How much should we spend on schools? Part 1

In the last few months I have become interested in the economics of public services. Especially in relation to school funding. Like many people, I accepted that because of the 2008 financial crisis there was a need to reduce the national debt and ensure the deficit was kept to a minimum. This, I thought, would dictate how much we spent on schools.

This was all fine, until I began to realise that there was more to national debt and deficit than reducing government spending. Two things triggered this. First was the surprising election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015. Prominent in his campaign was forthright opposition to cuts in public spending. Corbyn argued that there were economic alternatives and this was supported by leading economists. The second trigger was a short exchange between the economist and former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, on BBC Question Time at Impington Village College, Cambridge, shortly after Corbyn was elected. Here is the clip:

The audience member explains that if he goes out in Cambridge with £10 and buys three pints of beer, he is probably going be in debt. And he says if he carries on in such a way he will go bust.

He says, “Its not difficult guys. Just sit down work out what the country needs to do and work collectively together.”

Varoufakis immediately responds by saying that the country’s budget does not behave like his finances.

“Why not, why not?” Exclaims the audience member.

Varourfakis explains: “In a country total income equals total expenditure” and goes on to explain that for an individual or a household income and expenditure are independent of one another. He then explains the problem of austerity, that if a country cuts spending then it will also cut income.

Now, this I found difficult to grasp. I found it harder still to explain. However, the expenditure model for Gross Domestic Product (GDP, total income) usefully illustrates what Varoufakis is saying. Look at the relationship between income and expenditure using the following expenditure model:

GDP = (Total Consumption – what we spend on goods and services) + (Total Investment – what is invested in machinery, equipment and houses) + (Government Spending) +Net Exports

This simple model illustrates Varoufakis’s point, that the total income (GDP) has to equal total spending. That is everything that we spend or that we invest in equipment or property added to government spending and the cost of net exports adds up to our total income.

Taking this further: according to OECD data, tax revenue in the UK between 2006 and 2012 has been fairly constant at 35 per cent of GDP. So if government spending is reduced and people spend less on goods and services, then income (GDP) will be reduced. In fact Tax revenues are reduced assuming they remain approximately the same proportion of GDP. It does not necessarily achieve a reduction in the national debt, while it may reduce deficit. Indeed it looks like this is what has happened. In the first of following charts, debt has increased in spite of reduced spending. On the other hand deficit has reduced, as can be seen in the second chart.

Public sector net debt
UK national debt (source BBC website)
UK deficit/surplus ( BBC website)

The reason for this is that deficit, as the difference between government revenue and spending, does not reflect the full extent of economic activity. Effectively then, government  reduced spending to reduce deficit but because this has reduced income it has not reduced the national debt.

I argue then, that we should be spending more on education and on schools in particular. This is because increased government spending contributes to economic activity and increased GDP. In my next post I will look more closely at this. But here I want to outline the benefits. Firstly with more school spending we could reduce teacher workload, which would likely have a positive effect on student learning. It would also have an impact on recruitment: the job would be more attractive. Finally, and in reference to my last post, it would permit innovation. The government could invest in research and development that could be undertaken by both practitioners and academics.

Finally, in spite of cuts in public spending, the government has argued it is protecting school spending. In the Autumn statement on 25 November 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said:

“I can tell the House that as a result of this spending review, not only is the schools budget protected in real terms but the total financial support for education, including childcare and our extended further and higher education loans, will increase by £10 billion. That is a real-terms increase for education, too” (Hansard).

However, a simple analysis shows that education has faced cuts.  If we look at education as a proportion of GDP  it gives a sense of what proportion of our national income is being spent on public education. The following chart shows that education spending has been cut considerably since 2010.


In conclusion, it seems that cutting spending on education is not going to help in reducing national debt. It might help in reducing deficit in the short-term, but deficit does not seem to be an issue. It is debt that is important. But more important still is improving the quality of education. I fear with cuts in funding and additional pressures on schools and teachers the current economic and education policy will do considerable harm to our education system. In my next post I will attempt further justification and begin to show how much increased spending on education would contribute to the nation’s finances.

Note: it is worth reading 20 February 2016 Andy Hargreave’s article in TES.

