Roche Limit

Education from the inside. Find me on Mastodon @rochelimit@mastodon.technology. Mirrored from my Gemini capsule at gemini://rochelimit.uk

Shovelling It In

It is easy, under the pressure of exams, to focus on revising the material as easily and quickly as possible. Creating and reading through summaries can give you that warm feeling of having made rapid progress. You copied key points from your textbook yesterday, and reading through your notes it all looks familiar and you feel that it has been learned. You go into class and your teacher reviews what was covered last lesson, and you recognise all that is said. You become more confident that you are done, that reading through your notes again before the exam will get you through comfortably. But the exam doesn't go well, so next time you work harder, write more notes, listen more carefully to the teacher in the reviews. You work harder and harder, but the grade improvements don't come. What is going wrong?

The problem is that the students efforts are being directed towards inefficient methods. Practising the shovelling in of knowledge does not effectively improve your ability to retrieve that knowledge on demand. Working hard on giving yourself opportunities to recognise what you read only serves to verify that you have learned something, when what is needed is to develop the ability to recall that something when it is needed. Developing this different skill needs a different approach.

Short and Long Term Memory

There are two forms of memory important here, and two processes for each. There is long term memory, and short term memory, and for each memory there is a storage strength and a retrieval strength. The main errors made by learners, and their teachers, is to rely on tasks that focus either on retrieval from short term memory or on developing memory storage strength, when the target is to improve the retrieval strength of long term memories.

Common activities in classrooms, such as end of lesson quizzes or the banks of similar problems as is common in Mathematics lessons, can rely more on short term than long term memories. Once you have done the first exercise,and have recalled the strategy that was taught a few moments ago, you just have to do the same thing throughout the whole exercise until you reach the end of the page. There is little need to draw on long term memories in this type of task, so the skills practised will often fade rapidly after the lesson has ended.

Similarly, reading or recognition based tasks, such as reviewing notes or completing multiple choice questions where all the answers are there in front of you, focus on the storage strength of the memories instead of developing the ability to retrieve that same information or strategy. This type of activity can feel rewarding at the time if you recognise the material, but there better ways to ensure that you can perform well when you need to draw on that knowledge.

Focussing of Retrieving from Long Term Memory

There are two aspects to remembering: if you want to be able to recall memories, then you need to specifically practice retrieving them, at the same time as ensuring you are retrieving them from long term storage and not the transient short term working memory in which you hold disposable knowledge. If you practise retrieval immediately after learning or reviewing material than you will slow down the progress of that information into easily available long term memories. Similarly, reading the information you want to be able to recall is not very effective at developing your ability to remember things when the written material is not available to you.

Strategies

There are three simple strategies that all teachers and students should be aware of: retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving. The first emphasises the retrieval over the storage aspects of the memory, while the others focus on accessing long term rather than short term storage.

Retrieval Practice

An example will help here. Imagine you are the teacher starting a lesson which builds on a concept from a lesson last week. You believe, correctly, that the students will not yet have a strong recollection of the material, so to help them along you spend the first few minutes recapping the key points from that lesson, then move onto today's extensions. What has happened in the students' heads? They have listened carefully, perhaps, but it is the teacher that has practised the retrieval of the ideas, not the students. They have passively checked that they have some stored memories of what you have described. It might improve the storage strength of those memories, but they are unlikely to have improved their abilities to recall that material on demand in the future.

A simple switch by the teacher from a recap to a recall practice exercise significantly improves the essential recall strengths of the memories. This can be as simple as a brain dump (“Everyone, in two minutes write everything you can remember about ...”), or a think-pair-share task with three short questions (“OK, without looking at your notes, write the answers, then discuss with your neighbour.”), or a pre-prepared short online quiz. That's it. Students can do it themselves at home, and even flash-cards can work well with this strategy, as long as they write the answers, or say it out loud, before turning the card over to check. Too many people read the front of the flash-card, then turn it over to check their hunch that they knew the answer, but without practising the recall process before reading the answer defeats the purpose of the exercise.

