There’s no such thing as ‘best practice’

Frank Coffield

For over 30 years a central plank in the reform programme for education of all governments has been the strategy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’. There’s only one thing wrong with this approach: there’s no such thing, but the FE and Skills sector is saturated with the term.

I first began to doubt the strategy when watching with student teachers a video of an ‘outstanding’ teacher working with a small group of well motivated and impeccably behaved pupils in a sun-lit classroom. Were the students inspired by the ‘best practice’ of Miss Newly Qualified Teacher of the Year? On the contrary, they either pointed out that they were teaching not 12 middle-class but 32 working-class students from a sink estate, some of whom were refugees with next to no English. Or they worried that they would never be able to match the smooth, practised performance of the more experienced teacher.

In other words, the two contexts were so different that little learning was transferred or the expertise of the “outstanding” teacher was so far above their current level of performance that they felt intimidated. My attempt to spread ‘best practice’ was more like a con-trick played by the unimaginative on the unsuspecting, particularly because the students were left to work out for themselves how to transfer the ‘best practice’ of the video to their own classrooms.

Further reflection led me to the central weakness with the strategy: it builds up psychological resistance in those at the receiving end, because they are being told implicitly that their practice is poor or inadequate. If their practice was thought good or outstanding, why are they being expected to adopt someone else’s ‘best practice’? Almost certainly they think their practice is pretty effective; that’s why they are using it.

Besides, there are questions that need to be asked of all those pushing ‘best practice’. Who says it is? On what grounds? Based on what criteria? Would another observer looking at the same teaching episode agree that it was the best? Is this ‘best practice’ equally effective with all age groups and all subject areas? What are the distinctions between ‘good’, ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ practice, terms which are used interchangeably? These questions are not answered; we‘re expected to take ‘best practice’ on authority, without evidence. There are no sure-fire, student-proof recipes for the complex, ambiguous and varied problems in teaching.

Luckily, there is a well tested alternative – JPD – where tutors jointly (J) share their practice (P) in order to develop (D) it. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and joint exploration, they explain to each other their successes and struggles in teaching their subject. They then move on to observing and evaluating each other’s classroom practices in a supportive atmosphere which encourages the creativity of both partners.

JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers because it does not undercut their current practice, as happens with the strategy of ‘best practice’, but rather it seeks to enhance it by opening it up to discussion with supportive colleagues. Both partners in the exchange play the roles of observer and observed, of being the originator and receiver of practical advice; and both roles are accorded equal status. This equality in the relationships between tutors in JPD goes a long way to explain why it is proving to be far more effective than ‘best practice’.

This is one of the main themes that I explore in my new book – Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in FE – which is published this month by the Institute of Education Press. The rest of the book is devoted to showing how some FE and sixth form colleges are responding to Ofsted making teaching and learning the number one priority by introducing what the research claims are the most effective interventions, while dropping the least effective.

I shall explore here in a little detail two examples. First, I show how to harness the potential power of feedback; I say ‘potential’ because too often feedback has negative effects and some types of feedback are more powerful than others. Many students are dissatisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive – eg what is meant by “Be more analytic”? Tutors too are frustrated by students who prefer to receive praise rather than being challenged to think more deeply. The research emphatically suggests that tutors use the strong definition of feedback, namely, if it doesn’t change students’ behaviour or thinking, it isn’t feedback.

Another chapter shows how Socratic questioning can change the culture of learning in classrooms and workshops. It’s a means of challenging students’ thinking in a non-threatening way; and it treats challenges from students as constructive contributions to dialogue.

Other chapters show how social media can motivate students; combine psychological and economic factors to explain students’ motivation; and they assess the impact of ‘flipped’ learning, peer teaching and peer assessment.

The final chapter addresses the question: “can we transform classrooms and colleges without first transforming the role of the state?” My answer is that we can improve the quality of teaching and learning and make our colleges more like learning communities even within the current constraints of government policy and declining resources.


How philosophy and theatre can help us value profoundly disabled people

John Vorhaus

A series of philosophical questions arise from reflection on profound disability and dependency, with implications not only for profoundly disabled people, but for all of us at some stage in our lives. A few thoughts about our moral status will illustrate the point, with  help from the world of theatre.

What does our moral status depend upon?  A common response is the capacity for autonomy and rationality. But not all human beings have much of either. What about the importance of human relations and relationships? But where would that leave the lonely or unloved? Belonging to the same species? For some this is just a matter of biological taxonomy, yet for others it is of the upmost moral significance, a reminder that we are all ‘fellow creatures’.

