
  • What can we say about the world our children are growing into?
  • What is our role in equipping children for the world they currently live in as children?
  • Are there better and worse ways of doing this?

The answers to these questions are broad and diverse. My problem with a lot that is written about the use of technology is that it is narrow and context specific. It often relates to a context that is different from ours, and we can make mistakes by simply taking an experience elsewhere and moving it to our context.

Let me take for example the repeated suggestion that research shows that technology means students have lower performance in schools. My three questions about this statement are: 1. What do you mean by lower performance, what are you testing? 2. Is the context of your studies relevant to ours? 3. Is the technology in the study being used in a good way?

My own research into this was a small study done several years ago. The time was different, the technology was different and the school was different. So the result, which clearly showed that the grades of the “laptop class” we had introduced improved more over the year than the rest of the school on average, may not be relevant to us. The biggest changes were for those students with identified learning difficulties such as dyslexia for whom writing was a significant problem.

Here are some thoughts on each of the questions above.

What are we trying to get the children to learn?

Well, this is the big question, isn’t it? The lack of breadth in answering this question leads, in my opinion, to most of the faulty research results that are published and shared. I am reminded of the comment probably miscredited to Einstein that if you measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree it is complete failure. What am I trying to say here? If you assess children on their ability to do things that technology doesn’t help, and you don’t allow the use of technology in the assessment, then it is likely that students who have spent more time concentrating on these things rather than learning how to use technology will be better at it.

So, clearly, there are things that we want students to know, to understand and to be able to do without technology. I don’t want them to have to look up the capital of the United States, the answer to 5 x 6 or whether leaving plastic bottles on the beach is good for the environment. I want them to know these things.

But, I also want them to know how to research a complex question by finding resources and being able to judge their relative value, look for bias, for misleading errors and spot propaganda. I want them to understand how to use their computer and their phone as a useful tool because they need to be able to do this. Otherwise, they will accept any claim made on social media, and stop at the first thing they find on a google search.

This leads to the second question

What can we say about the world our children are growing into?

There is no doubt that technology will pay an increasingly important part in every aspect of people’s lives in the coming years. Complaining that it shouldn’t do so will not change the trends. Nearly all adults have some technology in their lives. The sort of adults that come out of our school will have a great deal. They will manage their lives through phones and computers. There will be computers in more and more of the things they use, from the car to the cooker. They will communicate with friends and families, with banks and businesses through their phones. These are all rather functional, but there are more and deeper issues.

They will engage with important issues in their lives and issues of the day through technology. How many people already consult an online medical resource to find out what the pain in their chest is, before going to see a doctor? A more dramatic example is of young parents deciding whether to vaccinate their child against measles. If you look in the wrong place for the answer then you risk your child’s life and contribute to a growing worldwide epidemic.

Increasingly, democracy is subverted by fake news, environmental concern by propaganda and healthy eating by advertising.

So for question three.

What is our role in equipping children for the world they currently live in as children?

Let me answer this in the negative first. Our role is not to ignore the society we live in. It is not to pretend we can live without these things. Worse, it is not to divide the children’s lives into a technology free zone where we can learn technology free things and to let a secret second life take place in the virtual world that all of these children are part of.

We need to teach wise research skills, responsible social media use, critical thinking about claims made in the virtual world and that the values we uphold are just as relevant there.

We need to design a curriculum of activities that challenge our students to make positive decisions about all these questions. The earlier we do this the more chance we have of protecting them from the damage can happen to them.

Now to the practical aspects.

Are there better and worse ways of doing this?

There are good practices that we can follow that are available. Here are some of my favourites.

Try to avoid one student per device all the time. In particular when setting a research project, insist that groups of five share a computer. Learning needs to be social as well as individual. They must communicate and collaborate over all aspects of the research. From deciding where to look to how to value different sources, they need to talk about it. At some point, you may want them to move from social learning to individual learning. They may do separate write ups, or better still write separate parts of a joint paper, but be aware that this is a one way street. Once they all have a device, communication has stopped and you cannot get it back.

Differentiate clearly between using and not using. Be firm with “screens down, phones face up on the table”. Don’t let them hide phones in their pockets or bags. They will sneak looks at them when you cannot see.

Which leads to openness at all times. Any device brought into the classroom is there to be shared. If you are not prepared to let anyone in the room use your phone, don’t bring it in. We know that bullying, victimization and random abuse happen through social media. Are these likely to be reduced or to stop if we never see it happening, and we insist that the devices are only used when we are not watching? Or would we have a better chance if we encourage students to show their media feeds to their form teacher and their parents at an early age. Nasty things happen in dark places. The light helps us clean them out.

