Category Archives: Nicholas Alchin

On information overload

Should you care what I am wearing as I write this? Read on, gentle reader…

Making sure that the education we offer is meeting student needs is an ongoing priority for us; and part of that has to be equipping students to use technology well. The modern age is different from what has gone previously; science and technology have given us access to a world of possibilities – not least increased lifespan and access to education, healthcare, travel and leisure.

In education one aspect of the changes brought on by technology that interests me is the information overload phenomenon – the notion that we are overwhelmed with the internet, emails, images, adverts and so on. I read somewhere that walking down a street in a big modern city, one encounters more data just in the form of billboards than someone in the 16th century would come across in a year. This historical perspective intrigued me – especially when I came across these:

What is the point of having countless books and libraries whose title the owner could scarcely read through his whole lifetime that matter books and burdens the student without instructing

Seneca (4BCE)

We have a reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as a barbarous is that of the century that followed the fall of the Roman Empire

Adrien Baillet (1685)

This might suggest that in fact things aren’t so very different after all; perhaps all the hype is nothing new; perhaps information overload is simply business as usual, dressed up in a new phrase. But it can’t be as simple as that; Baillet, writing above, would have been hard-pressed to find what Seneca wrote whereas we can get to in a few clicks. So there are differences, for sure.

It’s also instructive to look at the history of new technologies. The impact of the printing press was clearly hard to overstate, but it took centuries for it to be felt. The telephone might be a better example, being an early ‘information technology’. American sociologist Harvey Sacks writes that as it was introduced into American homes during the last quarter of the 19th Century, instantaneous conversation across hundreds or even thousands of miles seemed close to a miracle. Scientific American described it as “nothing less than a new organization of society – a state of things in which every individual, however secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community, to the saving of no end of social and business complications…”

Screen Shot 2017-01-14 at 9.22.10 pm
Information Overload

“..a new organization of society”! Karl Marx in his final years would have been proud! And such phrases have been written about the internet many times. But Sacks goes on to point out that in fact what we saw was not so new; instead it was the pouring of existing human behaviour -“our goodness, hope and charity; our greed, pride and lust” (sounds familiar in an internet age?)  – into fresh moulds.  New technology didn’t bring an overnight revolution. Instead, there was strenuous effort to fit novelty into existing norms. In Victorian times, one of the biggest questions revolved around decency; was it, for example, disgraceful to chat while improperly dressed? (You will be pleased to know that I always put on a suit when writing for TIE, but I will spare you a selfie). I wonder how many of our questions, around email, privacy, community, will be seen as quaint and amusing in 2150.

But what I am confident about is the fact that the human condition has not yet been subject to rapid change. Perhaps in the future brain-implants will change us; if so, it will be in ways we can barely imagine. For now, I would argue that we may be overwhelmed by information, but as Criss Jami wrote “the eye of the storm is not so much what goes on in the world, it is the confusion of how to think, feel, digest, and react to what goes on.” And in that, we can take an historical perspective which allows us to see continuity with humanity over time, as well as differences.

Being able to shift perspective like that (across time, space or some other category) is important; it means we can nudge toward a broader understanding and appreciation of ourselves and better locate ourselves in human story. Barack Obama said that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way that British probably believe in British exceptionalism, Greeks in Greek exceptionalism and French believe in French exceptionalism. And that’s the message, I think; that believing we live in special times, special places, and perhaps even are special – in technology and in so many other ways – doesn’t mean that other people, times and places aren’t special too. And for us, that means that as we adapt our education to our changing times, we have to be mindful of keeping the best of the old as we introduce the best of the new.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

An essential quality of a great teacher.

I came across a story about three stonemasons giving accounts of their work.  The first said I am cutting stone; the second I am building a cathedral; the third I am serving God.  It is not hard to imagine which mason is likely to find his work rewarding and valuable, and I had thought about using that story with students; it seems to map very neatly onto the Jobs, Careers and Callings categories that are so useful for young adults to think through as they make their choices about their working lives.

