How to Play Trombone: A Guide to this Blog

On teacher decision making:

Pe591005

On policy and broader issues in education:

Pe690226

On schools:

eggshells3

On the subject of English:

tumblr_o2x7ibXu9t1sjxvs8o8_1280

My attempts to be funny with satirical stories and stuff

Peanuts02

Starter for Five advice:

Pe591015-2

Book reviews

Pe591006

Some resources

2008081911115973848847-3

Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 20.29.30
Never marry a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. Or so the old joke goes. I’m convinced that there should be a teaching equivalent of this line that goes something like: Never offer an examiner some cake. ‘Some’ can mean absolutely anything to them.

This is no joke, though. It is the very nature of these assessment descriptors that the interpretation of words like ‘some’ or ‘evaluative’ or ‘understanding’ is entirely subjective. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this problem with criterion-referencing, citing both Tim Oates and Dylan Wiliam on the issue of the subjective interpretation of descriptors. It seems that the English language is pretty unhelpful when it comes to precision of meaning.

So it came as no surprise when I tuned into this week’s #engchatuk to find English teachers discussing the topic of teaching ‘evaluation’, with a broad range of interpretations of what the word meant. The natural conclusion of this is that there were also a wide range of ideas presented on how we should then teach pupils how to evaluate. There were a number of interpretations (and, thus, approaches to teaching) that I don’t think I agree with and some that were close to my own interpretation.

I’m not suggesting that I am right, but this is my take on evaluation. A good way to look at it is through the medium of cakes. (Heck, a good way to look at anything is through the medium of cakes.) More specifically, though, I think a useful example of evaluation is that which Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood do when they take on the wearisome task of making their way through slabs of crème pât-doused confectionery each week. (You never hear them complain about workload, do you?)

Here’s an example:

Here are some of the comments that Paul and Mary make whilst evaluating:

  • “they look like Little Gems”
  • “they’ve lost their shape in the oven”
  • “if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them before you baked them, and you had plenty of time”
  • “they’re great – the only thing is they’re slightly over-baked”
  • “a beautiful flavour – I love the marzipan… I’d like to have seen a bit more colour to lift it up on the top”
  • “the appearance of the top is lovely – that nice crackle on the top”
  • “you’ve caught a few of them though”
  • “for my taste, I think it’s slightly over-gingered… I like the flavour ginger but the burn that comes, for me, is too much”
  • “I would have liked a lot more nuts in it”
  • “the whole thing about a biscotti is that it’s dense with flavour, and you’ve got large areas of empty crust”
  • “the texture’s excellent, but, for me, a biscotti should be absolutely rammed full of whatever you’re putting in there”
  • “what’s making it bitter?”
  • “it’s lavender but it’s not a lavender that you recognise”
  • “it’s a very difficult thing to use lavender in biscuits… it’s just not working, that lavender, is it?”
  • “I’ve only finished one and I’m not getting [the lavender] coming through at all”
  • “for me it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”
  • “the white chocolate doesn’t really need anything with it if it was a very thin coating”
  • “the flavour of that cinnamon… the mixed spice – it’s very strong”
  • “this doesn’t work really”
  • “the look of them, I think they look great”
  • “I’d never have thought of putting colouring in, just a swirl – so pretty, and the filling is good”
  • “I think the flavour… the biscuit is baked extremely well, it does melt; the flavour is really nice as well”
  • “I think it looks very professional”

The range of comments are varied, but they seem to focus on: outcomes (“they’ve lost their shape in the oven”); impact (“the burn that comes, for me, is too much”); alternatives to elective choices (“if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them”); and context (“it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”). It may be that you could identify other categories for these comments and group them in different ways – I’d be interested if somebody has spotted different patterns (I wondered about the question “what’s making it bitter?” – perhaps this is the question we ask when we want pupils to evaluate: why is this writing like this? or what’s making it have this effect?)

What one might do, having identified what these comments are doing, is to teach pupils to make similar comments – we could give them sentence stems, or model the process with a text. But I think that misses out something crucial here and that is: the importance of who is doing the evaluating here.