The key is to declare an answer from memory before checking you're right. That practice then instant feedback cycle has been shown to be very effective at developing the recall strength of memories.

Spacing

Practising the recalling skill right after learning something has benefits, but since you are recalling from short term memory you are not developing the recall strength of the long term memory of that item. You need to allow the idea to fade from short term storage, then any recollection you do will be from the long term storage and it will be strengthened by the process.

A simple strategy is to give a class a test on last week's content, instead of what they have just learned. Or test this lesson's work, but always include a question or two from an earlier topic. Doing some recall practice tasks at the end of the lesson students learned will be improved by delaying it until the start of the next lesson. And so on. It should be no surprise that practising the retrieval of memories improves that ability over time, but sadly many students and teachers are keen on sticking to the traditional approaches that have been transmitted to teachers from their student experiences without modification.

Interleaving

When you have a series of near identical problems to solve, especially common in STEM courses, after you have recalled a strategy for question 1, question 2 them becomes a case of simply retrieving from short term memory what you did a moment ago. It would be more effective if you can force the retrieval from long term storage for every question, and this can be done by interleaving questions with even slightly different demands into the one exercise. So, for example, instead of having twenty questions on dividing fractions, mix in questions on adding or multiplying fractions so the student has to select a different strategy each time instead of just doing the same as last time. The key is to enforce the retrieval of a strategy or fact each time, so that the practised recollection is happening from long term rather than short term memories.

Improving Student Progress Through Picking the Low Hanging Fruit

Every teacher should be aware of these strategies and be using them every day in the classroom or lecture hall. Even if they are not, we should be teaching them to the students so they can make better use of their time. Some will want to do the easy thing of continuing with the comfortable and familiar processes they have used somewhat successfully for years. But others can really benefit from making more efficient use of their, or their students', time. These modifications to the practice of learning are simple and can be incorporated easily into most schemes of work and lessons, and into private revision schedules.

Distractions stopping you doing the basics right

Amongst the most expensive activities in a modern society is education. Yet while teaching professionals like to think they are objective in the way they approach their sensitive task, there are always shiny distractions that attract the attention of educators away from the basics of managing complex social interactions. With a relentless focus on 'academic success', managers in schools are always on the lookout for the next drop of fairy dust to sprinkle onto their school's teachers. A nice, clean, top-down management intervention is an attractive way to appear effective in their role, but without a decent grasp of the changes required it is easy to make lessons less effective than before the intervention.

Before introducing new structures to guide and constrain teachers, it is important then to survey what it is that teachers are doing in the classrooms already and work out where the easy wins are. Teachers are time constrained, and anything that takes up attention or time will push out other tasks. There is an opportunity cost of imposing interventions beyond the training needs: unintended consequences can hinder effective approaches as easily as poor ones.

Some of the more recent ideas that have been widely adopted in schools are: learning styles, frequent summative tests, target grades, graded lesson observations, group work, triple marking, three part lessons, mastery learning, active learning, teaching resilience/grit, flipped learning … . The list is long, and while some of these have positive effects when implemented skilfully, far too many changes have negative effects for the students' grades, their broader educational success or their mental health. What is often missed is the years long development of a widely agreed set of principles derived from academic research into memory and learning, which should be driving schools to adopt some straightforward strategies that will have long term and real effects on education.

Safety and a Focus on Understanding

For children to learn, rather than just complete tasks, they need to have an interest in what they are studying. If they are not interested in learning the material then learning will not happen. The focus of tasks must be the concepts and knowledge of the subject, not the assessment at the end. A knowledge of the assessment requirements is necessary, but too much emphasis on testing and grades shifts children from an understanding focus to a less effective performance focus. And the environment must be one of emotional safety if the child is to take the risk to try to learn the material. If there is a chance of embarrassment in front of their peers, or a significant loss of self esteem, then fear can affect their willingness to engage.

