Tuesday, 25 November 2014

How past experience can get in the way of good teaching and learning.

This post has been inspired by Oliver Burkeman's recent column  ' Don't get caught in the monkey trap'.  In this column, Burkeman refers to the Einstellung effect, and how previous experience can lead us to being 'blind' to new and better ways of doing things.  Bilalic, McLeod and Gobet demonstrate how experts once they have found a way to proceed, may find this prevents a better option from being identified.  This process may lead to a wide-range of cognitive biases - both in experts and the less expert - such as confirmation bias whereby there is a tendency to ignore evidence which does not fit with current preconceptions.

So what are the implications of the Einstellung effect for teachers and those who lead educational institutions.  Well for me there would be appear to be several.
  • Experienced teaching professionals should constantly challenge themselves by acknowledging that previous experience does not always provide the best answer to any given situation.
  • Leaders within schools and colleges, who are likely to be some of the most experienced colleagues within a school and college, should lead by example and show the necessity for CPD which specifically challenge previously held assumptions and experiences.
  • Recruitment processes for new positions may overly value experienced candidates over less experience candidates.
  • The perceptions and viewpoints of less experienced members of staff are as valuable as more senior staffroom 'sages'.
  • Tasks or project groups should include a wide range of participants, with differing types of experiences.
  • Colleagues should constantly seek  to be placed in new, uncomfortable though 'safe' situations to allow for the development of a greater repertoire of teaching, learning and management  strategies.
And the implications for educational bloggers and tweeters?  Many of the posts/tweets within the blogosphere/twittersphere argue for experienced teaching professionals to be trusted to be able their exercise their judgment.  Unfortunately, the Einstellung effect would suggest that 'trusting' in experience may not necessarily bring about the best outcomes for pupils and learners.  However, and let's make this absolutely clear,  I'm not arguing to reduce levels of trust, but rather that an essential element of gaining, using and maintaining such trust, is to openly acknowledge the weaknesses of our expertise, and demonstrate how we are not only constantly challenging others, but just as importantly constantly challenging ourselves.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Further Cuts in the FE budget and Creating a Learning Society - Does it make any economic sense?

This week has seen concern expressed by the Association of Colleges about the FE sector having to find further budget cuts, with reports that another £48 billion of cuts in public expenditure being planned.  In particular, there are fears that the  FE sector will once again endure more than its' fair share of the cuts, given the past ring-fencing of the schools budget.   However, in this post I will put the forward that a demand for  'fairness' is not the way to win this argument, instead rather 'hard-nosed' economics is what is required.  In making this argument I will drawn upon the implications for the further education sector of Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald's new book Creating a Learning Society : A New Approach to Growth.
         In their opening chapter Stiglitz and Greenwald state:
    .... that most of the increases in the standing of living, are as Solow suggests. a result in increases in productivity - learning how to do things better.  And if it is true that productivity is the result of learning and that productivity increases (learning) are endogenous, than a focal point of policy ought to be increasing learning within the economy : that is, increasing the ability and incentives to learn, and learning how to learn, and then closing the knowledge gaps that separate the most productive firms in the economy from the rest.  Therefore creating a learning society should be one of the major objectives of economic policy.  If a learning society is created, a more productive society will emerge and standards of living will increase. (p5).

         Of particular relevance to further education, Stiglitz and Greenwald argue that learning from one firm or sub-sector firm spills over to other firms and sub-sectors within the industrial sector, through labour mobility and changes in the use of technology.  However, knowledge is a public good - with the cost of others benefitting from such knowledge having a zero marginal cost,  Furthermore, it is challenging if not impossible to prevent other firms or individuals gaining from the learning and knowledge which has taken place within a firm.  Stiglitz and Greenwald subsequently demonstrate that markets are neither efficient in the production and dissemination of learning and knowledge.  As a result, if there are spillovers from one firm, sub-sector or industry to another, then there will be underproduction of knowledge and learning.  This occurs because when firms are making decisions about investment in learning capacity and capabilities they will not take into account the benefits accrued by other firms or individuals.

         Furthermore, Stiglitz and Greenwald  recognise the critical importance of cognitive frames in that :Individuals and firms have to adopt a cognitive frame, a mindset which is conducive to learning. That entails the belief change is possible and important - and can be shaped and advance. by deliberative activities. Stiglitz and Greenwald argue such cognitives frames have implications for a number of issues including: whether we learn; being 'stuck' with particular cognitive frames; and, what we learn.

