What’s wrong with Oak National Academy

One of the risks of any launch is hubris. You’re so excited about what you’ve done, and so keen to share it, that you oversell what you’ve done. You then disappoint against expectations, or worse, anger and frustrate people. We launch Oak National Academy tomorrow, and so in the spirit of avoiding hubris I thought I’d tell you what’s wrong with it.

First though, what are we doing and why? Schools are being asked to do more than ever, with fewer resources than ever. We don’t mind stepping up. It’s a national crisis, and we’re important civic institutions. But it’s hard. We are trying to teach online lessons, care for vulnerable children in school, deliver meals whilst vouchers still don’t work, check in with at-risk children at home, etc. This is at a time when many of our colleagues have caring responsibilities at home, are looking after ill relatives, or are unwell themselves. Teachers are stepping up more than ever before.

When Teacher Tapp asked teachers what would most help them help pupils, two thirds of them said two things: an online resource hub, and devices for pupils to be able to access these. At the start of the Easter holiday a group of teachers came together to try and set up that online hub. We talked about the idea on Monday 6th, we knew it needed to launch on Monday 20th, and there was the Easter Bank Holiday in the middle. This was going to be tight.

Tight timing meant we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do. As such, there are a number of things wrong with what we’ve done. Rather than pretend we got it all right and wait for people to stumble upon the problems, I want to be upfront about them. Here’s what’s wrong with the Oak National Academy.

  1. Our mainstream curriculum isn’t broad enough
    We don’t yet teach Music, DT, PE, Computing, Citizenship or PSHE (and many more). We don’t teach any KS4 options except MFL. Our Year 10 curriculum doesn’t have separate tracks for Foundation and Higher tiers in Maths, Science or MFL. Nobody would ever consider opening a school with these gaps, and I’d never pretend it is right to have these holes in a curriculum. We just couldn’t get all of this done in six working days. The “yet” at the start of this paragraph was intentional – this needs to change, and it will.
  2. Our specialist curriculum isn’t up and running yet
    There is nothing on Oak yet for children who usually attend specialist settings, and so may need either or both of an alternative curricula offer and a therapeutic offer. These children need education as much as anyone else, and their schools are likely under more pressure than many mainstream schools. We are working on a specialist curriculum, and hope to have this up as soon as possible.
  3. We don’t have anything on wellbeing
    We knew from the start that there was no way Oak could replace a school. We make and host online lessons. We don’t have relationships with children, and it would make no sense to pretend we are more than what we are. We’re not in children’s communities and don’t know their situations. We’re not the right people to try and support their wellbeing – only their schools can do this. Our hope is that if we can make life a little bit easier for teachers then it will free up time for them to support their pupils’ wellbeing without burning themselves out.
  4. This isn’t going to change the world
    I think we’ve come to expect that any new thing, especially any new thing that involves technology, believes it’s going to change the world. Every tech unicorn has a mission statement about revolutionising things. Oak won’t change the world. It’s not supposed to revolutionise teaching. We just want to make life a little bit easier during one of the most difficult periods in our lifetimes. If we can do that, then it’s mission accomplished. 

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Oak National Academy provides a sequenced plan of video lessons and curricular resources for teachers to use as they wish, to complement their existing teaching and planning. It’s been created by over 40 state school teachers from across the country, working together to respond to current school closures. It launches at 6am on Monday at https://www.thenational.academy. The curriculum overview is available from today.

How do you measure behaviour?

Business books are littered with soundbite quotations about measurement: “What you measure is what you get”; “If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it”; “You are what you measure”; etc. Although there are some risks in being over-reliant on certain measurements, the principle is true. Measurement brings you both information and accountability.

However, some things are hard to measure. How do we measure intangible things like behaviour? The most obvious answer, measuring the number of sanctions, doesn’t work. It would create perverse incentives that ultimately worsen behaviour – you’d make things look better if you stopped addressing poor behaviour, which would end up with chaos.