Three Useful Strategies

Develop Curiosity

In a low ability Science set of 14-15 year olds, much of the curriculum was beyond them in the exams, but as children in a farming community they had a real interest in farm equipment. In the middle of a Chemistry lesson one boy would see something driving past the window and the cry would go up — “TRACTOR!”. And the whole class would rush to the window. Settling down afterwards, they could tell me about the hydraulic pressures, the importance of the voltage of the electrical system, the capabilities more specifically. The problem these folk had was not an inability to learn, but a lack of interest in schooling.

If the teacher can present a new topic in an interesting way, showing enough that is familiar but also demonstrating that the students would see as indicating gaps in their knowledge, then you are on the way to producing enough interest to carry them through a sequence of lessons. Telling them that this boring material will be in the exam will interest some, but will fail to inspire many.

Formative Feedback

In the interest of reducing academic stress, feedback is best focussed on being formative instead of summative. Summative assessments are useful for finding out what a child knows at the end of the course to find out if they are suitable to advance to the next level, but formative feedback, intended to identify problems and support the learner, should be the main focus during the sequence of lessons. Formative feedback should be low stakes, low stress, immediate, and constructive. Some of the best feedback, then, could involve giving the class the marking rubric and having them mark their own work for their own benefit, without having to give the teacher the score. If the score is important enough to record to feed the administrative demand for data, then it has become summative instead of formative feedback, and it loses much of its educational benefit. Assessments cannot easily serve two masters, they either support the students or the teacher, not both.

Cognitive Load Theory

Learning occurs when relevant concepts and information stored in working memory. If you want to multiply 37 and 15, then you have to hold both these items in your memory while you work out the answer. You will multiply 37 by 10, remember the result 370, and also remember the product of 37 and 5, half 370 or 185. You are now storing four items as you try to add two of them together to find the final solution, which probably involves some column addition in your head (add the 70 to the 80 to get 150, add in the 300, 100 and 5 to get 555. In total, before you finish you will be juggling five or six numbers in your short term working memory, as well as recalling the methods you need to calculate the interim and final result.

If you found the task tricky, then you are in good company. This task has a high cognitive load, and is more difficult if you have to work out a method as well as hold the numbers in your head. An impoverished home life or having distractions makes tasks more difficult as a result.

So, what can teachers to do work around this? Trying to reduce cognitive load while focussing on the key learning objectives can help. Scaffolding is a common technique to allow students to solve one part of a problem at a time. When students are given complex problems their entire focus can be on solving it, so they have little capacity to remember the steps they used. Starting with studying and explaining worked examples provides students with the information they need while still allowing them the challenge of understanding what has been done. The lower cognitive load improves the learning, although many teachers still intuitively feel that solving complex problems is a good learning experience.

Over stimulating material can be a problem too. It is a common technique to 'dual code' material given to students, to allow them to have two channels of information for them to absorb. But having interesting or exciting pictures illustrating some text without adding significant information can be distracting enough to reduce learning. Posters in the sight line in classrooms also have to be carefully chosen to contain important information without being competition for limited concentration.

Manager Driven Pedagogy

Managers have a key role in exposing their teachers to the key steps they can take to improve student learning outcomes, but they need to be very careful not to distract them from the things that matter. If the main purpose of a new drive is to push the latest thing they have read in an educationalist's commercial training offer, or they are not clear about the current state of the art in education theory, then they could cause more problems than they are solving. Focussing on safe learning environments, formative processes and the cognitive load of classroom tasks would be a good start for any manager looking to make a difference in their school.

2022-01-25

Rapid Email Triage

In another effort to manage my burgeoning work email inbox, I have been trying to train colleagues to write emails in a way that makes it quicker to digest and decide on suitable actions. Many emails are written as narratives, so that you need to wade all the way through several hundred works before you find out there is nothing I need to know or do. They have subject lines like 'Third Form' or 'Thursday Afternoon', which tell me nothing useful.

Bottom Line Up Top is a military habit of putting the key information at the beginning, with an informative subject line and the main points summarised right in the first paragraph, with supporting information further down. So a subject of 'ACTION: All 3rd Form tutors needed at breaktime meeting Thursday' would let you triage immediately. The detailed subject line means that you don't need to open the email right now, and many people could delete immediately.