Knowing you are doing something in service is something bigger than yourself means you are more likely to do it well. It does not have to be religious.
Knowing you are doing something in service is something bigger than yourself means you are more likely to do it well. It does not have to be religious.

But that story has also stayed with me while we have been interviewing for new teachers in recent weeks.  Which stonemason is most likely to do the best job, go the extra mile, be disciplined where necessary, creative where possible?  Nothing’s ever certain of course, but my guess would be that it’s the one who sees the greater purpose, and the moral worth of his work.  Similarly for teachers.  So in our interviews we have been seeking professional diligence and flair, of course, but beyond that, we’ve been looking for those who fuse love of craft and determination to serve into singular devotion to shaping the next generation.  These are hard things to describe, and impossibly to quantify.  But they are what we’re looking for, because that’s what we know our students are looking for too.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Best Practice in Teaching

Educators are, in my experience, always looking to improve themselves, and often seeking to live up to, or implement ‘best practice.’ But that’s a surprisingly complex idea, and it may even be that there is actually no such single thing. Maybe ‘best practice’ is a phrase that means different things in different contexts.

For example, what’s ‘best practice’ in teaching mathematics? Many educators are familiar with the numerous US studies showing the efficacy of cooperative learning in terms of raising attainment. And it makes sense – we know that there is nothing that helps you learn something as well as having to teach it; and that having peers explain sometimes puts ideas in familiar language. So are collaborative practices ‘best practice’?

In this article three researchers report on a series of well-designed UK studies which show that students in those classrooms where collaborative practices were adopted did no better than control groups. This flies in the face of accepted wisdom; and the message we can draw is fascinating. The researchers identified two crucial differences between UK and US schools; firstly that they used interim assessments in very different ways; and secondly, that they approached differentiated instruction in very different ways. And these differences were intertwined with the differences in the success of collaborative practices.

The conclusion is that the effectiveness of a practice cannot be judged in isolation; one practice rests on a whole system. They write “Teaching methods proven to be effective in one culture and system cannot be assumed to be effective in another. We remain convinced that the cooperative learning strategies that have been found in North American research to be effective in mathematics can be made to work in England, but they are going to require further adaption to the traditions and expectations of teaching in English schools. Given the many similarities between North American and UK contexts, this cautionary tale should perhaps give even more pause to those who propose importing approaches from much more exotic locales.”

For me, this is fascinating, and it shows why the job of teaching is more than simply importing proven ideas from elsewhere.   There are precious few ‘Best practices’ because they all depends on context. This basic fact – more familiar, perhaps to students of the humanities than of the sciences – explains many unresolved controversies; whether to group by ability in mathematics; whether to offer awards; what maximum class size should be. There is no single better answer – the right thing depends on the context. So while we are doing the right thing by considering these issues in light of the research, the ultimate touchstone must be our strong sense of identity and vision.

This explains why, with so many different backgrounds, we will have different views. It explains why small-scale experimentation, not mass duplication is the best possible thing, and it explains why we need to address issues as systems, in all their complexities, and not simply treat them in isolation.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Kindly Perfectionism

I have heard it said that the happiest person on the Olympic podium is usually the bronze medallist, and the saddest is usually the silver medallist.  The former is delighted with the medal he got, the latter distraught over the medal he missed (apparently the gold medallist is often just relieved!).  So attainment and happiness are not tightly linked.

The same can also be true in a school context.  I saw a student skipping around yesterday, looking absolutely delighted with herself.  She told me that she had just received a 7 (the highest grade in our system) in a test in her favourite subject, in which she has worked so hard.  I congratulated her, really pleased to see her hard-won delight.  Later on in the day I saw her again, and she looked rather miserable; I assumed something else had happened.  When I asked her, she told me that she had been thinking about the test, and was now upset because she realised that it was only a low 7!

I didn’t know what to make of this situation – on the one hand, I was delighted that the student was looking beyond the grade; she was seeking to be the best she could be and I sensed and admired her ambition.  On the other hand, seeking perfection can be a route to constant dissatisfaction and misery.   I fear for the perfectionists, but never want to discourage the right sort of self-drive.

