Seriously, what if you’re wrong? – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy

Seriously, what if you’re wrong?


If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.

Bertrand Russell

If there’s one tip I might offer on how to think better it would this: try to explore rather than confirm your biases.

I have spent a lot of time actively seeking out evidence which disconfirms my biases and then having a really good think about why I’m resistant. As a case in point, when I visited Michaela School there were a number of aspects of their work which surprised me. Instinctively it ‘felt wrong’. I wrote today about their decision not to display students’ work after spending the week looking for evidence that countered my instincts and thinking about why I might be wrong. I could have spent the week looking for evidence for why my instinct was correct and I have no doubt I would have found it.

I’m not saying I’m right. God knows I’m often and spectacularly wrong. But not more than anyone else. And I do think I’m pretty good at acknowledging errors, admitting mistakes and thinking about what else might be true.

You see, generally we use our ability to reason to confirm our biases. We look for evidence we are right and By Jingo! we find it. QED. This is remarkably easy to do. Much harder to look for flaws and blind spots in our thinking and explore them vigorously.

So whilst I’ve come to expect it, I’m always a little bit disappointed when the response to a blog post is for readers to take the ‘Yeah, but’ approach and assemble easy to find evidence that what they always thought to be true is in fact true. C’mon; try harder. Make an effort to explore rather than confirm.

Because seriously, what if you’re wrong?

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10 Ways to Green Your School – Words By J.H. Fearless

10 Ways to Green Your School

10 Ways to Green Your School

A Guide for Students and Parents

Twenty percent of Americans go to school every day. That’s 60 million students, teachers, faculty, and staff who work and learn on our nation’s campuses. And while many schools struggle with funding, standards, and behavior, the issues of the environment and good health sometimes fall through the cracks. That’s a mistake that we need to stop making.

School buildings are the third biggest energy users. A mid-size school district may spend $1 million yearly on energy, a number that is increasing by around 19 percent each year. Meanwhile, poor indoor air quality negatively affects students’ performance, and schools remain a huge source of pollutionand waste that degrades the environment.

As a student or parent, big changes at your school may be unpopular, or seem impossible. The reality could not be further from the truth. For example, did you know that Earth Day is the largest civic observance in the world, with more than one billion participants each year? That’s one in every seven people. Even if you think your school administration may be opposed to your ideas, you shouldn’t let that stop you from getting involved. You’re likely to find more support than resistance.

It’s your school (or your kids’ school) and your life. Take action to protect not just the environment, but the health and future of yourself and your kids.

Bring Back Fresh Air & Daylight

Going to school can actually harm your health. Nearly half of all schools (43 percent) have unsatisfactory indoor environmental conditions, and 20 percent have unsatisfactory air quality. That’s partly due to aging school buildings, but also related to an overall decrease in indoor air qualitythanks to reduced air circulation and more synthetic substances in our daily lives. One in ten school-age kids now suffer from asthma, so poor air quality isn’t just an annoyance—it can be life threatening.

Without a doubt, the majority of public schools could use upgrades to help combat these dangers. You can help your school take action to improve indoor air quality and reduce exposure to toxic substances for all teachers and students. Here are some ideas to try:

1. Organize classroom cleanup days.

Some of the biggest health concerns lurking in your classroom exists under all your stuff. Cluttered surfaces, cupboards, and corners harbor dust and mold. Organize some classmates or fellow parents to stay after school once a month to declutter. You’ll help reduce asthma triggers, and your teachers and custodians will thank you.

2. Ask your school to implement green cleaning, pest control, and maintenance policies.

Toxic cleaning supplies, pest poisons, paints, furnishing finishes, and even chemical fertilizers and ice melt threaten kids’ health. They’re also toxic to cleaning and maintenance staff. Ask your school administration to seek out green solutions to various issues, including sidewalk weed control, ice melt in the winter months, and cleaning products.

Toning Down Toxic Schools

3. Raise funds for air quality meters.

Want to get a clearer idea of what you’re really breathing? Work with students and parents to raise funds for or ask the school to invest in air quality meters, which will help students manage asthma. Additionally, the meters notify the school of any serious air quality issues, such as high CO2 levels, or elevated moisture that could cause mold.

Encourage Healthy & Sustainable Living

The kids of today will be the architects and thought leaders of tomorrow. And schools aren’t just a place for math drills. Schools allow young people to share life experiences and lessons, and to learn the values they’ll carry with them for a lifetime. Unfortunately, American kids are in the midst of a well-documented obesity epidemic, which threatens their longevity. At the same time, climate changeis threatening the planet.

The years ahead are full of challenges for today’s kids. By sharing skills for healthy, sustainable living, you can help give them (and their own children) better chances for a long, happy life.

