Archive for March, 2010

Tuesday, March 30th

The Master and his Emissary.

I promised a while back to write something about a “fascinating book”, not directly related to education, I was reading which had some implications, I thought, for what has been going on in schools. So here goes.

The book is “The Master and his Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. It is, I think, a staggeringly ambitious work, and one I feel slightly daunted even trying to summarise (especially since one of the central concepts is that representation and abstraction of ideas is of itself problematic, but maybe I shouldn’t go there… yet.)

McGilchrist is a former neuroscientist, who has also taught English at Oxford University, where he was a fellow of All Souls College. The book attempts to use knowledge about the way the brain works to present an argument about how we understand the world.

Essentially, and simplifying hugely, the book makes an argument that the two hemispheres of the brain process information in different ways, prizing certain modes of apprehending the world differently.

Its first part looks at what we know about how the brain functions, some of which draws on research involving cases of patients which have lost the use of one hemisphere.

The left hemisphere, which is linked to the right side of the body including the right hand, is essentially very focused in the way it attends to the world. It likes detail, and intricate systems, and abstract theories, and favours mechanisms over living things. By contrast, the right hemisphere takes a broader view of the world, emphasising the brain’s lived experience of what has gone before in trying to understand something as it really is, and avoiding trying to view things in abstract, systematised or representative forms. The right is the hemisphere where – again, simplifying I think – empathy is felt.

Early on in the book, McGilchrist uses an example from the natural world which may help me to explain this better. A bird eating a piece of grit needs to use both hemispheres of its brain. The left provides the focus that its brain must give to the grit as it pecks at it. But the bird also needs to keep part of its attention spread as wide as possible, in being on the look-out for potential predators. This is the right hemisphere’s job. So the bird needs both hemispheres. (Although, interestingly, human patients who lose the use of one hemisphere can compensate, although those without the left seem to cope better than those without the right).

The second part of the book is an amazingly original run through the history of western thought, ranging from philosophy to literature, art and music asking what each hemisphere has brought to intellectual developments in these fields.

The book’s title is an expression of its arresting thesis: that the right hemisphere – supporting the broader, more holistic way of sensing the world – should, in a better world, be the “master”. It should be the dominant influence on our thoughts. But, in reality, in the modern world, it has become the junior half to the more “focused”, system-building, left. The latter has come to predominate in what has been an ongoing power struggle between the two.

I listened to a discussion of this book on the Today programme before Christmas, and was captivated, because its central argument seemed to me to be very much in line with what I think might have been going on (to bring it back to, perhaps, a slightly more mundane level) with the way public services have been managed in recent decades, and in particular to what has happened in education.

I have often been struck, for example, on how the development of policy can be seen to make sense with reference to its place within a particular system, or structure of thinking, (ie from an almost intentionally narrow perspective) but far less so when one steps back and tries to think about matters from another angle.

I can think of several examples. Arguably, during the research for my book I was confronted with this phenomenon a lot. The argument, which may or may not actually have been voiced against the central line of my thinking, went something like this: “This evidence you have collected may show some of the damage that league tables, or targets, say, are doing to education, as broadly conceived. But league tables and targets are part of an important, politically vital, system for holding schools to account. This should not change.” The system, then, was seen as more important than what might be thought to be wider goals of this particular public service, such as promoting the richest possible education for pupils.

Reading Sir Michael Barber’s book, Instruction to Deliver, I was struck in a similar way about his description of the development of a system for the management of public services, including education. The method described and advocated was fairly simple: those at the political centre must decide on the priorities for public services, then set them targets and establish a structure of ranking indicators by which progress towards those goals could be measured. Those working in public services should then be encouraged, cajoled and possibly threatened, towards those goals. While I was struck by the attention to detail involved, the whole thing had an entirely self-referential, or even solipsistic, quality. For example, while Sir Michael argues that public servants should have sleepless nights worrying where the next percentage point increase in test scores was going to come from, there were very few attempts, in his book, to relate the improvements in test scores to real-world classroom experiences for pupils. In other words, did they have any real meaning outside of the system itself? But to ask this question seemed almost beside the point, you might think after reading Instruction to Deliver. To do so, perhaps, might be seen as widening the focus in a very unhelpful way: the whole point of this structure is to set goals, then to narrow down your focus on achieving them.