How then do we help students learn to have high standards while still allowing them to enjoy their successes?  How do we ensure that those who make enormous progress are justifiably proud of their achievements, and do not feel overshadowed by those who do a little better?

There’s no simple answer here, and home and school both need to play their part.  We mustn’t always seek to be the best in everything – but nor must we accept low standards.  It’s a difficult balance, and ultimately, one that the students must make for themselves. For our parts, we can consciously and explicitly celebrate effort over achievement (of course the two usually go hand-in-hand), and we can ensure students experience a wide range of diverse areas, so that they all experience success and failure, and learn to deal with both.

So as as we approach reporting time later this term, we need to balance aspiration with realism, and to talk to our students about tempering ambition for themselves with kindness to themselves.  And it’s OK to be pleased, even completely delighted, with a low 7!


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

Jobs, Careers and Callings

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. Sigmund Freud

For most adults, work constitutes more than one-third of waking life, and the psychological study of work is a large academic field. We know that there is huge variation with job satisfaction, and furthermore, that work satisfaction seems to account for a substantial part of the subjective quality of life. Quality of life can, in turn, have a major effect on life stress and on health. So finding the right work is a major life decision.

The Difference is Important
The Difference is Important

We are, for better or worse, in an era where no decision that our students take in this respect is final. Most of us have worked, or will work, in many jobs, and perhaps several professions, and our students will be able to do the same – or perhaps even move to professions that don’t even exist at the moment. So there is, perhaps, less pressure to ‘get it right’ immediately, and there is some comfort there. Nevertheless, the choice is still a big one, and I think it’s important that students understand generally what we know about work, from the research literature.One particularly fascinating study (1) is based on three distinct relations people can have to their work: as Jobs, Careers, and Callings. The distinctions, drawn starkly, are these (I quote directly from the study here):

Jobs: People who have Jobs are only interested in the material benefits from work and do not seek or receive any other type of reward from it. The work is not an end in itself, but instead is a means that allows individuals to acquire the resources needed to enjoy their time away from the Job. The major interests and ambitions of Job holders are not expressed through their work.

Careers: In contrast, people who have Careers have a deeper personal investment in their work and mark their achievements not only through monetary gain, but through advancement within the occupational structure. This advancement often brings higher social standing, increased power within the scope of one’s occupation, and higher self- esteem for the worker.

Callings: Finally, people with Callings find that their work is inseparable from their life. A person with a Calling works not for financial gain or Career advancement, but instead for the fulfillment that doing the work brings to the individuals. While the modern sense of calling may have lost its original religious connections, work that people feel called to do is usually seen as socially valuable—an end in itself.

The Job–Career–Calling distinction does not map neatly onto any occupation. Within any occupation there may be individuals with all three kinds of relations to their work.

Now all this would be of passing academic interest were it not for the fact that we have evidence that there are significant differences between people who have each view. In survey and interview responses, the self-reported categories of Job, Career and Calling yielded important differences.

Compared with those who described themselves as Job and Career respondents, those who described themselves as Calling respondents were significantly better paid, better educated, and had occupations higher in both self-perceived status and objective prestige level. Callings were consistently associated with greater life, health, and job satisfaction and with better health. Calling respondents reported notably and significantly higher life and job satisfaction than Job and Career respondents. Calling respondents also ranked work satisfaction significantly higher (relative to hobbies and friends) than did Job and Career respondents

For me this is very positive news indeed. It tells us that we are absolutely right to be telling students to follow their passions, to find something they believe in and to which can commit . It means we can say this safe in the knowledge that it is not some vague platitude, but one that is more likely to lead to health, wealth (in all senses) and life satisfaction.

I am struck by the Zen-like parallel here; there are some things that are best sought indirectly, and that arise as by products of a life well-lived. And wealth is the obvious thing here – the understandable desire for financial security can loom large in all our minds. It is, therefore, interesting to read another fascinating piece of research (2) on precisely this topic. Researchers examined the aspirations of 12,000 college freshmen at elite universities and colleges in 1976, and then measured their life satisfaction nearly 20 years later. Those who had expressed materialistic aspirations as freshmen were less satisfied with their lives two decades later. Furthermore, the materialists were more likely than non-materialists to suffer from a variety of mental disorders.

