On The Wall
In which Alice meets an educational Guru and learns about research and some surprising things about the nature of change..
Alice left the tea party with her gloom increased rather than reduced. So far, she has discovered that the school where she now works avoids responsibility, pursues mediocrity and celebrates conformity, that all planning has to be backwards, that all arguments are circular and that the only things that really matter are numbers. She felt the children must be completely bored by an Education where measuring how they reach a target defined for them is the only important thing.
As she wandered through the forest she heard, in the distance, a voice she recognised. It was sure to be another of her old friends but who was it and what was he saying? It sounded like someone was declaring loudly to an audience but she just couldn’t quite make out the words.
She entered a clearing to see that it had been set as an auditorium with seats all facing a stage at the far end. There was the sound of applause as the teaching staff, led by the Red Queen, stood up and started to leave. There were a lot of people there that Alice recognised. Alongside the Queen were the rest of the Senior Leadership team of the school, the Bishops, Knights and Rooks. In a curious conflation of what she remembered as two distinct experiences in her childhood, the rest of the staff were a pack of cards from a different adventure. They must be very proud of their dress code in this school as they were all resplendent in their suits. There were the Spades, the Hearts, the Diamonds and the Clubs. They were chattering excitedly as they left the open auditorium of the clearing. She couldn’t see through the crowd who had commanded the stage.
“Wasn’t he fascinating?” she heard from the Five of Diamonds.
“So inspiring” replied the Eight of Spades.
There was a note of caution from some of the more senior, longstanding members of the pack. She caught something about “It’s very clever, but the parents have different expectations here,” from the Jack of Hearts, which led to a couple of the Tens near him to nod and mutter agreement.
Alice ran up to the Six of Clubs as she was leaving. “What was that? What did I miss? Who was speaking?” she gabbled.
“Oh, he is just one of the most respected educational leaders there is. He has written so many wonderful books. I managed to get him to sign one for me”. She held up a shiny hardback copy of a book entitled “Seven Steps for Schools” with the subtitle indicating that following these steps, which are proven by research, will make any school better than it currently is. Alice looked inside the cover and sure enough, there was, in a slightly unsteady but legible hand, the signature of the author: Professor Emeritus Humpty Dumpty.
“It is him!” Alice almost screamed with delight. “I remember Humpty Dumpty from years ago. I hope he has got over his accident”.
“I don’t know anything about an accident,” said Six, “He teaches at the Wonderland Institute of Education, although most of his time is spent travelling the world and speaking at conferences. We are so lucky to have him here. He is an old friend of the King. Apparently, he did a ground-breaking experiment in experiential learning with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men some time ago. That was the subject of his first book.”
“Yes, yes, I remember the incident.” Said Alice, “Although I am not sure it was the ground that was broken. The ground was remarkably unscathed after the mess had been cleaned up. What was the book about?”
“It was called “The Omelette and The Egg reassessed”, He likened the school to an omelette, being more than the sum of its parts, and showed that a getting a good school can be achieved without damaging the individual constituents. He even included a recipe for making an omelette without breaking an egg.”. Six continued proudly, “He has agreed to be my supervisor for my MA dissertation. I am going to do some Research.”
Alice had a slight feeling of Déjà vu. It was one of those capital letter moments again. She was certain, from the way Six had uttered the final word that she said Research with a capital letter R. She wondered what the difference between Research and research was and she was sure it would soon become obvious.
Alice made her way through the crowd feeling rather like a salmon swimming upriver as the staff members left through the way she had come in. The numbers thinned and there, sure enough, in front of her was her old friend with the large oval head and broad smile teetering precariously on the edge of high stage. Alice thought she could see the line of a crack on one side of his face, but apart from that he did look very healthy to her.
“Humpty Dumpty,” she called “how good to see you. You look so well after that terrible accident falling off the wall.”
“Ah,” he replied with the low booming voice she remembered, “the little girl from all those years ago has grown up! What brings you here?”
“I have become a teacher,” declared Alice proudly.
“A noble profession,” retorted Humpty, “Although there is no money in it, not much respect, and lots of long nights of marking! That’s why I stepped sideways into writing books and doing research.” This last part was delivered in a much quieter voice as he leaned forward to Alice from the front of the stage. He clearly didn’t want his motives shared among his audience. “Once you have sold a few books, you can spend your life travelling around all over the place.”
“But you are so respected. It must be wonderful to impart your wisdom when you visit schools, and to really inspire people to make genuine changes and improvements in their practice.”
Humpty produced a sound that was halfway between a snort and a laugh, a sort of snaugh. He continued “Don’t kid yourself. Nothing I say makes the slightest bit of difference to the way people behave. I can come and speak here for an hour or two. I can lead one or two-day courses and sell amazing numbers of provocative books. They will leave inspired and invigorated, full of ideas and resolutions.”
“But that’s wonderful isn’t it?” asked Alice.
“Well, yes and no. You see the effect of all this excitement wears off according to Newton’s law of cooling. It is exponential decay. The half-life can vary but on average the excitement has halved in about a week, quartered in another week and by the end of a month, it has halved twice more to leave almost no measurable effect at all. Imagine a hot cup of tea left out on a cold day.” Explained the professor.
“Why does it always come down to tea?” asked Alice, more to herself than to anyone else. “In any case, if I remember my Physics, there needs to be a background temperature for the cup to return to. Can’t we change that?”
“Exactly so,” agreed Humpty, much to Alice’s surprise. She did not remember he was ever very good at agreeing anything! “The background is the structure that envelopes the school. This includes everything that defines the way the school runs on a daily basis; the subjects and the curriculum, the assessment and the exams, the day length and the lesson length, the use of technology, the size of the rooms, everything that seems decided and fixed.”
