Stemming the flow: Thoughts on the Tisme conference, children and science

11th June 2014 at 13:58


I spent Tuesday at the Tisme conference (a program set up to research improving attainment and participation in Stem subjects). I can see why Professor Louise Archer had asked me, an RS teacher, to speak – presumably Christopher Biggins was busy this week. Old Andrew said to me before this gig, "You know you don't have to say yes to every invite." But did Gandhi say no? Did Rylan?


I have to say, as a humanities teacher, from where I'm standing maths and science, two core subjects, aren't exactly starved of resources at schools. It's easier just to rob Waterstones than it is to get funding for a set of humanities textbooks. Comparatively speaking, maths and science are flushing their lavatories with Dom Perignon. But apparently by the time they get to A-level and beyond, students are abandoning it like radiation. Suggestion: ban sociology A-levels.


Liz Truss


Liz Truss opened the day, although due to a introductory stumble she walked on to exactly no applause whatsoever, which I know from a speaker's perspective conveys the sensation that everyone in the room wants to see you dead. It took her a minute to find her rhythm but, once she did, she spoke well, perhaps understandably focussing on all the fantastic fruits the coalition tree had borne in promoting science, maths and technology.


One of the focuses she mentioned was the need for great teachers. Which itself raises the chin-rubbing question: why would a science graduate go into teaching rather than, eg, research? Which isn't to say that good graduates don't, but you can see the recruitment problem. I remember one teacher at my childhood school who was so openly hostile to his position as a teacher that he repeatedly told us he was only doing it until he could do 'real' science, the blôôdy maroon. He'd be the kind of guy who would ask the careers advisor why he had such a lousy job.


Andreas Schleicher


Then she introduced the grand fromage of the OECD, Andreas Schleicher. I'm going to declare an interest here: I think Pisa has become this decade's Brain Gym. Countries, desperate for metrified comparators, have seized upon it as the arbiter of educational wisdom, both in aim, method and outcomes. Which isn't to say that it's without utility, only to suggest that we all just calm the hell down about it. The OECD doesn't have a standing army, or economic leverage over anything, but it's conquered the educational landscape as surely as any Hannibal.


Schleicher ran through some of Pisa's latest findings, showing broadly that:


  • Countries varied enormously in their Stem outcomes.
  • Self-efficacy (self-identified competence) correlated highly to countries with high academic Stem outcomes.
  • China, Singapore and Finland were awesome.
  • We were meh.
  • Countries with high Stem focussed on conceptual thinking, rather than the Limey preoccupation with simple maths dressed in word problems.
  • Some countries favoured boys for Stem outcomes, while others favoured girls – this was more of an issue in maths than science.
  • Numeracy correlated to increased later-life income.
  • Mindset was a huge factor in outcome.


Astonishingly, he revealed that the child of a cleaner in Shanghai still, on average, outperforms the child of middle-class professionals in the UK. That's both incredible and broadly entertaining, especially when you consider the anxiety that goes into the tutoring industry. The University of Oxford should be scooping up kids from Shanghai bus stops to meet their social mobility quotas.


Lord Winston 


Next, the velvet tones of reassuring science maester, Lord Robert Winston; a man so intimately associated with comforting narrative voiceovers that listening to him speak makes you feel like you're watching a documentary. He was calm, informed and confident, differentiating nicely between us all as he veered from epigenetics to videos of his grandchild dancing about in his daughter's kitchen. "That was a perfect demonstration of the brain's plasticity," he said, fully aware that he'd just shown us a video of his grandkid for no real reason.


To be frank, he had me at, "Neuroscience has given us very few indications so far about learning", which is a heartening bulwark against neurozealots who treat pretty coloured pictures of the brain like the golden tablets of the Latter Day Saints. He sealed the deal with me when he had, frankly, the enormous balls to follow Andreas Schleicher and say that he disagreed with what he had said. It was like watching Mothra take on Godzilla. Of course, I had to press that particular pimple in the Q&A, where I encouraged Winston to expand upon his concerns with Pisa – take his time, put up his feet, we're all friends here. There are few things more gripping than watching someone with greater expertise than oneself justify one's cognitive biases.


Schleicher's PowerPoint had ended with the phrase, "Without data, all you have is an opinion" – very damn-your-eyes. Winston countered gloriously with, "Well, I have an opinion about your data." He queried the conclusions of Pisa based on the problem of significant outliers within the data that contradicted the conclusions offered. He was also concerned that many of the countries could easily be clustered geographically in terms of their outcomes, which suggested that there could be something cultural occurring beneath the data, rather than educationally structural. I had to restrain myself from giving a vigorous standing clap while shouting, "That man there!"


He also raised a point that resonates with me: the need for greater scientific literacy. As in life, so in education, where wool can be so easily pulled over the eyes of budget holders and decision makers that we could all be wearing jumpers made of stupid. Pisa, he said, was good at generating data about scientific literacy as correlated with economic indicators, but the important thing wasn't how rich it made us, but how aware.


My session


I was honoured to be on a panel discussing ways of improving pedagogy in Stem. As always in such circumstances, I remember what my area of experience is; it isn't appropriate for me to pretend to be a very bad researcher. Far better that I, and others like me, should bring the chalk of the classroom into these discussions. So, after Professor Kenneth Ruthven and Professor Jeremy Hodgen had said their pieces, I was invited to respond. Ruthven recommended that we already knew what approaches worked best: collaborative learning and problem solving, which I disputed. There are a great many studies that corroborate these claims, but every one I encounter is either small, woefully optimistic, uses its own parameters as success indicators or worse.


Which isn't to say that I think group work is a bad thing, merely that it's wholesale adoption in classrooms has been a disaster. Hodgen's excellent presentation showed that, broadly speaking, educational attainment in Stem has tanked since the 1970s; that we had had many big interventions and curricular hootenannies, none of which had fixed what, even in 1970, was seen as an emergent mathematical illiteracy. And too many group work projects I've looked at have dismissed any potential problems of the activity with an airy, "The teachers weren't doing it properly". Which is a pretty neat way of excusing one's intervention from criticism – "it wasn't done right".


Because all interventions have to take place in real classrooms. If group work habitually encounters problems, then that is a feature of the intervention, not an annoying aberration. If children over-socialise during group tasks, if they dodge work and load up one or two group members, if they take all day to discover something that could have been imparted in thirty seconds by a teacher, then these are intrinsic factors of which we need to take account.


During the Q&A, I was told by one woman how much she disagreed with me, and invited me to see successful group work in action at "her place", which only a few years ago I would have happily misinterpreted for full comic effect. She also told me she "suspected we'd be discussing this over lunch". Sadly, I had to bail before I could take advantage of this digestif and the joys of a standing buffet.


It was a fascinating day. It reminded me that I originally went to university to study electrical engineering (due to an odd aptitude for science and a belief that I would be designing robots). Maybe that's how we get children into science: not in the speculative ledgers of promised prosperity, but in the fathomless oceans of their imagination.