Use the tools to vary the learning. Taking a video with their phone, a quick edit, knowing how to compact it and upload it is a great learning experience. Children not only learn the technology, but learn to speak more clearly, to prepare for speaking through rehearsal, to edit and improve their performance exactly because it is a technological artifact. They know it won’t go away, that they can share it peers, teachers and parents, so they make more of an effort to get it right.

Whenever you as children to do research, ask for their evaluation of the source as well as the result. Why is it to be trusted?

Academic honesty is certainly an issue. Students have more opportunity to cheat certainly. They can take from innumerable sources and claim authorship directly or through modest paraphrasing. They can use online services that offer to write essays for them. I am led to believe that this is more prevalent in universities than in schools, but we need to be aware of it. The opportunities will grow rather than reduce. But, the increasing number of sources also creates confusion and a different kind of problem. Children don’t realise the difference between what is acceptable and what is not. It is not a black and white issue and we cannot blame children for making mistakes if we have not put significant time and effort into educating them about the correct practices. Of course we need to use technology to teach this, and we need to do it young rather than wait until the crucial piece of coursework is set or due.

Starting early with sharing documents with a teacher is an excellent practice. Google makes this trivially easy. We can see what students are producing at the various stages of its development. This avoids the shock of the final piece arriving fully formed on the deadline day. It affords opportunities to explain how to reference citations properly. Again, the younger we start with this the better.

I am keen to hear of any other general ideas we can all use with technology in schools

My Learning Journey

I was prompted by a couple of articles that I read recently to reflect on one of the processes that I was most proud of when I left Island School in Hong Kong in 2017. The first article was one suggested by Nick Thody, head of St Nicholas School in Sao Paulo about an interesting school in the Netherlands, the Agora School. The second was an article in the latest International School Leader Magazine by Gabriel Rshaid about The Global School he has opened in Buenos Aires. Nick and Gabriel are great champions of change in schools

Both the examples, the Agora School and the Global School demonstrate how you can do things differently if you start from scratch. This echoes an assertion I heard at a recent conference that for a school to be “Innovation Ready” it is best for it to be brand new. This is not the challenge for most of us who are in a position of leading or working in schools that have the baggage of history and tradition creating an inertia that makes change harder. I am not suggesting that this baggage is all negative. Far from it. Where I am now, in Markham College in Lima, our tradition provides a stability based on excellent achievement in a wide number of areas of the school. We have a reputation for excellence in the region that is well founded in our 75 year history. But like any school in the world, we can do some things better and differently. My challenge, our challenge, is to make the changes without breaking the thread.. To replace the dirty bath water without losing the baby.

This brings me back to Island School in Hong Kong. When Daniel Trump (now in Bangkok) was a Director of Studies there, he started a group of students called the Senior Learning Advisors. First it was two students who worked with senior management and offered student views, based on their research, on what learning was actually like in the school. They surprised us, enlightened us, sometimes challenged us and sometimes confirmed our thinking on a number of the experiences students went through. The group grew and when Daniel left us, it was taken on by Vice Principal, Monica Gilbert Saez (now Head of Rotterdam IS). The Learning Journey Project began when we decided to update our 10 year old teaching and Learning Policy. Previously this had been written by teachers, but we asked why shouldn’t we consult the Senior Learning Advisors? The group was now about 12 students, and their consultation role soon developed into an ownership of the project. They worked with teachers, certainly, but most of the final wording was the students’. It was called a document that was both descriptive of what we do now, and aspirational for what we should be doing. The tension between the parts of the educational programme where the Learning Journey described what we did, and where we needed to aspire to get closer to it, was the catalyst for the changes we needed in the school.

I am proud of it because I think it is a fantastic description of what learning should be about, probably as good as any by the IB, The Common Ground, the IPC or whoever. But it is better because of the ownership of it by the school, and particularly the students. You can see it at the bottom of this article. It is on the Island School website here. The next group of Learning Advisors took on a different challenge. There were now around 20 of them. The challenge was to take aspects of the Learning Journey and see where they described what was happening. Where could they see students owning their learning, where was it authentic, where it is social and where it is individual etc. The school’s challenge is to aspire to incorporating these aspects of learning wherever possible and appropriate. This provides a direction of travel through change that builds on the successful aspects of the history.

Many schools take an off-the-shelf description of learning such as the IB Learner Profile and aspire to it, and it is a fine document. Some schools give students more control over what and how they learn such as the examples above. I know of no other school where the students actually create the description of what learning is and what it should be. If you know of one please tell me.

