Multiple Concerns - new NAHT report slams the multiplication tables check pilot

2019-09-09

I originally wrote this piece for the LKMco blog, in response to the NAHT’s report in response to the 2019 Multiplication Tables Check (MTC) pilot. It can be found on the LKco website here.

The NAHT have today released a damning report detailing their members’ response to the Government’s pilot of the new multiplication tables ‘check’ (MTC) for children in Year 4. The test has been an educationally dubious waste of time and money, hastily implemented and with multiple technical flaws. As LKMco’s resident ex-Year 4 teacher, I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the five areas that shocked me most about this pilot.

[Read the rest on the LKMco website here]


The LKMco Youth and Education Podcast No. 035 - Research Roundup

2019-08-29

“In this episode Phil Yeeles, Junior Researcher at LKMco, shares a selection of research that he has been reading lately with Dr Sam Baars, our Director of Research. This episode has a critical conceptual focus: Sam and Phil discuss the ideological implications of youth social action as an uncontested ‘good’, the consequences of perpetually silent ‘zero-tolerance’ classrooms, and what different visions of a National Education Service might look like, the problems they might solve and the challenges they’d face.”

This week, I’ve made my very first appearance on the LKMco (edit: now CfEY) podcast, talking to my colleageue Dr Sam Baars about several pieces of research I have recently read.

We discussed:–

Catch it here or listen in the embedded media player at the top of this article.


Education for tomorrow

2019-04-14

I orginally wrote this article for the Morning Star newspaper, to coincide with both the inaugural NEU Annual Conference and the launch of the Education for Tomorrow journal. It appeared in the newspaper on Sunday, 2019-04-14, and can be found online here.

A new journal will be a radical challenge to educational hegemony, writes PHIL YEELES

ANTONIO GRAMSCI recognised that schools serve to reinforce the dominant ideas, or hegemony, of the ruling class. Paulo Freire saw the potential for education to act as a liberating force. Today, our schools fulfil both of these contradictory roles, and it is the responsibility of the class-conscious educator to ensure that critical values are inculcated in pupils, giving them the freedom to identify and confront oppression wherever they see it in society.

At a time of increasing class tensions, and continuing pressure being put upon schools and educators in accordance with the neoliberal ideology of our government, it is more important than ever for schools to be places where hegemony is not reinforced, but challenged. Education for Tomorrow has been refounded for all those who share our values of criticality and class consciousness. We do not represent any political party, but we are firmly rooted in working-class politics, bringing attention to workers’ struggles and emancipatory pedagogy.

The first issue of the new Education for Tomorrow covers a range of radical pedagogies. There is a critique of the “knowledge curriculum,” and studies of the work of Freire, Guevara, Vygotsky and Flecha. Neurobiology and the myth of measurable intelligence are tackled, as are regional analyses of British education and a comparative piece on the Cuban education system.

Issue 2 focuses more upon trade union issues in education. Professor Howard Stevenson discusses issues in organisation through a Gramscian lens, and there is a feature piece from the chief of staff of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. There are discussions of UCU campaigns, mobilisation theory and the history of trade union organisation in education.

Education for Tomorrow is a crucial radical voice within the education and labour movement, bringing attention to alternative visions and challenges to the neoliberal view of education that has resulted in the creeping privatisation of schooling, the narrowing of the curriculum and the increasing responsiblity for systemic, societal issues that continues to be heaped upon teachers. By raising the profile of workers’ struggles and alternative pedagogies, EfT is a valuable tool for building the challenge to hegemonic neoliberalism.

Visit the website, share the articles widely, and subscribe to the paper edition to help build the movement today. The EfT board will also be at the NEU annual conference in Liverpool this week, so come and find our stall to find out more about the journal.
Those in the education sector cannot afford not to take a stand on the issues that Education for Tomorrow seeks to cover. In Freire’s words, “The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”

Phil Yeeles is on the editorial board of Education for Tomorrow. He is an NEU activist and a Junior Researcher at LKMco, the youth and education “think and action tank.”


The disingenuous nature of empowerment in edtech

2019-03-02

I originally wrote this piece for the LKMco blog, off the back of my attending Bett 2018. It can be found on their website here.

Technology is often presented as a means of empowerment within education, but we are in danger of actively holding pupils back by ignoring the inherent class bias of this narrative.

I recently attended Bett, a large educational technology expo held annually at the ExCeL London. There were many impressive products available to preview, from a broad variety of vendors, and a long list of speakers from the great and good of the edtech sector. I began my day at Bett by attending a talk by a headteacher and multi-academy trust leader, in partnership with Microsoft.