Other resources

Another article from 27 March 2016 The Independent Voices ‘Handbag economics’ and the other myths that drive austerity

Update 5 April 2016

Note: since writing this I have noticed that spending in secondary schools has been maintained in terms of proportion of GDP.

school spending percent gdp
School spending as a percentage of GDP (Secondary, pre-primary and primary, and tertiary)



However the Institute of Fiscal Studies analysis shows real terms per pupil spending cut over the life of the next parliament of 8%

ifs school spending
Source IFS


Educational innovation: debunking the public vs private myth

The following are some reflections on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking the Public Vs Private Sector Myths in relation to public or state-funded education.

Innovation is a necessary part of human activity. It is about developing new systems and approaches to existing and evolving challenges of life. Innovation is necessary in schools and school systems. However, current economic and education policy, in England, suppresses innovation. This will have long term effects on the educational outcomes of learners currently in the system. It will have consequences to England’s international standing in terms of school effectiveness. It will have long-term economic effects.

Innovation is generally attributed to the private sector. Producing creative new products that result in high levels of demand in new markets. Typically, we might think of companies like Apple and Google. On the other hand we see the public sector as bureaucratic, grey and uncreative. This, according to Mazzucato, is incorrect. Mazzucato proposes that it is the public sector that is responsible for far-reaching innovation.

On reading this book I was struck by the implications of Mazzucato’s thesis for state education. What are the conditions of our education system in terms of innovation and enterprise? The conditions are not healthy, there is limited resource and space for the kinds of innovation that resulted in say Apple’s success. And, handing schools over to the private sector, or to not-for-profits undermines the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship further. These outsourced solution have to be even more cost concious and risk-averse than the public sector. Education policy since the 1980s has been based on outsourcing service rather than innovation and enterprise. Policy has been about service delivery rather than developing solutions and innovations in systems, practice and pedagogy.

Mazzucato discovered in her research of innovation that the private sector is risk averse, while the public sector provides opportunity for the research and development of risky innovations. The private sector fears failure, the public sector does not. Importantly, Mazzucato shows that public funding and public projects were the source of the major business successes of Apple, Google, green technology and the pharmaceutical industry. Companies have used innovations developed in public projects and through publicly-funded initiatives to develop considerable private sector success.

Mazzucato argues that that is within the public sector that creative risky blue-sky innovation takes place. It is the private sector that is effective in turning innovation into products and developing markets. This is fundamentally at odds with the received wisdom of the grey bureaucratic public sector and the innovative private sector.

What are the implications for public education (and for the health service, for that matter)? It means that underfunding schools, overworking teachers, underfunding research and development is unlikely to result in the kinds of innovation that will ensure that education continues to develop at a rate consistent with the rest of the world. It means that our understanding of learning in the context of schools will not keep up with progress in other areas. It could be that learning suffers because of it. This will ultimately undermine future economic growth nationally, regionally and internationally.

Since the inception of mass state-funded education in England and the UK we have struggled to develop prevalent traditional pedagogy and practice. We have struggled to take advantage of technological innovation, simply because of the lack opportunity to experiment with and create new pedagogies, practices and systems. Most of all, schools have struggled to respond to the changing needs of society.

Successive governments have been afraid to make the case for and support public-sector innovation. More recently, government have opted to outsource education to the private sector or not-for-profit organisations. Each of which are risk averse and by nature not able to deliver innovation at a rate and scale that we need. We need to rethink the role of public and private in state education. We need to think about how best to promote innovation.



Article in Huffington post 28 March: Stop Innovating in Schools. Please.



Cultural scripts in teaching

James Stigler and James Hiebert published in 1999 a book entitled The Teaching Gap. They report on, in a compelling and readable way, the results of their study of mathematics teaching in the USA, Germany and Japan. Primarily they highlight the differences in practice between the three jurisdictions.

This is not the only or, arguably, even the main contribution. A central theme is the idea of the cultural script, and how it influences classroom practice. It is not a new idea, but Stigler and Hiebert bring it to wider attention. This is because the comparison between practice and pedagogy, in different countries, reveals cultural practices; more so than through investigating practice in a single country.

They explain a cultural script as follows:

Family dinner is a cultural activity. Cultural activities are represented in cultural scripts, generalized knowledge about an event that resides in the heads of participants. These scripts guide behavior and also tell participants what to expect. Within a culture, these scripts are widely shared, and therefore they are hard to see. Family dinner is such a familiar activity that it sounds strange to point out all its customary features. We rarely think about how it might be different from what it is. On the other hand, we certainly would notice if a feature were violated; we’d be surprised, for example, to be offered a menu at a family dinner, or to be presented with a check at the end of the meal [1].