Our Learning Journey

was written by students and  teachers of Island School, Hong Kong. It describes the way students learn and the active role they must take in their learning

We own our learning

As we become confident with how we learn, we take more and more responsibility to define who we are and what we want to achieve. This is enhanced by the opportunities we have, from early on, to select our own learning pathways. This enables us to excel in our learning, and pursue the things we are good at and enjoy. We grow into active and engaged learners.

We learn through challenge

We believe that learning is best when it is varied and achieves a range of outcomes. We acknowledge that not all learning has a visible, measurable or immediate outcome and as learners, we will go through experiences that develop our confidence, skills, help us acquire conceptual knowledge and enhance our character. The process of learning is not always linear, yet we maintain a resilient, healthy and positive approach to the challenges of learning.

Our learning is authentic

Authentic learning aims to increase our awareness of the local and global community around us. Learning becomes more authentic when it is purposeful, relevant and solution focused and the boundary between school and community is dissolved. These aspects are integrated into the learning process in order for us to engage with and solve real world problems.

Our learning is connected

Learning has no boundaries and takes place everywhere. We establish connections between the different facets of our learning, and transfer and apply understandings and skills from context to context. We use the understanding from the knowledge we have remembered to apply to problems and situation in the future. We learn to thrive in conditions of complexity, uncertainty and opportunity.  We want to be critical and creative thinkers.

Our learning is social and individual

We thrive on a balance of working individually and in groups. We recognise our ability and capacity to make our own decisions about leading our own learning. Our learning is enhanced through engagement with others. For this, we are committed to be effective communicators and collaborative contributors across all aspects of our school life. We choose when to learn individually and when to learn collectively. These vital skills are explicitly taught, learned and practised.

We respect others through our learning

We strive to value and understand different contexts and perspectives in the world. We respect and embrace a variety of cultures as a reflection of our rich and common humanity. At the same time, we foster the critical and discerning formation of opinions, and we express ourselves in creative and thought-provoking ways. We learn to appreciate the implications of our actions and viewpoints, and to take responsibility for them.

We learn about the needs of our world

Being a responsible global citizen implies the need to create strong ties to relate to others who are distinctively different. We foster cohesion, collaboration and agreement to ensure the wellbeing and sustainability of our planet and everything on it.

We believe in the value of childhood

We believe that childhood is an integral part of a person’s life and not just a preparation for adulthood. Therefore we respect the wellbeing of all students and it is everybody’s business to make sure they feel safe, secure and validated. We endorse the idea of ‘living in the moment’. Education, school and childhood should be engaging, formative, inspiring and fun.


Alice in Educationland Live in Mexico

Illustration by Liesbeth Zweiger

I was very pleased to be invited to read some Chapters of the Alice stories at the Latin American Heads conference in Mexico City yesterday. We had some interesting discussions based around the questions posed by each chapter. The feedback was generous and we all had a few laughs as well.

The presentation I used contains the questions as well as some excellent illustrations of Alice from a number of different artists from Tenniel to Dali and Steadman. There is also some Alice related music from Jefferson Airplane, to Avril Lavigne via Tom Waits. The special treat in chapter 5, or is it 4 is some pictures from Suman Vaze that have nothing to do with Alice!

Illustration Ralph Steadman



The presentation is here (posted by popular demand). Probably download to see it. Let the frames run for about 5 minutes each if you want to see the pictures. The text is not there but here. And, in true Alice style the chapter numbering is different on the presentation from the website.

Happy reading.




Existential Education

Image result for existential painting

The Scream: Munch showing the Existential Angst that comes from Bad Faith, Rubrics and Uniforms

“Existence precedes Essence” said Sartre. Well, he would have said it in French of course, but you get the idea. You can read lots of books about what this means for life but I started to wonder what it means for education, and it does seem to question a lot of the current dogma and lead to a more open way of learning. It is amazing how often what you read confirms what you already thought to be true isn’t it? I guess Trump would say the same, if he does read that is.

Back to existential education.

The point is that unlike a crafted object that is created for a purpose we exist as humans first and our essence of who we are comes later. We have both the freedom and the responsibility to define that essence. We are, in Sartre’s memorable phrase “Condemned to be free”. His example is that a paper knife is created to cut paper. Its role, or its shape, or sharpness or any other properties come after the decision that it will be a paper knife. Indeed its very existence depends on someone deciding that they need to create a paper knife. The existence comes after the essence.