The talk was entitled A day in the life of a digitally enabled child. It featured footage of Beth, a Year 6 child attending a primary school in which every child is provided with a Microsoft Surface tablet.

“Technology is, as it has always been, a tool that is empowering the daily life of the children.”

This was one of the speaker’s opening statements, and highlights an issue that I would like to address both within the context of his talk, and in the wider sphere of educational technology. Personally, I’m quite picky about how we use words like “empower”, so it’s worth thinking a bit more carefully about how Beth and her peers are “empowered” by this particular vision of education. But before we do that, allow me to introduce you to another child. Amy is also in Beth’s class. She lives in a women’s refuge with her mother and younger brother. She has missed a non-trivial amount of schooling due to her circumstances at home, and has only recently moved into this unfamiliar area. Her mother works shifts at the local hospital. Let’s have a look at how Beth and Amy spend their day.

Beth’s day

Beth began her day by using her tablet at the breakfast table to check her agenda for the day using various pieces of the latest Microsoft software. In the car on the way to school, she accessed learning materials and games on her tablet. At school, she used the Accelerated Reader software, and worked on projects using more Microsoft products. An actual human teacher was very briefly seen facilitating the use of the technology (amongst a class of sixty children), but all tasks shown were being conducted on the tablets. Recorded video and written feedback were given remotely by the teacher, and Beth was able to review her targets on her tablet. Mum had reminded Beth to preorder her lunch at home last night, and Beth was able to feed back on the quality of her lunch whilst she sat in the lunch hall. Once home, Beth carried on working on her home learning projects through her tablet; reviewing and recording video responses to feedback from her teacher.

Amy’s day

Amy began her day by waking herself up, making her own breakfast and getting her school things together. There wasn’t much about for breakfast – they’d have to visit the food bank again later – but Amy made do with what she could find. Mum was very tired from her late shift last night, and was trying to manage Amy’s younger brother. He was having another meltdown and throwing objects around the room. After all, that’s the behaviour that Dad had always modelled to him in the past. Amy would be lucky to make it to school on time today.

Amy arrived late, not having seen an agenda for the day. The other kids all seemed to know what they were doing. Amy sat down and got out her tablet. Everyone knew which tablet was Amy’s. It was the one with the crack in the case from where her brother had thrown it at the wall a couple of months ago. She turned it on, and tried to load up the software. Amy hadn’t had much experience of using a tablet, so she wasn’t not quite sure how, and had to ask for help again.

An Accelerated Reader report showing pupils' estimated "Engaged time per day" (Image via Renaissance Learning)

Amy’s teacher wasn’t happy with how she had been progressing in her reading. Her ‘engaged time’ was low, and her quiz scores had been dropping. Mum had had lots of night shifts recently, and hadn’t been able to sit and read with Amy so much. Amy never found reading particularly easy anyway, and sometimes needed to reread bits of a book to make sure she had understood them. Unfortunately, Accelerated Reader’s ‘engaged time’ estimate didn’t show any of that.

At lunchtime, Amy had to wait longer than the other kids to get her food as she hadn’t remembered to preorder her lunch last night. When she got home, she tried to access her home learning, but needed help. Mum was at work again, so Amy tried her best but couldn’t do all of it. She was worried that she might have let her classmates down – after all, this home learning project was supposed to be ‘collaborative’. She looked at some of her teacher’s feedback videos, but didn’t quite get what they meant. She couldn’t ask a video for an explanation, and was worried about looking like she was being left behind, so she recorded a generic, “OK”-type response. If she was lucky, she would be able to have some time with her teacher tomorrow, but there were many other Amys, and only one teacher.

Of course, Amy is not a real child, but her experiences are synthesised from my own teaching experience. Yet her situation is not uncommon; certainly not uncommon enough to safely ignore when ‘innovating’ in the classroom. But let’s look at what the technology has done to “empower” both Amy and Beth.

For Beth, the technology has enabled some new modes of learning. Some are improvements upon more traditional teaching methods; others are expensive novelties. She is tied into a particular mode of learning, in a school that has restructured its education to be entirely centred around a single piece of technology. What happens if she doesn’t get on with that way of learning? Luckily, Beth has lots of parental support at home, not least because her father is the headteacher of her school. If she struggles in school, her family can easily afford a tutor, or the time to sit and work with her.

