Monday, 21 May 2012

Pasi Sahlberg's Talk and Discussion in the Houses of Parliament: Thursday 17th May 2012

Pasi Sahlberg came to the Houses of Parliament to try to explain how the incredible standards demonstrated by Finnish students in PISA tests have been achieved.

He spoke in committee room 14 which as packed with about 150 people. Two hours flew by and the applause was long when we were reluctantly forced to stop. This blog is an attempt to capture what was said as I remember it. My thanks to Janet Downs for her contributions to these combined notes. Others who were there are welcome to add their memories in the comments section where questions are also welcome.

Five Key Points:

1 Increase co-operation/collaboration, decrease competition.
2 Increase personalised education, decrease standardisation. Recognise that pupils are different and tailor teaching appropriately.
3 Trust professionals, decrease external accountability measures. Don’t use standardised tests judged against the average but increase formative assessment.
4 Focus on pedagogy. Regard technology as a tool not as an end in itself. Pupils need time away from technology to connect with humans not machines.
5 Increase professionalism and reduce bureaucracy. Only professionally-trained teachers should be allowed to work in schools and all should acquire masters status.
The critical emphasis was on increasing equity. The Finnish Government allocates resources to increase equity – this means that money is targeted where it is most needed. 30% of Finnish children are assessed as needing some kind of special education at some time during their school lives. There is no stigma attached to special education because so many pupils receive it and in 22% of cases it is not permanent. Pasi claims that the Finnish government never pursued excellence - they pursued equity instead.

When asked what he would choose if he could advise one thing to English education Pasi said that we should be letting our children play more. School starts at 7 in Finland with children having the option to go half time from the age of 6. Even when they are full time they spend about an hour less in class each day and have much longer play times instead. The teachers spend the time in collaboration, student assessment, school imrovent, welfare issues and planning. Gladwell’s law of 10,000 hours has its most important application to children and play. Little homework is set – especially for young children.

Setting by ability is illegal in Finland and private schools became state schools.

He showed the picture of the different animals in the classroom where the test (to be sat at 10am) was to climb the tree to illustrate points 2 and 3 above.

Pasi got himself appointed as the chief inspector and his only action in that role was to abolish the inspectorate. Areas now appoint their own inspectors/advisers. (There were people at this meeting who remembered the night Ofsted was created - it had been intended to adopt the structure Finland now had but by moving the vote to midnight on the night before Ascot someone managed to get an amendment through to make it a central and compulsory authority).

Some substantial aspects of the reforms have been achieved at times of crisis and/or economic collapse. They have been opportunistic, so for example measures of accountability have been shut down at the same time school budgets have been cut.

He contrasted Finnish culture in education with the culture in many other countries which he called the GERM culture

GERM culture / Finnish Culture
Competition / Collaboration
Standardisation/ Personalisation
School Choice / Equity
Test-based accountability / Trust-based professionalism
Here is an explanation of GERM culture:
Diane Ravitch, New York Review of Books, reviewed Sahlberg’s book and wrote: ‘Sahlberg recognizes that Finland stands outside what he refers to as the “Global Education Reform Movement,” to which he appends the apt acronym “GERM.” GERM, he notes, is a virus that has infected not only the United States, but the United Kingdom, Australia, and many other nations. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program are examples of the global education reform movement. Both promote standardized testing as the most reliable measure of success for students, teachers, and schools; privatization in the form of schools being transferred to private management; standardization of curriculum; and test-based accountability such as merit pay for high scores, closing schools with low scores, and firing educators for low scores.’

Pasi paid tribute to the people in UK maths education who inspired him when he was doing his PhD research in London 20 years ago.
(On a personal note I know those people and they inspire me still – for insight into the culture Pasi would have been experiencing then I would recommend Jo Boaler's book 'Experiencing School Mathematics')

Pasi strongly recommended we read the OECD report: Equity and Quality in Education.

Here is Pasi Sahlberg’s website.

Here is his recent book about Finnish Education.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Assessing students up to age 14 - A better future. Part 10 - At what age should this type of tracking begin? (& tracking inputs)

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Young children need to have access to a curriculum which allows them to develop different skills at different times.  Thus during the EYFS and KS1 the emphasis on tracking progress should be placed not on the outcomes in the child but on the child having access to well structured and appropriate learning opportunities.  I think it's reasonable to argue that such an approach could also apply to year 3, creating more space within which a focus on students engaging with the formative concrete tasks which will give students a secure foundation for the later abstraction of insights can be cherished.

So it would be more appropriate for a school to use a tracking system based on an ICT framework like this to share information with parents regarding a child's progress through a reading scheme and their engagement with wider schemes of activities than it would be to share information about the particular attainment targets a child has reached. The focus should be on progress with formative rather than summative activities.