So, I have been sending emails with subject lines starting with 'ACTION: ', 'INFO: ' and 'REQUEST: ', hoping that others will start doing the same, while telling colleagues that if they want me to not delete their emails without opening them they need to make it clear in the subject line what it is about.

Has it worked? Sort of. I am deleting emails at a wicked rate based on what I can see from the inbox view without opening them, working on the assumption that if I make a mistake in deleting an important email then I will get a nagging follow up eventually. One senior manager has taken up the habit though, so I live in hope that it might become a workplace policy eventually.

The government should be brave and make breaking DRM legal, even if the distribution of copied media remains controlled.

Would YOU steal?

My movie viewing last weekend was interrupted by the antisocial behaviour of the DVD I was trying to watch. I arranged the sofa and TV, poured the wine and sorted some nibbles. The DVD started, but the film didn’t.

I had to sit through a series of trailers for films I’d never watch. I pressed fast forward, I pressed skip-on and my player told me that the actions were forbidden. Forbidden! My own player, playing a DVD I had paid for! And the DVD would not let me control the playback. I tried the disk menu button, hoping to get straight to the play options, but the disk skipped back to the start, so I had to watch the trailers again.

Eventually, we got to the main feature. Or would have done if there wasn’t a compulsory viewing of the copyright notice. And a jarring and jumpy clip showing a ne’er-do-well breaking into a car and stealing from it, ending with a statement equating copying a DVD to theft. You wouldn’t steal, would you? So don’t copy stuff it said.

Now, I could be persuaded that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a good thing that protects the income of poot artists, but after muttering my way through a long series of video clips in my own home that I didn’t want to watch and could not avoid, I was rather less sympathetic. Bypassing DRM and copying media is illegal. But it has it’s benefits. Say I buy a DVD, but don’t want to watch the same trailers and warnings every time I watch the film. Let’s say that I bypass the DRM and copy the film to my PC and strip everything except for the main feature, so that I can watch the film the way I want to watch it. That is illegal.

But can it be equated to stealing? Who on Earth has lost in the process? Stealing is a strictly zero-sum game: one person’s gain is another’s loss. In this case no-one has lost anything, but I gain plenty. DRM which prevents uncontrolled copying is arguably, maybe, a reasonable thing, but it will never work. Copying and free distribution is rampant, and DRM will never prevent that. It will never be more difficult to copy data bits which are being decoded in my player or PC CDROM drive. But DRM does stop me format shifting, cutting out adverts or making backup copies if I wish to comply with the law.

And when DRM is used to make me watch adverts in my own home when I am viewing a bought DVD on my own equipment, I has gone beyond a joke.

Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them. This is occasionally demonstrated in class when a student complains that they can't relate to the metric SI units, and goes on to immediately demonstrate that they have no idea of how many ounces there are to the pound, or stones to the ton, or inches to the yard, or yards to the mile. They are certainly unaware of the coherent imperial unit of mass, the slug or the meaning of the fathom, acre or gallon, the chain, troy-ounce or nautical mile.

I strongly suspect that this is also the case with the UK Government which has claimed that a move back to imperial weights and measures is a key benefit of leaving the EU:

Since the [UK-EU Trade and Cooperation] agreement was signed [a year ago], the Government has sought to capitalise on new freedoms by cutting red tape for businesses, reforming EU rules and regulations and boosting trade abroad to create new jobs here in the UK. Key successes include:

”...forging ahead to remove the ban on selling in pounds and ounces and to restore the crown stamp onto the side of pint glasses.”

Prime Minister pledges to build on Brexit achievements in 2022

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary has claimed this week that we can now go back to buying Champaign in pint bottles, as if that practice hadn't died out long before the UK joined the Common Market predecessor of the EU. Of course, since imperial measurements were never banned, although they did have to be subsidiary to the metric ones on labels, there is no sense to claiming to have made them legal again. And beer has been sold by the pint in bars throughout the UK's EU membership.

