Much like Daisy, who was “shocked to stumble across an entire field of educational and scientific research which completely disproved many of the theories I had been taught when training and teaching”, I have also been shocked - and relieved – to find that many the ideas I have developed over the past decade are not mine and mine alone.
I recall, in my second year of teaching, meeting with the Deputy Head of my school to discuss my goals for the year in a Performance Management meeting. “You need to decide on three targets,” I was told. “One will be about your own development. One will be about a whole school area of development. And one will be a target based on the achievement of the children in your class.”
I was used to the silliness of performance targets from my previous career, where they were largely used as a smoke screen for huge bonus payments to those in management positions. I was used to targets based on my performance. But on the performance of children in my class? How on earth could I be held responsible for that?
I’d been in class with the children for a month, and it was clear that – what with them being little children and everything – I had a wide range of aptitudes, ages and attitudes in my class. Some hadn’t made much progress so far in school, some were flying. And the idea that whatever I did would automatically transfer to them was a ludicrous idea.
When I said this, I was regarded as been some kind of weirdoid from the planet Zog. “But every teacher in the school has performance targets based on children’s results!”. “Maybe,” I said, “But I can’t take responsibility for anyone’s actions but my own. I’m not prepared to sign up for anything.” And I didn’t. I simply didn’t sign anything with a target based on the children’s performance.
But that has become increasingly difficult, and now I know why. As Daisy found, “ideas which had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented () as unquestionable axioms.” I’m digging a bit deeper into the foundations of ideas about teaching and schools, and I hope that a lot of ideas which have absolutely no evidence to back them up will topple as a result.
Given what follows, I must start by saying that I think that teachers, and schools, do a difficult, demanding and immensely important job from which we all benefit. Without the systematic transfer of knowledge coordinated by schools, we would all be much, much worse off. The skill, care and enthusiasm of those who teach never fails to astound me. Children and families across the country are tremendously well served by those who seek to educate the next generation.
Schools are, however, a broad coalition of adults and children, working together. In some cases, schools manage to achieve excellent results, narrow and questionable as whatever 'outcome' we choose to measure might be. There is a particular chemistry which enables schools such as King Soloman Academy, Hills Road Sixth Form College and Mossbourne Academy to hit the heights they do.
But those schools who struggle to match these superstars of the performance tables also contain dedicated, hard working teachers and children. This book explores some of the fallacies which are commonly believed to explain why the superstars outshine the others, why efforts to measure school outputs are deeply flawed and why the course many suggest we follow to improve the quality of education in our schools is misguided and wrong.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on my ideas.
Chapter 1: Teacher Input = Pupil Output
The 'Teacher Input = Pupil Output' fallacy is where 'teacher input' is held to lead directly to 'pupil outputs'.
Where is the evidence that people believe this and that it has affected education policy and classroom practice?
A huge number of people believe that what teachers do in the classroom has a direct and measurable effect on the output of children. This has become known as the Process-Product (sometimes process-outcome), tradition and is summarised here:
“The earliest studies of factors associated with quality of teaching occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, and focused primarily on presage variables, such as teachers’ verbal ability, warmth, intelligence, educational background, and knowledge of subject matter (Shulman, 1986). This line of research diminished in the late 1960s and gave way to new approaches to the study of teaching. Specifically, process-product research was initiated during the 1960s and increased significantly during the 1970s and 1980s (Hoffman, 1986). During this time, many researchers concentrated on identifying teachers' actions (processes) linked directly to student learning and behaviour (products or outcomes).
Two forms of process-outcome research were prominent in the 1970s. The first was school-effects research, which identified system-level characteristics of schools which were successful in promoting high-achievement and positive classroom behaviors among students. This work identified several process variables relating to student outcomes, such as strong administrative leadership, positive teacher attitudes, safe and orderly school climate and parent involvement (Bickel, 1999; Stringfield & Herman, 1997). The second type of process-outcome research was teacher-effectiveness research. This work identified teacher behaviours and patterns of teacher-student interactions associated with student performance. Using primarily teacher observation instruments and measures of student achievement, researchers sought to identify skills or behaviours exhibited with high frequency among effective teachers, for example, how they organised the classroom, introduced lessons, asked questions, or provided feedback (Good, 1996). The results of this process-product tradition yielded finding that continue to influence teaching and teacher education today.” (p74)
From Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary Issues, edited by Carolyn M. Evertson & Carol S. Weinstein, 2013.
