Phonics, paperless pedagogy, curriculum, mental health and fleeing China are among guest blog reviewer James Murphy’s top picks of this week’s education topics
Disagreement about phonics once more rose to the surface in pedagogical circles this week. Like the Hydra, no matter how many times you cut off its head, back it grows. The latest act in the melodrama is a recent claim that despite a strong scientific consensus, there is little or no evidence to support its effectiveness, and so other approaches should be considered as valid alternatives. This excellent post by Jennifer Buckingham on the Five From Five blog is a comprehensive response. Buckingham is not only fiercely knowledgeable, she is an excellent communicator, and the piece strikes a healthy balance between accessibility and academic accuracy.
This week also saw pedagogy go paperless with the opening of a new school in Australia proudly proclaiming that there would be no exercise books or textbooks. Here, Tim Head writes about the mistakes we make with edtech: confusing tools with lesson plans and activities with outcomes, and investing in expensive new technologies that will inevitably – sometimes quickly – become obsolete. For anyone involved in school leadership, resource planning or curriculum design, this piece is short yet thought-provoking.
In this post, Claire Stoneman argues that it is very easy for us to have conversations that are supposedly about curriculum, but which are really about its accoutrements, such as knowledge organisers. These, she argues, are not in themselves a good thing, but depend on the curriculum that underpins them. Stoneman urges us to stay focused on what matters: how well we are organising the knowledge in our own minds. For that, teachers, middle and senior leaders need time to think and to think hard. The alternative is to see curriculum reduced to objects and tasks.
In a welcome return to blogging, also on the topic of curriculum, Michael Fordham outlines with typical subtlety how new trends that have emerged in education are in many instances becoming the new orthodoxies. Some of these are to be welcomed, while others may be remembered more kindly if they were to fade away quickly. Most intriguingly, Fordham suggests that the revolutionary changes we have seen in English schools over the past decade may now falter – not because they are not good ideas, but because growing understanding of pedagogy and curriculum have not been paralleled with growing understanding of leadership. I am looking forward to the development of this critique, as leadership has been subject to fads at least as much as any other aspect of education.
Beyond pastoral care for our students, care for our teachers also matters, but the evidence on teacher mental health is sometimes paradoxical, as Education DataLab’s John Jerrim thoughtfully explores in this blog. He suggests that this can be explained by a rise in the reporting of such problems, in line with a reduction in stigma. However, as he points out, proving anything in this field is very difficult. It is perhaps a timely reminder that in teaching, we tend to imagine things were better in the past when in truth the job has always been challenging and stressful.
Putting that stress into perspective is this remarkable first-hand account by anonymous international-school teacher Whatonomy, describing what it is like to be trapped in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in China, and the choices that have to be made for career, safety and above all family. Making decisions knowing that we cannot predict the outcomes; knowing that we step out in hope that we will find under our feet not a void but firmer ground. In all our busyness, this post confronts us with the need to stop and think hard about the people and things that matter, and not be distracted by the shiny, the new, or even the frightening.