Everyone under the age of 55 years has studied metric units exclusively in school, since the UK went metric in 1972, sixty-eight years after Lord Kelvin collected eight million signatures calling for the adoption of metric measures. That was a fifth of the population at that time.

Hansard records Lord Belhaven and Stenton, moving the second reading of the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Bill in 1904 as saying:

The metric system has been taught in the elementary schools under the Educational Code of 1900, but it is to be regretted that though the teachers give much time and trouble to teaching this new subject, in many cases the examiners have not asked any questions in that section of arithmetic. Therefore school teachers are very much disheartened when they find that inspectors seem to look upon it in a half-hearted way and they get no credit for the time they devote to the teaching of it. If this Bill passes it will be the means of infusing a great deal more energy into this particular subject.

and continues with

The second objection to our present system is the waste of time in teaching it to children. It is not alone the teaching of the tables which I have just referred to—it is the whole system of compound addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and the system of computation called “Practice.”

It is estimated, on high educational authority, that every child wastes one year of its arithmetical school time in learning these subjects and that in many cases the time lost is much greater. Last year inquiries were made of headmasters of schools on this subject, and 197 sent replies, of which 161 said that saving of time in teaching the metric system would be one year, thirty said it would be two years, and six that it would be three years. This gives a French or German child a great advantage over an English child, as the time saved can be applied to some more useful subject.

I should like to quote from one of the many letters received. The senior mathematical master of Edinburgh High School wrote— “An average scholar would save at least a year and a half, probably two. This saving is great in itself, but if it be considered how much he saves by not being subjected to a wearisome process of acquiring the knowledge, say, to convert ordinary yards to poles and vice versâ, or square yards to perches and give a rational remainder, and the wearing out of his nervous system—not to speak of the teachers'—I conceive it to be not only a saving of time but an economy of mental effort which is incalculable.” The objection does not lie only in the time which is wasted. The child is wearied and disheartened by the difficulties of the subject; and, in the case of boys at our public schools, many get such a distaste for arithmetic that they lose all desire to study mathematics afterwards, and I think this has much to do with the low standard of mathematical knowledge in this country.

Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them.

The Physicist, Mathematician and Engineer Lord Kelvin supported the Bill in 1904, noting in passing that the Metric system was a English invention:

While we are grateful to France for having given us the metric system, while we see France, Germany, Italy, and Austria rejoicing in the use of it, and benefiting every day by the use of it, it is somewhat interesting to know that, after all, the decimal system, worked out by the French philosophers, originated in England In a letter dated 14th November, 1783, James Watt laid down a plan which was in all respects the system adopted by the French philosophers seven years later, which the French Government suggested to the King of England as a system that might be adopted by international agreement. James Watt's objects were to secure uniformity and to establish a mode of division which should be convenient as long as decimal arithmetic lasted.

A hundred and twentyyears ago, elementary schools in England started to teach metric units, while the Germans changed over completely in two weeks without obvious difficulty.

A century later, the Luddites seem to be winning.

I have become dependent on a small programming project which I wrote in Python to learn the language some years ago. It was done as preparation for teaching Computer Science, and as is recommended in tutorials, you should pick a project that matters. The one I chose was to extend the functions of the Zim desktop wiki application[1] which I use for planning courses and lessons — it is a simple text processing script that ended up with fix upon kludge and is now impossible to maintain or extend. It has the sort of structure and code style I would be embarrassed for my students to see, except as a warning to think before you code.

I have been meaning to tackle this low level, but irritating, problem for a while, but since I use it dozens of times a day I have not had the courage or time to sort it out. But over the festive break I have been playing with VimWiki, a personal wiki running inside of Vim, my favoured text and code editor. It seems quick to use without a mouse, an advantage for me, while the file structures (plain text files) and markdown syntax are almost identical. A quick bit of configuring VimWiki and I could access the same files that I usually accessed with Zim. All I needed was to create an index page to replace the GUI stuff and I was up and running with all my old data intact and accessible.