If you are a teacher or, indeed, any other kind of practitioner, think about how cultural scripts guide what you do in your professional and personal lives. Think of examples of cultural scripts that pervade your teaching.

Stigler and Hiebert argue that the reason cultural scripts are similar within a culture is because scripts are passed on between generations of teachers.

Cultural scripts are learned implicitly, through observation and participation, and not by deliberate study [2] … Teaching, like other cultural activities, is learned through informal participation over long periods of time. It is something one learns to do more by growing up in a culture than by studying it formally. Although most people have not studied to be teachers, most people have been students. People within a culture share a mental picture of what teaching is like. We call this mental picture a script … The difference is that the patterns were observable in the videotapes; scripts are mental models of these patterns. We believe that the scripts provide an explanation for why the lessons within a country followed distinctive patterns: the lessons were designed and taught by teachers who share the same scripts [2].

I discuss this from the perspective of social cognitive theory and observational learning in a previous post.

It makes me wonder how old some cultural scripts are in teaching? Decades? Centuries?

Stigler and Hiebert argue that cultural practices are underpinned by beliefs about teaching and learning.

The scripts for teaching in each country appear to rest on a relatively small and tacit set of core beliefs about the nature of the subject, about how students learn, and about the role that a teacher should play in the classroom. These beliefs, often implicit, serve to maintain the stability of cultural systems over time. Just as we have pointed out that features of teaching need to be understood in terms of the underlying systems in which they are embedded, so, too, these systems of teaching, because they are cultural, must be understood in relation to the cultural beliefs and assumptions that surround them [3].

This is where I disagree. But not with the idea of a cultural script. I argue in my previous post that the relationship between beliefs and practices is more complex. Teachers’ beliefs, about their subject, and how students learn, have a complex relationship with practices. It is the cultural script itself that has influence on thinking and practice. Beliefs are almost independent of practices.


[1] Stigler, James W.; Hiebert, James (2007-11-01). The Teaching Gap (Kindle Locations 1098-1103). Simon & Schuster UK. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kindle Locations1113-1118

[3] 1127-1132

Teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning: their influence on practice

Beliefs are the views that we hold about the world that are not verifiable or that have not been proven. Teaching is a complex undertaking that cannot be fully theorised, it is reasonable to expect that teachers have beliefs about teaching and learning. How do these beliefs influence classroom practice?

A strand of research in education is concerned with the relationship between teachers’ beliefs and their practices. An example, from my own field of mathematics education and one which has been influential, is by Paul Ernest [1]. Ernest proposes that the way in which mathematics teachers teach is influenced by their beliefs about: a) the most effective ways of teaching mathematics and b) the nature of mathematics. Practice and pedagogy are based on views about the psychology of learning and about the epistemology and ontology of mathematics.

For example, if a teacher believes that mathematics is learnt most effectively through transmission methods, drawing on a behaviourist view of learning. And if, in addition, they believe that mathematics is a fixed body of knowledge with logically-related structures and entities, then the teacher is most likely to teach in a traditional teacher-centred way. In other words, the teacher demonstrates and explains mathematical methods and approaches and students learn by practice and memorisation.

On the other hand, according to Ernest, if a teacher believes that learning mathematics takes place most effectively through pupils experiencing mathematical processes, constructing knowledge, socially and collaboratively. And if they believe mathematics to be dynamic, of interrelated and connected ideas, and provides the tools to solve problems both within mathematics and in the real world. Then, the teacher is more like to teach in student-centred ways, using collaborative investigation and problem-solving approaches.

This theoretical relationship between beliefs and practices is a popular way of trying to understand how teachers teach and how teaching might change. But there are two related problems with the theory. The first is there is little evidence from psychology or philosophy that the link between ‘belief’ and action is straightforward. Second, empirical studies in mathematics education show that the relationship between beliefs and practices is complex. Research generally reveals that mathematics teaching is traditional and teacher-centred, despite some teachers espousing beliefs in student-centred approaches.

Yet the relationship between teacher thinking and practice is important in understanding how to improve teaching and learning, and in knowing how to design professional development. I believe, therefore, it is time to look at new ways of understanding the relationship between teacher thinking, practice and pedagogy.