“Would you include class size, the way the classes are made up, the shape of the classrooms, the light, the sound? Oh and uniforms and dress codes, and food and school bells?”
“Yes, all of that. Some are defined from the outside by governments, by education ministries, by international organisations, universities, examining boards and curriculum schemes. Others are defined by the schools themselves. The key thing is that the majority of the school community are completely convinced that there is no way of doing things differently.”
“Hang on,” said Alice, “Surely schools are always reviewing these things?”
“Yes, but they rarely make any tangible changes. Try telling people in a school that has a school uniform that they should consider getting rid of it! Try telling a school that has no uniform that they should consider imposing one. Either way you will be looked at as if you had come from another planet. The same is true of any aspect of structure from uniform to tests to technology. Anything.”
“But everyone knows that technology is important,” retorted Alice.
“Do they? I was in a school the other day where introduction of personal laptops was considered the first step down a slippery slope of indulgence, distraction and compromise. As for mobile phones, you could hear the muttered ridicule if anyone suggested they had an educational value. Another school down the road was using phones in the classroom at an early age and couldn’t imagine how education could be done in any other way.”
“OK,” continued Alice, “I get that each school has a well-defined structure, and that they believe their structure to be the best, if not the only way, things should be done. But, what has that got to do with the cooling effect of the changes you propose in these lectures?”
“Ah well, you see the structure is the equivalent of a background temperature.” Humpty had that smug grin of the one who knows it all that Alice remembered from her childhood. “That is what they will settle back into. That is the norm to which they will exponentially decay. Think about it. This is what happens when I stand here and talk about changes in practice. They are good teachers and have been successful at what they do. They want to improve, that is all. But they go back into the same structure, the same limits confining them, the same targets to achieve, measured by the same metrics, by the same people in the same way. I am asking them to work within all the same constraints and goals, but to do it a bit differently. Why on earth would they? The only way they can change is if you change the structure, so they have to change their practice”
“But which bits would you change?” stammered a confused Alice.
“That is the beauty of it all. It doesn’t really matter! Take uniforms. There is ample research that shows that having a uniform in a school leads to no tangible difference from not having a uniform. Schools vary in all aspects of their education, their results, the students’ happiness, the feeling of community, but uniform or no uniform has been shown to have no effect on these issues. However, change from one to the other has been shown to have a positive effect in nearly every case. If you have a uniform and get rid of it, or if you don’t have one and adopt it, it is usually positive on the school environment. Explain that!”
“I can’t.” Alice was confused. “If neither is better, why can changing be better.”
“Because the structure has changed. The teachers need to reassess their relationships with children in a different environment. They need to think about how to speak to these young people who look different from before. They either need to start having conversations about uniform or stop having them. The point is they must reflect and change. They probably haven’t done that for years. The change provokes reflection, which results in better and more thoughtful action.”
“Well, I can see it might work with uniforms,” said Alice thoughtfully, “but what about something more important like exams?”
“It’s exactly the same.” Declared the professor, “There is a whole country of schools where they examine all children at the age of 16 with national standard tests. They are completely convinced that this is absolutely essential to the progress of the children. How will we know how good they are if we don’t? How will they decide what courses to follow next? How will people know whether to give them jobs? Why would they ever do any work if they weren’t examined?
“But across the sea, in another country,” he continued, “they would never dream of such exams. Why on earth would you waste teaching time on exam preparation, mock exams, exam leave and the exams themselves? You could teach so much more if you didn’t.”
“Yes, yes,” said Alice, “ I see that each is wedded to their habits and practices. But what happens if you change things?”
“Teachers have to think, of course. If you take exams away, they have to think of what they will do with the extra time, what they will teach. They have plan and work on new and different methods of assessment and ways to inspire children to learn because of the interest of the subject. On the other hand, if you introduce exams, the teachers have to work towards a common goal that is externally set, and feel their practice is now to be measured. They need to work out how to cover the course in a given time and how to teach students to work under a different kind of pressure. In each case the teachers will be talking to each other. How did you do this? What did you do there? How should I manage that? The need to change their practice and because they are professional and committed they will work out how to improve the way they do things. At that point reading my books and listening to me makes sense because they know they have a need to change rather than a drag back to the old conformity.”
“Good grief, no.” He scoffed. “All my ideas are just common sense. Research can justify them because you can find research that justifies anything at all. For every report giving the value of technology, there is another pointing out its negative effects. This is Newton’s third law of Education. Each time you read that direct instruction works best, you can also read that open-ended investigation is better. Research is a great tool, but it tells you nothing you didn’t know already.”
“Why are they so contradictory? How can one report make something positive, and another prove it is negative?” Alice was getting even more confused.
“Because both are true. Technology can be both positive and negative. Teaching can work if it is direct instruction and if it is open-ended investigation. Now there are good teachers and less good teachers working with and without technology, being direct or investigative. So obviously you can find either way will work if you research on the right people in the right schools. Also there are many other factors that make the teaching effective, so research showing something works in one school or one set of schools has practically no relevance in another. I call this Placebo Education. It will be the title of my next book”
“But a Placebo is something that makes no actual difference in itself, but has an effect just because people believe it does!” Stammered Alice.
“Exactly,” Concluded a very smug Humpty Dumpty, who then started to sign more copies of his books for enthusiastic fans.
Alice wandered off into the garden and towards the school building. As she left the lecture area, she heard a scream behind her and a loud crashing sound. Not again she thought to herself. Very soon she was almost run over by the troop of all the King’s horses and all the King’s Men charging towards the sound of the accident.