While people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others.
Twitter exploded into fury earlier this evening when @MissNQT posted a picture of a training resource she’d been given at a course aimed at helping newly qualified teachers to challenge more able students.
I took it upon myself to further propel it into the Twittersphere with this:
Hyperbole? Schools Week editor, Laura McInerney certainly thought so. She suggested that were the grid retitled nobody would have gotten aeriated. Here’s her edited version:
Is she right? I’m still not happy with it. Laura claimed that many of these activities might actually be challenging, and was also a handy way for busy teachers to devise extension activities on the fly.
To an extent, she has a point; we’ll come to her arguments later. But my point is that the titles hadn’t been changed. Newly qualified teachers are probably more vulnerable to bollocks than anyone else and surely it behooves us as a profession to ensure that anyone tasked with training them how to be better teachers has a responsibility not to perpetuate a belief in highly dubious theories of knowledge and intelligence. It’s not that I think any individual has behaved shamefully, more that it’s shameful our profession is so endemically deluded. I don’t really mind if any individual teacher thinks this is a good idea and wants to use it, what I object to is that it’s foisted on others as a good idea with spurious claims to authoritative evidence.
To be clear, Bloom’s Taxonomy is not so much wrong as epistemologically unsound. The standard assumption is that ‘knowing’ is a necessary, but pedestrian platform which supports all the sexier ways of manipulating information with ‘creating’ perched at the apex of a pyramid of skills. This is an article of faith to many teachers and one I challenge in my book:
Sometimes it’s harder to remember than it is to create; recalling how an engine is constructed is far more challenging than designing an experiment to test the temperature at which water boils. Equally, it may be more difficult to understand than evaluate. In fact, fully understanding a concept makes evaluation of it fairly straightforward. Just watch how quickly and precisely an expert baker like Mary Berry evaluates the shortcomings of a poorly baked cake, or an expert choreographer like Craig Revel-Horwood picks apart a badly executed tango; they can do this because they have complete understanding – that is epistemic knowledge of the ‘underlying game’. (p150)
Re-labeling these things ‘skills’ is even less useful. ‘Knowing’ isn’t really a skill (although we can improve our ability to retrieve information) it’s the accretion of stuff in long-term memory. And we get into difficulties if we decide ‘Understanding’ is somehow qualitatively different to knowing. If you don’t understand something then you don’t really know it, and is it actually possible to understand something you don’t know? The rest of these ‘higher order’ skills depend entirely on domain specific knowledge. Evaluating in English is different to evaluating in history, science, dance and technology. Evaluation in maths probably uses the word most accurately; it essentially means ‘solve’, or ‘find the value of’. You really can’t see these skills as distinct from subjects.
I’ve got more to say on the subject of taxonomies in the book, but let’s move on to Multiple Intelligences. I was dismayed to hear Sir Anthony Seldon parroting this theory off as factual in a debate on the nature of intelligence at the Education festival last week. This is simply unacceptable.
In Intelligence: All That Matters, Stuart Ritchie says this:
There’s just one problem with this theory: there’s no evidence for it. Gardener just came up with the concept and added the additional intelligences seemingly on a whim. At no point did he gather any data, or design any tests, to support his idea. The notion of ‘multiple intelligences’ has become very popular among educators as a kind of wishful thinking: if a child poor (say) logical-mathematical abilities, the argument goes, they might still be good at another kind of intelligence! But denying the huge amount of evidence for general intelligence does nobody any favours. (p27)
In his brilliant contribution to my book, Andrew Sabisky also wades in to provide a brisk but comprehensive takedown of MI. As he says, There are two main criticisms to be made of [Howard] Gardener’s work: the first that it is conceptually confused and the second that it is empirically false.” (p391)
It’s just not good enough to go around perpetuating these faulty ways of thinking and presenting them as incontestable fact. Ignorance really is no defense when it comes to training teachers. We have a professional responsibility not to sharing guff. Research literacy- the ability to work out when we can trust the ‘experts’ – liberates teachers from the burden of bad ideas.