For Amy, the technology has also enabled some new modes of learning, but many of them are very difficult to access for her. Many are reliant upon a level of home support that she simply does not have access to. She is marked out as different from her peers by the effect her home circumstances have had on her device, by the level of support she requires from the teacher, by her ability to engage in collaborative projects outside of school hours, and even by the lunch ordering system. Access to her teacher has been reduced by increasing class sizes and greater reliance upon automated ‘teaching’ methods.

empower

verb [ T ]

UK: /ɪmˈpaʊər/

to give someone official or legal authority, or the freedom or confidence to do something

Cambridge Dictionary

Personally, I don’t feel that either child, particularly Amy, has been especially “empowered”, and we can’t assume that their school has been either. Their school is now committed to an expensive programme of subscriptions to proprietary software, and reliant upon a given class of device, which will need replacing for all pupils every few years. If they want to move away from this model, or even to another vendor, there will be significant and likely expensive upheaval throughout the school. They have also had to expend a significant amount of time and money training the staff in how to work in this new way. In the current climate of school funding, the girls’ school is really feeling the pinch. Maybe they won’t hire another teaching assistant to replace the two who left last term. Maybe they’ll only implement their teachers’ pay rise for a couple of pay grades, rather than for all of the staff. Maybe they can’t afford to move anybody up the pay scale this year, regardless of how well they’ve done. Budgetary issues such as these directly impact a school’s ability to put in place measures that may actually empower children like Amy, such as having enough support staff available to ensure that all pupils’ needs are met.

The false narrative around “empowerment” is sadly very common within the edtech sector. Vendors are all too keen to sell the next great educational innovation to cash-strapped schools as some kind of panacæa, a liberating force from some perceived yoke of tried and tested pedagogical methods.

It’s all very well promoting an organisation’s particular vision of the future, but what are the concrete material conditions that schools face? How will your vision be implemented in the current climate? How will the experience of your particular innovation vary between pupils of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds?

Only by unpicking how educational ‘innovations’ impact on different groups, both directly and indirectly, can we really empower everyone. Otherwise, we are just reinforcing existing inequalities. Expecting all pupils to have access to similar material resources, cultural capital and familial support belies a class bias that is endemic in the edtech sector. It is time for the voice of the educator, rather than that of the entrepreneur, to be given primacy in the discussion of how technology can empower our pupils in a meaningful way.

(Beth’s name has been changed to protect her identity)


Building critical consciousness through dialogic reading in the primary classroom

2019-02-27

I originally wrote this article for the very first issue of Education for Tomorrow. The original can be found here.

IN HIS BOOK, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire defines conscientização, or critical consciousness, as “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”.1 This concept is at the very heart of Freire’s transformative, liberatory vision of education. For Freire, education is a collaborative act of knowledge construction between what he terms “teacher-students” and “student-teachers”, in which both parties strive to become more fully human through “working, [to] transform the world”.2 Freire proposed dialogics as an emancipatory pedagogy which combines reflection and action in a “radical interaction”3 with each other and which empowers learners to play a fundamental rôle in the transformation of their own conditions of existence. “If it is speaking their word that people, by naming the world, tranform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.”4

Building on the idea of dialogic pedagogy, Ramón Flecha, founder of the CREA research community at the University of Barcelona, introduce the concept of dialogic reading.5 He identifies the ‘Matthew Effect’ – that the more of something (in this case, cultural capital and reading skill) one has, the easier it is to acquire more – as an unaddressed problem that excludes many learners from traditional literacy teaching, and proposes dialogic reading as a radical rethink of how reading is taught. Dialogic reading is based upon four key practices:–

  • Extending learning time
  • The ‘Parent Readers’ programme
  • The ‘Reading Buddies’ initiative
  • Dialogic literary gatherings

Although the primary focus of this article is upon the dialogic literary gatherings, the remaining three practices will be brielfy outlined below.

Extending learning time is a technique by which learning, and reading in particular, is made more accessible both to learners and to members of the community. Increasing the number of reading activities available outside school hours, and involving a diverse group of extended family members and individuals from the local community, facilitates more opportunities for reading. It also deformalises reading, removing the pressure felt by some learners, and also encourages families to form a habit of reading, even outside of the school environment.

Parent Readers is a volunteering programme in which the family members of the youngest pupils attend school with their children in the mornings to be able to read together within the school context. It not only motivates the pupil, but also serves to tear down the artificial barrier between home reading and school reading; the pupil is already used to reading in school with their family member, so reading naturally continues at home with the same person.

“These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy.”