For existentialists we humans are the other way round. There is nothing in the creation of a human being that decides that we will take on a certain role or personality. We must use our terrible freedom to do that. For Sartre this was an atheist point of view because there was no God to predefine our essence. However, for the Christian Existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, the freedom is still an obligation, but also one we must recognise in others. To classify someone by a perceived essence is objectification, and his example is of a father who is disappointed that his daughter does not live up to the image of a young girl that he expects. He considers her as object rather than subject of her existence.

Enough Philosophy, let’s look at education. And now I am going to sound like a cracked record repeating the same scratch. The freedom our philosophers describe is often called our subjectivity. We are the subject of our own creation. This is the very act of learning. It is the gradual creation of our essence. Humans are condemned to learn, the are the subjects of learning to be what their freedom condemns them to choose.

So, when we spend too much time and energy restricting the freedom that our students should have in their learning, we are guilty of objectification in the language of Marcel. We are turning our students from being subjects that must create their essence through their learning into objects that fulfil a role defined by others such as teachers. Sartre would call this “bad faith” (actually he would call it Mauvaise Foi, but I suspect the translation loses something). We are condemning students to be too like our vision of students. Bad faith leads to anxiety and angst.

An existential education allows students to be “authentic” and prevents us resorting to blaming others for our lack of freedom. There will be fewer goals and targets, certainly no rubrics and there won’t be a uniform in site!


Collaboration, Group Work and the fulfillment of a grim philosophy.

I was in the staff room a few weeks ago looking at a book that someone had left on one of the tables. You will probably want to know the title and the author, but I am afraid I can’t remember. Actually, that is not really relevant because the part that I want to write about is a common view expressed in number of serious educational books, articles and blogs. Indeed, if I did remember the title I would probably not want to give it to you because you might read the book and that could be dangerous! You might become convinced by the underlying hypothesis or just depressed if you don’t. I think I lie in the latter camp. Hence this article.

The book was one of those that claims to confront the various spurious bits of advice that teachers get thrown at them and respond to them with the facts! There is nothing wrong with this in principle, of course, but there are certain assumptions that hide behind the facts that makes them “facts”. The bit that I took issue with concerned groupwork. The author commented on how teachers are always told that encouraging students to work in groups is a good thing. He wanted to reassure teachers that this was not true. The evidence, he claimed was that groupwork was not beneficial to learning, and so teachers should not be worried if they didn’t do much of it.

This argument goes even further in some quarters, where it is pointed out that the level of what students do as a group is often lower than when they work individually. It is also pointed out that genuine assessment is difficult with a group because you cannot often ascertain what a particular individual has contributed to the collective. Some students end up doing most of the work and others do very little. This last one often comes from parents, always the parents of the children who do all the work curiously. They will point out how hard their child is working, and how their marks are reduced due to the lack of effort from others, and that their child is probably being held back by all this groupwork nonsense. Strangely the child in question is often particularly gifted as well.

So, with all this stacked up against it, why would anyone want kids to learn in a group? The short answer is to ask “What if the thing you actually wanted them to learn is the skill of collaboration?” Seen through this lens, all the evidence that indicates that groupwork doesn’t work, that you can’t assess it and kids don’t do it very well, indicates that you should be doing more of it and teaching them how to do it rather than avoiding it.

The thing is that we know collaboration is important, probably more important than whatever it is that the kids are collaborating over. In nearly all walks of life working in a team or a group is a key to success. If you ask potential employers what they want their future employees to be able to do, collaboration, or working effectively in a team, always comes up high on the list. (See this report.) OK, there are the occasional Picassos and Einsteins, but they are outnumbered by Jobs and Wozniak, Lennon and McCartney, Crick and Watson and Marks and Spencer (!). As humans we are social animals. Doing stuff with others is a large part of what makes us human. At school, we should be teaching that in all parts of the curriculum, not just on the football team or in the orchestra.

So we should actively teach collaboration, and equip our students with the skills to turn a dysfunctional collaborative group into a high functioning one. How do we do this?

I want to suggest a process which I call “Learning through talking about it”. I probably need to come up with a better name, but the idea is that if we are continually aware of what we are doing we tend to get better at it. The deeper the awareness, the deeper the learning. This very much applied to the so called soft skills, of which collaboration is one. Formative assessment tends to be the process by which we encourage awareness, but it is the self assessment aspect that is the vital part. The children themselves must know themselves and have a language to express the knowledge.

So, what we need to do is to give the various roles that a group takes and that individuals take within a group names. So that children can recognise what they are doing and what the group is doing. For example, if a particular group project has a period of divergent thinking, where the members contribute ideas that are “out of the box”, the students should identify that this is the out-of-the-box phase. Or the task may be divided into roles, so that one takes on the role of the out-of-the-boxer, while another becomes the reality-checker, who steps in to help converge all the ideas to a single path forward. It is important that students, in reflecting on the group’s effectiveness, say what they did in these phases or who took up which role. There are models of the various roles that a group or person in a group can take on. Students should take different roles at different times.

