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What If Everything You Thought About Education, Was Wrong?

In 2011 US President, Barack Obama, made the unusual move of releasing his long-form birth certificate. He did so in order to quash conspiracy theorists who had spent years arguing he was not born in the US and so was not eligible for Presidency. “We want the birth certificate!” was their common demand. Once released you might expect the conspirators accepted defeat – except, they didn’t. They simply dug their heels in harder and claimed the certificate was a fake.

Two weeks ago, sat in a New York teacher training session, I started to worry that I was becoming an irrational conspirator. Not about Obama (I’m pretty certain he’s legit), but about current education reforms. Like the denialists I had been continually asking “Where is the evidence?” – for academies, new teaching methods, changing technologies – yet now it was being presented to me all I could do was scrabble around trying to find why it might be wrong.

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The class I was watching is led by Grace Yoo, a diminutive New Yorker, intent on taking NYC’s latest teaching fellows through their paces. The group are making their way through Doug Lemov’s seminal work “Teach Like A Champion”. The book breaks down the ‘art’ of teaching into discrete, learnable techniques through which teachers can purportedly achieve the best learning behaviours. Already a favourite in many of America’s charter schools, the book is now becoming commonplace in almost all teacher training arenas. This is true even though there have been many critics of Lemov’s style, describing the techniques as ‘authoritarian’, zealously preferring conformity over comfort.

Grace’s trainees are learning a technique known as positive framing. “When we are positively framing” effuses Grace, “we are telling the students what we want”. She reads word-for-word from Lemov’s text and then asks the trainees to watch videos of other teachers successfully implementing the technique. Afterward, the trainees complete exercises from Lemov’sfield guide” and reflect on the positive framing seen in the videos. Grace invites a number of trainees to lead parts of the session using the technique just learned (plus ones from previous sessions). Though their wavering voices give away their rookie status, each trainee competently gains the group’s attention and leads explanations with a level of precision quite unusual among new teachers. The deliberate practise of these techniques is clearly making a difference and though I still feel uncomfortable, I can’t work out why.

Aware that emotional reactions come first and rationalisations second, I try to avoid letting my brain explain why I do feel uncomfortable and instead come up with reasons why I should not feel this way. As I attempt this, one question keeps popping up in my mind: What are we losing? If Lemov’s work suddenly flooded through teacher training all across England, What would we lose?

At first I decide we would lose ‘Britishness’. Several techniques involve repetitive hand claps and weird celebratory dance moves far too uncouth for the average English teenager. But that’s a faux reason to reject the whole thing: techniques could easily be adapted. ‘Positive framing’ is a case in point. During British teacher training, many of us will have heard the mantra “catch them doing it right”. Lemov takes this platitude and breaks it down into practical steps. Grace has her students think about ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ framing statements. They think through the length of time you should complement one type of action over another. They consider why positive framing works, and when it might not work. Positive framing is not rocket science, but the clarity given about the technique goes far beyond unclear ‘wisdom’ and provides the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. This is a good thing.

My second concern about Lemov’s work is that it stops trainees from developing an ability to think for themselves. Writing down someone else’s ‘technique’ is one thing, but how will trainees handle unforeseen classroom situations if all they have done is unthinkingly accept someone else’s solutions to the problems they will face?

Unthinking acceptance, however, is not what I see.

I listen as trainees discuss their use of positive framing and the ways it will be adapted in their upcoming jobs. Speaking to the trainees (and I was given free rein on this) they are at pains to explain that the techniques are foundational rather than complete. “If we know this stuff inside out,” says one young man, “then we won’t go to pieces when stood in front of a class for the first time”. His confidence when leading a later session, suggests this is true. Another student explains: “The point is to know the techniques so well that we can adapt it. But we also must know why we are adapting it”. This issue of the why behind techniques is clearly close to Grace’s heart. Over and over again she repeats the purpose and thought process of every single action she is doing, and explains that every good teacher knows the why. In this room it is clear that Lemov is not providing ‘the’ answer, but his work has provided a base of answers from which teachers can intentionally draw.

I struggle to find anything wrong with that.

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Telling New Yorkers about the particulars of our free schools and academy reforms raises more than a few eyebrows. A sarcastic “Good luck with that” is pretty common.  But it’s not because they think that autonomous schools are a problem. Far from it. All the people I meet are largely positive when chatting about charter schools (i.e. the US version of academies and free schools).  What they find crazy is the speed at which England has converted its schools, and the laxness of our system.

The system of academisation is different there. New York City requires prospective school founders to submit expressions of interest, detailed business plans, and undertake a full public hearing. The schools are given an annual, public grade based on a variety of data. If a school is found to be failing it is closed via a tough, & again public, process. Unlike Michael Gove’s recent quip that private schools converting into the state system “need more time”, in NYC if you are not working out you don’t get to limp on longer than necessary. Compare this to the English system where there is zero transparency, no public hearings, and an entirely opaque ‘closure’ system. I start to wonder (not for the first time) if the main problem of ‘academies’ is not the idea at large – as so many people will tell you it is – but the spectacularly odd way the current government chose to implement it.

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The end of my week challenges my views on technology in schools. I remain deeply sceptical of tech providers profit-making motives and I remain unconvinced that younger teachers will inevitably use technology more effectively “because they grew up with it”. (A position held by a frightening number of people).

But, again, pushing against this natural scepticism I find myself at the conclusion that teachers are currently akin to 19th century doctors. At the turn of the 20th century, without EEG heart monitors or ultrasounds, doctors had only limited information about what was happening inside a patient. Yes, they were skilled in their guesses just by using their honed senses. They could tell a fever, a cough, maybe even make a good guess at internal issues such as appendicitis. But they couldn’t diagnose the precise reason for a heart attack – and that matters (a myocardial infarction, for instance, should be treated quite differently to a cardial tamponade). Once machines helped diagnose the exact problem, other technologies were then created that helped solve it. Similarly, technologies currently exist that can figure out where students are struggling in their learning and can deliver tasks right at the edge of the student’s zone of proximal development. On the one hand, there’s a natural reaction that says “this makes children sounds like robots”. But then I’m pretty certain heart monitors had the same problem when initially introduced (“how dare you reduce my patient to a green line?!”) and I’m also certain I’d rather live in a world where my heart is treated effectively with a machine than it being treated ineffectively without one. If technology out there will do good for young people’s learning we must not overcome that just because scepticism feels more comfortable.

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What perhaps became most apparent over the time in New York is the importance of being explicit when working in education. If teachers are to develop strong learning management, their training must clearly describe what it involves. If the government insists on having an academised school system,there needs to be a clear and transparent way of opening and closing such schools. And if technology is to be used, teachers have the right to question who is making the money and how it works. But teachers also must be clear in their own objections. A despairing cry about this being the beginning of an apocalyptic end simply won’t cut it.

The week also reminded me of the value in arguing against our own intuitions, in trying to see the other side of the argument, if only so that we can better understand those with opposing views. Improving education will only happen if we all have the humility to at least entertain the thought we might be wrong or over-exaggerating our concerns. We don’t have to give in completely. I’m not about to become an evangelical advocate of any policy. But we also have to ensure that we’re not just holding onto a dislike of a policy because it’s comfortable or because we are too stubborn to admit we were wrong. Critical thinking means being critical of others, and of ourselves. If we lose that ability, we will have lost the most important learning faculty of all.

NB: In the interests of balance I’m open to the idea that these reforms actually do have enormous negative consequences and that in my attempt to quash the negativity I have overdone it. If so, I’d be happy to hear what you think the problems are in the comments. Alternatively, have you ever had the feeling of “maybe I got this wrong?” What was it that changed your mind?

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