I would hope that a criteria based tracking system for older children would retain a component strand which creates space for each child's engagement with activities which  are intended for formative rather than summative purposes to be shared.  For example if a class is engaging with a practical investigation in mathematics for a single lesson, it should be possible for the teacher to record in a couple of sentences what took place during the lessons and export that comment instantly to the record of every child who was there.  If students took part in an investigation which lasted for several lessons it might be appropriate for a teacher to record individual comments regarding what they achieved (the teacher may also want to store photos of work).  Older students or teachers may then wish to refer to these comments when they are reviewing their progress against criteria which are not so easily assessed, such as their ability to select which pieces of knowledge to use in practical contexts, their confidence in finding strategies to move on when they are stuck and their skills in co-operating with other students.

I would suggest that designers of such systems take care to pay separate attention to the needs of students, parents and teacher up to the age of 8 and their needs from ages 8-14 and should then look to merge the systems on to a single framework.  Ideally I would have completely separate teams working on the designs for the two systems - bringing them together to design an product which includes both systems only when they are well advanced in their thinking.

Assessing students up to the age of 14 – A better future  QUICK LINKS

Assessing students up to age 14 - A better future. Part 9 - Bridging the Primary/Secondary Divide

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At present students generally transfer from primary school to secondary school with just three grades - their SATS results in English, Maths and Science.

These grades bring with them two main problems:
- Firstly they are too broad-brush and give little insight into what each child can and can't do.  For example one child may achieve a particular level in maths without answering a single question with content at that level or higher.  However another may achieve the same level by answering questions at harder levels but losing marks at lower levels through carelessness or through them having gaps in their knowledge which it is important to fill.  A system of integrated formative and summative assessment could provide far more detailed and useful information at the time when a child transfers between schools.

- Secondly they are too high stakes and are based on just a few exams.
The pressure on primary schools to cram students so that grades are artificially inflated and knowledge is not retained is intense.  The grade they achieve represents only what they could do under exam conditions during one week.  A system of integrated formative and summative assessment would remove the need for students to engage in high stakes exams and could far more accurately  record what they can and can't do by accumulating data over time which can include multiple perspectives on each criterion.

It is therefore essential that those designing systems of integrated formative and summative assessment plan for how data can be transferred between schools whether or not the school a child moves to is using the same tracking system as their previous school.

Assessing students up to the age of 14 – A better future  QUICK LINKS

Assessing students up to age 14 - A better future. Part 8 - Student Behaviour Mangament

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When designing a system of integrated formative and summative assessment, it is worth considering how such a system will link to any systems a school may already have in place for tracking student behaviour.

It seems appropriate that a system of integrated formative and summative assessment should be proactively designed to work well with any systems of behaviour tracking a school may use as the two issues impact so closely on each other.

Edward Whittaker at IRIS was very helpful in helping me to understand some of the issues involved in behaviour tracking.

Assessing students up to the age of 14 – A better future  QUICK LINKS

Assessing students up to age 14 - A better future. Part 7 - Supporting Diversity

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Designers of a system of integrated formative and summative assessment consider the practicalities of recording students' progress in areas which are not part of the core curriculum.

It should be possible for people to write educational material in new or overlapping areas and for students who have studied it to a creditable level to have their progress recorded.

For example mathematicians may wish to write modules on new topics and my develop interactive test for them.  It may be possible for students to gain formal (if their completion of the test is observed by an accredited person) or informal credit for their progress.  I think the National Curriculum levels we have developed could form a useful guide for giving an indication of the difficulty of non-core curriculum content.  

Or it may be the case that, in the context of say a football world cup, educational resources are developed which cover core curriculum points in a 'football context' which engage and motivate students who are passionate about football in studying aspects of the curriculum from physiology to mechanics to competition planning.  System designers should consider whether such work should be accredited separately or whether the core curriculum targets it covers should be accredited instead.

The Modern Baccalaureate exemplifies one way in which progress can be recorded.  ASDAN is an example of an organisation which accredits the qualifications developed by many other bodies in education.  It's interesting and important to look at the ways in which the Modern Baccalaureate and ASDAN interact with each other.  It is my expectation that a well designed student tracking and accreditation system will need to interact rapidly and fluently with many external bodies.

Assessing students up to the age of 14 – A better future  QUICK LINKS

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Assessing students up to age 14 - A better future. Part 6 - Central Tracking of Progress

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One of the benefits of SATS results is that they can be easily used by remote parties to identify signs of possible problems in schools.

However unfortunately the broad-brush nature of SATS results reveals little detail regarding the nature of any problems which may exist.

It is likely that those with oversight of schools, be they local authorities, academy chains or central government education services will wish to be able to access and analyse schools tracking systems.  In my opinion it would be wiser that they had access to detailed information regarding students progress than that they just had access to summative grades.

Alan Teece at Alfiesoft had particular insight into the practicalities of how systems could be connected to central government records.

Assessing students up to the age of 14 – A better future  QUICK LINKS