Review by Harry Fletcher-Wood

13 Nov 2015, 6:00

Harry Fletcher-Wood picks his top blogs of the week 9 November 2015

Is A-level physics too hard (and media studies too easy)?

By Dave Thomson

“Which subject is easiest?” is the subject of perennial, circular debate among teachers. Dave Thomson, of Education Datalab, takes a more promising approach and examines the data, seeking to answer “are some current A-levels really easier or harder than others?”Using a series of statistical tests to investigate the progress that students make from GCSE to A level, he finds that pupils with equal starting attainment make much greater progress in media studies than in physics – equivalent to gaining results a grade higher at A-level.

Having offered an apparently clear answer, however, Thomson muddies the waters again, showing that the difference is far less dramatic when we measure progress from key stage 2 to A-level, perhaps because those who have underachieved at GCSE do better with a fresh subject and start. Thomson’s post is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the challenge of different subjects.

Behavioural Exchange Conference

The Behavioural Exchange Conference in September brought together the world’s foremost behavioural psychologists to discuss how “behavioural insights” can help to deliver government policies and social benefits more effectively: one example of a successful trial added 350,000 new people to the organ donation register by linking registration to driving licence renewal.

The organisers have posted videos of all the sessions – I’m still working my way through – but I’d recommend three to start with. “Education RCTs: Past, Present and Future” summarised a number of recent trials showing the positive impact of text messages sent to parents asking them to help their children revise for a test; of offering students money for their effort in year 11 (but not trips); of informing parents about how their child’s absences compared to those of their peers. “Trials and tribulations” collected researchers’ experiences of experiments going wrong and acted as one long cautionary tale: one speaker described how an experiment in a major bank went brilliantly, the data came back, he told his boss results were just around the corner, then realised he would need to match the data with individuals by hand. Above all, though, I’d recommend the session on “Words that matter”, in which Steven Pinker offered advice on writing with clarity and style, and Robert Cialdini explained how powerful reciprocity can be.

Subject knowledge for teaching

By Emma McCrea

In a deceptively short post, Emma McCrea breaks down the components of subject knowledge for teaching, identifying and then explaining why she includes curriculum demands, progression, multiple representations (of a particular concept), misconceptions and probing questions. She does teachers and teacher-trainers a huge service by codifying the aspects of subject knowledge that matter.

How I stopped the Taliban from shutting down my school

By Sakena Yacoobi

Sakena Yacoobi left Afghanistan to be educated in the United States, and subsequently helped her family to join her. There was one thing missing, though – “Where was my heart? My heart was in Afghanistan.” She reflected on how “education changed my life. It transformed me. It gave me status. It gave me confidence. It gave me a career. It helped me to support my family, to bring my family to another country, to be safe.” Yacoobi concluded that her role was to “give to my people education and health”.

In this inspiring post, she describes twice facing Taliban gunmen: the first time she explained that she was educating girls in the Koran, which would teach them to be obedient to men. Then she was approached by young men, who told her: “You train women, you teach them and you give them an opportunity to have a job. You build their skills. How about us?”

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