Monthly Archives: July 2013

Why teachers should resist deterministic views of learning

The academic underachievement of working class children is nothing new; it’s just that MP’s in the UK have finally decided to investigate it. To be more precise, the Education Select Committee have launched an investigation into the reasons behind the educational underachievement of white working class children. While underachievement amongst this group is common throughout the developed world, so is the research that has attempted to identify its causes.

From the outset I think that we have to establish that education and educational policy is never apolitical. Certainly, more recently, education policy appears to have been motivated, at least in part, by the editorial policy of the British press, leading to moral panics that don’t necessarily have any place in educational reality. The general population then become convinced that the British education system is no longer fit for purpose – the government then translates such misguided opinion into policy in an attempt to secure the public vote.

We also have to establish that there is a tendency for those involved in education at all levels to take some kind of political standpoint and accuse those who don’t agree with them as taking the opposite view. This can then lead to absurd comments from, amongst others, the Secretary of State for Education who recently claimed that Marxist teachers were the new enemies of promise, hell bent on destroying our schools. Such prosperous pontifications help no one – especially not the children who we are here to help fulfil their potential.

Returning to working class underachievement, the first real attempt to look into education from the perspective of social class was made by radical economists Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis. In their 1976 critique of education in the United States – Schooling in Capitalist America – Bowles and Gintis attempted to establish the reason why so many working class children fall behind their middle class counterparts. They concluded that schools have a tendency to reward behaviours such as compliance while belittling other characteristics such as creativity. The problem at the time was that Bowles and Gintis were unable to support their opinions with any solid empirical evidence so it fell upon others to collect and analyse further data. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Jean Anyon at the City University of New York, conducted observational research in five elementary schools ranging from predominantly working class through to ‘executive elite schools’. Anyon found that methods of teaching in these schools were set to match the perceived ability of the children, based on categories of social class – so the working class children were instructed, compliance was rewarded and simple routines were enforced. As the school rose in the socio-economic scale the education itself altered; pupils were given more freedom of choice, instruction became understanding and there was less emphasis on arbitrary rules and regulations. Ultimately, the quality of education the children received was dependent upon where they resided on a social class scale.

But could it be that working class children are simply less intelligent?

Recently, the psychologist and behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has suggested that academic achievement is around 60 per cent genetic. His views were printed in a number of right-wing publications including the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and The Daily Mail. As The Spectator quite rightly points out, Plomin has ‘no political axe to grind’ (although he does have a book out in the UK in September!) so his recent visit to discuss his views with the Department of Education officials might not be part of any political agenda.  As the actual academic paper referred to in the press does not yet appear to be available, it’s difficult to be sure if the assumptions made in the Daily Mail (or any other publication) are entirely accurate (I understand the DM has been a little inaccurate in its science journalism in the past).

Plomin has taken his data from the Twins Early Development Study (Teds) – a study of all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 and currently consisting of around 13,000 pairs of twins. Essentially the study is an attempt to identify the impact nature and nurture has on our cognition, learning and behaviour. Twins (especially identical twins) provide rich material to disentangle nature and nurture due to them sharing 100 per cent of their genes.

Unfortunately, the danger is that the underachievement of working class children could be attributed to their lack of genetically inherited intelligence rather than other factors such as family background, parental involvement, public perceptions or cultural capital. Let’s also not forget that recent findings from neuroscience have found a huge increase in synaptogenesis (the forging of new connections between brain cells) throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. The brain is still developing, and at a startling rate.

Furthermore, several things struck me while reading The Spectator piece. I’ll include the quote and then offer an observation (forgive me if some of them sound a little naïve – I’m not a geneticist).

“First, GSCE and IQ only correlate 0.5. Which means GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence”.

So what are we actually measuring – intelligence or the ability to pass a GCSE?

“GSCE results turn out to be strikingly heritable — 60 per cent, when at that age, 16, IQ is only 40 per cent heritable”.

So we know that IQ can be measured using methods designed to measure IQ. That might sound a little odd, but the experimental psychologist Edwin Boring (one of the founding fathers of IQ testing) claimed, “Intelligence is what the tests test” so I would dispute The Spectator’s oversimplification of the Intelligence Quotient, while not rejecting the concept of IQ entirely.

“So the reason why children’s GCSE results vary is more to do with their genes than their environment”.

While not disputing this entirely either, this seems like a bit of leap to me and I’m not sure if this is an assumption made by Plomin or The Spectator. Notice also that concordance levels are not 100 per cent. A similar illustration would be that schizophrenia is around 40 – 50 per cent genetic so if one of a pair of identical twins suffers from schizophrenia there is only about a 50 per cent chance the other one will (much higher than the 1 per cent of the general population – but still not determined). There is, therefore, no guarantee that identical twins will both score highly in GCSE’s or on IQ (in fact research using the Teds study has also found significant differences in many pairs of identical twins in terms of educational attainment, personality and lifestyle).

While IQ remains an important measure of academic success, scoring high on an IQ test won’t guarantee it. Ruth Lawrence gained an O level in maths when she was 9 years old; her A-level in pure maths at the same age (a grade A) and graduated from Oxford University at 13. She then completed a second degree in physics and a PhD. She is now Associate Professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Andrew Halliburton has an IQ of 145 (that makes him a genius!) and gained an A grade in his Scottish Higher exams when he was 14. However, Andrew dropped out of university after a year and in 2010 was working in McDonalds.

Sometimes the relatively small percentage attributed to nurture can make all the difference.