An old friend of mine, Gilbert Halcrow, led an investigation into this where he came up with a series of dispositions that applied to collaboration. He divided them into two groups.

There is an excellent original article by Gilbert Halcrow, from a few years ago which goes into the creation of the dispositions, their rationale and crucially, their use. I recommend it strongly. His examples are drawn from Theatre but are applicable elsewhere.

Reflection, after a collaboration, includes answering questions such as “Who contributed what?” and “What could I have done to ensure better contribution from others?”. What you find is that students become good at including others, at encouraging others and, if someone cannot cope with their role, modifying it so it is achievable. My suspicion is that mixed age groups encourage this to work smoothly, because there is a natural hierarchy that allows the hopefully more experienced older students to goad the younger ones along.

So, if collaboration is important and we need to teach and encourage groupwork, what was the flaw in the article in the book that told us to avoid it?

You see, under the hood of the “don’t work in groups” argument, is the assumption that we have all agreed what education is for, that it can be measured and that the results in the measurable things are the only goals worth pursuing. I am reminded of the quote about “not everything of value can be measured and not everything that can be measured has value” which is attributed to a variety of people including in some form, apparently erroneously, to Albert Einstein. I have written before about the dangers of relying on data, but this post is more about what the motivation for the conclusion about groupwork.

This depressing view of education starts from the seemingly innocuous premise that learning is “a change in long term memory”. There is nothing inherently wrong with the statement as long as we agree what we understand by memory. If we are not careful we equate memory with recall, and so we assess the success of education by measuring recall with tests. It all becomes very self fulfilling. If we limit the measure of success in education to being able to re-do techniques they have been taught, then direct teaching of these techniques is going to work best. You get the same argument against open ended problems and learning through discovery. The evidence, they say, shows it doesn’t work as well as direct instruction. But if what you want the students to learn is how to confront an open ended problem or discover something original, then the direct instruction argument fails.

It was interesting that the discussions we had with parents last year at Markham College demonstrated they were much more concerned about values education that the recall of anything. They wanted their children to show empathy and respect, to care for themselves and others and to be happy. You could make an argument that learning how to have empathy is a change in memory, but it is not what people generally understand by memory. It could, I suppose, come under a broader definition of learning as a change in behaviour, but how it gets measured is a serious problem. Whether you could include being happy as a change in behaviour I am not so sure. I would suggest teaching collaboration helps with a great number of these values.

Education has to be about so much more than the measurable. It is about passion and joy and what it means to be human. Let’s celebrate that in out students

Originally published in the Markham College Teaching and Learning Blog here.

What is Education For?

Image result for Aristotle


As I was writing my speech for the closing of the school year at Markham College, I began to think about what education is for in a slightly different way from the past. In recent years there has been a move away from the idea that education has been intrinsically worthwhile to the view that education is about preparing the next generation for success in employment. This has been due to a number of causes, but I would say it is mainly due to two things. The involvement of politicians and the need to justify ourselves.

Politicians have always been involved in educational planning and policy, of course, but more and more they have stressed that education is important because it is the key to making the country successful in the future. The argument is a simple chain of cause and effect.

  • The country’s success is defined by its prosperity. and a person’s success is defined by their personal prosperity.
  • Well rewarded jobs require skills and knowledge and the future needs of the country require those skills and knowledge.
  • Education prepares young people so that they acquire these attributes. Hence for personal success and for that of the country education’s main role is to get the next generation geared up to take on the best jobs.

It is a clever two pronged attack. On the one hand the politicians are pushing for the country’s success as a whole. On the other they are stressing that this is the route for individual success for each student in the competitive world that is out there. Great for our children in their own right, so the parents are won over. Great for the country as a whole so the electorate is won over too.

What follows is a stress on STEM subjects in schools because they are related to the jobs we need. Lots of students taking Business courses in schools and universities, because that is where individual prosperity often lies, particularly if you aren’t very good at Science. Entrepreneurship being taught in schools and dropped into all sorts of courses. Student numbers taking traditional subjects at university dropping dramatically.