4. Organize a Local Food Day.

Consider teaming up with local restaurants, farms, or even food trucks to bring fresh, local food to school once a month or once every few months. Kids will get a chance to learn the benefits of local food, and you’ll be supporting the small businesses in your community.

5. Set up a green student club.

Take environmental education into your own hands. A student club can take real action on campus issues. Your club may create a campus-wide recycling or composting program; learn about growing your own food with a school garden; organize cleanup and planting days; raise funds for green initiatives; and even take part in statewide and national green schools competitions. Through all this, students will learn leadership, teamwork, and how great feels to make a positive difference.

6. Form a carpooling, cycling, or walking group.

Save time for busy parents, conserve energy, and make friends with a community carpool or other transportation group. By getting together with your neighbors, you can find new, more efficient ways to get to and from school. Carpools are the time-tested solution, but if you live close enough to your school, think about organizing a group to ride bikes or walk together. As a bonus, parent chaperones will get their daily exercise, too.

7. Ask the school to install energy meters.

It’s a lot easier to understand energy use when you can see it in action. Energy meters that are visible to any student and teacher aren’t just great learning tools— they can also encourage everyone to conserve energy and water throughout the day. Many schools have started sharing their energy use in this way. Monitoring not only creates savings for the school’s power, heat, and water budgets, but can also be incorporated into friendly school-wide competitions and classroom sustainability lessons.

Save Money, Save the Environment

If you asked your school administration, they’d probably be the first to tell you that they would love to upgrade your school with more modern, sustainable, and healthy features. Unfortunately, most schools have tight budgets, and they have to make tough choices about how to allocate funds.

That said, it shouldn’t be surprising that environmentally sustainable schools—with increased efficiency and health benefits—are also more financially sustainable. For example:

  • Test scores and learning ability improve by three to five percent when a school incorporates natural daylight—equating to an annual earning increase of $532 per student.
  • Building a green school costs less than 2 percent more than a conventional school (about $3 per square foot) but provides 20 times the financial benefits.
  • A green school saves an average of $100,000 annually—enough to hire two new teachers, buy 250 new computers, or purchase 5000 new textbooks.
  • Green schools utilize 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than traditional schools.
  • On average, a green school produces:
    • 1,200 fewer pounds of nitrogen oxides (a principal component of smog)
    • 1,300 fewer pounds of sulfur dioxide (a principal cause of acid rain)
    • 585,000 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas)
    • 150 fewer pounds of coarse particulate matter (a principal cause of respiratory illness)
    • 74 percent less waste

How can you help your school go green? Start by reducing energy use, water use, waste, and pollution in everyday action. Calculate the savings your actions are creating, and lobby the school district to set aside that money for upgrades and improvements to facilities.

Benefits of a Green School

8. Post conservation reminders everywhere.

Simple signs really do make a difference. In every room, bathroom, hallway, and lunchroom, post reminders to students and teachers to turn off lights when they’re not using them; save water while washing their hands; unplug energy-sucking devices; and adjust thermostats when leaving for the day. Be efficient if using paper signs: Paper is a precious resource, too, so be certain your signage will result in a real reduction in your school’s water and power use. Clear your campaign with the administration first. Notify the maintenance staff as well so your hard work doesn’t end up in the waste stream.

9. Start a water bottle campaign.

One of the biggest ways to reduce waste at your school is to get students and teachers to stop using disposable water bottles and other single-use containers. Most schools have plenty of drinking fountains. Organize an education campaign featuring refillable, durable water bottles that everyone can use to cut down on trash and recycling at your school. (Make sure bottles fit your drinking fountains first.)

Ditch Disposable Bottles

10. Volunteer as a xeriscaper.

Schools often use a huge amount of water to maintain lawns and landscaping. While a lush, green field may be perfect for running and playing, many traditional landscaping schemes are costly both in water use and maintenance. Offer the school your time to design and install native plants that don’t require a lot of water. A gardening day is also a great outdoor activity for clubs or parent groups.

Green Living is a Learning Process

None of us were born knowing how to live healthily and sustainably. So don’t expect your friends, neighbors, or family members to have the same passion and knowledge about environmental issues that you may have acquired.

That applies to your school in particular. As institutions of learning, schools have recently been challenged with changing standards and expectations, all to be addressed with stagnant budgets. When it comes to going green, most schools are struggling. That’s why it’s a perfect opportunity for parents and students to get involved, get hands-on, and make change happen from the ground up.

If this article has you interested in becoming greener, take a look through these reclaimed wooden desks for your home.—

Words by JH Fearless.

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The fetish of marking – Words by David Didau The Learning Spy


“Even the most valuable fetishes will turn into dusts and ashes!”
Mehmet Murat Ildan

Fetishism hasn’t always been about rubber and high heels. The word originates from the Portuguesefeitico, meaning an object or charm of false power. When explorers first encountered native religions in West Africa, whatever talismans or totems the locals revered were dismissed as fetishes.