All this adds up to the need to give a good deal of thought to what we want in our work. If we doing the right work, it won’t be something we leave behind when we step out of the workplace. I once told an extremely hard-working colleague of mine that he needs to learn to say ‘no’ – and was humbled by his reply when he said that he had tried that, but then he ended up sitting at home wishing he was doing whatever it was that he said ‘no’ to. If we find something we are committed to, that genuinely has value and that means something to us, then the work – that is, the calling – isn’t what we do, it’s what we are in some sense. So choosing the right line of work is part of the process of being the people we want to be.

(1) Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C. R., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.

(2) Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on the dark side of the American Dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14, 531-536.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

It’s possible to be too open minded

I have just finished reading some work done by a student in one of my Theory of Knowledge classes.  He had been asked to compare several possible solutions to a problem, evaluate them and explain which one was the best one, in his opinion.  Toward the end of his essay he wrote that each of the (contradictory) solution had its strengths, and each could be accepted because the person proposing each one came from a different culture, and had been “exposed to different cultures of learning”.

At one level one must applaud the open-mindedness here; the student was trying to see all possible solutions from the perspective of the person who offered them.  Excellent.  We are delighted to see tolerance here.  I worry, though, about the slippery slope from tolerance to relativism.  Toleration of other people is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion; to use the pen and not the sword.  So far so good.  But toleration of people is based in respect for people simply because they are people (a good thing) – and it’s easy to confuse this with respecting ideas simply because they are ideas (a bad thing).  That means accepting that all opinions “are equally valid” – an appealing but dangerous step.

The trouble is that if all the ideas are equally valid, and all our beliefs are “just our opinions” then we lose the right to search for a better world, or a more just world.  If everything is just opinion, then there can be no right or wrong, no progress and no real engagement with other people.  Perhaps it is the word just that is the problem; because when we call for an end to human rights violations around the world, for example, it is more than just our opinion; it is the voice of humanity’s bitter experience with war, torture and atrocities over the centuries.  The right reaction, therefore, on matter of importance, is not to nod gently, smile indulgently, and respect opinions, but to agree or to disagree, as strenuously as you can and to say why.  Philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it thus: “The virtues of courage and intelligence, patience and concern, are virtues the world over”. This cannot be in doubt.

In giving feedback to the student whose work I mentioned above, I told him that I would defend very much his right to make up his own mind.  But I would at the same time defend the position that there are some things that it makes a lot more sense to believe than others.  We talked about this, and we concluded that there are three ways to respond to differences of opinion:

  • you can shrug and say ‘all beliefs are equally valid; we are both equally right’
  • you can discuss why you believe what you do, and why others believe what they do, and try to understand the difference
  • you can just say ‘I am right, you are wrong’

Why is the second of these so much better that the first and the third?  Because it is the start of an intelligent, patient and concerned conversation, whereas the the other responses are the end of one.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

The Tuition Issue

By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

I am often told that many of our students in High School are tutored in one or more subjects, and asked for a reaction. I rather have the impression that some parents expect dismay that students are filling their already busy time with more work, some expect shame that tutors are needed to provide what the school cannot (apparently), and some expect pride that students and families are striving for excellence. I find it hard to convey all these three feeling simultaneously, but I do my best.

The costs are not just financial. But the benefits can be considerable. How do we weigh these up?
Tuition: The costs are not just financial. But the benefits can be considerable. How do we weigh these up?

More seriously, my usual response is that of course parents have the right, no the duty, to do what they think is in the best interests of their children. That’s what I do for my children, and that’s what we hope all parents do for theirs. So then, the more sensible (overlapping) questions become Is the tuition worthwhile? How much is the student benefitting from tuition, overall, in the long run? and What are the financial, non-financial and opportunity costs of tuition? I cannot help be struck by the extremes which we sometimes find, but still, the questions are worth asking.

