I’ve recently been reading a new piece on assessment by Dylan Wiliam and he urges schools to become ‘evidence based schools’ using ‘decision driven data’ rather than ‘data-driven decisions’. I can only agree. His arguments make sense to me; many schools have certainly have become data driven places so that excel spread sheets were the basis of decision making rather than professional judgements about what children needed to learn next. To outsiders it might seem a pedantic point, but when you get down to the child sat in that classroom – common sense will tell you it’s better everyone knows the very next step that child needs in order to progress rather than what sub-level they are and should be next. I’m not sure everyone really gets this point yet though. I’ve heard of some SLT (not mine by the way) getting very nervous if there aren’t any numbers to pin to things. I can see year group content being chopped up into numbered parts soon and, for example, pupils in Year 1 being called things like a, ‘1W’ or ‘1A’ ‘1E’ depending on how far they are through the Year 1 curriculum and eating into Year 2. Nothing will have changed then.
It isn’t that there’s even anything wrong with using data or making teachers accountable through data – schools should do that, but when data drives decisions about children rather than clear descriptions of next steps in learning a fundamental point in pedagogy is missed: the learning journey. It’s a subtle point, but easily missed. Talking about getting a 2a by the end of the year is different from talking about for example, ten specific things a pupils needs to do by the end of the year. The effect is different for teachers sat there in a pupil progress meeting too. The trouble is that when we talked about 2a or ‘levelness’ everyone assumed that everyone else knew what they meant. It was reasonable to think this really, but talking numbers instead of specific steps in learning meant that often those next steps were missed. You would even occasionally find yourself in the situation where a child was still a ‘2a’ for example, after six weeks of teaching say, and then everyone was meant to assume that child had learned nothing at all in that time, after all it’s reasonable to assume that remaining the same grade means nothing has happened. However, professionally, for a teacher this doesn’t add up, does it? It certainly doesn’t add up in terms of empirical research. A developing brain doesn’t just become stationary, in a synaptic freeze, not unless there’s a serious blow to the head or worse. The truth is, small, descriptive steps in learning, without these numeric hurdles would have shown learning progress. The APP ladders touched on this, except it still didn’t matter if more criteria had been highlighted, what mattered was ‘were they into the next level or sub-level?’
The trouble is that for too long teachers and schools have relied on reason to get by, but what is reasonable isn’t always a good basis for decision making. Reason is not the same as testing for evidence and then using that evidence; reason is not the same as empiricism. A good example of this is miasma theory, the old idea that disease was caused by foul smelling air. In the middle ages, doctors wore masks with lavender stuffed into a nose piece of a mask to ward off the evil smell of plague victims. In the 19th century the foul stench of urban, industrialised cities was blamed for disease and epidemics. This was a reasonable assumption to make, after all, in most places where people got sick it stunk! But as we know now, because of germ theory, this wasn’t the case; smell was not the cause of disease in 19th century streets, but poor sanitary conditions. Long before Pasteur came along, John Snow, a Victorian doctor, began carrying out tests to find out the origin of cholera; through the evidence he concluded that it wasn’t the foul smell that caused the disease, but rather contaminated water. By recording the location of deaths related to cholera, Snow was able to show that the majority were clustered around one particular public water pump in Broad Street, Soho. He proved this through testing for evidence. What’s this got to do with schools? The point is that Snow didn’t just go with what everyone thought was reasonable; instead he used empirical evidence and systematic experimentation to draw conclusions based on evidence. And this is exactly what schools need to do now because reason is ok, but empiricism, using practical evidence, means that decision making will be far more effective than simple reason, or what ‘appears’ to make sense.
The difference between empirical, evidence based decision making and simply following reason and rationality need to be made clear in the school context. This is because too many ‘myths’ have grown in education simply because they are reasonable and rational, but when we’ve looked closer and analysed the evidence we’ve found out something quite different is going on. For example, take the idea of cutting class sizes to improve learning. This seems to make perfect and yes, reasonable sense. It’s rational to assume that if one teacher has less pupils to teach, she/he will have more time to support each pupil and so learning will be more effective. However, when researchers actually went in closer and looked at the evidence for smaller class sizes, they found that this doesn’t automatically make the huge impact on learning it promises; what made the difference was the teacher and what the teacher did in class. If you had a poor teacher and lessened the number of pupils, this didn’t make them a better teacher did it – it just meant they had less pupils, and that’s all!
The same is true of so many other reasonable, rational ideas in education; they seem to make sense so we do them, but we don’t get down and look for evidence. Another example is ability grouping. It’s reasonable to think that its more effective to teach groups of children of similar ability, it just seems to make sense doesn’t it? If they all have the same kind of understanding it means that there won’t be some children struggling and not understanding and equally it won’t be too easy either. However, once again, when researchers decided to try some empirical studies on ability grouping, they found more evidence to show that mixed ability grouping often enhanced learning because when more able pupils explain their ideas to other less able pupils they make concepts clearer for themselves and learn in a deeper way. Not only this, but it helped the less able pupils because they felt more able to ask for help and further explanation from their peers than their teacher. Let’s face it, how many times have you had a pupil stop you and ask you to slow down or repeat what you’re saying? Probably never. But pupils are far more comfortable doing this with their peers. Overall, evidence shows that mixed ability groups taught by effective teachers do better than straight forward ability grouped pupils, even though on the surface this doesn’t really make sense to people.
So, rationality and reason are good, but we need more than that to be effective in schools. Remember, they once thought it was reasonable to take a naughty child, stand them in front of the whole school and hit them with a slipper. In truth, this shattered their self-esteem, and social status, so they then had nothing more to lose (thank you Maslow); it also taught them that violence is a solution somehow. Do you ever remember the slippered kid coming in the next day as the newly reformed character? I don’t! (And I only remember this from the first years of my primary school before it was banned- I’m not that old!)
Anyway, food for (rational) thought maybe?