Whilst much of the theoretical foundation of this process-product tradition was laid forty years ago, it continues to have a huge impact on perceptions of teaching. In recent years, it has begun to make a comeback, as the authors of the ‘Handbook of Classroom Management’ contest:
“Despite a general diminishing of process-outcome studies during the 1990s, this research approach is beginning to resurface as investigators are returning to the study of effective teaching and the call for evidence-based practice is intensifying, especially for students who are at risk of failing in school. Indeed, in the 1995 update and third edition of Effective Schooling Practices: A Research Synthesis, which synthesises and summaries evidence-based classroom practices that promote student achievement and appropriate behaviour, many findings from process-outcome research are featured, including classroom routines, clear and focused instruction, feedback and reinforcement, review and reteaching, direct questioning, and communicating performance and behavior expectations.” (p89)
Ofsted, the branch of the government tasked with reporting on the quality of educational provision in England, is one of the main drivers of theory and practice within English schools.
Ofsted sets out what it expects of schools in its School Inspection Handbook. As the Handbook explains, “Inspection is primarily about evaluating how well individual pupils benefit from the education provided by their school.” In this sense, education is the teaching input (amongst other aspects of the activities of the adults in the school) and the evaluation is of the pupil output, or ‘how well individual pupils benefit’ from the teaching they experience.
Ofsted requires a school to be either ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. Any school not achieving these judgements requires support coordinated by Ofsted to ensure the school moves to one of these categories.
The following descriptions of Ofsted’s expectations of schools outline the government’s official position on the theory and practice expected in school.
“Teaching is outstanding and, together with a rich, relevant, broad and balanced curriculum, contributes to outstanding learning and achievement, significant growth in pupils’ knowledge, and excellent attitudes to learning.”
“Pupils benefit from teaching that is at least good. This leads to substantial growth in pupils’ knowledge, promotes very positive attitudes to learning and ensures that pupils are achieving well.”
“Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, disadvantaged pupils and the most able, are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement.”
“Teaching over time in most subjects, including English and mathematics, is consistently good. As a result, most pupils and groups of pupils on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, disadvantaged pupils and the most able, make good progress and achieve well over time.”
Schools which are not good either have teaching which “requires improvement because it is not good,” or teaching which is “weak teaching over time,” which leads directly to, “pupils or particular groups of pupils, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, disadvantaged pupils and the most able, (who) are making inadequate progress.”
The government position clearly assumes that teaching input leads directly to pupil outcomes. It is part of the process-product tradition as summarised by Evertson and Weinstein et al in the Handbook of Classroom Management above. As Maria Balarin and Hugh Lauder noted in their 2008 summary of ‘The Governance and Administration of English Primary Education’, “The shift towards a governance model has been matched by the introduction of some measures of greater control, such as the National Curriculum and the more recent move towards a system of standards, targets and assessments. Lauder et al (2006) have called this centralised system of ‘learning’ the ‘state theory of learning’ because it mandates for teachers, modes of assessment, the curriculum and elements of pedagogy.”
Whilst the current government has made some changes to the way it exerts control, Ofsted continues to impose a 'state theory of learning' which is under pinned by the Teacher Input=Pupil Outcome fallacy.
Robin Alexander, professor at the University of Cambridge, Honorary Professor of Education at the University of York and Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Warwick, has worked closely with governments of the last 25 years. He was one of the ‘three wise men’ who looked into primary education in 1991-2, worked for the QCA on the national curriculum and national tests from 1997 to 2002, and was director of the Cambridge Primary review from 2006 to 2012 meeting ministers, officials and government advisory bodies on dozens of occasions.