Systems-builders such as Sir Michael would, I think, also be happier with a structure which assumes a particular form of motivation among public sector workers: that they are the rational self-interested utility-maximisers of classic economic thought. This therefore makes constructing mechanisms to influence what they do simpler than it would be under the messier reality of, for example, behavioural economics which suggests that we are more complex than that, and that altruism is one of our urges.

To use a final, perhaps more trivial, example, I find, in reporting on and observing the exams world, that this sometimes has a surreal, almost Alice in Wonderland quality to it. Qualifications can be given points scores and weighted against others, I think, without anyone really standing back and saying “this may make sense in terms of this particular system”, but does the system as a whole make sense? (I should say that that thought draws on a remark by Cambridge Assessment in evidence, I think, to a recent select committee inquiry into accountability).

I have to confess that, while McGilchrist’s book was a fantastic read, I was slightly disappointed at the end that it did not have more to say about whether or not the modern, tremendously detailed, systems that we are so fond of designing, in all areas of life, actually do more to enslave us to particular ways of thinking than is often recognised.

There is an intriguingly glancing reference to this near the end, in a chapter entitled “The Master Betrayed” which deals with the modern world. In a left hemisphere-dominated world, McGilchrist argues (interestingly using the conditional tense) the “mechanistic” view would dominate.

“Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands the nature of such relationships, as it misunderstands altruism as a version of self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power.

“…Strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control, a move that would be made possible, presumably, only by furthering fear and mistrust,” he writes.

McGilchrist adds that, in such a world, “Numbers, which the left hemisphere feels familiar with and is excellent at manipulating (though, it may be remembered, it is less good at understanding what they mean), would come to replace the response to individuals…which the right hemisphere would have distinguished. ‘Either/or’ would tend to be substituted for matters of degree, and a certain inflexibility would result.”  

However, overall, the main villain of the piece seems to be a kind of over-rationality (to be clear, the book is not an attack on science), as epitomised through the thinking of the philosopher Rene Descartes, and, perhaps, the Enlightenment more generally. McGilchrist is, by contrast, fond of the Renaissance and Romanticism.

 I’m not sure I’ve done justice to his book at all here but I would recommend it.

- Warwick Mansell

posted on March 30th, 2010


Monday, March 29th

Sir Richard Sykes’s review of qualifications for the Conservatives received mixed – at best – reviews in Friday’s TES, and I, too, have my reservations, despite my respect for the experience of members of the commission who contributed to the report.

However, I also think that some of its observations about what is wrong with the current regime, which have not received much press attention, should be noted and dwelt upon for a moment. They are, after all (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?), fairly in line with some of the arguments in my book.

Sykes says: “The commission considers the pre-eminent role of schools should be to educate. This may seem too obvious to be stated. However, many of those who gave evidence commented that a prescriptive assessment-driven curriculum, the examination framework and the nature of the measures used and targets set by government have forced teachers to abandon education (in its true sense) for easily measurable proxies. There is an obsession with measurement, setting quantitative targets and compiling league tables, as though what cannot be measured numerically has no value and should have no place in education. Yet the best things in education often cannot readily be measured in this way.”

Amen to the sentiments behind much of that.

Sykes also says: “The volume of external assessment has…grown enormously. For the great majority of pupils nationally it now encompasses the entire curriculum at age 16 and again at age 18. For many there is another full assessment at 17; and widespread external assessment at 15 is imminent. The process has undermined the credibility of teacher and school assessment as well as limiting and undermining teaching.” [my italics]

This is in line with an article I have written for the upcoming first edition of Questa, the magazine of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, which is launched this week. I argue there that the onset of more or less constant examination over the four years of GCSE and A-level, which probably does more to influence pupils’ learning experiences during those years than any other policy, has come about with little or no meaningful debate about whether this is educationally desirable. This, I think, is astonishing.

If the criticism of the Sykes report has focused on its end point, the recommendations for change, I think it is important, then, to acknowledge where it starts. If the over-politicised (another of its points) assessment system is truly undermining teaching, this is the best possible argument that it should change.