It has to be acknowledged, that beliefs about learning, teaching and subject matter are significant and do have a role. However, it is my view that a different kind of belief has greater impact on teachers’ practices. This belief is based on teachers’ assessment of how successful they will be using a a teaching approach. Human beings assess the situations they meet, at the same time they assess the resources they have and imagine a response to the situation. The imagined response is a cognitive rehearsal of the actions the individual is about to carry out. We use self-referential beliefs to guide our actions.

If the activity is something we do regularly, then we learn a set of routine responses; our responses become almost automated. In complex environments, like teaching, we develop a set of heuristic responses (see Phil Wood’s blog).

Theory about human agency and self-referential belief has been developed by Albert Bandura [2]. Bandura describes self-efficacy as a forward-oriented belief: a belief in the extent to which we will be successful in an activity. It is a negotiation of our resources, an assessment of the situation and guides us to make decisions about the actions we take. Self-efficacy beliefs are more useful than general beliefs in explaining the relationship between teachers’ thinking and practices. Although research in this area is in its infancy, it is an interesting line of inquiry and one which is likely to lead to a better understanding of the relationship between thinking and practice.

What is the relationship between beliefs, as characterised by Ernest, and self-efficacy beliefs?

Beliefs are memory resources, they are constructs and organisations of memory which we give value to and prioritise. Beliefs allow is to make decisions in complex and ill-defined situations [3]. Beliefs are used to inform our decisions. However, responses in the classroom are of an immediate nature, ones which require tactical rather than strategic decisions. The resources used by teachers are based on specific practical knowledge. Beliefs about teaching and learning are more general and strategic.

It is generally accepted that teachers acquire practical knowledge through observational learning processes. Dan Lortie [4] describes teaching as an apprenticeship of observation. According to Bandura the observational learning process is a major contributor to the formation of behaviour more generally. It is evident from historical analysis of mathematics pedagogy that mathematics has been (and continues to be) predominantly traditional and teacher-centred. Observational learning explains why these practices are sustained. The practices that are modelled and passed on through generations are traditional in character. If a teacher believes in student-centred approaches, then unless they have observed such an approach being taught effectively then it is more likely they will teach using more traditional teacher-centred approaches.

Self-efficacy beliefs and the practices teachers observe are influential on the way teachers teach. This is not to say that general beliefs about teaching and learning do not have a role, but they are subordinate to self-efficacy beliefs. The complex relationship between the two is something I look forward to researching further.

[1] Ernest, P. (1989). The impact of beliefs on the teaching of mathematics. In P. Ernest (Ed.), Mathematics teaching: The state of the art (pp. 249–254). London: Falmer Press.

[2] Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

[3] Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19, 317–328.

[4] Lortie, D. C. (2002). Schoolteacher (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Political activism and the educator

The Labour Party leadership campaign this summer motivated me to become more politically active. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign represented a chance for greater democracy and fairness. I felt that for the first time in my life there was a chance that things could change. Importantly, I believed I had the power to contribute to change. Within a short time I became a political activist. I joined the Labour Party, and after Corbyn was elected got involved with the Cambridge Area Momentum group. A national group which was established to carry forward the grassroots enthusiasm generated during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Overall I felt a greater sense of political motive.

I decided, like my colleague and friend at the University of Nottingham, Peter Gates, to integrate my activism with my personal and professional life. I have never been comfortable with compartmentalising my life. I like it simple. But it comes with its challenges. The following are my reflections on being an educator, a researcher and on being politically active.

The thing is about people on benefits: talking with a taxi driver

I was leading some professional development at a Cambridgeshire school in December 2015. I had to get a taxi. The driver asked me what I did. I told him. We got onto the subject of welfare and benefits. He said he thought too many people had too little incentive to work. I disagreed. I explained that I thought people on benefits had been unfairly represented on television and in some newspapers. I also explained that I believed the way to help people who find themselves trapped on benefits is through education and through supporting communities. Things do not change for these people through punitive measures, they change by having opportunities, having the skills, knowledge and confidence to take those opportunities.

We talked about whether the nation could afford this. He said we had overspent and the country was in debt. I explained that this had been misrepresented. Debt as a percentage of GDP was at a reasonable level, cutting public investment in poorer communities would add to the national debt because communities in decline cost more in the long term in terms of health, crime and welfare.

Our conversation was robust but good natured. But in the end he had some advice for me. He told me that someone like me in education should not be political. That I had a responsibility not to impose my political views.

Advice from a political philosopher

A mathematics educator colleague and friend from Loughborough University had, it seemed, been thinking about being a researcher and being politically active. He Tweeted the following.