Alexander is extremely critical of the way in which successive governments have viewed education. As he said in 2014, “the top-down character of policy is reinforced by evidence which is as detached from school and classroom realities as are the policymakers themselves, and this detachment inflates ministerial perception of what interventions dreamed up in Westminster can achieve in classrooms. School improvement is then reduced to banalities such as ‘The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’, ‘The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction’ and ‘High performance requires every child to succeed.”
Alexander’s comments on the National Strategies of the 1990s and 2000s are particularly revealing when it comes to the government’s mindset. “Ofsted reports on the strategies also appeared to presume that compliance and outcome were synonymous – ‘Not all teachers are using the strategies’ assessment materials ... some do not know about them ...’ as if the policy as promulgated was beyond reproach and the only obstacle to their success was the tiresome tendency of some teachers not to do as they are told.”
As Alexander notes, the literacy and numeracy strategies, “were specified in the greatest possible detail, leaving little room for manoeuvre. They were then tightly policed through tests, inspection and local authority school improvement partners.” This “tight policing” continues through the mechanisms of standardised tests (which take for granted the Input=Output fallacy) and Ofsted inspection (which imposes the ‘state theory of learning’). Recent changes to the educational landscape have diminished the role of local authority school improvement partners, whose role has been transferred to a combination of Ofsted, Multi Academy Trusts and a huge range of further organisations, all of which take for granted the Input=Output fallacy.
Schools and teachers have had little option but to accept the Input=Output fallacy, since the accountability measures imposed by the government have become the be-all and end-all of school practice. As Policy Exchange noted in their influential Watching the Watchmen (2014) report:
“Given the huge power of Ofsted (judging a school Inadequate is very likely to lead to a headteacher leaving, while an outstanding grade opens up a range of further opportunities such as Teaching School status) it is perhaps unsurprising that so much energy is spent interpreting what they want and how to achieve it.” Ofsted was seen as affecting schools, “in the way teachers teach, or Heads and SLT plan.”
Why is a fallacy?
This fallacy is so deeply ingrained that many people are simply not aware that there might be another way of thinking about ‘pupil outcomes’. There is common assumption that a teacher’s input –what they do when they work with children to increase the children’s knowledge, skills and understanding - has clear and direct links with the outcomes for the children in the teacher’s care.
Some voices have cast a sceptical eye on this fallacy. Graham Nuthall, in his book The Hidden Lives of Learners, has this to say:
“Classroom teaching is structured by ritualized routines supported by widely held myths about learning and ability that are acquired through our common experiences as students. These ritualized routines and supporting myths are sustained not only by everyone's common experience of schooling, but by teacher education practices, the ways we evaluate teachers' classroom performance, and many common types of educational research… . While ritualized routines are necessary to allow a teacher to manage the experiences of 20-30 students simultaneously, they also explain why individual student experience and learning remain largely invisible to teachers.” (Nuthall, 2005, p. 895)
Nuthall summarised his life’s work in ‘The cultural myths and the realities of teaching and learning’ in 2001. As Nuthall, notes, “One of the most significant things about culture is that it becomes so much a part of ourselves that we can no longer see it for what it is. The more familiar it is, the more it is like the air we breathe the harder it is for us to see it.”
As he says, “School teaching is like that. We all spend at least 10 of the most formative years of our life in school. We all become, through this common experience, experts in what it means to be a teacher and a student. As we often jokingly complain, everyone is an expert on schooling.
I have been involved in research on teaching and learning in classrooms for about 40 years, and it has taken that long for me to understand just how much of what we do in schools is a matter of cultural tradition rather than evidence-based practice. And how much of what we believe about teaching is a matter of folk-lore rather than research.”
Nuthall revealed a great deal about the patterns and routines of teaching which are ingrained in the English-speaking world, which he refers to as a kind of ‘cultural ritual’. Using microphones and painstaking methods of recording interactions in classrooms, he found that “the underlying patterns of teaching are independent of training and experience.”