Precisely how it should change is, of course, where the more practical problems arise. And I’m not convinced by all of the measures proposed in the report.

For example, the suggestion of a standard university entrance test, similar to the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) strikes me as slightly over-the-top. I am no expert on university admissions, but I am not sure that A-levels do such a bad job in helping admissions tutors decide between candidates that such a major reform as this is required. It may be that the introduction of this test, focusing on English and maths, could be used as an incentive to get more young people to study these subjects post-16, as happens in other countries. But, as I say, overall I’m not convinced. Perhaps the National Foundation for Educational Research’s investigation into the possibility of such a test in the English context, which has going on for several years now, will provide more clues as to whether it would be worthwhile.

Perhaps the most significant proposal, however, would see school accountability now centring not on measures such as the proportion of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, but simply on performance in the two subjects of English and maths.

The reduction of the emphasis on GCSE performance in other subjects, to the point of suggesting that pupils might not take the exam in many subjects, is significant and radical, although one should note that semi-official suggestions to downgrade GCSEs – even to the point of removing this examination tier altogether –are not that new. This policy was advocated quite strongly by Professor David Hargreaves during his time as chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and even Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, started floating the idea when she took office in 2001. (See story here).

But to come back to Sykes’s specific proposals on accountability, the report says that moving away from the existing five or more good GCSEs including English and maths indicator, and other compound measures such as the average GCSE points score per pupil, would remove the incentive for schools to encourage “quantity rather than quality” in the accumulation of qualifications.

Although I would agree with that, and the removal of attempts to use statistical measures to try to reduce a school’s overall quality to a single, or a handful, of numbers, the move to accountability based on performance in English and maths does not resolve some of the problems identified elsewhere in the report, principally the “obsession with measurement, setting quantitative targets and compiling league tables”.

Whether one sees the even greater concentration on English and maths – for institutional reasons – that would follow from this change as good or bad may depend on whether one believes that a narrowing of focus to just two subjects and an increase in test-directed learning and other statistical game-playing around these subjects would be a good thing. If the belief is that it would be a positive development, this strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the rest of the report.

If one truly takes seriously the effects on teaching and learning of the politicised culture effected by league tables/targets/Ofsted inspections with which the report begins, I don’t think that a set of politically drawn-up statistical indicators in two subjects as the basis for accountability is going to do the job.

There is not really space here to discuss my thoughts in full on an alternative system of accountability, which are set out in the book. But I’ve come to the conclusion that, if it is felt that publishing school-by-school data is vital, then the best system would be simply to publish subject-by-subject results for each school, with parents then left to decide which they regard as important. I would scrap all composite measures, such as the five A*-C including English and maths score, which just increase the opportunities for schools to “game” the system, and resist the temptation to narrow the measurement down to performance in a couple of subjects. The complexity which would follow might make easy ranking a bit more difficult for the media, the Government and estate agents (what a merry list that is…), which I think would be a good thing.

The report is possibly strongest in arguing for a rebalancing of the relationship between schools and colleges, exam boards, the government and those “end users” of qualifications: universities and employers. Currently, all the major players in this system have an interest in results continuing to rise, whether or not this truly signifies underlying gains in pupils’ understanding, from schools and governments being judged on results to the boards who face a serious risk in losing business if they are seen to be offering harder exams than their competitors. This is unhealthy. Giving universities, for example, a greater say, might address part of that problem, although precisely how this would happen is not spelt out in detail. I think the best possible reform in this area would be to take the Government out of this process by having another measure – such as the performance of pupils in standardised sample tests similar to those used in the international PISA and TIMSS assessments, though not these tests – as the main measure of national education performance.

Overall, this is a complicated subject which probably needs a longer-term, more detailed look than is possible in its 40 pages. But remember the statement with which this report started. It said that “a prescriptive assessment-driven curriculum, the examination framework and the nature of the measures used and targets set by government have forced teachers to abandon education (in its true sense) for easily measurable proxies”. If one agrees with that, then such a look is essential.

- Warwick Mansell

1 Comment
posted on March 29th, 2010

Tuesday, March 16th

Reading more about the debate surrounding Ofsted’s latest inspection system over the past couple of weeks has encouraged me to dig some more into how the inspectorate works. And one observation that I probably should have posted a while back was prompted by an inspection report which was written up in a few newspapers before Christmas.

