It seems to me that a lot of energy in the edusphere is dissipated dealing with issues that emerge through the inherent limitations of online media. Twitter and blogs are brilliant; they have transformed the nature of our professional landscape, democratising access to key thinkers, research papers and policy makers and massively magnified our level of engagement with evidence. But they only work because they are based on brevity! For the most part this is a good thing because it streamlines dissemination of ideas, but it also means that lots of reasonable ideas get trashed and dismissed – either deliberately and directly or through a shallow reading or misrepresentation of someone else’s more subtle analysis or nuanced position.
This can lead to all kinds of simplistic commentary:
- Homework: Waste of time. Low effect. Ditch it.
- Marking: Waste of time. Pointless
- Groupwork: Ineffective groovy teaching. Not on my watch.
- Projects: Soft outcomes, opportunity cost, unfair on disadvantaged children
- EdTech: complete waste of money. Outrage!
- Knowledge organisers: reductive, narrow view of what curriculum should be.
- Curriculum concepts: just buzzwords to scattergun in an Ofsted interview
There’s a wide margin between the irritating black-and-whitery of absolute positions on these things and the foolishness of an anything-goes position; it leaves things wide open. You can be talking about principles of instruction and someone pipes up that this doesn’t deal with relationships – as if that’s been forgotten. Or it doesn’t apply to Early Years as if ‘instruction’ should also cover the free-flow play of four-year-olds. Or you’ve forgotten SEND children – as if, when you said ‘all children’, that wasn’t quite inclusive enough. Or someone eye-rolls at promoting a positive take on desks in rows – because, who’d have guessed, it doesn’t apply to teaching drama.
Then you have the suggestion that certain tasks that might benefit from materials, books or parents as supports are inappropriate because they’re problematic for disadvantaged students. The challenges might be real enough but, to me, this stance can come across as pretty patronising. Are people really suggesting disadvantaged children should be denied ever being given an open-ended homework task; that those things are just for the others? No – that’s just the twitter effect because that can’t be what they mean.
In each of these areas, any detailed discussion will consider, not whether an idea ‘works’ in some all or nothing way, but what pre-conditions might need to be in place for the idea to be effective. Dylan Wiliam gives this message all the time. It immediately begs the question as to what constitutes ‘effective’ which is in itself an important discussion. The problem is that, in the flow of online, tweet-sized critiques, people often hear what they want to hear. You say ‘marking is problematic’ – people hear ‘marking is pointless, let’s not do any marking’. The same goes for homework and all the rest. Someone like Tom Bennett says ‘stop setting pointless homework or giving families ‘arts and crafts’ tasks to do in their own time – for totally sound reasons –and sure enough that’s fuel to the fire for people who don’t want to set any homework. Or it offends people who see the ‘arts’ reference and wilfully twist it mean an attack on ‘the arts’ – which is a thousand miles from what is being said as reasonable people could surely see.
I think it would help if we made the default assumption that pronouncements in our much-loved short-form discourse have some boundary conditions built in; even if not declared explicitly, they will be exist. Boundary conditions are a useful idea in what should be a research-informed field:
- What are the limiting conditions beyond which a strategy is no longer effective?
- What might be the optimum conditions for maximum effectiveness?
Conditions will include subjects and the specific content within them, levels of difficulty, age-range or levels of required prior knowledge, school contexts, levels of support, time, resources, frequency. It may be that different students within a class need different things or can respond in different ways. With these things in mind, we might have more useful discussions about all of the areas listed at the top:
Homework: What kinds of tasks at what frequency are valuable for supporting learning at various stages? What level of prior knowledge, support, difficulty, capacity for self-assessment are required? When are open-ended tasks suitable and when might they not be? What kinds of structure should be provided to ensure access for all?
Marking: When is it appropriate to give feedback through teacher comments taking account of teacher workload relative to learning impact? What’s the optimum frequency and nature of marking, subject by subject? When might whole-class feedback or individual verbal feedback be more appropriate? What structures do we need in lessons to ensure that marking is worthwhile in terms of student response?
Groupwork: If we’re not saying that group work is inherently always a disaster – that at some point in children’s lives, it’s useful for them to work collaboratively beyond experiencing lazy unstructured groupwork – what structures do we need to put in place? This should probably include Robert Slavin’s criteria about individual accountability and group goals so nobody is ever left to flounder on bubble-writing duty. But there is such a thing as effective collaborative learning if it’s done properly; if certain boundary conditions apply.
Projects: If we’re not saying that children should never ever do a project, making some choices about their learning, when in the curriculum might this be most appropriate? What resources, structures, success criteria and/or exemplars might we need to provide to ensure that projects are accessible for all and yield high quality outcomes?
EdTech: Before we jump off the tech-evangelist bandwagon and jump on the no-tech one going the other way, let’s consider what types of technology would be useful to teachers and students to support learning. Even if we reject hyperbolic futurama ‘transformation’ rhetoric, can we at least, for example, enhance teaching and learning by streamlining self-assessment or providing diagnostic information to teachers? What hardware and software would be the most appropriate to deliver those useful things? We might need to concede that the tools we need don’t exist at an affordable level yet.. but at least that’s a more useful discussion.
Knowledge organisers: Before we go off to make piles of elaborate KOs or, alternatively, ditch them as the prevailing wind of twitter wisdom changes direction, let’s consider what the most useful resources might be to support students to understand the scope of their curriculum, the details of what they need to learn and the techniques they could learn that support them with retrieval practice and schema-building and independent study in general. Booklets? Textbooks? Online tools maybe? What might be the range of useful ways to present and then to access the information they need?
Of course, some will read this and say ‘straw man’. Of course people mean the nuance when they tweet a dismissal. Well, maybe so. But a casual dismissal followed by a major pile-on happens fairly regularly. Yeah – no homework, no projects, no tech, no marking, no shallow knowledge organisers, none of that curriculum concept faddery…. etc etc. Emoji clapping approval all round.
I’m more inclined to listen when someone says – look, I’m just too busy to deal with all that stuff; I’m just keeping it simple. But the real-world workload case is very different to an evidence-informed effectiveness case and I’d say in an evidence-informed profession, it pays to make the distinction.
If we took on the boundary conditions concept more seriously, we’d be more likely to apply the principle of charity; we’d accept that people’s short-form comments are not meant as universal claims; we’d be less likely to assume that just because an idea is being celebrated that other ideas are being ruled out. We’d see a lot more caveats; we’d see a lot more people asking earnest questions like ‘in which conditions did you see this working?’ or ‘what boundary conditions to you see applying to that claim?’ before the sarcastic or exasperated or downright furious quote tweets start doing the rounds.
At the same time, it would probably help if people avoided the language of ‘never’ and ‘always’. No doubt I’ve been as guilty of all of this as anyone; I should try to do better.