Teacher input, as understood currently in the world of teaching, is primarily about classroom management. “When the teacher manages the classroom so that all the students are, as far as the teacher can see, busily engaged in appropriate activities, what can explain consistent differences in what the students produce. The teacher is doing everything right, so why do some fail to respond?”
Most observers clearly expect, as Nuthall implies, that teacher input should directly lead to pupil outcomes. But it clearly does not, since some children, and groups of children, achieve often dramatically different outcomes. Teacher Input = Pupil Outcome is clearly a fallacy. And yet it underpins a huge amount of thinking about ‘improving schools’, and directly affects both teachers and their pupils on a daily basis. There will be no teacher who has not, at some point, thought something along the lines of, “I have taught the children this. They have practised it, talked about it, thought about and more. So why don’t they understand it?”
Nuthall came to realise that, “student learning is a very individual thing. Students already know at least 40-50% of what teachers intend them to learn. Consequently they spend a lot of time in activities that relate to what they already know and can do. But this prior knowledge is specific to individual students and the teacher cannot assume that more than a tiny fraction is common to the class as a whole. As consequence at least a third of what a student learns is unique to that student, and the rest is learned by no more than three or four others.”
So teacher input does not lead directly to student output.
The field of sociology has also seen a lot of work on ‘schools’, ‘schooling’ and ‘teaching’. Apologies for the scare quotes, but sociology is a rarefied field, which explores some of our core concepts of society and socialisation, and it can get a bit technical. Bear with me.
Trevor Pakeman, in Can Schools Educate?, asks some probing questions about what schools are, and what they bring into being. He makes insightful comments into children’s perceptions of school, which are notable for their absence in the Product-Process tradition, whereby children are presumed to either want to learn, or to be able to be made to learn through the skill, coercion or actions of a teacher (and, by extension, the wider school community).
As Pakeman says, children have agency. “A desire to learn is something which, traditionally, primary school teachers have believed in as existing and supporting their endeavours, and of which secondary school teachers have bewailed the loss in the majority of their pupils. I think there is a lot of truth in these perceptions. However, it might be more accurate to say that what disappears at secondary school level is the desire to learn about those things which can be learnt about at school.”
“To explain such phenomena, “he continues,”I would look both to the pupils' growing awareness of the compulsory character of attendance at school and its curriculum, and to the fact that the pupils who lose interest tend to be those who are failing at the curriculum. Loss of desire to learn then seems to me explicable as both a reaction against compulsion and a self - protective measure. Put like this, the problem is not that of creating a desire to learn, but rather that of not extinguishing it.”
This ties in with Nuthall’s research, in which he found that “students live in a personal and social world of their own in the classroom. They whisper to each other and pass notes. They spread rumours about girlfriends and boyfriends, they organize their after-school social life, continue arguments that started in the playground. They care more about how their peers evaluate their behaviour than they care about the teacher’s judgement.” In short, they ignore a huge amount of teacher input.
And as Pateman says, even though he argues that “schools cannot educate”, that does not mean that education does not take place, merely that children have to educate themselves, either in spite of their teachers or in complicity with them:
“Although I have sought to sustain a case that schools cannot educate, I do not at all deny that education can occur in schools. For there are pupils so resolute to educate themselves that they succeed, against the odds; and, likewise, there are teachers constantly devising strategies to facilitate pupils' difficult self-education. All praise to those brave enough to take sides against the probable. My only quarrel is with the probable itself.”
Teachers can teach, and some children will not learn. Yes, children may engage in activities which a teacher has prepared for them - often at painstaking length, taking into account their current knowledge, skills and understanding, their age, aptitude, learning preferences, social needs and cultural heritage, and so on, and on, and on. But children will react to teaching in their own individual way. Sometimes children are keen to learn, wanting to please themselves, their friends, their families – someone, anyone. Sometimes children do not feel this way. Learning is at times hard, unpleasant and pointless. It always requires effort. It matters little whether a child’s teacher is a subject specialist, or a subscriber to progressive or traditional theories of education, or dull, or interesting, or any of the other myriad of descriptions of teachers. It does not matter if the teacher teaches in a way which outside observers identify as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ teaching.