Is tuition worthwhile? There is no one answer here; it all clearly depends on the student, the teacher and the tutor. What seems obvious to me is that ‘everyone else is getting it’ is a bad reason to send children to tuition – firstly, because most people don’t, and secondly, because following the crowd unthinkingly is generally not a good idea. Teachers are generally willing to go the extra mile to explain a difficult idea, check over a problem or hear a student’s concern; does that suffice? The curriculum is meant to be challenging, so it would not be surprising to hear that not everything is immediately obvious. Is it worth getting tuition for every difficulty? Or might it be worth just letting time work its magic (some things just take a while to understand properly)? The answers will depend on the difficulty, the student and the stage in the school.

Some of my colleagues are very much against tuition, but it seems to me that if a student is benefiting a great deal overall, if the time needed does not exclude too much else, and tuition is within a family’s financial means, then tuition seems to have has a good deal going for it – but the ‘overall’ caveat is a significant one.

It seems to me to be likely that a maths tutor can help a student nail a specific technique, such as ‘using the cosine rule’. And over time, perhaps a tutor can address several such topics. But in the long term it would be a mistake to overlook the deeper conceptual understandings in favour of more specific – and more measurable – techniques. Indeed, constant tuition (of a closed and narrow drilling sort) might for any given topic mask conceptual difficulties from the regular classroom teacher – and thus end up with the teacher not giving the student the scaffolding and support he or she needs, to nobody’s benefit. And there is also the opportunity cost of tuition in terms of its effect on students’ overall motivation, energy levels, sense of independence and ability to get some relaxation during busy terms. Tuition has costs other than the financial ones – especially if it allows students to think that they can get difficulties solved by someone else; ultimately, they need to be taking responsibility for themselves.

You will see that I am skeptical about the value of tuition. But I am not entirely skeptical – and I confess to having done a fair bit of it myself in the past – which what effect, I honestly could not say (good value for hard working parents? Not sure!). So I end with a list of questions to ask parents who are considering tuition.

  • Have you discussed your child’s progress with his or her teacher?
  • Does your child know exactly what the classroom teacher, who best knows the situation, would advise?
  • Are you considering a programme of long-term tuition generally, or a specific intervention for a specific difficulty?
  • Is the purpose to work on basic knowledge, practice routines or to encourage higher order thinking? Or to develop time management skills, so that students are becoming independent learners?
  • Is one of your prime motivations worry that others are having tuition or worry that you are not doing all you might for your child?
  • Are you considering a tutor who is familiar with the sort of learning that your child is undertaking, and understands the nature of our curriculum and external examinations?
  • Does the tutor have a fixed system into which your child must fit, or is he or she willing to look at your child’s specific case, engage with him or her about his or her specific needs, conceptions and misconceptions, and adjust accordingly?
  • Will there be any knock-on effect on your child’s levels of enthusiasm for the subject, for learning and for school overall?

Doing the best for our students, individually, is a very difficult matter. Is tuition a good thing? I don’t know the answer, but these are the right questions to ask.

Three paradigms for home-school relationships

Like many schools, we are spending a lot of time with new families at the moment, especially in those cases where subject options have changes over the long break. Conversations about appropriate courses, between teachers, students and parents often foreground interesting different approaches to home-school relationships.  I came across an interesting way of thinking about this. Inspired by an interesting 1992 paper, I think it’s helpful to consider three models.

The Paternalistic model is the model whereby ‘school knows best’; it assumes that there are shared objective values to guide us in the best interests of the student and that all decisions will be made by school, and then communicated to parents. While this may have once been a possible model, it is no longer a viable approach for most international school. I remember my GCSE French teacher changing my A level choice of Physics to French ‘on my behalf’ – that is, without asking me. We have come on a long way; not least because we recognize the value of student autonomy and aspiration.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 2.07.39 pm
Yes, partners, but in what sense?