         So what does this mean for the FE sector? My initial thoughts on the matter, would suggest the following. First, from policymakers there needs to be a recognition of the essential role that further education plays in the long-term health of the economy.  Recent reductions in funding for adult education are not consistent with creating the conditions by which a developed economy grows.  Second, an education and training market led by employers is likely to lead to an under-investment in knowledge and learning.   Third, FE colleges have a critical role to play in the local economy in maximising the externalities created by investment in education.  In particular, colleges are incredibly well placed to leverage the spillovers that are generated in local economies through.  These spillovers can be enhanced by ensuring the use of knowledgeable and skilled visiting lecturers who are technical specialists their field or it could be as simple as individual learners sharing their experiences with others.  In doing so, colleges can act as an essential hub of economic growth by making connections between firms and ensuring individuals have access to appropriate education and training.   Finally, individual lecturers have a responsibility to focus on developing learner mindsets which increase learners capacity as life-long learners.

         I hope that I have begun to demonstrate that the compelling argument for no future cuts in expenditure is economic, in that colleges are hub for knowledge and learning bringing about future economic growth.  It's absolutely right to argue for fairness of treatment in relation to schools and universities though in the current political climate we need to be making a compelling and demonstrable economic case for additional investment in further education and training.  I hope this post makes some small contribution to making that case.

    Tuesday, 11 November 2014

    'What Makes Great Teaching' - is it time for a critical re-appraisal

    Over the last two weeks we have seen both the publication of the Sutton Trust's report on "What Makes Great Teaching" and the Sutton Trust/ Gates Foundation international teaching summit held in Washington DC.   Indeed, there have been a number of blog posts from attendees reporting on the summit, for example John Tomsett and Tom Sherrington,  with Mr O'Callaghan providing an invaluable summary of relevant news and blogposts. Given this increased focus and attention on evidence-based education it seems reasonable to pause and reflect, as the notion of evidence-based education is not an uncontested concept.  As one of the key aspects of evidence-based practice is to challenge one's own cognitive biases and look at competing arguments and perspectives, it seemed sensible to me, a self-confessed advocate of evidence-based education, to consider some alternative viewpoints.  In doing so, I will not be arguing for, or against any particular approach to teaching or pedagogy.  Instead, I will be trying to gain a greater understanding of some of the underpinning assumptions  of  'What Makes Great Teaching' so hopefully it can become an even more useful intellectual stimulus for educational research and practice.   Drawing upon the work of Biesta (2007) the rest of this post will cover the following ground:
    • general objections to evidenced based education;
    • the non-causal nature of education;
    • educational research and intelligent problem-solving;
    • distinguishing between the cultural and technical purposes of education;
    • the implications of the above for the dissemination, implementation and follow-up to 'What Makes Great Teaching'.
        Biesta states that opponents of evidence-based education have a raised a number of doubts about the appropriateness of an evidence based approach to educational practice including: one, evidence based education being part of the new public management agenda; two, evidence-based medicine being an inappropriate template for the development of evidence-based education; three, issues around the nature of evidence within the social sciences.   .  
         Biesta goes onto argue that evidence-based education implies a particular model of professional action i.e an effective intervention can bring about the required outcome. Biesta argues that education cannot be understood in terms of cause and effect due to the non-causal nature of educational practice, with the 'why, what and the how' of education being intimately bound together.  As such, an essential component of being an educational practitioner is the exercise of judgment in what is 'educationally desirable'(p21)
        Secondly, drawing upon Dewey's practical epistemology Biesta argues that the role of research is to provide us with insight as to what worked in the past, rather than what intervention will work in the future.  As such, all that evidence can do is provide with us a framework for more intelligent problem-solving.  In other words, evidence cannot give you the answer on how to proceed in any particular situation, rather it can enhance the processes associated with deliberative problem-solving and decision-making.
         Thirdly, Biesta argues that evidence-based education has too great a focus on the technical processes of education - what works or does not work - rather than performing a more nuanced and profound cultural function.  Biesta argues that an open and democratic society should be informed by debate and discussion on the 'aims and ends' of our educational endeavours, whereas evidence-based education is currently too focused on the technical means.  
         So what are the implications of Biesta's stance for our reading of 'What Makes Great Teaching'. One could certainly read the report as sitting very clearly within a technocratic model of education, with the three simple questions which inform the report focusing on the what and how of education, with no consideration of 'why'.  As such, it could be argued that to maximise the benefit 'What Makes Great Teaching' it requires a broader and far more wide ranging discussion into the very purposes of education. Leaders of staff within schools and college's when discussing the implication of 'What Makes Great Teaching'  should do so in a way which facilitate the democratic discussion of the purposes and ends of both education and the school and college.  Reflecting upon how these technical recommendations can be implemented within the school/college in a way which is empowering for both staff and students. 
         A key assumption of 'What Makes Great Teaching' is that educational reality involves clear relationships between cause and effect, with particular approaches to teaching being more effective in bringing about the desired student outcomes.  I'm not going to argue either for or against objectivist or subjectivist stances to epistemology and ontology, others are far better able to do so.  That said, if we are to be evidence-based practitioners it is essential that we fully explore the underpinning assumptions of research, in this case assumptions of cause and effect, with this especially being the case if the research corresponds with existing perspectives.
        As for the practical implications of 'What Makes Great Teaching'  for educational practice, even though the report identifies the components of great teaching, the frameworks which can 'capture it ' and what could be done to develop improved professional learning this does not, or should not provide a set or recipes or check-lists that will guarantee better teacher learning and student/pupil outcomes.   This is certainly the case given the fast-changing world and the implications for pedagogy  and learning of ubiquitous mobile technology (See Benedict Evans' recent presentation).  'What Makes Great Teaching" tells us what may have worked in the past, it may tell us what could work in the future, though not definitively. As such 'What Makes Great Teaching' provides is a valuable resource for practitioners - be it headteachers or teachers - to engage in reflection which will be increase their capacity and capability to find 'solutions' which are fit for their particular settings.
        Finally, if reading 'What Makes Great Teaching' provides a prompt to read other reports and articles which have a different perspective on evidence-based education, so that as a result one has a greater breadth of understanding of the challenges of evidence-based education and the cultural implications, then the report my have provided both a technical and cultural stimulus to ensuring pupils and students experience even greater teaching.

