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Let’s use data for learning, not as a big stick

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This feature of the blog is a continuous exchange of correspondence between Graham Birrell and Sam Freedman.  This is the third article in the series.  For all previous articles, see the Shifted page.

Dear Sam

Block of words with 'Learning' in the centreThank you for your response. I think you’re right to ask whether schools have improved in the last thirty years or not. I suspect that’s a topic we could go round the houses on, but I think it’s important to think about what we mean by ‘improved’. If improvement means more pupils passing tests, then yes, I’m pretty sure that things have improved. But if it means an education system that helps shape and create higher numbers of independent thinkers, creative minds and happy and positive individuals than I’m not so sure, and neither are large numbers of people who meet the products of that education system after they’ve completed it. I also think the jury’s out on whether the higher test scores really means that children are significantly better at the subjects that successive governments are utterly transfixed by.

I know that we have very different attitudes towards the use of numbers as a proxy for the quality of an education system – your belief in the ‘revelatory’ use of PISA scores is a good example of our differences on that (what was your impression of the John Jerrim study on this by the way? He pointed out some significant problems with it I thought, or maybe it’s another example of ‘bad academia’). However, despite the fact that I’m not sure you were thinking of the UK, I was pleased that you acknowledge that badly designed accountability systems can be damaging. Furthermore, I suspect we might be closer on the use of data in schools than you might imagine.

I completely agree that all schools should use data to improve their teaching and learning – this is absolutely vital. The best teachers do this every day as they collect in data every time they teach.  What did the pupils learn? What didn’t they learn? Which approach generated the best response, the highest quality learning etc., etc. This is all part of the planning and assessment cycle that all decent schools take part in – knowing where children are in their learning is a crucial pre-determinate of what to teach them next; as David Ausubel famously wrote ‘the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.’

Assessment for Learning and use of feedback is now recognised as perhaps the most vital tool a teacher can employ, and since these can only work when you have collected in data on pupil learning, then yes, I completely agree on how crucial this is. However, there are two riders to this – firstly, that data doesn’t have to be numbers generated by tests, and secondly we don’t need to publish this data to rank, shame and undermine schools in order to achieve continued improvement.

It’s on that second point that, if I may, I’d like to move our discussion on to next. I haven’t met many educationalists who don’t think schools should generate data; it seems the main focus of disagreement is what to do with it. Currently there is a great deal of worry in schools that the use of data will be used as a justification to force them to become an academy and that a sponsor with no historical links to their community will be imposed upon them. There have been some particularly famous examples of this, but this is a process currently being played out in numerous places across the country.

Given the destabilising effect this is having on schools right now, I wondered what you thought of the latest research on academies? This found that any improvement in the performance of the 2002-2007 converters was down to raising attainment of the most able pupils, that there was no improvement in the education of those who needed it most (let’s remember that these were the pupils the policy was targeted at) and that later convertors were not raising attainment for pupils of any ability. Given that this study was written by the same academic whose work has been previously so widely lauded by the government, I would be interested in your views on its findings.

The report must seriously call into question whether the forced academy policy is worth the distress and volatility it creates. However, I wonder if volatility is what the policy is actually about; if you create a competitive and highly changeable system, does market theory dictate that only the strongest will survive? Is there another way forward in our in education system rather than this Darwinian dystopia?

Best wishes


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One Response to Let’s use data for learning, not as a big stick

  1. 3arn0wl Monday, 29 April 2013 at 17:06 #

    Another excellent piece.

    I too question both the quality and the value of the data that’s collected. Especially when the only thing that really matters is the covenant between teacher and student to make progress.