Whether and how books are marked, how children are spoken to or made to feel, what is on the classroom walls, in corridors or playgrounds are merely the positioning of deckchairs on the ship the child is sailing. Sometimes children are in a position to learn. Sometime they are not. The input=output fallacy demands more than teaching can possibly achieve, and it frequently leads to the joy of learning being reduced to a mechanistic ritual, with teachers and pupils moving side by side but not necessarily in tandem.
So what does this fallacy explain?
Keen observers will have realised that recognition of the Input=Output fallacy explains a great deal of the conundrums of English Teaching:
- Professor Robert Coe lamented, in his inaugural lecture, that “the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing.” He is at a loss to explain why “standards have not risen; teaching has not improved; research that has tried to support improvement has generally not succeeded; even identifying which schools and teachers are good is more difficult than we thought.” The Input=Output fallacy is clear here: if you expect that Teacher Input = Pupil Output, then each of these observations should not apply; but (under the first fallacy and further fallacies based on it) they clearly do.
- Ofsted routinely judges schools to be either acceptable or not acceptable based, in large measure, on pupil outcomes. “From each different starting point, the proportions of pupils making expected progress and the proportions exceeding expected progress in English and in mathematics are high compared with national figures.” Invariably, this means that schools whose intake expects to ‘exceed expected progress’ are judged quite differently to those whose intake struggle to achieve ‘expected progress’. The Input=Output fallacy is clear here: if you expect that Teacher Input = Pupil Output, then of course you expect this statement to be axiomatically true.
- Commentators such as Sam Freedman have wondered why ‘standards’ in English education have not risen over time. “Given the improvements in behaviour; the reduction in criminality; the falls in truancy; the increase in aspiration; the improvements in home lives - all of which are known to link to academic attainment - why haven't we seen a commensurate, observable, rise in academic standards?” The Input=Output fallacy is clear here: if you expect that Teacher Input = Pupil Output, then of course you expect these factors to make a teacher's "input" more effective, which should in turn lead to a 'commensurate, observable, rise' in "pupil output".
- One of the key reports into education was the Coleman Report (1966) in the USA, commissioned by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In it, Coleman makes one of the seminal statements in the field of Process-product research. He says on page 21-22: “The first finding is that the schools are remarkably similar in the way they relate to the achievement of their pupils when the socio economic background of the students is taken into account. It is known that socio economic factors bear a strong relation to academic achievement. When these factors are statistically controlled, however it appears that differences between schools account for only a small fraction of differences in pupil achievement.” This was taken by many to mean that ‘Schools make no difference; families make the difference,’ and set in train a long investigation into the effects of intake, resources, teachers, ethos and structures of schools. This summarised here, in a report which suggests that, “The lessons of (Coleman) and the research that followed in its wake leave little room for optimism about the power of schools and schooling to bring about equality of opportunity in the sense of equality of results, let alone equal participation.” The Input=Output fallacy is clear here: if you expect that Teacher Input = Pupil Output, then of course you expect schools, via their teachers, to overcome factors which actually affect Pupil Output, which schools, on the whole, struggle to defeat.
- The British response to Coleman was Fifteen Thousand Hours (1979), by Rutter et al. This took the slightly bizarre approach of a longitudinal study of 12 secondary schools in inner city London, and had questionable methodology which could be argued largely showed Halo Effects (and was criticised by Trevor Pateman in the lecture linked above). Rutter contradicted Coleman’s view, and suggested that schools did make a difference, which many found confusing. But schools may have superficially similar intakes and very different levels of achievements, as London and other areas of the country do currently. The Input=Output fallacy is clear here: if you expect Teacher Input = Pupil Output, then of course you are mystified when teaching is largely similar but Pupil Outcomes are not.
There are many, many other reports and research projects which assume the Input=Output fallacy to be true, and therefore draw conclusions which are clearly questionable. In the next chapter, I will look at how the second great fallacy of teaching has developed from the first: The fallacy that ‘Great Teachers’ lead to 'great outcomes', and that 'great outcomes' come from 'Great Teachers'.