It made me think.

Bas van der Vossen, a political philosopher, carefully and thoroughly examines whether political philosophers should also be politically active. Marx said it was a necessity. That the point of philosophy is to change the world. But van der Vossen argues that in order to conduct effective philosophy, it is important not be drawn into activism; to maintain impartiality and objectivity. Matthew agrees and that by analogy, educational researchers must also stay out of political debate.

I disagree.

Imposing my political views and biasing my research: a defence

So as a teacher – the argument goes – it is important not to influence the views and politics of those for whom you have responsibility for teaching. A teacher holds a position of trust and therefore must not use that power to coerce and unduly influence.

As a researcher, engaging in campaigns and activism makes it difficult to detach those aims from research. The researcher will inadvertently push an agenda through their research.

Yet, I feel strongly about the level of  inequality in our society. It is a political choice not to provide adequate services to support communities, particularly those that are disadvantaged. I do not believe the freemarket is the answer. But I am not opposed to business either.

The political educator and researcher

When I trained to be mathematics teacher, I soon became concerned with New Labour’s education policy. It oversimplified the learning process and undermined teachers’ professionalism. I became involved in the NASUWT and regularly attended the annual conference. The current education policy under the Conservative government is concerned with further privatisation and an even greater oversimplification of teaching and learning. I could not imagine that was even possible. As a teacher I have a duty to campaign for education on behalf of other teachers and on behalf of students and communities.

Even when I was less politically active, I was keen to encourage students to be aware of the politics of mathematics. In the classroom, I showed students how mathematics and statistics are used to influence opinion and beliefs. We looked at and discussed news items that used statistics. I explained how mathematics has and continues to be used to exploit those without mathematical knowledge. I was keen to develop mathematical literacy as citizenship.

Now as a teacher educator, I believe that trainee teachers, in order to become professionals and future leaders in education, should be in a position to critique education policy. They should understand how mathematics pedagogy might be effective with different groups of learners, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those who do not find the learning of mathematics straightforward. I also want trainees to be aware of their own working conditions and pay, and that professionals need, at times, to act with solidarity to campaign for improvements. Improvements that allow them to be better professionals.

As an educator I encourage students to be critical and examine the bigger questions about the politics of mathematics and the politics of education. I draw the line at trying to impose a particular viewpoint or recruit students to political organisations.

As a researcher and academic, my work is applied social science. It is concerned with how to understand and improve educational practice and structures: to improve learning and consequently to improve society. My research is within a political context. I am not researching as a disinterested observer or as non-participant, I am part of that process. My beliefs drive my actions as much as logic and reason.

If I am politically active how can my research be valid?

The philosophy underpinning my approach to research is pragmatism. The philosophy proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910), and developed further by John Dewey (1859-1952) in and around education. Pragmatism presents truth not as determined through abstract reasoning,  i.e. through rationalism. Neither can it be determined through experience, i.e. through empiricism. For James, truth could only really be determined by what actually works in practice. Pragmatism is a practical kind of truth.

In my research this means carefully observing classrooms, theorising practice, developing approaches and assessing their impact using qualitative and quantitative approaches. My starting point is exploring existing practice, identifying and explaining patterns of behaviour using social science theory. The next stage involves formulating questions about how learning is taking place. This is followed by propositions about how practice might be changed or developed. Finally the change is examined and its usefulness is considered. The test of validity is the extent to which developments are implemented and that implementation is sustained. The approach is further explained and exemplified here.

The way in which I integrate my political activism with my teaching and research is by giving students the opportunity to be politically aware of the subject being taught but not imposing a particular view. In my research, validity is sought through pragmatism, it allows decisions to be guided by what works rather than by a political position.

I believe that being political is not really a choice. You can try and ignore political inclinations or you can try and integrate them into your practice in a critical and ethical way.



The progressive teaching tyranny myth

The argument goes that between 2004 and 2010 or thereabouts, there was a period of oppression in which teachers could not express their views. Or, if they wanted to pursue more traditional teaching approaches, there was a conspiracy by the educational establishment. An establishment consisting of university schools and faculties of education and local authorities backed up by the National Strategies.

Thanks to Michael Gove and a small army of teacher bloggers this tyranny has been driven back and exposed as spurious expertise. Now we live in a world in which teachers are free, they have a voice. Education research has been exposed for what it is: unscientific, biased and amounting to quackery. Now the only research of any value should be scientific. Based on hard fact. Evidence-based.