Even the Arts are prone to these arguments. So seductive are these ideas that I have found myself saying to parents and students that taking Arts subjects is worthwhile because there are more people employed in Arts careers now that ever before. Every company needs its design team with an artistic eye. There is more music written, films made, books published in one form or another than at any time in the history of the world. Take an Arts subject to hone your creativity skills and the world is your oyster. They have even added an A to STEM! But is STEAM just hot air? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)

This is the self justification part of the process. I am prone to introducing changes in schools, as some of my colleagues and former colleagues will testify, often with a groan. So I am often in the position of justifying those changes. The easy way is to slip into the employment success merry-go-round. “We have asked employers what they need and look for. They have highlighted these skills. The changes we propose will enhance these skills.”

So the purpose of education, or Education as Alice would say (read the stories), is primarily to prepare people for prosperous employment. But …

There is a nagging feeling, isn’t there, among us in education that perhaps there is more to it than that. We sort of think that the sort of jobs that most people do are not really the goal of life, the universe and everything. This led me to trying to work out why that is the case and, in the end, to an interesting conclusion. To say that the main purpose of education is employment is exactly the wrong way round. The correct view is that the purpose of employment is education. The arguments for this view are set out more clearly in the text for my speech, here, but briefly they can be summarised as follows.

  • What sets humans apart from animals is what has led us to all forms of progress; that is the desire to learn about our world. We learn about it to understand it, to change it and to improve it. Learning is what we mean by education.
  • In order to devote time to education learn we need to survive with relative security. This is why we need employment.
  • Thus the purpose of humanity is learning. Employment is the means we allow ourselves to do it.

This is not a new idea of course. Aristotle defined the Good Life as being rich in learning and understanding. The city, or civilisation, he said existed to promote the Good Life, having been created for survival. (Aristotle, Politics, 1252b27-30).

This has been rather overrun by the employment drive, but as I concluded in the speech to the Markham community. “I hope that in the past year you have demonstrated your humanity by learning. Next year, make the commitment to yourselves to prioritise learning in your life because that is what makes you human. If your job doesn’t allow you to learn, or to have time to learn. I strongly suggest you get a different one!”

There are some other quite interesting things that I came across in that speech. The Aymara concept of time has the future behind you and the past in front, and a wonderful essay on the explosion of change in technology written at an interesting time. Have a look.

Understanding by Intelligent Design. Are we not Gods?

This morning, while talking to a colleague, I thought of an interesting analogy to some of my more persistent beliefs about education. We were looking at a book which quoted John Coleman’s “Six Components of Great Culture” from 2013 (Harvard Business Review). Coleman’s first component is that “Your culture starts with your values”.

Well, I didn’t get to the other five components because this one had me wondering if he has it the right way round. Don’t our values come out of our culture? Encapsulated in this dichotomy is the debate that I return to over and over again. Should the direction of growth be determined by the end point or the start point? Are development, learning, movement and progress natural phenomena that build out of where we are now and what our initial conditions are, or are they planned to reach a pre-determined outcome? In short, and here is the analogy, is change evolutionary or determined by intelligent design? Do we grow naturally and incrementally from where we are or do we constrain that growth towards a predefined goal? Is Darwin or Creation the better analogy for our lives?

“Some people work by deciding what they want to get to and heading for that. I don’t work like that. I look at what I have now and see which parts would be interesting if I developed them.” Brian Eno in his Peel lecture if 2016.

My tendency is to believe that the evolutionary approach is certainly more creative, probably more effective and possibly more honest. The intelligent design model stifles original thought, causes friction through failure and deceives us into thinking we know things we don’t. Historically, evolution seems the accepted path whether it be biologically, psychologically or sociologically. Why do we become creationists when we replace the past by the future? Here are some examples.

  • Target setting for teachers

We know that too often people do not agree to goals that they weren’t going to achieve anyway. But when the goals are challenging they are usually about filling a gap, learning a skill that they do not have or improving areas of weakness. The is the end-determined model that has a picture of “the good teacher” that we should all aspire to. However the research suggests that this is not the most productive way forward. Rather than looking at the design of the ideal end point, we should look at the strengths of the teacher now. What makes them good already? Develop those skills even further. Not all teachers will be the same, but students will encounter a range of very well developed and individual expertise.

  • Exam based courses

This is the classic model for education. Define where we need to get to, and even when we need to get there. All students studying this subject need to know how to do these things at this point in time. Of course, if we were really successful they would all score 100%, but we are not and the range of marks measures their and our failure to achieve the ideal. How many times have we heard that there is something really interesting that we do not have time to look at because it is not on the syllabus? The students were really interested in this but we didn’t have the time to pursue it. It might even be more justifiable if we could agree that the content was vital for all, but we know it isn’t. The students could just as valuably study different periods in history, different topics in science, different books in literature, so why do we set the end point first, rather than let the students have a say in where they want to expand their knowledge from what they already know.