Philosophers think about these features of humanity in strikingly different ways. Some explore the meaning of a human life and the language we employ to understand it. Others emphasise empirical enquiry, looking especially in the direction of the neuro- and cognitive sciences. People with profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities (PMLD) present a challenge. What exactly is their moral status? They lack what many see as the hallmark of moral agency – a capacity for rational autonomy.

When thinking about these questions it can help to get one’s head out of a book and spend time with parents, carers, teachers, interpreters, therapists – and theatre directors. Tim Webb first set up Oily Cart over thirty years ago, producing “all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids”. His company offers interactive, multisensory theatre to profoundly disabled children, and what it provides is not only ‘theatre’ as you or I might understand this, but an experience of smelling, hearing, touching, and feeling a rush of fanned air against your face. It’s a world in which, as Lyn Gardner of The Guardian described one performance, “soundscape, sensory diversions, colour and water come together in a liquid world of enchantment”.

The work of Oily Cart – what they bestow on the children, and what they succeed in bringing out of them – whether a smile, stilled attentiveness, or chuckling pleasure – is a wonderful thing to behold: magical, sensitive, clever, pretty, thoughtful, imaginative and –above all – a world which reaches inside the children, exciting their senses and imagination, and making an intimate connection with a group of human beings who number amongst the most dependent and hard to reach on earth.

Possibilities abound: how theatre might reveal what someone is capable of that might otherwise be thought impossible (adults watching on sometimes cannot believe their eyes); how the subtlest enticing of the senses might draw out and enliven a previously inert and ‘unreachable’ child.  And while these children may never participate in politics or anything like it, they might succeed in contributing to a theatrical event, becoming – if only momentarily – members of a group sharing in a common human endeavour.

These possibilities are open to ridicule as the product of sentimental wishful thinking. But the thoughts inspired by theatrical work of this kind are not to be dismissed out of hand. We are shown how a human being may surprise herself, and us, when brought alive by something captivating, becoming part of something beautiful that she will not see for herself, but which she is yet contributing to and representing. Thoughts of this nature, prompted by remarkable theatre, and a remarkable and exceptionally vulnerable group of human beings, are worth reflecting on when thinking about the contours of their moral status, and ours.

John Vorhaus’s forthcoming book, Giving voice to profound disability: dignity, dependence and human capabilities, will be published by Routledge next year.

Education about Europe is not a panacea but does promote European identity

Avril Keating

The European Parliament (EP) elections won’t take place until the end of May, but campaigning is already well underway. In Britain, much of the recent debate has focused on the impact of UKIP on the national political landscape, and its apparent ability to attract new voters and influence the electoral strategies of the more established political parties.

While UKIP makes for interesting headlines and analysis, this focus obscures the fact that turnout for these elections is likely to be low. Only 35% of people in England voted in the 2009 EP elections. Across the EU, turnout has remained ‘stubbornly low’ and by some measures is even declining. Participation rates among young Europeans were even more alarming; only 29 per cent of 18-24s voted in the 2009 EP elections, a figure that is 14 percentage points below the European average and 4 percentage points less than young people in this age group voted in 2004.

This downward trend in youth turnout has prompted EU policymakers to redouble their efforts to raise participation among young European citizens. At times such as these, it is not unusual to hear policymakers and commentators call for young people to be taught more about European integration while they are at school. Knowledge among the general public about European institutions, policies, and citizenship has consistently been low (regardless of age), and this lack of information is believed to be one of the key reasons that EU citizens do not vote in EP elections.

Providing information through schools would seem to be a natural and efficient solution. After all, schools are a key site of socialisation and citizenship learning, and nation-states have long used this forum to provide children and young people with the information, skills, values and norms of national citizenship. Likewise, the European institutions have for many decades encouraged their member states to provide a ‘European dimension’ to their school curricula and to teach young citizens about the history, culture, institutions, and languages of Europe. Over time, member states have gradually adapted to this proposal, and the latest Eurydice review of citizenship education found that all EU member states (and most candidate countries) now have a European dimension to their citizenship education, at least at lower secondary-level education, but often throughout formal schooling.