A natural alternative model is the Informative model whereby the educational experts lay out all the options to the students and parents, who then have full autonomy over any choices, in full knowledge of the likely outcomes. This blue pill or red pill? approach is easy and appropriate when choices are clear, costs of mistakes are low, and when people have clear preferences. For some students, a choice between subjects they are equally good at may be such a case. But many choices are not so simple. How, for example, do we support decision making when student and parents feel differently?  Or when students and teachers have wildly different understandings of current student aptitudes for subjects?   Or when parental University aspirations seem unrealistic to school?   It’s not enough to lay out the facts, because the facts are contested.

So that leads us to a third model, the one I suggest we adopt – the Interpretative model. Our role is neither to decide, nor to abdicate from the decision-making process. Our role is to help students and families decide what they want. So if students wish to do courses for which they have so-far shown little enthusiasm we will neither forbid nor simply accept; we will start a conversation and ask why this is suddenly attractive. When students wish to take a course where we have concerns about their capacities to succeed, we ask ‘what’s your thinking in choosing this course? Why is it important to you?’. So what we are doing is trying to understand the students’ values perspectives, and then provide information in response to that. Often we find that where there are conflicting values (e.g. the desire to follow certain courses against certain career aspirations) the conversation centres around questions like ‘how much and what are you prepared to compromise for what you want?’ and ‘what strategies might help you succeed? How can we help?’

Opening a conversation, rather than following policy,  leads to lengthy conversations.  But these are important matters, and they deserve the time.  Our role here is not decision-maker, nor simply technical expert. It is more like an adviser, friend or, you will be relieved to hear, teacher.

The difference between teaching and learning

I once read that taxi-drivers in centrally-planned communist Russia were incentivised by rewarding them per mile driven. It stands to reason – after all, the further a taxi has driven, the better it must be serving the passengers, correct? Not correct. The taxi-drivers jacked up their cars, put a brick on the accelerator, and went for a smoke. It is hard to think of a worse outcome for the passengers, the taxpayers, the environment and even the taxi-drivers who ended up going through more cigarettes due to more time and money. This simple incentive seems to have ended up benefiting no-one other than the petrol and tobacco companies.

This admittedly extreme example shows that people respond to incentives by changing their behaviour, but not always in ways that are predictable or desirable. Of course that’s not to say that the taxi drivers were stupid; we all respond to the incentives we have in ways that makes sense to us – but when people have different agendas, what is considered a reasonable response may differ from one person to the next. And that’s probably familiar to anyone who has ever been appraised at work. If you know that your boss is looking for a certain result (miles for the taxi drivers) then you may feel compelled to do whatever it takes to get that result – even if that’s not really the best thing to do. The problem is when there is a misalignment between your overall purpose and what you are being held accountable for, and incentivised to do. That’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals; in the UK, when the Government started publishing exam results in a particular way, some schools sent students home if they thought they would score poorly. When surgeons were assessed according to the death rates of patients under their care, they started accepting only patients with easy to treat conditions. Others found it very hard to get treatment at all.  These two examples are aligned with the incentives, but radically opposed to the nobler purposes of education and medicine.

While this is clearly problematic,  there are two things which actually make a lot of sense. First; it is a good thing that we are trying to measure the things that are important. Would we really want to undergo an operation if we thought no-one was counting how many people died during similar procedures? Would we really want to send our children to schools whose academic results are secret? Second; it is a good thing that people respond to the incentives they have. If this were not true, how could we even try to change behaviour and improve anything? The problem is not measurement, not changing behaviour. The problem is misalignment, as I have described is above.

So let’s turn to education and the incentives for teachers. Firstly, we should tread with care – we teachers love what we are doing, and we came into teaching to share our passion for our subject with students; unlike some taxi drivers, we won’t be off for a quick smoke. So that’s a great start – we teachers are intrinsically motivated to teach. But still, we are only human and cannot help but respond to the structures and systems the school puts in place (nor should we). Lesson observations are one such traditional school structure. In this system the routine, familiar across the world, is that a senior teacher visits a classroom, watches the teacher, does his or her best not to interrupt the lesson by distracting or otherwise interacting with students, perhaps looks at few books, makes some judgements and then meets with the teacher afterwards to tell them how it went.