Now, with an incentive to finally rewrite my text processing script, I found a couple of hours to commit and the code is now a fraction of the size, more elegant and idiomatic, making proper use of Python features. There is extra functionality that better suits my current workflows, and sleeker code that will be easy to modify in the future. I can start the new term next week with no interruptions and a new keyboard based wiki for my planning tasks, all without leaving Vim.

[1] Zim – A Desktop Wiki [2] VimWiki – A personal wiki for Vim

The Status Quo in Schools

The internet is not an entirely safe environment for children to roam freely, that is certain. The question is how schools should act in the children's best interests.

There are plenty of options, but schools usually rely heavily on surveillance and filtering to provide some coercion and a hard boundary. Coercion, as every time a child tries to access a forbidden site a warning will flash on the screen to warn that their actions have been recorded by the school. A hard boundary, because, well, erm, that's not so clear. The management say it is to protect students from accessing inappropriate material or sites, but that can't be true, can it, when they know every child carries an always connected 4G mobile phone?

The effort and expense that is made to secure the school broadband is huge, from renting commercial filtering services and network equipment, to the time and goodwill spent trying to ensure that no-one has installed VPN software on their school-issued iPads or laptops. And it is all for nought, since any child can simply switch away from the monitored, hobbled and usually slow school WiFi to an unmonitored personal phone and their unfiltered mobile connection.

It's a Moral Hazard

So what are the children learning from this process? Is it how to stay safe on the internet when they are not in school? Are they actually being protected from online bullying and grooming or from seeing adult content? No, they are seeing the normalisation of online surveillance and the demonisation of VPN services that could keep them safe out of school.

As a pedagogical strategy, it is not a good idea to “teach to the test” since it undermines efforts to develop a child's interest in understanding the subjects more than the assessment methods. Similarly, focussing on the needs of the school bureaucracy and scaring students away from learning about essential security precautions is not in anyone's interest. It risks presenting security as performative theatre instead of a key life skill.

Tackling Emails at Source

We all receive far too many emails to manage comfortably without impinging on the time needed to do our main job. There are ways to smooth out the daily grind of the overflowing inbox, but that doesn't deal with the primary cause, which is being sent too many emails. Even if only a small number need you to act on them, it takes time and energy to triage every email to filter them down to the essentials.

Corpotate Mailshots and Newsletters

So what can be done? The first thing is to unsubscribe from external automated emails. The newsletters, sales material, promotions, surveys, and so on might have seened a good idea at the time, but they are a drain on your time. Click the unsubscribe link at the bottom or mark them as spam to have your email service deal with them instead.

For those emails that you can't yet completely abandon, set up a rule in your email client to automatically move them into a 'mailshot' folder to keep them from polluting your inbox.

Application Notifications

If your company uses services like Teams or Slack then you may suffer emails telling you that thete are messages, or that a meeting has been set up, or changed, or you've been added to a channel or group. It may be possible to turn these notifications off in the settings of each group, but for the workforce as a whole it should be turned off at administrator level for everyone. If you are remotely engaed with the service, then these email are superfluous.

These mesures may be enough for you to manage the inbox if you have discipline and perseverence, but the quantity of internal emails may still be overwhelming. And there is little you can do without some effort to change the culture of the workplace – this needs managers to both see the problem and have the motivation to do something about it.

Alternatives to Email

The best way to reduce the flow of emails is to transfer as much communication as you can onto other channels, so that the only emails that get sent are those from external organisations and those for which there is no better route.

Daily or Weekly Notices Email

All those messages that are simply there to remind everyone of a deadline or schedule change are better off being bundled together to make a single update email. When you need to find the details it is easier to search a single source than trying to remember who exactly did the reminding and when, across multiple communications.

Intranet Front Page

Even better than a single email is to put all these general notices onto a highly visible intranet page, on or linked to from the landing page. It can be updated without impinging on email inboxes, yet everyone will know where to go for the latest information. Instead of each manager with an update to communicate sending out reminders they instead email an administrator who collates them all in to one place.