Like many stories of passion and daring emancipation, what I describe in the previous paragraph is a myth. What is more, it has been fostered by those ideologically pursuing freemarket state education supported by those with a vested interest in privatising schools. And perpetuated by teacher bloggers seeking a narrative for their protests.

The problem is that the myth does not reflect the fact that in schools teaching has remained, through this time, resolutely traditional and teacher-centred, with perhaps some sprinkling of progressive features. Pupils working in groups, for example. But for the most part teaching is characterised by a teacher demonstration, explanation, instruction; followed by pupils working predominantly independently on a well-defined task with the aim of developing fluency and factual recall. Finally the teacher reviews and assesses the work. Now this pattern of practice has not changed in Europe for decades and even centuries. It’s just the way schools happen to work reasonably smoothly.

As educational research has emerged in the last 30 to 40 years, it has drawn on multiple disciplines and a range of methodologies in order to address research questions about the nature of learning. The sum of that research would naturally lead to questions about the effectiveness of practice in schools. Can it be done differently and more effectively ways? These questions are reasonable.

Educational researchers have bumbled around doing some outstanding work with meagre resources and working in a fledging field of research. And sure they have issued challenges to policymakers and to the teaching profession. And sure they have been interested in a progressing education so that the outcomes for pupils mean that they are better equipped to improve their own circumstances, the circumstance of their communities and society as a whole.

One thing to be sure is that progressive reforms have been an abject failure and that they have had negligible impact on practice. That’s not say that research has not developed a sophisticated body of knowledge though.

Meanwhile, in England, there has been an increasing politicisation of state education. Increasing public spending, for which politicians have felt a need to justify to the electorate. In addition there has been, since the late 1970s, a freemarket mentality which has become something of a political consensus and political orthodoxy. This is based on assumptions that the private sector is lean, efficient and innovative and that the public sector is fat and lazy. What this overlooks is that the private sector seeks a financial return, while the public sector is concerned with societal returns. Or returns in terms of social and community capital.

The combination of freemarket thinking and the need to justify spending has led to the development of the accountability system that we currently have. With the central scrutiny of schools’ examination results, the Ofsted attack dog, what has been unleashed is a highly punitive system that mimics an idealised competitive market. Public education is on its way to being outsourced to edubusinesses and multi academy chains.

The complement to this privatisation is a curriculum delivery model of teaching. Teachers delivering preprepared curricula tested through large-scale trials and delivered using traditional approaches. This is combined with profitable frequent pupil testing. Effectively education and teaching becomes commodified.

These pressures, however, have been mistakenly attributed to the reforms emerging from research. The anxieties and pressures teachers experience as a result of this hard punitive accountability regime have been directed toward those in academia who have been seeking reform for the improvement of educational outcomes. Academics have at times, I concede, clashed with teachers’ reluctance to move away from orthodoxy. However the bitterness and anger is wholly misdirected.

The sometimes furious debates on twitter over which is best, progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction.

It is time to see through the myth.

Update 14 April 2016

I had not realised how that the Observational and Classroom Learning Evaluation (Oracle) Project that my colleague Maurice Galton was involved in, in the 1970s, shows the limitation of so-called progressive reforms, like for example the Plowden Report (1967). The ORACLE report revealed limited impact of the progressive ideals put forward by Plowden.



The science bit: a social cognitive theory perspective on traditional teaching

I want to input some psychology into the issue I wrote about in my previous post. I will draw on theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura.

Bandura developed social cognitive theory which integrates social and cognitive aspects of learning and behaviour. There are two key ideas in social cognitive theory: observational (or vicarious) learning and self-efficacy. A little bit about these:

Observational learning

Bandura argues that much human behaviour is learnt through observation of others’ behaviour. He argues that it is impossible for people to learn everything through trial and error. Human beings rely very much on observing modelled behaviour, we then have a blueprint on how to act in similar situations. It is not just imitation, people think about and construct their own behaviour prior to acting.

Bandura makes the distinction between novice and expert behaviour. As novices people have to think carefully about their actions. Expertise is characterised by habituation and routinised behaviour. Once we have become competent in an domain of activity, we do not consciously analyse and reason in response to stimuli. People have heuristics or mental models that they can apply in situations. From a cognitive neurophysiological perspective, working memory has only limited capacity, people therefore are almost hard-wired to limit the use of working memory. We therefore need to act based on models that we recall from our long-term memory, without consciously reasoning about everything we do.

