Some modest proposals for educational flexibility

By Gordon Rugg

[Spoiler and standard disclaimer for the literal-minded: This article is satirical, and I’m writing it in my personal capacity, not my Keele capacity. With that out of the way, let the satire begin…]

Whereupon I assured Benaiah that nothing was farther from my mind than the harbouring of wicked thoughts; also, that I was a family man with a positive outlook on the state and its institutions, be they military, administrative or religious.

Stefan Heym, The King David Report. Quartet Books, London, 1977, p.28

Education policy is in flux, so what can a career-minded or survival-minded education worker do to improve their prospects of promotion and/or of managing to survive in post until retirement?

This article contains some modest proposals for ways in which educators can:

  • Show that they have a positive outlook on the state and its educational institutions
  • Ensure that student feedback is excellent, and
  • Ensure that most of their students achieve above average results

Sending out the correct political signals

The phrasing of a sentence can send out loud, clear signals about whether or not one is a loyal party member. The following examples show some ways of rephrasing a point in the approved manner.

Don’t say: Why is that idiot taking advice from inexperienced novices without a peer-reviewed publication between them?

Do say: The Minister for Education is listening to fresh ideas from keen new voices.

Don’t say: That idea has been tried more often than I’ve had hot dinners, and it’s failed every time.

Do say: This is a method that has been through the test of time.

Don’t say: Why should we let people with no knowledge of education tell us how to remodel the British education system?

Do say: How much better might British education be if we model it on the practices of British or American business?

Sending out the correct signals is a good start. The next step is to ensure that your students’ performance will look good even if there is a change of regime.

One potential problem involves setting assessment questions, such as coursework and exams. If you have to do this as part of your job, then how can you make sure that the questions you set are aligned with the philosophy of the day, particularly if it’s one that you don’t know much about?

The next section gives some examples of how assessment questions can be worded so as to show their adherence to a range of educational philosophies. It also shows examples of marking schemes, to demonstrate that you are promulgating the ideologically approved answers to the questions.

Ways of phrasing assessment questions

Different educational philosophies are reflected in the ways that questions are phrased and marked, as in the following examples.

The fact-based version:

When did the American Civil War end?

Marking scheme:

Correct year: 2 marks. Correct month: 3 marks. Correct date: 5 marks.

The non-political version:

Explain, in your own words, why the American Civil War was a case of political correctness gone mad.

Marking scheme:

The marker should use his judgment. Mentions of common sense, of things standing to reason, and use of colourful anecdotal evidence will all attract higher marks. Disagreement with the core statement of this question indicates that the student is arguing from his personal political opinion, rather than answering the question, and will attract a poor or failing mark.

The preparation for business version:

The American Civil War was also referred to as the War Between the States and the War Of Northern Aggression. From a marketing viewpoint, which of these names would you recommend to a client, and why?

Marking scheme:

Answers that use lots of hot terms from contemporary marketing language, such as buzz (becoming outdated) or the fashionably retro hip, will be rewarded with great marks. Answers that identify the opportunity for handling the marketing for both sides in the war will be rewarded with awesome marks.

The traditional education version:

“The military phase of the American Civil War ended in the nineteenth century, but the political phase did not.” Discuss, with particular reference to nineteenth century and earlier political philosophy.

Marking scheme:

Various answers possible, at the marker’s discretion. References to relevant political and historical theory (including, but not limited to, Gibbon, Marx, Machiavelli, Tacitus and Thucydides) must be included for a passing mark. Extra credit will be given for quotations in the original language of the quotation. Latin and Greek are preferred, but French and German are also acceptable.

Ways of optimising feedback questions

It is also important to demonstrate that your students have a positive attitude to the methods that you are using. The usual way of doing this is via questionnaires.

A common mistake is to ask students open-ended questions about their feelings, such as how much they enjoyed the course, or how relevant they thought it was, or how much it prepared them for later life.

This is a mistake because such questions are hopelessly open-ended, so any attempt to summarise the answers can easily fall prey to subjective, biased interpretation of the students’ wording. It is also a mistake because it moves attention away from the core issue, which is how well the course met its pedagogic objectives.