But does education about Europe ‘work’? We know that individuals with higher levels of education are more likely to vote and to support European integration, but in the past, few studies have examined whether introducing a European dimension to the school curriculum will have a similar effect. However, data from the 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS) allows us to consider this question, and it provides a somewhat mixed picture. On the one hand, this data suggests that students who have more opportunities to learn about Europe at school are more likely to report having a European identity and are more likely to report positive attitudes towards freedom of movement for EU citizens. Individuals with higher levels of European identity are, in turn, more likely to vote in EP elections and support European integration. Yet the data also suggests that in and of itself, education about European issues made little or no difference to students’ intentions to vote in EP elections in the future.

In short, if the goal is to create active European voters, simply including more information about European issues in the school curriculum is clearly not sufficient. Indeed, for a more immediate impact, policy activists may wish to concentrate their efforts on media and political campaigns, which have been shown to have a stronger relationship with voting preferences. This is not to say that education, and education about Europe, is not important. Rather, it simply underlines that education is not a panacea for Europe’s democratic deficit, and that simply tinkering with the education system, or proposing more education, will not bridge the gulf between the political actors and citizens of Europe.

Seeking to address this gap is particularly important at this critical juncture in the European political project. The financial crisis that started in late 2008 has damaged not only the European economy but also the relationship between governments, citizens and the European institutions. And it is worth noting that the decline in EU support has potential implications not just for European integration, but also for power and politics in the national arena. In particular, a rise in Euroscepticism is associated with an increased likelihood of voting for radical right-wing parties, who are skilled at exploiting dissatisfaction with European integration.

At this critical juncture, citizenship-projects are in an unusually high state of flux, and it is still too early to tell what the long or medium term implications may be for the relationship between political institutions and their citizens, be it in national or European arenas.

In this often tumultuous context, it is not clear that European citizenship will be viable or desirable project in the future. But regardless of its medium and long-term prospects, EU citizenship at least, is currently a reality and therefore its citizens deserve to be informed about their rights, how the institutions work, and how they can seek to influence these institutions. For this reason, then, we need to continue to seek to understand the role that education plays in this process – be it in schools, policy texts, or informational campaigns, and regardless of one’s beliefs about European integration and EU membership.

Avril Keating is an ESRC Future Research Leader and a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Social Science at the LLAKES Research Centre. She is the author of Education for citizenship in Europe: European policies, national adaptations and young people’s attitudes, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this month.

AERA reminds us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse

Chris Husbands

The annual conference of the American Education Research Association cannot really be described: it has to be experienced. Every year, it attracts almost 20,000 education researchers, not just from North America but from the entire English speaking world, and, in the last decade, increasingly from East Asia. So any individual experience of the conference must still be partial.

For five days, AERA takes over the downtown of a large American city, so the sheer logistics of running the annual conference must be mind boggling. The conference programme is the size of a telephone directory and about as readable: even the app which has been available for the last few takes some navigation. You have to really know what you are looking for to master the search function, but if you only want to browse it’s difficult – although the AERA2014 app does contain abstracts for the thousands of papers.

In essence, AERA is not one conference but several. AERA is organised into 12 divisions, from administration, organisation and leadership (Division A) through to Education Policy and Politics (Division L), taking in Measurement and Research methodology (Division D) and Learning and Instruction (Division C) with much else besides. Each division runs several parallel sessions at any one time. Then there is the conference of the highlights: the large, set piece lectures and panels led by genuine global stars such as Diane Ravitch (this year on the challenges of quality and equality), Andreas Schleicher (this year on why we should care about international comparisons), Charles Payne (in 2014 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act) and Linda Darling-Hammond (on issues in the validity of high stakes assessments): their sessions fill the ballrooms of large hotels, standing room only.

Then there is the conference of the post-doctoral researchers, for whom AERA is a grand hiring fair – a good 20-minute performance reporting on your doctorate to a room of perhaps nine people can be instrumental in landing a prestigious position. And of course there is the conference of the corridors: knots of people meeting up to compare experiences of research funding and research policy, to complain about their miserable lot, to plot and to scheme and to gossip, to broker deals and agreements – people who have not seen each other since San Francisco last year and won’t meet again until Chicago next year.

And the range is huge: to deploy some (all too frequently observed) stereotypes, sessions on structural equation modelling led by earnest young think tank econometricians in sharp blazers, sessions on the endless reverberations of race in American education full of lively, disputatious people of colour, sessions on urban school reform led by harassed school superintendents looking for better teacher or school evaluation strategies.