That may sound sensible, but in fact it is misguided and has some undesirable consequences (here and here for two UK examples). Like measuring the taxi driver’s performance by how many miles he or she has driven, it is not measuring the right thing; it misaligns purpose and measurement. Why? Because, teaching is not the same as learning. The desired outcome of a lesson is better student knowledge, skills or understanding; that is, learning; some change in the student’s mind. Teaching is how we support learning, but it isn’t the same thing. Watching the teacher is at best a proxy for learning, and may in fact be unrelated. So an observer may see what he or she thinks is a wonderful explanation, a terrific activity, and the best use of technology he or she has ever seen; but if the students didn’t learn anything, then really, it was a bad lesson.

And what is tragic here is that by having observations systems like this, teachers are incentivised to focus on what they are doing, and how they are performing; when the focus should always be on what the students are learning; where the students currently are in their understanding, and how to best move students on to the next stage. With more than a handful in the class, that’s extremely difficult to do, and needs laser-like discipline to achieve. And that’s what we need to set up systems to encourage.

So across the Campus we have been working to use a system of lesson observation that does exactly that; it’s a very simple idea called Looking for Learning and it replaces the system I describe with one where teachers visit each other’s lessons and do not watch the teacher. In fact they do their best to ignore the teacher, and simply spend a few minutes talking to a few students, and asking them questions like what are you learning? Do you understand the lessons? What helps you learn? What gets in the way of learning? The observer notes down the responses, and these form the basis of a conversation between observer and teacher afterwards. The teacher thinks about what he or she thinks the students would say, and then considers what they actually said; the degree of convergence or divergence then informs a conversation desniged to deepen thinking about how best to help students learn in future.

So the lovely thing about this system is that it tries to measure exactly what is important (learning) and totally aligns with the purpose of the schools (learning). It is a tool about learning, not about teachers, and so provides teachers with good reasons to focus on that. It is completely in line with good classroom practice, and what we, as teachers, should always be doing for our students.

Testing, Exams, Karate, Newton

When my wife did karate at school, the instructors made a point of promoting gender equality.   With all the authority of a fourth dan, sensei confidently declared in a deep voice there’s no place for sexism in the dojo.  He glared challengingly at the boys, and said girls and boys can both go karate, and some girls are actually quite good at it.

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 11.41.54 am
Sometimes, our deepest assumptions are unknown even to ourselves

This is easy to laugh at, or perhaps easy to get angry about; but at least there is a gesture towards equality here.  And this is a well-known phenomenon – that when there is a social change, those who see the change can speak about it, and even believe in it, but somehow, they cannot quite leave behind the old values. The most extreme example of this that I know about is Isaac Newton; despite being a key driver towards the modern scientific outlook, he still pursued the occult with a passion (there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to it!).  Perhaps he was, therefore, more the last man of the old generation, rather than the first man of the new.  The thing is here that we all have cognitive ‘deep structures’ that we do not even know about.  Under this model cognition is commonly depicted as an iceberg, whereby we are only conscious of behaviours above the waterline, and not of the assumptions, norms and beliefs below it.

We sometimes see the same thing in education.  We know that we do not want for our children what we had; authoritarian, top-down, narrow academic learning.  We want an values-based education that prioritises learning to think over narrower, multiple-choice measures.  We want a system that develops creativity, that can deal with ambiguity and that focuses on deep understanding (these are, after all, the things that are needed after school life).  But then we sometimes ask why we don’t give more ‘rigorous’ testing with clear outcomes, like percentages, so we can compare students with each other.    There is a place for tests, for sure, but less than we sometimes think.  It’s not an accident that our most complex, intellectually demanding course (Theory of Knowledge) has no exams whatsoever  – and really, when you look at the work an average class produces you can see why an exam is simply the wrong way to assess here.  Let’s be a bit more nuanced than that.

I am not against traditional exams per se.  My argument is that we need to align our school practices with our modern understanding of education –  and that means better testing, not more testing.  In fact, it may well mean less.   To want modern, progressive education and then to always reach for tests, regardless of context or purpose is like sensei and his dojo, or Newton and his alchemy.