A fetish has since come to mean an object or practice onto which power has been displaced from the original source. Marking seems a good example. At the most basic level, marking is a totemic symbol for the power of feedback. What we want is for students to receive feedback on how to improve, so we domarking in the hope that it provides feedback. But it goes further than that; marking also stands for hard work, professionalism, caring, motivation and all manner of other desirable outcomes. But is marking the best way to get these things?

Ask any roomful of teachers if their marking load has increased in the last five years and you’ll be deafened by the grumbling. Effective marking is time-consuming. Increasingly there’s an expectation that teachers should be prepared to give up every evening and weekend in order to keep marking up to do date. I think there’s something very wrong with this.

Dr Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, suggests there may be some benefit to schools outsourcing marking; she says outsourcing is cheap, reliable and would go some way to alleviating teachers’ crippling workload. But from the torrents of abuse showered on the suggestion, you could be forgiven for thinking she’d actually recommended that children should be ritually dismembered. I can sympathise. I got much the same response when I wrote about a school which employed a team of homework markers.

First up to bat was the general secretary of the ASCL, Brian Lightman. He said:

Marking of pupils’ work is an integral part of the professional duties of a teacher. Whilst we would agree that technology can, in appropriate cases be used to process some assessments, I would have serious concerns about outsourcing routine marking. Teachers need to see pupils’ work themselves so that they can fully understand the degree to which their pupils have understood what has been taught. Schools must be resourced adequately to provide them with the time to do this.

On the face of it this seems measured, but the underlying assumption that marking is, always has been and always should be ‘integral’ to a teacher’s professionalism is curious. I have three questions about this assumption:

  1. Does all work need to be marked by the classroom teacher?
  2. Do teachers actually need to see pupils’ work for themselves in order to fully understand how well teaching has been understood?
  3. Do teachers actually need to understand – fully or otherwise – how well teaching has been understood?

You may think the answer to each question is a resounding YES, but I’m not so sure. There are many parts of the world where teachers spend far less time marking and students’ results are at least as good (or in many cases significantly better.) Dylan Wiliam says,

In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on. This is sometimes done individually or with groups of teachers working together. In Japan, however, teachers spend a substantial proportion of their lesson preparation time working together to devise questions to use in order to find out whether their teaching has been successful (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004).

So with that in mind, here are some brief answers to the question raised above:

  1. We already accept that students produce some work which class teachers shouldn’t mark. The marking of most summative, externally validated examinations is already outsourced. And the expectation that teachers should mark coursework and controlled assessment has always seemed little more than a way for exam boards to cut costs. But if the bulk of students’ work has been accurately and efficiently marked by someone else, this would leave teachers free to spend their time on something potentially more productive. Hell, it might even allow them an evening or weekend off once in a while!
  2. Whilst we may want to argue that teachers need to understand how pupils are grappling with tricky concepts, there seems little justification for requiring teachers to wade through exercise books to find this evidence for themselves. The sort of marking Dr Allen advocates provides teachers with a summary of pupils’ progress and misconceptions. As longers teachers are aware of the impact of teaching, there’s little actual value in the hours it takes to mark the books themselves.
  3. If you accept that learning is invisible, then the picture presented in pupils’ books will only provide evidence of performance. Were we to put the effort into producing a curriculum which spaced and interleaved the troublesome threshold concepts of our subjects then misconceptions become predicatable and performance data misleading. If we’re serious about long-term retention and transfer between contexts, regular marking might actually get in the way.

But of course we’re not simply interested in understanding how our pupils are doing. Marking also builds relationships; it is motivational. So, scratch everything I’ve said so far, right? Wrong. Just cos markingcan result in motivation, doesn’t mean it will; it doesn’t mean classroom teachers have to do it in order for it to be motivational, and it certainly doesn’t mean marking is the only or even the best way to motivate students.

This table shows just how easy it is for marking to result in demotivated students:

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All too often the time we spend loving crafting well-intentioned comments results in students aiming lower, giving up, or deciding not to make the same effort.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t really think marking is a bad thing, but I do think it comes at an appalling cost to teachers’ well-being. The fact that very many teachers seem reluctant to cast off their shackles shows the extent to which we’ve imbued marking with magical powers and superstitious awe. Teachers probably do need to mark some work, if only so they understand the process of assessment, but I don’t think the process needs to be nearly so onerous or widespread. Marking is only a proxy for what we actually want. Let’s put away the fetishes and think about where the power really lies.