  • Learning outcomes

This is the same as the exams really, but broadened to more trendy terminology. We are still saying where they need to get to even though we might be stressing skills and concepts more than content. Once we say that the outcome of a task will be a presentation to the class we stifle the creativity of those who could have responded with a song, a play, a film or even an essay. Of course you can say that the presentation could be one of those but it so seldom is because the teacher has clamped it down from the start by defining the expectation. Why not just ask how they might best respond to this task, and leave it to them?

  • Criteria based assessment

This is a big one. The prevailing dogma is that you should never set a task without a clear description of the criteria by which it will be judged a success. Did anyone tell Picasso that before he painted “Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon’? or Stravinsky before he wrote “The Rite of Spring”, or Zuckerberg before Facebook, or Wales before Wikipedia? I once had a student who wrote her Theory of Knowledge essay as a poem. It was beautiful and brilliant and showed a deep understanding of the issues, but it was nowhere near the criteria and would not have scored at all. Criteria can be fine on occasion, but be aware they stifle creativity and use them with caution

  • Maths investigations

This is a bit subject specific, but I think there are equivalences in other areas. A genuinely open ended Maths investigation will begin with a stimulus, a situation or a problem. Students will start from the same point but have complete flexibility in what direction they decide to explore, which parameters they will change or relax as they pursue a generalisation that casts light on the situation. They can then make conjectures, prove and refute them. It becomes a genuinely creative process that mirrors real mathematical research. It is the beginning of how Maths is actually discovered. Imre Lakatos’ wonderful book on mathematical discovery “Proofs and Refutation” contains the great observation “Columbus did not find a route to the East Indies, but he did discover something quite interesting”. For the casually mathematically minded who may not be up to Lakatos, my slightly dumbed down version can be found here, with an introduction here.

  • Control and accountability

I remember a Grant Wiggins talk many years ago at a conference somewhere. He was a great educational thinker with some excellent ideas and I do not want to put him down. However in this particular talk, Education By Design all seemed to me to be about control and accountability. The fundamental use he described was about setting measurable targets so that we have the indisputable evidence that a teacher is not performing. “Nothing personal,” he would say “but this is where we agreed you should be getting to, and the evidence shows you are not.” To me there was something a bit fundamentalist about this which made me feel rather uneasy. Now I realise that the EDB advocates, whatever they may think intellectually about the merits of evolution, are emotionally Intelligent Design Creationists.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

Evidence for the Prosecution

I was at a discussion or meeting a couple of weeks ago about one of my favourite topics – Assessment. The format was that representatives from 7 schools described where they were going with assessment and what problems they were grappling with. We looked at assessment policies and practices from the theoretical to the procedural. We looked at software systems and how they were used, how you put in data and got it out in a variety of different forms. The usual words were being used “Summative”, “Formative”, “Evidence”, “Reflection” and of course “Data”, when I began to notice that I understood different things by some of these words compared to the others. I explained that at the meeting in a rather haphazard way, but thinking about it since has crystallised the problem a bit more for me.


Some Spurious data from the wonderful


My two main areas of concern are the use of the words “Data” and “Evidence”. I worry enormously about the way data is used whether it is big data, personalised data, averaged data, data-over-time, data-as-snapshot or data as the start of a conversation. The other schools in this conversation were all very keen to make it easy to put in lots of data. Systems are judged by the lack of impediment they create to a teacher putting in data. They were then very keen to use the data as much as possible. There were tables and graphs, coloured cells popping up on spreadsheets to indicate anomalous data, letters sent, meetings arranged, reports written and targets set on the basis of all this data.

Reading the news headlines of recent years should make us terribly wary of data. There is a whole profession of people whose expertise lies in collecting and drawing conclusions from data. They study in minute detail the best ways to collect accurate normed and unbiased data. They are not just a bunch of teachers whose real profession is teaching and who use a bit of data on the side to help them. No, these are the true data junkies. Unfortunately the evidence (that word again) indicates how unreliable this process is. They have got most major global predictions wrong. From the complete absence of a prediction of the 2008 crash, to the Trump and Cameron elections, to Brexit and Leicester City, the analysis of data has been completely wrong. Not just a bit wrong, but completely wrong. How wrong can you get a choice between win and lose?