When deciding how to measure behaviour we stopped and thought about the particular areas we think we need to focus on. If “what you measure is what you get”, then we want to measure the outcomes we think we need to improve. This led us to two measures we’re launching this week:

1. Timing transitions
Our Assistant Heads of Year now have stopwatches to time and record how quickly we go through the end of break routine to move from social time into lessons. With three breaks a day, shaving a minute off this routine would reclaim 9.5 hours of lesson time – the equivalent of almost two school days.

2. Surveying staff satisfaction
I now send out a weekly one question survey to every member of staff who had to send a student to the behaviour team, asking how satisfied they are with the resolution of that situation on a scale of 1-10. Our systems are only working if our staff feel supported to teach great lessons without interruption. If they don’t then their morale will be low and our students will learn less

Of course there are dangers lurking when we become over-reliant on certain measures. The pitfalls of the public sector target-driven culture are well-documented, and we don’t want to become a place where the only thing that matters is a slim set of numbers. Our intention is to avoid this by changing the measures we use on a regular basis. When we are trying to measure something that we can only get at indirectly, like behaviour, then every measurement gives us a different angle on it. Switching between measurements gives us a more holistic view, and prevents us from working towards a distorted version of our end goal.

A final consequence of picking measurements is that they communicate what you care about. We choose to measure staff satisfaction because we care about it. I could repeat that we care about it every day, but that would have less power than deciding to measure satisfaction and using that measurement to hold ourselves accountable for how good a job we’re doing.

Over the coming few weeks we’ll see how well this works, and start thinking about how we measure other elements of the school.

PS: One thing we’re not yet sure of is whether and how we should use student insights as a measurement. We haven’t thought of the right question to ask yet, or the most efficient way to ask it, but we’re by no means closed to the idea.

How exams took the joy, and the learning, out of our classrooms

Originally published on the Parents and Teachers for Excellence blog here.

Two trends have dominated how British exams have changed over recent decades: they have become more high-stakes, and they have become more skills-based. The two have combined to create a perfect storm that slows down learning and makes school less joyful. School leaders are under pressure to achieve good exam results, and so orient their schools around exam performance. They measure pupils in all year groups against the assessment objectives from exams, and expect teachers to teach to these objectives too. Every piece of work is a mini-GCSE exam.

This would make sense if the assessment objectives could be taught directly, but they can’t because they’re based on generic skills. Skills can only be acquired indirectly: by learning the component parts that build up to make the whole such as pieces of contextual knowledge, rules of grammar, or fluency in procedures. These components look very different to the skill being sought – just as doing drills in football practice looks very different to playing a football match, and playing scales on a violin looks very different to giving a recital. Yet in these analogies exam objectives would be something like “play with flair”, “keep possession” or “hit notes accurately”, and the instruction given to teachers is to directly teach these skills. Not to spend time on passing drills and scales, but to spend time on “having more flair”.

Most teachers see that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Consider the plight of a typical English teacher. They’re told that their pupils aren’t good enough at understanding the author’s purpose, so as a result they need to teach more lessons on understanding the author’s purpose. They’re given lesson plans that tell their pupils to identify words which illustrate the author’s purpose, and to write paragraphs explaining why they do so. Maybe they include a handy mnemonic for remembering the model “author’s purpose” paragraph. But it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because you cannot teach generic skills directly.

To become better at understanding the author’s purpose you need to know more words, so you can understand the fullness of what the author has written, and you need to know more contexts, so you can understand the significance of those words to the author’s life and times. If you know that the gunpowder plot happened in 1605 and that Macbeth was first performed to an audience in 1606, then The Scottish Play becomes a warning against regicide. If you know that “to twist” was Victorian slang for “to hang”, then Oliver Twist becomes a tale about a boy destined for the gallows. If you know that Dickens first came up with the plot when appalled by the experience of attending a young criminal’s public hanging, then it becomes a campaign for social justice. You cannot infer this from practising to understand the author’s purpose. You can only infer it if you have the knowledge.

