Strolling through Bett, the ed-tech trade show that pops up in East London every year, I had a sudden moment of clarity. Where’s the vision, I thought. Where is the radical reimagining of what education could be? There was lots of data software and many gadgets, but no sense of transformation. And I don’t mean the Sir Ken Robinson flannel.
An enormous amount of hot air is expended by a small minority of teachers – and a fair few non-teachers – rowing about the value of technology in the classroom and every now again an idea comes along (think Khan Academy) that promises to reimagine how schools work. Then it disappears.
And all the while most teachers continue behaving pretty much as they have for thousands of years (apart from wrestling with the whiteboard, sharing lesson plans online and occasionally dusting the pile of unused iPads in the corner).
Compare, for a moment, education with other sectors and how they have been affected by the internet. When was the last time you walked into a high-street travel agent? When did you last put a CD in a CD player and listened to a album from start to finish? Indeed, my business, journalism, has been transformed out of all recognition: as I write this article, I have half a mind on how it will be received on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest (whatever that is).
Even medicine is experiencing real change. For example, the NHS revealed plans in September for an “online symptom checker”.
Where is the similar story for teaching?
As it goes, I believe that one of the reasons that there hasn’t been a “digital revolution” in schools is because every time someone tries to improve on the idea of a professional teacher delivering a crafted lesson to 30 well-behaved children, they find it’s a recipe that’s impossible to beat. And also because parents are deeply, deeply risk-averse when it comes to choosing an education for their kids.
Parents are deeply, deeply risk-averse when it comes to choosing an education for their kids
As a result, much of the successful digital innovation in education happens around the fringes: around lesson plans, professional development, data, and so on.
So it is with some surprise that I read this week’s cover feature on an idea that really does radically rethink a core function of education: marking work.
I will allow the feature itself (pages 42-49) to take you through the technicalities of how comparative judgement works, but basically it’s a system in which teachers are encouraged to take a holistic view of a piece of work, compare it with another piece of work and then decide which one is better. They make the call based on guidance, but central is the fact they are encouraged to use their own intuition, not a detailed marking scheme.
This judgement call – which early signs suggest is very likely to be the same as that of any number of colleagues – is then fed into a database, along with other similar decisions about other of pieces of work, which then ranks them all. This ranking allows for an individual score to be produced, within a school or a locality – or even nationally.
As it stands, the concept remains at an early stage of development and is most likely to be first trialled on the ever-troublesome key stage 2 writing assessment Sats (can it fix the unfixable?), but its promise is much wider, into other age groups and subjects, pretty much challenging everything we think we know about marking.
But most astonishing of all is that this is a potentially landmark educational innovation that isn’t about more accountability, data or regulation: it’s predicated on trusting teacher judgement. Now that’s truly revolutionary.