Teams or other Slack-a-likes

Email is not particularly suited to group discussions. Even with a good threading feature in your client the sheer number of messages fills up the inbox view and maakes it hard to keep track of conversations. One solution is to only read the last email in the discussion, as the issue may already be resolved, but shifting the whole team communication onto face to face meetings can smooth the whole process considerably.

Of course, it can be very difficult to arrange the schedules of a lot of people to find a common time for a synchronous meeting, but asynchronous can work too. Slack and Teams have a lot of features to enable team cooperation and split discussions into different forums. This does run the risk of replacing email overload with even more messages to keep on top of, but these forums have the advantage of allowing you to organise properly so you can at least find past discussions. It can be very hard to find half-remembered comments in your email client unless you sort or tag emails assiduously.

Posters

How about putting up posters in social areas (and not sending a copy via email!). Key dates, common task deadlines and policy changes are ripe for this: taking them wholly out of the electronic maelstrom can make them more visible than just another email.

Hinderances

Management is often the greatest problem to overcome in your quest to wrestle the email giant to the ground. They are often responsible for many of the emails that demand replies that do not further your work and really just get in your way. They set the tone for the email culture, and it may be difficult to persuade them of the need to work to lighten everyone's load. Indeed, senior managers' email loads may be far greater than yours, so they might see your problems as small fry.

So a first step may be to slowly introduce some best practices into your own email sending and replying habits in the hope that thay may spread organically as more colleagues see the advantages. More on this in the next post.

You can find me on Mastodon: @rochelimit@mastodon.technology

Comms Failures

I had to communicate with a class early in the term, and the only way, without enrolling pastoral staff to manage it face to face, was to email them. I set the 'read receipt' flag, and hit send. Few pupils had read the email before the lesson a few days later, so I asked them what had gone wrong. I was shown inboxes full of non-personal emails and automated junk notifications telling them that a MS Teams group had been set up, that a meeting had been arranged, that the same meeting had been deleted then rearranged with different details. They had emails warning them of the weekly fire alarm testing, of the need to be in correct uniform, and telling them the menu for today's lunch. And so on. Masses of emails they didn't yet have the discipline to manage successfully. Which isn't surprising, because the school has never thought to train them, or the staff, how to use email effectively.

Policy Vacuum

It has always amazed me that every school I have worked in has produced such an overwhelming number of internal emails while also having no policy on how to make this important channel of communication function well.

Through the last two years, under pressure of working from home, our staff transitioned to using Teams to communicate with both pupils and colleagues. This was a two edged sword, as while it successfully corralled many messages into context based channels, Teams was allowed to send update notifications via email, and senior staff adopted a belt and braces method of emailing everyone to tell them they should read the Teams message or document. This caused a lot of trouble, as anyone who has Facebook Messenger, Signal, WhatsApp, and SMS on their phones will understand — it is difficult to remember where important messages can be found.

This was eminently solvable with a policy defining which communications went where, and which could provide a common structure and naming conventions to the many Teams Groups which had been set up ad hoc during the rapid transition. But the confusion persisted until we are now all back in the school and Teams has been largely abandoned for the email fire-hose. And with no policy on when to send or how to use emails, or how to write informative subject lines or structure content for rapid scanning, inboxes fill up with hundreds of partially dealt with or unread emails, and important messages go unseen or unanswered.

What is the Role of Email?

So what is email for? Is it to replace face to face discussions, or the newsletters, or formal policy updates? Is it a way for functionaries to demonstrate their existence and usefulness via regular reminders of what they are doing? Is it a way for teams to coordinate their activities, or for teachers and administrators to share with students the important information of the day?

The answer to all these questions seems to be yes. Whatever the question is, the answer is always yes — send out an email, for any and all reasons both automated and personal, in bulk or to individuals individual, in the hope someone will read it before it disappears off the bottom of the screen or gets lost in the mass of irrelevant and uninteresting emails that fills everyone's working and school lives.

