Sunday, 19 January 2014

Here is your target

The Guardian's "Secret Teacher" this week talks about "How I became trapped in the cheating game."
Some years ago I was called by my head of department to discuss the grades I'd predicted for a year 11 class. They were aspirational and realistic. I was told to change them. My forecast was not in line with school targets for A*-C so if I didn't change them I would be "targeting failure". I changed them.
I've got young kids, a mortgage and could do without the stress of a capability procedure. Morals don't pay the bills. The class achieved close to my original prediction. I was admonished over my underperformance and the inaccuracy of my predictions – the predictions which weren't actually mine at all. Following so far? Good. Because that's target-driven education; a farce.
Sounds familiar?

Who does the Secret Teacher say is to blame?
The fault for accepting the current system of smoke and mirrors lies not at school level but at societal level and speaks to bigger issues regarding our obsession with objectifying and quantifying every aspect of human endeavour.. I understood that corruption happens when an institution becomes solely target-driven.
Recently Finish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg commented on the implications of the PISA study. These are of course hotly debated. Sahlberg's writes:
"PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools."
Top-down targets and testing and professional autonomy are opposed in the politics of education; and at the moment the targets are winning. 

Have a listen to John Seddon on the perils of the target-driven approach, "deliverology", "Why deliverology makes things worse in the UK":

Seddon refers in his talk to Deming. I've always liked Deming's approach. Deming's key principles are written for a business context, but they apply well to education.

Here's an excerpt:
  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service.

  2. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.

  3. Institute leadership.
  4. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively...

  5. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. 

    1. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers and numerical goals. Instead substitute with leadership.
  6. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.

  7. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.

Deming's red bead experiment is basic, instructive and funny. You can find Deming himself conducting it on YouTube. Here's a shorter version, with animals:

It all reminds me of the Nasrudin story where Nasrudin takes a leaking pot to the well and fills it up. All the water is pouring out of a gaping hole at the bottom, but he watches carefully and constantly at the top of the pot. "Look at the bottom," they say, but he ignores them: "I'm trying to fill the pot. When it's full the water will be at the top. I've got my eyes fixed at the top, that's how I'll know when it's full. What's the bottom got to do with it?"

I wouldn't remove targets and testing altogether. But, to me, there's a need to put the quality, even the nature, of teaching back into teachers' hands. Teachers are professionals, and should be treated as such. Professional development should include encouraging schools and teachers to participate in discussing what needs to be taught and how, rather than the drive to turn them into mindless operatives who follow some kind of foolproof operation which gets inspected and graded to oblivion. At the very least government should hand over the reins of curriculum to a professional body and stop meddling directly. If it was at all enlightened it would stop the political career-driven reform craze and allow those who know something about the job to have their say.