When Headlines aren’t News!

There is no one way to improve schools, and since the time of Socrates and Plato, those who think about teaching and learning have known this. After every election when there is a change of party in power, the ‘new brooms’ come out to ‘sweep and clean and housekeep’.  The current coalition government’s education policy is steered by Michael Gove, who seems intent on radical change without necessarily checking whether such ‘improvements’ are supported by appropriate empirical evidence.

So yesterday, when the Headlines appeared on the BBC that ‘Teacher comments ‘more effective than smaller classes’, followed by the clarification that ‘Quality feedback from teachers is more effective in raising grades than homework, uniforms and smaller classes, a Durham University study says’, you might have been forgiven for thinking that some new, earth shattering discovery had been made.  Today’s papers such as the Telegraph and Guardian amplify the story too, but in different ways. The latest research has been funded by the Sutton Trust, who contracted Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham University to summarise current findings; you can see their press release here –  http://goo.gl/OMeXG and download the report at the bottom of the page or from here – http://goo.gl/GwRgb.

The Telegraph picks on that aspect of research that suggests the growing use of learning support assistants has no effect on standards, and points out that the imposition of setting by academic ability and hairlines rules on uniform could actually have a negative impact upon pupils’ results.  The Guardian includes a nice summary on the effects of homework “It is certainly the case that schools whose pupils do homework tend to be successful schools. However it is less clear that the homework is the reason why they are successful!”

Academic Departments with Claires Court have been working on these issues for many years now, because the initial research that highlighted these issues stretches back to the 1960s, and has been reinforced over the last half-century with repeatable research showing just this. What has changed in the last decade, through the publication of “The Hidden Lives of Learners by Graham Nuttall” and subsequent aggregations of world research on the matter by John Hattie et al, most notably “Visible Learning” is that we know if there is one thing you should support your learners with, it is good feedback. Now that’s not just about marking their work, indeed running through an essay and correcting all the mistakes is likely to be the last thing that is meant!  The following paragraph is an extract from the report:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to the learning goals which then redirects or refocuses either the teachers or the learners actions to achieve the goal. It can be about the learning activity or task itself, about the process of the task or activity, about the student’s management of their own learning or their self-regulation or about them as individuals  e.g.“good girl”) Research suggests that feedback is best directed at the task and  rocess level. Research suggests that it should be:

• about challenging tasks or goals (rather than easy ones);

• given sparingly (i.e. needs to be meaningful);

• more important to give feedback about what is right than what is wrong;

• important to be as specific as you can and, if possible, compare what they are doing right now with what they have done wrong before; and

• it should encourage them, and not threaten their self-esteem.

Like all headlines in the Press, what the ‘News’ today is trying to do is ‘bitesize’ the report into something that steels your attention and ‘sells’ the paper. If you choose to read the whole report, it actually covers the whole breadth of issues that over the last decade educationalists and politicians have sampled to steer the way for school improvement. From the impact of after school clubs to sports training, one-to-one tuition to class size, the evidence is sorted and ranked in terms of effectiveness. And top of the heap is giving effective feedback – so the simple message is, ‘if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck’, put your efforts in to improving that!

Please read the report and perhaps recognise that if only the nation could afford classes to be smaller than 20 and schools to be of modest size, big enough to have specialist colleagues yet intimate enough so all are known and valued as members of the community, then pretty much everything else would follow in terms of school improvement. Tight knit communities aren’t scruffy, that look after each other, even the most vulnerable or eccentric, they rally together well as a team when threatened, but usually enjoy enough personal space so what they can develop their own interests and aptitudes.  Teachers will have time for some on-to-one, ‘learning conversations’ will happen as a natural by-product of  daily routing, when teachers and pupils sit down for lunch, or walk the playground together and so on. The arts, sports, creative and linguistic activities will be part of the busy schedule, particularly for the younger children, and the imposition of a one-size-fits-all is both unnecessary and inappropriate.

For the next three weeks, our departments are going through a whole range of internal inspection activities, scrutinising work, visiting other teachers’ lessons, talking about learning and giving feedback – none of that is scheduled in the public school calendar, which of course highlights at least a major event a day happening for 6 weeks. If you want something done, find busy people! That sounds ever so much like the recipe that most independent schools seek to provide, and certainly an incredibly good fit to that you can see within Claires Court most working days of the year!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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