Becoming a better reader requires investing time in learning a wider vocabulary and building deeper contextual knowledge, but it would be a brave teacher who puts this maxim wholly into action in today’s schools. With the pressure of high-stakes exams there is no room to teach anything except the assessment objectives being examined, and the assessment objectives only measure generic skills. Instead of exciting lessons where pupils learn knowledge that opens up new worlds of history and literature, their teachers are pressured to push them through yet more rounds of dry and soulless skills practice. Pupils and teachers suffer with frustration as they try to become better at inference by doing lots of failed inferring. They rarely have the chance to learn the knowledge they’d need to imagine what was in the author’s head. Both pupils and teachers leave school unhappy as a result.

The same problem occurs in mathematics. Pupils fail exam questions involving problem-solving, so their teachers are told to teach them problem-solving. They’re expected to make their classes discover Pythagoras’s Theorem at the start of the lesson, as if the great breakthrough of a pioneering mathematician could be reliably and spontaneously reproduced by every fourteen year old on a given Thursday afternoon. Having to do this gives them less time to teach Pythagoras’ Theorem, and so jeopardises their pupils’ chance of successfully solving a problem about it in the future. Once again the pressure to teach generic, skill-based exam objectives directly undermines teachers’ attempts to make their pupils better at their subjects – and better in exams as a result.

We now need to realise what high-stakes, skills-based exams have done to our schools and how to recover from it. This will involve moving away from trying to teach skills directly, and from focusing on measuring them at every juncture. Instead we should plan the knowledge (e.g. vocabulary, historical context) and specific micro-skills (e.g. recognising whether the result of an addition will be negative, or re-writing a sentence to be active not passive) that our pupils need to learn in order to perform at a high-level in their exams. We can still target strong exam performance, but we should do so without expecting every lesson to resemble a mini-exam task. Doing so will mean creating schools where pupils learn more tangible things they can go home proud of, and where teachers teach more of the exciting content that brought them into teaching in the first place.

Why Nicky Morgan needs to set a curriculum for teacher training

In many ways, this will be a Parliament of consolidation at the Department for Education. The policies of the last five years are coming into force, and Nicky Morgan will need to put her political energy into seeing them through. But there is one area that does need reforming, and it needs it now. It is possibly the biggest opportunity to improve education in this Parliament, and one that would last well beyond 2020. It doesn’t sound glamorous or exciting, and won’t make the headlines. But its potential should not be underestimated. Nicky Morgan should use this Parliament to set a curriculum for teacher training.

Teacher workload is already extremely high, as Morgan has publically recognised. This means that government can’t improve outcomes in a way that puts pressure on schools – there are no more gains to be made from making teachers work harder. Instead, government has to look for ways to help teachers be more effective; and it should start by making sure every new teacher gets the training they deserve.

When I did my teacher training we spent laughably little time learning about learning. We discussed what made a good lesson (in the lecturer’s opinion…) but rarely why those components were good. We were often given quasi-moral justifications, like the assertions that “it is better to discover things for yourself” or “children learn better when they work in groups”, but I cannot recall a single time I heard something explained in terms of how a child’s brain would be responding.

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.

We can’t afford to ignore the lessons from Chinese school

Imagine I told you there was a way to make our children perform 10% better in their exams after just four weeks of study. It involves changing a school’s timetable and teaching style, but still leaving plenty of room for leadership opportunities and extra-curricular activities. You’d expect to hear a clamour insisting that we roll this out in all schools immediately. Instead, Chinese School has earned itself a long list of critics. They don’t like Chinese education because it of its values. Or more precisely, because it values knowledge.

They argue that we should not be seeking to learn from Chinese teaching, despite its superior results. They concede that doing so would make our children learn more, but that this would come at too high a cost. Any improvement in our teaching of knowledge, they argue, would stop pupils being creative thinkers or challengers of the status quo. Yes, Chinese teaching may improve the learning of rules and information, but it does nothing to teach originality.

They seriously appear to be arguing that in a system in which 35% of 16 year olds failed English GCSE this year our problem is learning too much vocabulary, knowing the laws of grammar too well, and sticking too rigidly to the traditions of the literary canon. Otherwise why complain that Chinese teaching is good at helping pupils learn information?

Read the rest of this article at Conservative Home.