Edex at InspirEd – How much can our students achieve?
The Deputy Prime Minister was one of around fifty students participating in EdEx, a showcase of school projects run by second year Teach For India fellows. As part of their fellowship, they choose a project designed “to tackle one primary challenge to students’ achievement… and create innovative and sustainable solutions to this problem;” according to the best description I could find online. It should be community-focussed, but go beyond academics. Here are three great projects I saw:
A group of children who have been taught the theory and practice of debating: “You should propose a motion to us” they began “or we can take one from this box.” I proposed something suitably controversial, like stricter punishments in schools and they leapt into action immediately:
“I agree that this is necessary because…”
“I disagree with you, because…” six students went at it, hammer and tongs, responding to each others’ points articulately and thoughtfully for several minutes, until I broke in, with difficulty, to thank them. A moderator would have been helpful, but the debating was spot on!
I never got to to ask the deputy prime minister about her defeat – but I did get to see the students who had formed a parliamentary system in their class- with responsibilities for sports, the library and behaviour. Elections had been held to give the groups different roles – and they had even written down what they had learned from the whole experience – shown left, mid-explanation.
My host fellow, Shivendu, had helped his students form Ek Khwaab – a company hand-making cards, which they sold at sixty ruppees apiece. The class was divided up, with a general manager, production manager, and a range of responsibilities, with cards created by teams of four. Their first tranche of money had funded a play area; they were now aiming to create a school library.The kicker – not really a kicker since you’ve seen the photo at the top – all of these students were III or IV Standard – that is, aged between eight and ten – but all the diverse range of projects were based on an ethos of student ownership and responsibility. Clearly, much effort had gone into setting up the organisations and projects – but the results were organisations, companies and cooperatives which were now independent. Students were demonstrating confidence, articulacy and self-efficacy, in English, which most had been learning for less than two years, and in the face of a range of visitors. I shall stop hammering at this point – except to say, these are sustainable changes, which alter children’s life chances considerably.
I should apologise at this point – I’m usually fairly meticulous in noting the names of those I speak with and using them – and on this occasion I totally failed to do so – being involved in open conversations and not thinking I would write about any of it…
Also, I’ve looked for examples of more developed write-ups of community projects on the internet and haven’t found anything very detailed written about them. If anyone from TFI has any good examples, please pass them on.
What might Teach First learn from Teach for India?
A lot, but let’s focus on the community projects. I’m trying here to develop a personal issue into broader point for social justice education in the UK.
At ‘Returners’ of Summer Institute (after my first year teaching), we were placed in a large hall in Canterbury and told about Big Hairy Audacious Goals- setting outrageously ambitious goals and then following through on them. (I believe this came from Teach For America). We were to be the first year of this new programme, with a ‘Leadership Development Officer’ in support. I came up with ambitious goals for one of my classes – a Year 8 group I had taught the previous year and wanted to inspire to love history, teach independent learning and collaboration.
A couple of months later I sat with my LDO as she explained to me that this was a lovely goal and a great idea, but actually my goals had to be either:
– progression of at least one national curriculum level in one year
– something similar for GCSE groups
– raising literacy by 1.5 years within a year.
(A few days after InspirED, I listened to Wendy Kopp speak insightfully and powerfully about the point where big goals got subsumed into ‘one and a half year’s progress in a year’ at Teach For America – such that she visited a class where the tenth graders, reading at sixth grade level, had targets of one and a half year’s progress – despite the utter failure of such a target to prepare them for their impending exams. This fits into the argument somewhere here).
I made a series of arguments to my LDO – based around the idea that pursuing national curriculum levels would be putting the cart before the horse – unlikely to inspire anyone, easily pursued by teaching to the test, but irrelevant in the broader scheme of things. No one had ever asked for Key Stage 3 levels anywhere outside my school and Teach First – they were ‘meaningless’, the lead History AST in the borough said to me at the time.
I won’t rehearse all the arguments here – perhaps in another post – but the point I’d like to make is – where’s the audacity in any of these numbers? Where’s the passion? Instead of inspiring me, the whole thing turned me off, so I spent a while debating with my LDO, and in the end she decided (or, presumably, got permission) to leave me alone. Her input was wasted on me and I was probably far less ambitious than I should, or could, have been that year – because the targets fitted the organisation’s goals – but didn’t inspire me whatsoever.
In stark contrast to TFI, no one ever asked me or inspired me to do anything successful outside the classroom in the school I spent four years teaching in. Not from Teach First, nor from the school itself – nor my friends, for that matter. I’m not blaming anyone – if it was that important, I should have done something myself. Nor do I regret the time I spent on my main occupations after school (apart from planning and marking): coursework support/revision classes, helping students write university applications, and spending time talking to my students.
I appreciate the importance of grades and quantifiable, short-term results. Levels and particularly GCSE grades are the telos of our education system – and failure, as a teacher, head of department, headteacher, or, now, governing body, sets you up for the chop.
I also understand why schools and system have been put under this pressure – how much grades matter to individuals’ life chances. Having spent two years with responsibility for students’ university applications, I know how much of a limitation a lack of work in Year 10 could end up being for a student. I wouldn’t argue now, as I did four years ago, that: “enjoyment, rather than attainment is more at the core of achievement and aspiration in later life;” I’d see them in a more balanced way.
On the other hand I would ask whether Teach First are overlooking something important here? TF seek to build aspiration, access and attainment, with attainment ‘at the core’, as my LDO put it; Teach for India pursue these ‘three As’ and values. Could Teach First get more aspiration, access and attainment through similar extra-curricular (or, really co-curricular) projects? Could such opportunities do more to build the values which set students up for success in later life. Moreover, should TF be doing something to redress this almost exclusive focus on grades, which sometimes seems to exclude the ‘education of the whole child’?
This may seem to have travelled quite a long way from the premise of the argument, so in terms of a specific conclusion: should TF participants be encouraged, or expected, to run a community project, modelled on that of Teach For India, in their second year?
Caveats and limitations to this argument:
1) One TFI Programme Manager told me that not all of the projects are as successful as those I saw. This seems unsurprising – I don’t have hold of any hard data either way.
2) TFI fellows teach elementary school classes – goals are hairier when you have one group of twenty-five students, not eight or nine groups for a couple of hours each a week.
3) TFI sometimes makes me think Britain is weak on data – they track academic progress very heavily (they do this as well).
4) I don’t mean to imply that TF teachers haven’t set up amazing organisations – I’d say they are a) the exception and b) more likely to be doing so after their two years are over – and it could be normalised before then.
5) I heard a fair bit from people who were aware of, and excited by, forthcoming changes to TF’s leadership development programme, which I think included some work on broader impact – but it was all second-hand; I also heard something about how its being implemented piecemeal. (Nor am I trying to pretend that such a change is easy).
6) Finally, as I have said above – but just in case – I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t pursue good grades for our students. I’m just arguing that we should be doing much more than this – and perhaps the balance has go.
In late 2009, I wrote this to my LDO:
“If we send our students out as self-confident, mature young adults, who are used to working individually and in groups, to discovering and communicating well, and with a good ethical compass, this is what will really allow them to achieve. People can recover their life chances if they flop in their GCSEs, they can’t recover them if they leave with zero motivation and very poor social relations with others.”
Could, or should, Teach First be doing more to make this broader sense of education a reality?
[Originally posted 18th March, 2013]