19 Jan Getting the scale right: attitudes before systems.
After millennia of battle the surviving G’Gugvuntt and Vl’hurg realised what had actually happened, and joined forces to attack the Milky Way in retaliation. They crossed vast reaches of space in a journey lasting thousands of years before reaching their target where they attacked the first planet they encountered, Earth. Due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was swallowed by a small dog.
I love this Hitch-hiker’s Guide story. How often do we misjudge the relative impact of different actions or the level of effort involved compared to the outcomes? It happens with money all the time: Fretting over spending £10 instead of £6.99 on a bottle of wine… while your £45 direct debit membership for the gym you never go to goes out each month; fussing about whether to spend £500 on staff food on an INSET day but being sloppy about chasing down extra Sixth Form recruits at a cost of £4K each; getting angry with the Government for spending £1million on a public inquiry but not getting so bothered about £billions of tax not collected from high earners and corporations. In education, there are lots of fleets being swallowed by dogs; situations where we often misjudge the scale: Here is my top three:
1. Curriculum Planning and Timetabling
Short-term accountability pressures force us to be diverted from thinking about the heart of our business: the quality of teacher-student relationships and interactions. We may have a fleet of good intentions: teaching and learning strategies, differentiation and literacy policies; schemes of work and good resources – all lined up and ready for battle. BUT, the whole lots gets swallowed up by the Dog of curriculum planning: too many transitions between lessons, split classes, multiple teachers, teaching in a different room every lesson, break duty between lessons and so on. . All that relationship-building and subtle teacher-knowledge about students can be fractured, broken up and lost by re-setting, sharing classes and endless chop and change. I know of several schools where Y7 students have had 25+ teachers in one year; sometimes three for one subject at once – and it undermines everything else. Sir Tim Brighouse makes good sense on this subject; we need to be careful not to lose the art of skilful management, in the rush to drive through initiatives. We mustn’t underestimate how important it is for each student to be known; not only as an individual but as a learner.
2. Performance Management or Appraisal Systems
Here we have a fleet of policies and systems, reinforced by OfSTED and the latest accountability drive. We have Performance Related Pay on its way and OfSTED may ask to see how teachers’ targets are set and monitored, following the paper trail. The idea is that this kind of tough regime will arm us in the fight against underachievement and mediocre teaching….. but, wait… the scale doesn’t seem right.
I’m a pretty good teacher. I get great results…and my school does pretty well too. But I have a confession to make: not once, ever, ever, ever have I felt that my Performance Management targets have had the slightest bit to do with anything. Right now, I don’t even know what my PR targets are; I’ve forgotten. Each year, when my review comes up, I get the paperwork out to remind myself what it was that I said I should be aiming for; then I sort of bluff my way through the process and set some more for the following year. This is a fleet of G’Gugvuntt’s heading for Earth. Elsewhere my own personal drive and determination is the dog that will swallow the fleet. I perform well because I am motivated to do so; it is an attitude; it is something I do as a professional person with integrity; it is something that is reinforced by the culture that surrounds me. These things are much much bigger and more powerful than whatever it says in that file. The data targets don’t work because, all I can do is work flat out to secure the best results possible…I’m aiming high anyway, all of the time. The teaching and learning targets don’t work either because I move on continually; one year is a long time to focus on one idea…
Here is my radical contention: If we burned or deleted all the Performance Management files it would be a long long time before any student noticed a difference. We need to keep it in perspective. The point of a performance review process cannot be about accountability. If someone is failing, you can’t wait a year to sort it out; you go in straight away. Any targets are much tighter.. and you work with someone week in, week out. The purpose of the appraisal process is this: to motivate a person to push themselves further; to engage with CPD, to plan a great career, to explore new ideas. The targets are then just a record of that snap-shot discussion to reflect on later.
The goal, therefore is to work with teachers to promote a positive, determined attitude toward self-directed challenge and self-improvement….that is the Dog; the accountability fleet has got no chance.
3. Assessment Data Overkill
“You can’t have too much data” said a colleague. Once. “No, you really can” I replied.
Imagine a walk through the minutiae of the processes that lead from the production of a set of attainment data on a computer somewhere – or on the ‘war-wall’ with the 5A*-C Venn diagrams in the staffroom – through to the teacher-student interactions that follow in a classroom. What are the circumstances where those interactions are different because of the information in the data?
I can think of a few times, when I find data useful:
- At the start of a year: getting to know a new class by looking at their prior attainment.
- Evaluating tests and exams: finding out where we did well and where we can improve
- Keeping track of progress with periodic stock-takes across the year.
- As a mentor to Y11 students, it is helpful to see mock results and interim teacher assessments.
- At a whole-school level, assessment data can help pastoral pick out students who are excelling, coasting or struggling.
But that is all. It isn’t that much. However, all too often, we get the scale wrong. Schools create vast overcomplicated data machines that slice and dice the information, factoring in 10- 15 variables and keeping track of the latest data stream in rainbow colours. Some teachers have to do an awful lot of data entry. But, again, let’s stop and think for a minute. In my lessons (and many others far better than mine) my expectations come from me; the data is a blurry back-drop. That spreadsheet with multiple columns of grades and levels…. – well, how much of that do you actually need before you go into a lesson knowing that student A needs a certain level of input and B needs something slightly different. If you didn’t have the data but just thought about A and B for a minute, would that be the same? Similarly if the pastoral team drew up a list of students who need intervention, based on their anecdotal knowledge base ,…how well would that match up to the list generated from the uber-tracking system? I bet it wouldn’t be far off. What matters much more than the hard data of numbers and figures – is the teacher’s knowledge.
In terms of target-setting, what do we really gain from all the pseudo-precision and statistical jiggery-pokery? It seems to me, we only need data to help us IF we are complacent or if we impose limits on our students’ potential. However, if we are the ones telling them all that the sky is the limit, the targets set themselves. No-one ever aimed for a D and felt successful – unless they exceeded it. Our aims need to be ferociously high – and we don’t need much data to guide us; most of what is needed is attitudinal – and developing that across a school requires a different approach altogether.
So here is the great Earth Dog vs Vl’hurg Fleet thought-experiment: Imagine the entire data-system is wiped at your school by a rogue virus and all your mark-books are destroyed by fire. How upset are you? What will you do? How much difference will it make? How soon would you notice? Now, decide to re-create only the data sets that you actually need to influence your classroom actions and nothing more… It wouldn’t be much. The thing is this; if you have been doing your job well, the fire and the virus won’t have touched the thing that mattered most: your knowledge of your students. You are the Dog; you win every time!
Conclusion to a convoluted cautionary caper:
- Get the scale right.
- Attitudes matter more than systems
- Don’t let the Good Fleet be swallowed by a Bad Dog
- OR, be the Dog yourself; don’t let the fleet of Accountability overwhelm you; just swallow it whole!