This year’s conference (April 3-7) was in Philadelphia – the conference is always in one of those vast American cities where a wrong turn at one block will take you into parts of town where you’ll come across urban Americans uninterested in the finer points of methodology – and its over-arching theme was “the power of education research for innovation in practice and policy”. Barbara Schneider (Michigan State University), this year’s president, chose to speak about the “college mismatch problem”: why American teenagers from poor backgrounds apply to universities of lower status than their grades could get them into; Ruby Takanishi from the New America Foundation and Rachel Gordon from the University of Illinois looked at what we are learning from universal preschool education.

There are major methodological innovations: the impact of learning analytics on the knowledge base for lifelong learning, what the evidence is saying about recent immigration and its consequences for education. But all this makes it sound too ordered. Opening the telephone directory programme randomly I find ”an Australian perspective on inequality and education”, “blacks, hip-hop and the sociocultural milieu”, “dental school deans’ perception of dental education costs”, ”does teacher and student race congruence help or hinder student engagement in ninth grade science”, “ the common core standards and teacher quality reform” , and “comparing three estimation approaches for the Rasch Testlet model”: and on and on through literally thousands of sessions.

It’s almost impossible to discern trends, though economists seem to be growing in number and influence; ‘big data’ and its promises and pitfalls pre-occupy more people; and even in America – that most inward looking of melting pots – questions of international comparison and globalisation are more than ever in evidence. Being at AERA is a reminder of the similarities and differences between American and English experience in education.

There are some common themes: the relationships between quality and equity, between social structure, education experiences and performance, between the dynamics of research and the dynamics of policy. Others look similar but are really different: academies, for example, are not, in the last analysis, quite the same as charter schools. Others are genuinely different: the American experience of urban school reform is not the English experience; America’s experience in curriculum reform and teacher education has been quite different from England’s.

AERA is always simultaneously disorienting – you inevitably feel you are in the wrong place, that there is a more interesting and important session just around the corner – and energising – thousands of exceptionally able and engaged people enthused about education, and above all reminding us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse.

How I failed to meet the criteria for Blob membership

John White

We have known for some time that Michael Gove has taken up arms against ‘The Blob’. This is his name for an amorphous group of people opposed to his policies from the educational world, including teacher unions, local authority officials, and academics from university education departments. But only now, thanks to his ally Toby Young’s new Civitas pamphlet, do we have a definitive idea of ‘The Blob’ and what it stands for.

He tells us that “They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subjectknowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitatingfacts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating theteacher as an authority figure” (p2).

He later adds to these criteria of inclusion ‘the belief that children are essentially good’; a view of learning based on ‘as few facts as possible’; and an ‘epistemological relativism’ according to which ‘no one point of view is more valid than another’ (pp. 4-5).

I am one of the two Institute people identified in Young’s pamphlet and in the Telegraph as belonging to ‘The Blob’. Before I read the details of its membership requirements, I was delighted with my new badge of honour. But now, having absorbed them, I see regretfully that I am not in ‘The Blob’ after all.

I do not denigrate subject knowledge. I want students to learn plenty of good science, history and geography. True, I don’t think that constructing the curriculum should begin with taken-for-granted blocks of subjects rather than overall aims, but that’s another story – and one that my colleague Michael Reiss and I have recently told.

I am not opposed to ‘direct instruction’ where appropriate. I accept that some rote learning may be helpful on occasion. I am not in favour of indiscipline, or opposed to all routine. I do not think that children are naturally good, but would argue that they learn to be kind, fair, thoughtful and so on through habituation into these virtues. I have always been opposed to the idea that knowledge is relative. It is true that London is the capital of the UK and daffodils come out in spring. If someone thinks something else, it is false that their point of view is as valid as anyone else’s.

I can give Toby plenty of evidence, if he wants it, to back up the claims I’ve just made about my beliefs: I know he’s a stickler for knowledge. Mind you, he can have his lapses. He says, for instance, that I think that knowing the names of the Kings and Queens of England is a middle class perspective. I don’t know where he got that from.

As I said, I have to conclude from all this that, although in all sorts of ways I’m opposed to Gove’s policies, I’m not a member of ‘The Blob’. More alarmingly, I don’t think I know anyone who is. Perhaps if you are reading this and feel you meet the criteria laid down, you will say so. In this way we could begin to draw up some kind of membership list.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to wonder whether anyone belongs to ‘The Blob’. Has Toby’s imagination made the whole thing up?