Friday, 1 April 2016

Teaching by Numbers vs Professionalism in Education

There was a lot of discussion at this year's NUT Conference about the impact that the increasing obsession with data has on education - the pressure towards teaching by numbers - and of teacher professionalism as the alternative to this.



Most teachers would describe themselves as education professionals but what does this actually mean?

There are many different definitions of professionalism and professionality. But at the root of all these definitions is the idea of well-trained and well-educated experts whose breadth of knowledge allows them to adapt to an uncertain and unpredictable process, in our case the complex process of education, using a level of professional autonomy to plan and carry out their work.

This professionalism should be the starting point for teacher accountability. The accountability we have to work with parents and the wider school community to do the very best for their children. The accountability that sees parents as partners in the learning journey, not customers or clients. The accountability that will give every parent the confidence that their child is taught in a good local school.

It should be the starting point for our role in assessment. Real assessment, that involves understanding where a child is at in a complex multi-faceted process of education and what experiences, what tasks, what discussions will most effectively move their learning forward. Real assessment that is based on pedagogical knowledge, on an understanding of Vygotsky’s work on the zone of proximal development. Real assessment that involves a deep professional understanding.

And it should be the starting point for teacher training and ongoing professional development. Rather than prescriptive so-called ‘evidence-based’ practice, we need a research-based profession that sees collaboration between schools and university education departments in understanding the complexity of education, not reducing it to bite-sized pop science.

But the worst aspect of teaching by numbers, and the most significant damage it does to education is by its claim to be based on objective and accurate data. This is simply not true.

If you look at the reliability of most standardised tests, the average variation in student performance is about 10-12 months. This means that, even if you accept the idea that education is measurable in this way, testing a child more regularly than once a year is worse than meaningless and testing them annually is not much better. The data is simply not accurate. It is based on dodgy statistics.

And yet, we have an accountability system based entirely on these dodgy statistics, which rewards teaching by numbers and punishes genuine educational experience.

As one report puts it, “Too much teaching concentrates on the acquisition of disparate skills that enable pupils to pass tests and examinations but do not equip them for the next stage of education work and life.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a quote from the union’s Exam Factories report but it comes in fact from Made to Measure, a report by OFSTED into the teaching of mathematics.

Now clearly there’s a contradiction here as OFSTED is part of the system that reinforces this type of teaching but, if even OFSTED can see that teaching by numbers is wrong, surely it is time teachers, parents and most importantly students are offered a different way forward.


It is time that out unions stepped up the campaign to defend teacher professionalism against the damaging impact of an over-obsession with data.

Because teachers haven't given up on their vision of what education should be.

As Jon Berry argues in his new book Teachers Undefeated, "Teachers continue to do the best for their students. They do so despite clumsy interventions from governments who have no idea how difficult they have made school life. They do so even though they are pressurised into producing dubious outcomes and are overscrutinised in every aspect of their lives."

The fact is, as education professionals, we will continue to do the best for our students. We need a system that will support us in this.

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