So why aren’t we amateur data addicts a bit more worried about the way we use data? It is just too seductive isn’t it? After the meeting I described at the start, a colleague from another school said to me that he was surprised that I wasn’t so keen on using real data to describe progress, because I was a mathematician after all. Perhaps that is the problem. I have a romantic relationship with the products of mathematics. I love the processes. I can sit over tables on spreadsheets for hours as happy as the bunnies in the Fibonacci story. But, I can also see my lover’s faults! If you take a large bunch of numbers and perform some interesting and quite complex maths on them, you can produce conclusions. The main criterion for the value of the conclusions is the sophistication of the maths. The more complex, the more seductive. The second criterion is the quality of the presentation of the results. Colours and graphs, animations and alerts are just so persuasive. We often fail to question the nature of the data it has come from. Beautiful constructions from bad bricks still fall down.

A weather analogy. My colleagues were looking at students targets based on predicted grades. They had a wonderful system that showed up when the deviation of performance from expectation was large or significant. If performance was lower, then it clearly showed something was up. Red lights should flash. Alarms should ring. Reasons need to be found for the underperformance of the child. Note that it is always the underperformance of the child and not the overperformance of the prediction. If yesterday’s weather forecast had predicted a sunny day, but today turned out rainy, would we be looking to see why the day had underperformed? What is wrong with the day that it has failed to live up to its expectation? I suggest we are more likely to call the prediction into question than our observation of the weather. We would blame the weathermen or the Met office, or the website or the newspaper. They have got it wrong again. But with kids we would rather blame performance of the child than the inaccuracy of the prediction. Strange isn’t it.

So, does all this data really constitute evidence? I must come clean and say the correct answer is “Yes, but only a bit!”. If a child is graded and the grades go steadily down, we should try and find out why. If a whole class of children’s grades are going down we should try to find out why. But what we must not get sucked into doing is thinking that the grades are the complete picture of the child’s leaning, just because we can plot a graph. We should not think that this constitutes evidence of learning whether it goes up or down. Evidence is much more complex than that. These trends are evidence only of grades.


More correlation from

Another weather analogy. Describe yesterday to me, from a weather point of view. Just have a think about what you would say if I asked you to describe the weather in a couple of sentences. You could do it couldn’t you? Now describe the weather yesterday in a number – just one. A bit harder? Will you give me the temperature, and if so at what time, or would it be an average? Or perhaps you would choose the hours of sun, or the millimetres of rain? The pollen count or the relative humidity? Difficult to imagine summing up the weather in one number isn’t it. So if we cannot sum up a day in one number, why do we attach such credibility to a lot of days summed up by a lot of numbers? A graph of average temperature over all of the days of a month is a collection of a lot of single days reduced to numbers, and no more than that. We can look at trends of course, and therein lies the power. But it is only the trend of a single number on a single day. The reduced encapsulation of a day into a number is no less a reduction of data just because we do it a lot.

Let’s take a step backwards. You gave me a couple of sentences to describe the weather yesterday and we probably happier with that than with any single number you produced. Even then, I wonder if it captured the whole of the glorious complex changing weather of the whole day. Did you catch all the subtle changes of light as the clouds move, the sun drops and moon appears? Did you capture the different nature of the rain as it moved from a few sporadic drops, accompanied by a drop in wind and a lowering of temperature, to a tumult that washed away the leaves left on the ground by the wind of the morning? The point I am trying to make is that we can only experience the whole day be being in the whole day. Anything else is a reduction. The same is true with a piece of student work. They may write an essay, paint a picture or write up an experiment. Any comment we make is a reduction from the complexity of the work. To reduce further to a number removes evidence rather than creates it.

With the weather we are unlucky. If you arrive in my town and I tell you that yesterday was a glorious day, you can never experience it. Not that exact day. It is gone. But in education we are largely very lucky indeed. A piece of student work usually still exists, and we can go back to it again and again. I say usually, because a performance is not usually the same. I unfortunately missed a play at my school last week due to some unavoidable meetings. I am told it was wonderful, but I will never see it. Shame!

Here is the nub of my concern. When my colleagues spoke about evidence they meant sets of numbers, and occasional comments that summed up some spurious reductionist data and had value only because we can draw pretty graphs. When I say evidence, I mean the work itself. That is where the evidence lies. Let us resolve never to reduce the glory of a child’s learning to a number, but look at the work itself and see that here is the evidence of the progression of his communication skills or her analytical skills. Let us never send to parents a number that we pretend describes their child unless we have shown them the piece of work in all its complexity, with all its strengths and weaknesses. Then we can engage in reflection on learning that actually means something.

Don’t try to encapsulate the development of Picasso’s artistic career in a set of numbers and pretend that it describes his art. We are often guilty of doing no more than the analysists who would do this by listing how much the paintings sell for. The cost of everything tells us the value of nothing.