To this end, I’m taking part in a research project with Leeds Beckett University and Wakefield Regional Teaching School Alliance which has as its aim prioritising teachers’ well-being whilst finding ways to mark and give feedback as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible. I’ll tell you more in due course…

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The Myth of Progress – Words by David Didau


“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

C. S. Lewis

We tend to believe that things are getting better, that mankind is on a journey to some perfect state in which irrationality will be banished. This belief shapes and distorts our thinking. Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection is often interpreted as meaning that random biological mutations, which are then inherited and selected as being most fit for the context in which a species finds itself, are working towards some ultimate goal. They aren’t. If we accept Darwin’s theory, we also have to accept that our existence is a matter of chance. We are something of a fluke.

Karl Popper, thought something similar was happening in the realm of ideas. He saw the growth of knowledge as being the result of a process closely resembling natural selection. He thought that “our knowledge consists, at every moment, of those hypotheses which have shown their (comparative) fitness by surviving so far in their struggle for existence; a competitive struggle which eliminates those hypotheses which are unfit”.

But even a cursory glance at the history of ideas demonstrates that if this is true, it’s a maddeningly slow process. In education alone many hypotheses which are unfit continue to lurch about our landscape. Maybe we can better understand the spread of ideas by considering Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes and mimetic evolution. In The Selfish Gene, he explains that just as genes are driven to replicate themselves through the process of natural selection, memes – ideas, tunes, images – also replicate themselves in a similarly self-interested way. Through a process of cultural transmission, ideas spread themselves from person to person and from consciousness to consciousness regardless of whether they are good or bad ideas.

Obviously some memes are incredibly useful or beautiful – the ideas of central limit theorem, King Lear, growth mindsets, the electric light bulb, the idea of education itself – but others are not. It often seems that all an idea needs in order to be accepted is to be shouted loudly enough and often enough for it to become something we no longer question. When this happens memes enter the realm of conventional wisdom and become self-evidently true in the minds of many; their survival is assured. Or as John Maynard Keynes put it, “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas”.

Our implicit belief in progress hoodwinks us into accepting that results should always be improving and things can only get better. We only have to remember the second law of thermodynamics: everything moves inexorably towards entropy and chaos. (The entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium increases because isolated systems always evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium, a state with maximum entropy.) Any temporary sense of progress is but a beguiling illusion, just another self-interested meme that replicates as it passes from mind to mind.

Back to progress. Is it actually possible for pupils’ learning to improve in a short time or at a great rate and continue for an extended period?

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 15.31.16

I don’t think it is. Of course we can have breakthroughs but these are rare. Sudden breakthroughs are usually the result of the steady accretion of understanding over time – the fact that they seem to happen quickly is misleading. For the most part, you have to make a choice between rapid and sustained and, this being the case, I’m going to plump for sustained. After all, progress that doesn’t last isn’t really progress, is it? This idea that progress can be rapid has led us into believing that meaningful progress can take place in individual lessons and that learning follows a neat, linear trajectory. Children move from knowing nothing to knowing a little, to knowing a lot in a smooth and easily navigable and safely predictable manner. This is self-evidently wrong as even a cursory examination of children’s work over time makes clear. Progress is, if anything, halting, frustrating and surprising. Learning is better seen as integrative, transformative, and reconstitutive – the linear metaphor in terms of movement from A to B is unhelpful. The learner doesn’t go anywhere but develops a different relationship with what they know.

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Progress is just a metaphor. It doesn’t really describe objective reality; it provides a comforting fiction to conceal the absurdity of our lives. We can’t help using metaphors to describe learning because we have no idea what it actually looks like. Even though our metaphors are imprecise approximations, the metaphors we use matter. They permeate our thinking. Learning is often conceived as a staircase which pupils steadily ascend. The long shadow cast by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget has meant linear ‘stage theories’ have dominated the way we see the mysterious process of learning. As we know from our own messy journey through life, we often seem to step back or sideways as often as we step up. An alternative metaphor is offered by cognitive psychologist Robert Siegler, who has developed the theory that learning is like ‘overlapping waves’. Piaget saw learning progressing in neat stages like a staircase: children would master level 1 before ascending to level 2, level 3 and so on. Instead, Siegler envisages learning as “a gradual ebbing and flowing of the frequencies of alternative ways of thinking, with new approaches being added and old ones being eliminated as well”. He suggests that as we encounter new rules, strategies, theories, and ways of thinking these wash through our minds like waves, sometimes obliterating what was there before, sometimes pushing suddenly forward in great surges.

This might be a more useful way to frame our thinking about progress. Siegler’s image of surging and receding waves helps to explain the seemingly random retreats and swells we experience as we grapple with new skills and tricky concepts. Rather than feeling ashamed about ‘slipping back’ into the old ways of thinking and acting we thought we had out- grown, such episodes are better viewed as part of the natural ebb and flow of learning. Slipping back is part of the liminal process of integrating new and troublesome concepts into our mental webs.

If you’re interested in how we might attempt to measure something inherently unmeasurable, I’ll be speaking at The Key’s Life After Levels Conference on 19th May. See you there.

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