Becoming competent in something like teaching requires that we have opportunity to observe and accumulate knowledge for potential use as models. However, action and behaviour are not simply about mustering mental models from resources in long-term memory. As we become competent we have to make strategic assessments about the likelihood of success with a particular courses of action. Or the level of attainment we are likely to achieve. This leads me on to the next aspect of social cognitive theory: self-efficacy.


Self-efficacy is a very useful idea developed by Bandura. It is a forward-oriented belief, that is, a belief about the outcome of future events, and it is a belief an individual has in their ability to be successful or achieve a certain attainment in a domain of activity.

When we come to do something we are not familiar with, we are making assessments about the extent to which we will be successful. If he we have knowledge and skill in something related then it is likely that we will have a degree of self-efficacy. But self-efficacy is not necessarily transferable between domains.

Self-efficacy is dependent on the individual, their knowledge and skills and the task itself. Experimental studies show that self-efficacy is strongly linked to outcomes. In most situations it is a better predictor of success than knowledge or other psychological factors such as personality. This is because it takes into account the individuals strategic assessment of the situation at hand.

According to Bandura there are four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experience, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological and affective states.

  • Enactive mastery experience – this is most powerful source of self-efficacy. It is developed through experience and being successful. However, it is not just based on successful outcomes, it is closely related to an awareness and evaluation of the strategies and approach used to achieve the outcomes. To develop self-efficacy, success has to be related to process. It goes beyond practice-makes-perfect.
  • Vicarious experience – We can develop self-efficacy by observing someone we relate to or that we think is similar to our own potential performance level. By observing a competent other with these features we can develop self-efficacy in this way.
  • Verbal persuasion – a much weaker source of self-efficacy. We can persuade and encourage someone to do something effectively.
  • Physiological and affective states – if we are tired, ill or a stressed then our self-efficacy is undermined.

How does observational learning and self-efficacy help understand why teachers tend to teach in traditional teacher-centred ways?

Trainee teachers observe experienced teachers and recall the approaches of their own teachers. In their early ventures into the classroom they try out approaches. The cognitive demand, at this stage, is quite high. The management of stress and anxiety is important. Effectively then, through training they develop self-efficacy in teaching, through enactive mastery experience. A reflective component is important, because self-efficacy is related to the strategies used as much as the successful outcomes achieved.

One of the main concerns of teachers is managing the classroom and pupil behaviour, this becomes something of a focus in the early years of teaching. Until the point at which a teacher believes they have become competent. This is the point at which they have acquired a level of self-efficacy. This is the point at which teachers no longer need to analyse and rationalise or consciously reason every aspect of what they do. Many things become routinised and knowledge is heuristically stored as a set of possible behavioural responses to the situation at hand.

This allows me to explain the prevalence of traditional or teacher-centred practices: which I characterise as featuring a teacher explanation, demonstration or instruction, followed by student practice involving a defined task and finally a review or teacher assessment. For the reasons I discussed in my previous post, it is the practical demands that tend to mould practice into historical forms that reflect the institutional and resource-limited constraints of a state-funded school. The traditional teacher-centred routines represent an efficient solution to the demands of the teachers’ role, the constraints of the institution and the expectation of students, colleagues and parents.

Further reading

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Why we teach in traditional teacher-centred ways

The way we teach is learnt through the observation – as pupils – of our own teachers and through the observation of experienced teachers. The profession is based on what Dan Lortie described as an apprenticeship of observation [1].

It explains why Larry Cuban [2] found, in his historical analysis of classroom practice in the US, that patterns of practice and pedagogy are sustained through generations of teachers.

As we began comparative studies of practice in different countries in the 1990s, there was further confirmation of this. It was evident that there were cultural similarities in teaching practice. Stigler and Hiebert [3] recognised similar teaching practices within the countries they observed.

This is not to say teachers are dumb-ass automatons who simply imitate established practices. No, because in spite of observations of similarities in practice there are individual variations. We adapt and personalise what we see. Yet, there are still common features; common patterns of dialogue and organisation in lessons. Much like learning language, learning to teach is like learning vocabulary and grammar and developing the confidence to express oneself individually in a way that others can understand.

This last point is important – being understood – Stigler and Hiebert [3] began to consider why cultural scripts were followed in classrooms. They made a simple but insightful observation, that it enabled classes to be smooth running. Classes work largely because teachers and pupils know the rules, the grammar, the patterns and the expectations.