Reading Buddies is an initiative whereby older pupils are paired with younger pupils, reading together at different times and in different spaces. The older child interacts closely with the younger child, modelling and supporting good reading practice. This not only supports the younger child in their reading learning, but also reinforces good practice for the older child. It builds confidence, removes some of the pressure of the presence of an authority figure such as a teacher, and develops solidarity between pupils of different age groups.

Finally, the dialogic literary gathering, or DLG, is a particular way of conducting a reading lesson in which learners are encouraged to engage with a classic of world literature (or an appropriate abridgment thereof), which “address important topics that have always been important to human beings”, as one young participant noted.6 The universality of issues addressed by classic texts is a cornerstone of the DLG, maximising accessibility to pupils from diverse backgrounds. Students are each given a copy of the chosen text to read either at home or as facilitated by the above practices. The DLG itself takes the form of a weekly session, either as part of the regular curriculum or as a family, community or extracurricular activity, in which the teacher facilitates a discussion between pupils. Having chosen and written down an extract or extracts that they have found particularly meaningful, pupils share, discuss and debate parts of the text on the basis of egalitarian dialogue. The teacher does not prompt or lead discussion; their rôle is purely to establish expectations of behaviour, to facilitate speakers’ contributions, and to record brief notes on the discussion.

Through engaging with the universal experiences of characters in classic literature, pupils are able to analyse, debate and discuss situations that arise within the story. These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy. They are able to tackle significant philosophical issues, and form and express opinions which must then be justified and defended. This level of engagement then motivates other pupils, encouraging them to read to be able to be involved in the discussion. The other three practices are especially valuable here, as they are able to provide support and opportunities for reading which may not be available to every child.

“[…] dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness”

In the author’s experience of conducting DLGs over an extended period, pupils find them to be an enriching experience. This is partly due to the challenge (perceived or otherwise) of reading a classic of world literature, especially if the original text is able to be used, but primarily due to the nature of the discussions in the DLG sessions themselves. Over the period in question, reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis led to discussions around mental health and the experience of carers; reading Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band led to discussions around stereotyping and prejudice; and reading Homer’s Iliad gave rise to a heated debate about sexism, war and the responsibilities of deities. All of these topics arose organically from the discussion of eight- and nine-yearolds who were connecting meaningfully with a text.

This is very different from the reading pedagogy which has become accepted in so many schools, where teachers use questioning to check basic comprehension and to lead students to preprepared answers, based on an ‘authorised’ reading of the text. As such, it challenges the dominant ‘banking’ concept of education, in which teachers are expected simply to ‘deposit’ knowledge into learners as empty vessels.7 This is replaces with a transformative approach in which the teacher-student and student-teachers are engages in co-constructing meaning, working together, and, through that work, naming and changing their own lived experience.

The transformative aspect of dialogic reading was especially visible, as mentioned above, when reading the Iliad. In one scene, an irate Menelaüs declares that his fearful soldiers must be women, not men. This tiny quote ballooned into a huge discussion over whether or not it was right to use “women” as an insult, and what the implications of using it in that way might be. Several male pupils expressed views of women that could diplomatically be called ‘old-fashioned’, which propelled the discussion further, as more and more of their classmates joined in, bringing their own opinions and experiences to the discussion, and playing out hypothetical situations within the context of the story. The discussion segued naturally into discussing the rôle of women in ancient Greek society, and how attitudes toward women have changed since then. Pupils left the session still debating and discussing enthusiastically, and this was able to form the basis of several follow-up lessons in PSHE exploring women’s experiences in various fields, led by a diverse range of volunteer speakers from the community. From one small section of a DLG text, pupils developed their oracy and debating skills, were able to use the text to illustrate a point, and also to confront and challenge reactionary ideas within their own classroom.

In conclusion, dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness. It is practical to implement without being resource-intensive – the primary resources are the teacher and the text, many of which are available free of charge online – and it gives teachers and students greater shared control over the education process. It empowers pupils, and effectively works towards critical consciousness, which is not only the overriding goal of education, but also the basis of liberation.

References

  1. Freire, P. (1996); Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 10th ed.; Ramos, M., Translator (Penguin Books); p. 17.

  2. ibid. p. 27.

  3. ibid. p. 68.

  4. ibid. p. 69.

  5. Flecha, R. (2014); Successful Educational Actions for Inclusion and Social Cohesion in Europe (Springer International Publishing); pp. 39–44.

  6. ibid. p. 42

  7. Freire, P. (1996); op. cit. pp. 52–53.


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