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Barking up the Wrong Tree?

17 December 2012

It would seem that everyone in education is continually looking for the silver bullet: that one initiative, that one approach, that one great idea, which will make everything better. Successive administrations appear to decide on their favourite countries and then try to cherry pick approaches that work there and bolt them on to the UK system.

But what if we are barking up the wrong tree entirely? And, more to the point, what if we are doing that deliberately because the truth is unpalatable?

Many people I know (and some I even like and respect), are forever banging on about 'Singapore Maths'. This approach to teaching mathematics is one based on mastery and mathematics results in Singapore are great. But are those results great because of the approach they take to teaching mathematics? Well, no.

When one looks at high performing jurisdictions around the world and tries to find comparators in the systems, we can see that the approaches taken in terms of pedagogy and curriculum are wide and varied. Yet, the results are high. There is certainly a correlation between Singapore's approach to teaching mathematics and its results, but it is not the causation.

So what is the common link?

There would appear to be only one thread that flows throughout all of the highest performing jurisdictions. It is not an approach. It is not the curriculum. It is not how much teachers are paid or the level of PD that they engage with.

The real common link is society's attitudes towards education.

But, you see, this is really not something that any UK government would like to admit. Because if it is the case, then the answer does not lie in a new DfE initiative or models of schooling or a national strategy. The answer lies in other departments. In the home office, in the justice system, in culture, in business.

It is not because the Singapore government take a mastery approach to mathematics learning that they are successuful, it is because the vast majority of society view education as vitally important and something that should be revered. They see teachers as high status professionals. They view learning as the route to fulfilment and prosperity.

This is evident time and again across high performing jurisdictions. It is because the model of society is one in which schooling is held in high esteem.

There are pockets of this attitude in the UK, particularly among Asian families. But as a whole, the UK society does not value education.

I cannot count over the years how many times I have had to deal with parents who feel they have no responsibility whatsoever for their child's learning and behaviour.

And behaviour.

This is the key.

In those societies that value education, classroom behaviour is much less extreme.

It's all about behaviour, dummy.

I recall, as a child, messing around in class. Hi-jinks, silliness. But one stern look from the teacher and we would get back on task. Or, horror of horrors, a letter home! My father would then make sure that messing about in class was not something I would do for quite some time.

But I regularly see and hear about occasions now of behaviour so extreme that it is nothing short of bullying a teacher. These children are not normalised, not socialised.

But what if we admitted that? Which government ever would or could?

It is far easier to blame the education system and tinker away at the edges than it is for a country to stop, look at itself and admit that something rotten has taken hold.

If we actually want education to get better in the UK, we need to make societal changes, but these take at least a generation.

And if you don't believe that something rotten has taken hold, ask a teacher friend if they would be willing to take a pay cut for guaranteed good behaviour and respect from all kids.


(JUST AN ADDITIONAL NOTE ON SINGAPORE:  The other thing that people always forget to mention when talking about the miracle that is Singapore maths results is that as a country it is nothing at all like England.  For a start, it's tiny, with only around 500 schools.  I often wonder how those results would compare to the top 500 schools in England.  Also, I'm not criticising the approach to mathematics, I happen to rather like it.  But we shouldn't kid oursleves - pedagogical and curriculum approach is a values decision.  Personally, I'm a constructivist and much prefer to teach mathematics that way.  There is loads of research to support constructivism.  But there is loads of research to support other approaches too.  We choose to teach in the way that we do for cultural reasons.)