While the influence of factors other than genetics are more difficult to measure, that doesn’t mean that we should give up on trying. Research into factors such as academic self concept, implicit theories of intelligence, buoyancy and ‘grit’ is beginning to reward us with a greater understanding of success and failure within an academic setting and, unlike more deterministic views, such concepts don’t necessarily reinforce class stereotypes. The thought of genetic scanning to identify those more likely of academic success reeks of eugenics while at the same time ignores the capacity for human growth and potential.

Ultimately, education should not only be a leveller; it should be a liberator and should never become an oppressor. As educators and policy makers it should be our goal to get the most out of all children regardless of their background and regardless of our often-arbitrary measures of success and failure.

Don’t try and sell us a fixed mindset!

The UK coalition government has recently proposed two specific changes to education. The first is the formal testing of all children at the age of five; the second is the proposal that all 11 year-old pupils be ranked academically against their peers. Both proposals have invited hostility, with opponents suggesting that such policies work to undermine the confidence of less able pupils and place too much emphasis on test taking. Nevertheless, the argument is that in order to ‘raise the bar’ educators should be made aware of those children who perhaps need help towards reaching (and hopefully exceeding) minimum standards in core academic abilities and those children who need stretching and challenging in order to fulfil their true potential.

All of this does make a certain amount of sense, unless, of course, rankings are used in order to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in a manner reminiscent of the old 11 plus days, where children were tested at the age of 11 (the final year of primary education) in order to stream them through the academically demanding Grammar School system or scupper their chances of an academic future by filtering them into the local Secondary Moderns. Ability at 11 would dictate the future career trajectory of both groups, streaming the Grammar School pupils towards university and the others towards less intellectually demanding, manual labour or trades.

While evidence supporting the Grammar School system has been marred by controversy (something proponents of the system seem to overlook), many areas of the United Kingdom chose to retain the bi-partite structure. Although I wasn’t a child of the Grammar School generation, I was unfortunate enough to be living in an area of the country where the Grammar School system had been retained so, at the age of 11, I was required to sit an exam that would have a major impact (at least for a short time) on how I was viewed academically. This was the early 1980’s, before the era of the Tiger Mother, personal tutor and the countless publications on the shelves of WH Smith promising to help your child pass everything from the 11 plus to the Oxford entrance exam.

Needless to say, I failed. I was a ‘failure’.

What sticks in my mind is that during the last few weeks of my primary education the atmosphere at the school changed. Both my best friends were offered places at the Grammar School and had joined with other ‘successful’ children to form a clique based on their perceived intellectual superiority. Us ‘failures’ almost seemed to conform to societal expectations and took to swearing at and picking fights with the ‘Grammar School puffs’. Looking back, this change must have been swift when taking into the account the time between finding out which school we were going to and the end of the summer term.

Many years later I would be reminded of this brief period of social unrest (there is no other word for it) while reading about the simple, yet highly effective field experiment conducted in the 1960’s by an American elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott. Elliott divided her class into those children with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She then went on to inform the children that those with blue eyes were superior to their brown-eyed classmates and had the blue-eyed children wrap brown cloth collars around their ‘inferior’ classmates neck so that they were easily identifiable. The two groups of children were prevented from playing with each other, eating together or even drinking from the same water fountain. The change in the children’s behaviour was startlingly rapid. The brown-eyed children became withdrawn and sometimes aggressive towards the blue-eyes, while the blue-eyes would tease and bully children who had, only a few hours earlier, been the best of friends. The following day the tables were turned; Elliott told the class that she had made a mistake and it was, in fact, the brown-eyes who were superior. Rather than learn from their own experiences, the brown-eyes chose to exact their revenge on the blue-eyes and the cycle began again.

When children are labelled, they have a tendency to fall head first into everything that label represents.

Although Elliott’s pseudo-experiment took place against a backdrop of racial segregation, it still informs us about the power of stereotypes and how easily we can be coerced into turning our friends into our enemies. I recall that it was one particular boy at my primary school who suggested that all the Grammar School pupils should sit together, eat together and play together because they were in some way superior to the rest of us. The system had made us feel like failures, even though I doubt this was ever the systems intention. In the end it worked out well and my two years at the Secondary Modern were perhaps the happiest of my entire time at school – I also learned more there than I would at either of the state comprehensive schools that were to follow.

Do children fail because they feel like failures?
Do they fail because society has branded them as failures?
Do the labels we apply to children assist in the formation of the child’s perception of themselves as learners (so-called academic self concept)?

Statistically middle-class white children do better academically than their working-class counterparts, even when the working-class children are deemed to be more academically able. Of course this is a rather crude judgement that ignores the multitude of individual differences between and within groups. Certain groups appear more prone to underachievement than others, so girls tend to do better than boys in most subject areas. Nevertheless, girls’ levels of achievement aren’t uniform – they rise and fall. Furthermore, middle-class girls do better than working-class girls, especially in English. In fact, despite the anxiety over male underachievement, social class appears to play a much greater role in academic underachievement than gender. The problem we then face as educators is whether these patterns of underachievement are to do with the learners themselves or the attitudes of a middle-class profession to what is perceived as realistic in the education of working-class children.

Do we, as educators, view working-class children as less able, not because of their intellect, but because of their background?

If we can confidently place our hand on our heart and say that we treat ALL children the same, then that’s great. If we can’t then we don’t deserve the honour of being teachers because we are the problem and not the solution.

Being aware of the destructive labels we use is part of a greater solution, along with the cultivation of a growth mindset in ourselves before we attempt to encourage it in others. The Grammar School system sold us a fixed-mindset, the belief that academic ability is in some way tied to a simplistic view of innate intelligence. In the process, the Grammar School system promoted and sustained class inequality.

The current system still does this to a point – but it is often schools that sustain it.