Paul Hollywood was born into a family of bakers – his parents own a bakery, and his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. He started working with his parents at 17 years old and, in his own words, “lost my youth because I had to get up and go to bed early… I never had girlfriends or went clubbing until I was in my mid-20s.” By the time The Great British Bake Off hit our screens for the first time in 2010, he’d had nearly 30 years of professional experience in baking, including holding the position of head baker in such lauded institutions as The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

But Hollywood is just a beginner compared to Mary Berry, who began her working life demonstrating ovens for the electricity board – she’d do this by turning up to people’s homes and baking them a Victoria sponge. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu school in France at 22, Berry worked for a range of food related bodies (such as the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board), before becoming food editor on a number of magazines. Over her 60 year career, she has published more than 75 cookery books.

What is crucial to Hollywood and Berry’s ability to evaluate so effectively is the knowledge and experience they bring to the task.  They can evaluate precisely and judiciously because they know their way around good baking. The recipes that they are tasting may be new to them, but they have a clear understanding of the processes a baker needs to go through to achieve success across the gamut of baking techniques: they understand immediately whether something has been successful or not, as well as the reasons why it has or hasn’t worked. What is more, they can instantly identify what the baker should have done to improve or rectify. They understand the wider context of any bake – the required effect of the recipe, and the tradition that runs through a particular style of baking. And, in an instant, they apply all of this knowledge and experience to what they are seeing and tasting and… they evaluate the bake.

So how do we teach pupils to evaluate in their reading responses? Obviously, we don’t have the time to furnish them with the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hollywood and Berry have accumulated, but building knowledge and experience should be our goal nonetheless.

The way to teach evaluation is, first and foremost, to ensure pupils read lots. Build up pupils’ experience of writing and of the traditions of writing – of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama, etc. By experiencing the effects of writing, when confronted with a new text, we want them to be able to identify when a writer has followed a tradition or subverted it, whether they have been successful in achieving an impact, or how utilising techniques may have highlighted their biases. Secondly, when reading a text, we should spend a lot of time teaching context: what are the historical, social, cultural and biographical contexts that inform a text? When evaluating, pupils should be connecting their analysis to these contexts – can they read the text through the veil of what they know about the writer’s interests or perhaps the contemporary reader’s preoccupations?

I’m totally convinced that this is what evaluation is in English: connecting a text to one’s own knowledge and experience of reading. It isn’t a quick approach, like giving sentence stems or modelling the process (we should do this anyway, all the time), but it is quite simple: get kids reading more and think carefully about what they are reading. Read through the traditions of writing – from Greek myths to modern reportage. And read around the texts too – build up a picture of the context: the nourishment that fed the writing.

So where analysis might be seen as a student’s understanding of language, evaluation is an expression of their wider knowledge. You want me to end this by saying “it’s the icing on the cake”, don’t you? Well, I won’t. I’m better than that. Only an idiot would end a blog with a half-baked pun.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the College of Teaching

Arthur lay in the mud and squelched at Mr Prosser of the College of Teaching.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept it,” said Mr Prosser gripping his fur hat and rolling it round the top of his head, “this College of Teaching has got to be built and it’s going to be built!”

“You haven’t had much support from teachers yet,” said Arthur, “why’s it going to be built?”

Mr Prosser shook his finger at him for a bit, then stopped and put it away again.

“What do you mean, why’s it got to be built?” he said. “It’s a College of Teaching. You’ve got to build a College of Teaching.”  He shifted his weight from foot to foot, but it was equally uncomfortable on each.

After a moment, he said: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time you know.”

“Appropriate time?” hooted Arthur. “Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when my membership form arrived at my school. I asked if I had to join and was told it was in my ‘best interests’. He didn’t tell me I had to of course. Oh no. But the suggestion was that if I didn’t, it would be bad for me.”

“But Mr Dent, we’ve had consultation meetings for months – we’ve invited all teachers to attend them.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight online to find one of these meetings. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to make them accessible to teachers had you? I mean like actually holding them on a day when they can attend or anything.”

“But we had a public meeting to discuss membership on May 4th 2016…”

“A public meeting? I had to go down to the cellar to find it.”

“That’s where we house our public-facing department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the meeting didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

“But you still found it?”

“Yes, but full-time classroom teachers didn’t. You know – the people you keep saying that this College of Teaching is for. They didn’t go because you held that meeting on a school day.”