Harris Academy Crystal Palace was lauded in the press for being the first school in the country to score an “outstanding” verdict in all of Ofsted’s inspection categories. I have not visited the school, and am not in a position to offer a view on how good it is. Certainly a lot of people seem to think this is an excellent school, and it is reportedly vastly oversubscribed.*

 However, what did interest me was to compare the Ofsted report to the comments on the school registered on a newspaper website after one of these articles appeared.

You can read the piece, and the comments which follow, here  So why was it interesting? Well, the comments by, I think, ex-pupils and parents, cast light on its qualities in a way which is not captured at all by the inspector.

The comments centre on a discussion as to how good the school is, whether it improved after it changed from a city technology college to an academy a couple of years ago, and whether its traditional ethos, including uniforms, is a good thing or not.

Most interestingly, the comments, which I have no reason to doubt are not by ex-pupils and at least one parent, reveal that the school divides pupils into two groups in year nine, one following a “yellow route” , and the other, a “green route”. The “yellow route” pupils are judged to be more academic, the comments say.

One ex-pupil, who says the school was “fantastic for me”, adds:  “[The yellow route/green route] divide is damaging on pupils for many reasons such as late development and being surrounded by more disruptive pupils. It is commonly known within the student body that this split symbolises more than a simple divide and in fact becomes friendship groups and to a certain extent a sign of future prospects.”

Another ex-pupil says: “Be warned, this green route/yellow route thing is true, and I have seen it stigmatise talented people to the point where a flood of students in my year group left to go to the Brits school to be encouraged for their creative abilities, because if you’re not good at maths, English or science, expectations are just ‘do what you can to pass’ – keep the stats up, you know.”

A parent who has had four children go through the school says that all followed the “yellow route”, and that provision for them was excellent.

The first ex-pupil also writes: “In addition, I’d like to point out the fact that there is a feeling that Harris is now a business instead of a school and students are often seen as statistics.” A further ex-pupil writes: “A school is a school, not a business where children are hothoused to get the statistics looking good.”

In sum, this is a detailed debate about the merits of the school, with revealing opinions offered for and against.

My point here is to ask: where is this level of detail in the Ofsted report? (You can read it yourself here.)

However one feels about the policy of the yellow route/green route, surely it deserves a mention: it would seem to have a big impact on the experience of a group of pupils going from year nine onwards, and yet it is not covered at all. Also, there seems to be a debate among the pupils about the merits of policies such as the uniform requirement, and the overall characteristics of the school. But again, none of this argument is captured in the inspection report.

Instead, the report simply celebrates the “Harris Way”, without explaining properly what this is.  Some passages of text are repeated verbatim later in the report. And it culminates in a gushing, almost Soviet-sounding conclusion, in the letter to pupils: “We hope that you will work closely with the staff so that there will never be a glitch in the glorious history of your academy.”

In my book, I set out my view that, since 2005, the quality of the information available to parents in Ofsted inspection reports has fallen dramatically. I looked at reports from before that date, which ran to many pages with detailed qualitative information on each school and its curriculum and which had a section comparing the views of inspectors with those of parents and explaining, if they differed, why. Each subject area was covered individually for secondary schools, and there was information on staffing levels, each school’s finances and class sizes.

After 2005, some of the reports looked almost as if they could have been written by a computer, so closely were they tied to exam and test results data, and they were far shorter and shallower, in my view.

This may have changed slightly since last September, when the latest inspection iteration began and since when inspectors have been instructed to place a greater emphasis on classroom observation. But the visits are still a lot shorter than they were before 2005 and, if this inspection is an example (and if the comments are a true reflection of the yellow/green route policy, as the number of them would suggest), I don’t think Ofsted’s reports are getting beneath the statistical surface and finding out what is really going on.

I’d be interested in any other observations about Ofsted reports. Please email me at [email protected]

*Although questions were raised, for me, about the methods used by Harris as an organisation to improve results on learning of the case of a parent in another Harris school whose daughter was made to take a BTEC in sports science in a move, said this parent, to raise the school’s statistics. See my report on page 50 of a Civitas document on academies.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on March 17th, 2010