But back to Laura’s points. If the worksheet had been presented without these unhelpful labels and merely as suggestions for providing challenge within different subject domains, what that have been acceptable? Well, in a way perhaps. Although there are plenty of duds, there’s enough on the list which might provide students with some challenging learning opportunities. If as she’s suggesting, it’s merely a menu of potential extra-curricular activities with which to engage young people, then fine.
But it isn’t: the suggested activities are explicitly presented as ideas for geography lessons on tsunamis with the stated aim of getting students to write creatively. Writing creatively requires far more than doing a spot of role-play (Understanding/Kinaesthetic), thinking up interview questions to ask a survivor (Applying/Interpersonal), or making a tsunami mindmap (Creating/Intrapersonal). If we want to develop students to write in geography then they need to know the conventions of geographical writing. If we want them to write a poem or perform a dance, these are both entirely valid means of expressing thought but not particularly useful to your average geographer. This presents teachers with a choice: you can either spend time teaching children how to write poems with the consequence that you have less time to teach them about tsunamis, or you can leave their writing of poems (or any other non-geographical form of writing) to chance and accept that many students’ work will not only be a waste of an opportunity to teach them to write geographically but will also undermine their ability to write well because due care and attention will not have been given to the process of writing. Writing well requires careful modelling, scaffolding and practice. Lose lose.
So what of the argument that this type of thing, if retitled and repurposed, might make a handy resource for busy teachers? The internet abounds with this sort of thing and I can see the appeal. The tyranny of engagement forces us to scratch about for novelty, no matter its worth. I’ve written about some of my issues with this way of thinking here, here and here. But in summary, my main objection that what is engaging is often distracting and cause us to remember the activity but forget the purpose behind the activity. The act of colouring in a poster on what to put in a tsunami survival kit (Analysing/Visual) may be more memorable than all the details you were supposed to be learning about tsunamis.
In her final challenge to me, Laura said she looked forward to hearing about how I would go about challenging and extending students. In my book, I describe an uncontrolled study in which I had the task of increasing the aspirations of a group of highly able but demotivated Year 10 students:
We explained to the pupils that we were going to give them a series of challenges designed to get them to make mistakes so that we could give them meaningful feedback on how to improve their performance.
Firstly, we tried getting them to complete tasks in limited time: if we deemed that a task should take 30 minutes to complete, we gave them 20 minutes to finish it. The thinking was that one condition for mastery is that tasks can be completed more automatically. Also, by rushing they would be more likely to make mistakes. This had some success.
Next, we gave the pupils tasks in which they had to meet certain demanding conditions and criteria for success. These were difficult to set up and always felt somewhat arbitrary in nature. For instance, in a writing task, we made it a condition that pupils could not use any word that contained the letter e. This kind of constraint led to some very interesting responses but, ultimately, the feedback we were able to give felt superficial and was deemed unlikely to result in improvement once the conditions were removed.
Finally, we decided that we would try marking work using A level rubrics. This had a galvanising effect. Suddenly, pupils who were used to receiving A* grades as a matter of routine were getting Bs and Cs. The feedback we were able to give was of immediate benefit and had a lasting impact. When interviewed subsequently, one pupil said, “For the first time I can remember, [the teacher’s] marking was useful – I had a clear idea of how I could get better.” (p 264)
Tasks should be sufficiently challenging that every student will struggle. Those who struggle more will require more scaffolding for longer. If students finish early, then maybe the task wasn’t open-ended enough? Maybe it needs to be proofread? Maybe more practice is required? Either way doing a puppet show should really be an option.
This might sound as much fun as designing a plan for an aminal sanctuary (Creating/Naturalistic) but it’s far more likely to result in students mastering tricky concepts and acquiring challenging skills. Or, at least, that’s what I think.
As Nick Wells pointed out, it’s exactly this kind of thinking which resulted in one of the worst indie songs of the 90s:
Please feel free to politely disagree below.