“In the afternoon! It was from 2pm until 5pm. Teachers could have come after school and caught the end…”

“Teachers don’t finish work at 3pm! You should probably know that. Besides, you held it at the beginning of May during the week leading up to the SATs, so most Primary teachers were busy. It’s probably the busiest and most stressful time of the year for Primary teachers.”

“But there are more Secondary teachers who could have…”

“The beginning of May is also the start of the GCSE exams. Secondary teachers were also far too busy to attend. You would have thought an organisation that claims to be in the interests of teachers would be well aware of this.”

“Teachers could have taken an afternoon off for it.”

“No teacher is taking an afternoon off at the beginning of May. In fact, if you wanted to hold a meeting that perfectly excluded the majority of teachers in the UK, holding it during school hours on a school day at the beginning of May is probably the most precise moment you could hold it. Which is why these meetings are full of educationalists, consultants and people who stand to profit if they can get a wedge of the College of Teaching pie.”

A cloud passed overhead. It cast a shadow over Arthur Dent as he lay propped up on his elbow. Mr Prosser frowned. “And this is why you need a College of Teaching…” he said.

“Oh shut up,” said Arthur Dent. “Shut up and go away, and take your bloody College with you. You haven’t got a leg to stand on and you know it.”

Mr Prosser’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times while his mind was for a moment filled with inexplicable but terribly attractive visions of Arthur Dent sobbing his way through a 24-hour marathon of Brain Gym activities. Mr Prosser was often bothered with visions like these and they made him feel very nervous. He stuttered for a moment and then pulled himself together.

“Mr Dent,” he said.

“Hello? Yes?” said Arthur.

“Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much damage the College of Teaching would suffer if you teachers didn’t support it.”

“How much?” said Arthur.

“None at all,” said Mr Prosser, “We’ll just go ahead with our plans anyway.”

Is the DfE employing the Chewbacca defence over the retention crisis?

Originally posted on Labour Teachers, March 6th, 2016. If you haven’t read the posts on Labour Teachers, you really should. Even if you aren’t a Labour supporter, or even a UK teacher. The blog – contributed to by a variety of educators – articulates many of the concerns and hopes of people working in education today.


 

As reported by Schools Week today, the DfE have announced a new strategy “in an attempt improve teacher retention”.

Are they going to actively reduce the workload of teachers? Nope.

Are they going to reduce contact time for classroom teachers in order for teachers to keep up with workload then? Nah.

Are they going to improve pay and benefits for classroom teachers? Of course not.

No, what they are going to do is spend more money on professional development.

Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, that might allow classroom teachers more agency and it could be quite motivational for many thinking of leaving.

Well, that might be true if they were actually going to spend the money on classroom teachers. The reality is that they aren’t. No. They will be spending more money on courses for leaders. To be precise, they will be doubling support for the Teaching Leaders programme.

This seems to me an example of ignoratio elenchi: it fundamentally misses the point of the retention issue. Excessive managerialism seems to be one of the causes of the issue, so spending more money on more leaders would appear a daft response. In fact, it may seem such an irrelevant response to the issues of workload and retention affecting classroom teachers, that any who are currently bogged down by these issues and who are considering leaving the profession might just conclude that the DfE are employing the Chewbacca defense.

For any who don’t know, the Chewbacca defense is a concept born of the satirical cartoon South Park. It is a strategy in which a party will counter an argument with an irrelevant response in order to confuse those they wish to persuade. In South Park, they satirised O.J. Simpson’s defence counsel Johnny Cochran’s closing argument in the infamous trial:

Cochran …ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!
Gerald Broflovski Damn it! … He’s using the Chewbacca defense!
Cochran Why would a Wookiee, an 8-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-foot-tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.

Tackling the teacher retention issue by spending more money on leadership seems as nonsensical to me as Cochran’s argument here. I’d argue that leadership already gets the largest slice of the professional development pie as it stands, so it seems such a mistake to spend more money on this and hope to improve the situation.

The most pressing issue of the retention crisis is having teachers in classrooms. Trying to do this by taking them out of the classroom to be leaders is like a doctor trying to fix a headache by hitting someone on the head. Does that make sense?