Larry Cuban [4] came to very similar conclusions about cultural and historical practices. But he also makes one further mundane but important observation about practice. That is, it is the demands of the role of teaching, as well as the institutional demands that are the defining aspect of the character of teaching. He puts it as follows:

Within the age-graded school, the classroom itself was (and is) a crowded setting where teachers must manage 25 or more students (50 to 70 a century ago) of approximately the same age (but not necessarily the same interests, motivation, or prior experiences) who involuntarily spend—depending upon grade level—from one to five hours a day in the same room. Those in the community who hired teachers expected them to maintain control of the students, teach a prescribed course of study, capture student interest in the academic content and skills, diversify their instruction to match differences among students, and display tangible evidence that students have performed satisfactorily.

Not an easy task to meet those social expectations and manage a crowd of 5- or 15-year-olds who have to be in school. Within a room no larger than 600 square feet a half-century-ago (now a third larger), teachers and students communicate often (up to a thousand interactions a day in elementary classrooms). Within these schools and classroom settings, teachers have learned to ration their time and energy to cope with conflicting an multiple societal and political demands by using certain teaching practices that have proved over time to be simple, resilient, and efficient solutions in dealing with large numbers in a small space for extended periods of time [5].

And here is the point.

It is not through concious thought, nor through identifying the most effective means of learning that establishes the way we teach. Teaching is a cultural act that is passed on through generations, it is characterised by routines and dialogue that ensure the class runs smoothly. It is teacher-centred and traditional not because that is better or worse than other approaches to teaching. This does not enter into it. It is a practical solution that has evolved and been refined over generations. To understand this is the beginning to understanding how we develop teaching and learning.


  1. Dan C. Lortie, Schoolteacher, 2nd ed. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  2. Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1990, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).
  3. James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom (New York: Free Press, 1999).
  4. Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).
  5. Cuban, Hugging the Middle. pp. 10-11

Into the VAK uum

This is a response to Peter, but also some more general points about VAK and learning styles.


I acknowledge that there is much evidence that using VAK learning styles is not that useful in schools. However, the evidence is equivocal. Most importantly, there is so much more to learning theory. If then, as it has been claimed, VAK is still in use schools, then the solution would be, over a period of time, to encourage teachers to participate in PD with an emphasis on learning theory (I do that, for a fee, perching! :)). In my experience, even starting with VAK is a useful way of developing a sophisticated perspective on learning, through dialogue over cases and examples.

A further point – that I so humorously raised in my previous blog – let’s get this into perspective.  There are some really critical issues in education, in schools. VAK just ain’t the end of the world. I fear that those that make it so have another agenda and a point to make (perhaps more on this to follow). VAK makes me cringe too, but it is not as damaging as other aspects of our education system  (again see my previous blog to see my priorities here).

A final point: what is really helpful is for teachers to be able to clinically analyse the learning they observe in the classroom. That is the fundamental nature of (formative) assessment. To be able to observe, analyse, diagnose and develop tasks and activities. I disapprove of a model that is simply about implementing a proven programme or method. There is so much more to being a professional teacher.



Mass debate about education: my top 1000 priorities for schools

  1. New in at number one (as correctly prompted by Sue Cowley) Children’s mental health.
  2. Improvements in social justice and reductions in inequality.
  3. Increasing democratic participation and decision-making for students, parents, communities and teachers.
  4. Increasing democratic accountability of schools to local communities.
  5. Improve professional standing of teachers, ensure appropriate work-life balance, fair pay and conditions. Teacher well-being and mental health.
  6. Make teacher training a 5 year doctorate qualification. First 2 years university-school partnership, then 3 years in practice.
  7. More professional development opportunities for teachers, teachers having access to masters-level qualification at least.
  8. A more open discussion about data, evidence and research claims and its potential to improve practice and how it might impact on learning.
  9. An open discussion about the role of the private sector in public education.
  10. Greater transparency in the formation of policy.
  11. A review of testing and accountability.
  12. Accountability measures through sampling rather than universal testing.
  13. Ofsted to be more independent of government.
  14. Greater funding for a wider variety of educational research, reduce focus on RCTs.

28. Letting teachers who want to use synthetic phonics use them if they find them useful.

995. Review teaching practice which involves teachers categorising students as having a V, A or K learning style.

997. Review whether teachers wanting kids in rows memorising stuff is a good or bad thing.