A better approach is to use tightly focused questions that concentrate only on the extent to which the course did what it set out to do. The examples below demonstrate how this can be done.

For fact-based assessment: (e.g. When did the American Civil War end?)

Feedback question: To what extent do you consider the assessment to be clear and specific? [Not at all/somewhat/very.]

For non-political assessment: (e.g. Explain, in your own words, why the American Civil War was a case of political correctness gone mad).

Feedback question: To what extent do you consider the assessment to be grounded in contemporary social norms? [Not at all/somewhat/very.]

The preparation for business version: (e.g. The American Civil War was also referred to as the War Between The States and the War Of Northern Aggression. From a marketing viewpoint, which of these names would you recommend to a client, and why?)

Feedback question: To what extent do you consider the assessment to be tailored towards business? [Not at all/somewhat/very.]

The traditional education version: (e.g. “The military phase of the American Civil War ended in the nineteenth century, but the political phase did not.” Discuss, with particular reference to nineteenth century and earlier political philosophy.)

Feedback question: To what extent do you consider the assessment to be based on traditional educational values? [Not at all/somewhat/very.]

All of these feedback questions can be safely expected to produce positive and helpful results, indicating that the assessment met its goals, with minimum risk of raising unhelpful and irrelevant issues such as the students’ feelings.

Evidence-based analysis

Veteran teachers will probably be wondering how students will perform if the examination questions are very different in philosophy from the approach used in the class. The usual worst case scenario involves all the students failing an exam, and then blaming you for having taught them the wrong material, or the wrong approach to the subject.

There is an understandable worry, but there is actually no need for concern. This section describes some ways in which you can present the results of the students’ assessment in a way which demonstrates that your allegiance to the approved educational philosophy has produced exemplary outcomes.

From an evidence-based viewpoint, any experienced teacher will be able to find at least some qualitative evidence to support the claim that students have done well.

Finding quantitative evidence to support the same claim can also be quite simple. Here is an example.

Suppose that the students have been taught using a fact-based approach, so they know the time of the ending of the American Civil War down to the precise minute when the relevant document was signed; however, by the time the students reach the examination, the current approved best practice in education is the traditional education version. What will happen when they try to answer questions about concepts they have never encountered in their education?

What will probably happen is that a proportion of the students will simply fail to write anything, and will receive a mark of zero for that question. Here is a table showing a hypothetical but realistic distribution of marks for the question.

tablev2

A naïve interpretation is that the students have performed very badly, and that the course did not adequately prepare them for the assessment. However, a more statistically sophisticated analysis shows that the students actually performed commendably well, and that the approach used in the course has been vindicated. We can show this as follows.

We see that the most common mark is zero. This means, in statistical terms, that the mode average (i.e. the most common score) is zero.

Although the most common mark was zero, most of the students (28 out of 37) scored above zero. This means, in statistical terms, that most of the students performed at above the level of the mode average. Translating this into plain English, most of the children in the class achieved the desirable goal of scoring above average results.

In addition, one student who joined the class late from another school with a traditional syllabus scored a mark in the top range, further improving the statistical picture of how well the students performed, since the range of marks achieved goes into top possible band.

Statistically speaking, therefore, these results constitute another success for the approved methods, and demonstrate your allegiance to current party values and principles.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, then, we can use the methods described above to demonstrate a positive outlook on the current education system its institutions, be they statistical, administrative or ideological.

I hope that this article will help colleagues to play their part in bringing about a glorious new future for education, in whatever form it may take.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blind-Spot-Gordon-Rugg/dp/0062097903

Related articles:

Problems with naïve models of “just teaching the facts”:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/just-the-facts/

Trying to apply concepts from one field to another field:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/is-that-handaxe-windows-compatible-the-concept-of-range-of-convenience/

An example of problems with the core concept in a current approach to education:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/problem-solving-skills-what-are-they/

A partly humorous examination of one common theme in management textbooks:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/heroism-hagiography-and-management-theory/

Evidence-based approaches:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/logic-evidence-and-evidence-based-approaches/

Another popular belief about education theory:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/natural-and-artificial-learning/

Overviews of the articles on this blog:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/150-posts-and-counting/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/one-hundred-hyde-rugg-articles-and-the-verifier-framework/

 

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