    Tuesday, 4 November 2014

    Sutton Trust Report and What Makes Great Teaching - Implications for the Further Education Sector

    Last week saw the publication of the Sutton Trust's report  What Makes Great Teaching by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major and which created quite a furore.  The report warned that many day to day classroom practices used by teachers can be both detrimental to learning and are not substantiated by research, for example, using students' preferred learning styles as a means to determine how to present information. However, the main body of report focuses on three simple questions : What makes ’great teaching’? What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it? How could this promote better learning?  In this post, I will focus on 'what makes great teaching' and consider the implications for leadership in the further education sector.  
         Coe et al define great teaching as:
     ... that which leads to improved student progress.  We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success. Defining effective teaching is not easy. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed. Ultimately, for a judgement about whether teaching is effective, to be seen as trustworthy, it must be checked against the progress being made by students. (p2)
    Coe et al subsequently go onto identify the six components of great teaching as:
    • (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
    • Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
    • Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
    • Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
    • Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
    • Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
         So what does this mean for the leaders of further education colleges, initial reflection on the impact of content knowledge and quality of instruction would suggest the following:
    • Leaders need to ensure that the ‘Coe’ report is disseminated and discussed within their own colleges and staffrooms.  In doing so, leaders should create opportunities for individual and collective reflection in a way which encourages colleagues to look at the evidence on effective pedagogy, and in a way may challenge their existing pre-conceptions and practices.
    • As Samuel Arbesman argues a large amount of what we know will be obsolete within a few years.   This will require college’s to ensure there are substantive and well-resourced programmes of CPD which provide opportunities for staff to update their subject knowledge.  This will require more than just the odd-bit of work-shadowing done at odd times of year, but rather bespoke and structured programmes of subject knowledge updating which have a focus on improving student outcomes.
    • The need to ensure the further education sector is an attractive employment proposition for those individuals with high levels of content knowledge, attracting individuals to participate in further education, rather than as so often is the case just ‘falling’ into FE.
    • Colleges need to invest in developing the ‘craft’ of teaching and having a CPD programme which focuses on teaching and learning, rather than the latest requirement for the purposes of compliance or change in assessment regime.  That is not to say the latter are important, they are, but they are necessary but not sufficient for effective teaching and learning.
    • As Coe at al rightly identify lesson observation schemes need to have a formative focus – and which are not 'one-off' graded lessons used for the purposes of performance, review and appraisal.  Lesson observations need to be crafted as processes which support both individual and collective professional development.  Imaginative approaches need to be adopted, such as unseen observations, lesson study and videoed observations as advocated in Matt O'Leary's recent book - Classroom Observation : A guide to effective observation of teaching and learning.
    • Coe et al al provide compelling evidence that lesson observation schemes are best suited for low-stake developmental purposes, and even in these circumstances will require trained observers trained in the use of a valid protocol.   As most of the high quality lesson observation schemes have been developed in the US, work needs to be undertaken to develop a high quality protocol which is suitable for the need of assessing the effectiveness of vocational pedagogy.
    Finally, as Gert Biesta and Nicholas Burbules argue in their 2003 book Pragmatism and Educational Research - effective education and pedagogy is more than just being technically skilful as teacher, it requires a deep and profound exploration of the why, what and the how of education - and any implementation of this report in colleges needs to be seen within the context of the fundamental purposes of further education.   As you can probably tell I have only just begin to scratch the surface of the implications for the further education sector of Coe et al's report.  Nevertheless, I do believe it is a report which is worth reading especially given the current emphasis on teaching and learning within the further education sector. I hope this post helps start this discussion.