So what SHOULD we use email for? It is such a valuable resource we should all be careful with how we use it. Emails should have a defined purpose, while other communication methods can be set up which are more appropriate for other information. A free-for-all is dysfunctional.

But defining what emails should be used for is really quite difficult — it is easier to define what is not suitable, and provide the alternative routes for those items and enforce the rule. Email, then, will be for what's left, and the process can be progressively refined instead of aiming for a big bang behaviour change. And once the processes have been defined, there is still some room for training staff and pupils how to write and manage their emails in a productive way.

I will expand on each of these areas in future posts.

(follow on Fediverse at @rochelimit@wordsmith.social )

Back in the first week of 2021 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that the national GCSE and A Level exams, taken by 16- and 18-year-olds in England, would not happen. In their place will be teacher assessed grades (TAGs) – teachers would look at each student's work submitted throughout the two year coursed and come up with a holistic assessment of each child's abilities in each subject. At least that was the plan.

The exams regulator, Ofqual, started work on the process and guidance, but it took them quite some time to decide how this hospital pass from the minister could be handled without repeating the public relations disaster that engulfed Ofqual and the DfE last year. In that event it turned out that some grade A pupils ended up being awarded D or E to satisfy a ministerial requirement that there be no general grade inflation when compared to previous years. The general upwards trend in grades was held in check at a population level at the expense of a whole raft of photogenic pupils who had been thoroughly let down by the algorithm that had been used, even while private schools did very well out of it.

Not My Fault This Year Guv', It's The Teachers

So this year, the responsibility for moderating awarded grades has been delegated to individual schools, with instructions to keep previous grade patterns in mind when generating this years' results. Even with the threat of Ofqual interventions if the grades don't look right to them, this is a tricky task for the schools. The minister in charge, Gavin Williamson, has declared that algorithms should not be used this year: this is of course complete nonsense, but it has had the effect of preventing Ofqual publishing the algorithm they will use to validate school results while Schools have developed ad hoc methods for generating grades. GCSE and A Level grades this year will naturally not now be comparable between schools for the any subject, nor between subjects in the same school.

But it is OK for the minister. He has said that he “trusts teachers” to do a good job and prevent all the biases and mishaps that marred results day in 2020. But we can be sure that when the inevitable grade inflation arrives this year the government will not take an ounce of blame. Teachers are being lined up as the fall guys this year, of course.

Future Perfect

But is this year likely to be a disaster of the same magnitude as a year ago? I think that the personal knowledge of teachers about their own students will prevent individual students from receiving results several grades lower than they deserved simply as a result of exam boards allocating a grade distribution based on previous results in their school regardless of the abilities of this year's cohort. But grade inflation is a certainty.

Teachers make a great effort to build positive personal relationships with their classes. Even if the bias inherent in having teachers mark their own work can be overcome, and if schools can regulate consistency between teachers (and both these requirements seem quite impossible without any standardised structures to guide teachers), other upwards pressures will remain.

In ordinary times, you might have a class from which you'd expect, say, four pupils who could reach a grade 9, but in reality only two will. Exams are not a good discriminator of fine differences at the best of times, but most people accept their lottery-like nature – on the day factors clearly have sizeable effects. But the teacher who is directed to decide which grade each pupil will receive is in an impossible situation if they are to stick to the grade distribution for their class that they might expect in ordinary times. So Ofqual has hinted that in this sort of situation, the teacher may award the higher grade to each pupil who could have reached it.

This effect multiplied over a million classes could mean that the twenty or thirty percent of grades which are reasonably borderline will be 'rounded up', resulting in significant grade inflation.

Will the government have the courage to return to the pre-existing grade levels when the exams resume as normal next year, resulting in an equivalent amount of grade deflation? Will the ministers deflect all blame to the schools and the regulator, Ofqual? Or will they quickly sack a minister who is so incompetent that the only reason for keeping him in post might have been to be able to sacrifice him when the inevitable storm hits again.

The press may decide the teachers are not to blame this time.