Scripted lessons will not solve teacher supply crisis

Janet Downs's picture

Developing countries can show England how to solve the teacher supply crisis, a Times article (7 April 2018 behind paywall) claims.  

The Times cited Bridge International Academies (BIA) as an example of how England can learn from the global South.  Henry Warren, former director of learning and innovation at Pearson, the international education company behind BIA, said:

You have to take some lessons from what Bridge do and say “Can we take lesser-trained people and use them effectively?

And how would these ‘lesser-trained people’ teach their pupils?  By reading scripted lessons from a tablet, Warren said.  The teacher’s role would be more ‘emotional’ providing pastoral care.  Such teachers wouldn’t require much training because ‘it’s basically good parenting’. 

A good marketing ploy, then.  Downgrade the role of teachers and plug the gap with scripted lessons purchased from an education company – in this case, BIA.

The plug in The Times for BIA ignored the controversy surrounding the organisation.   In August last year, investors were urged to stop supporting BIA.   In November, MPs on the House of Commons International Development Committee said government funding to BIA should stop.  

On 29 March, Dan Carden MP (Lab) said in a debate about international development and education: 

Let us remember that Bridge International Academies has been widely criticised, and even shut down in Uganda and Liberia. There is damning evidence about the volume of resources and investment that go into it.​’

Paul Scully MP (Con) was unconvinced about the training given to BIA teachers and sceptical about scripted lessons:

Teachers can only have so much training, and they rely on a tablet for their work. They read out the lesson plan from the tablet, rather than having a deeper understanding of what they are trying to teach the children sitting in front of them.

It appears, then, that the BIA model focuses more on staff reading scripts rather than understanding what they're doing .

BIA is particularly sensitive to criticism.   It recently accused the Kenya National Union of Teachers  of defamation.  The Court dismissed the claim. 

The Times reminded readers that BIA met Lord Nash in February 2017 when he was schools minister.  At the time, TES tried to discover details of the discussion but the Department for Education declined.  The meeting was ‘private’, the DfE said.  But BIA’s co-founder Shannon May was more forthcoming.  She said BIA had been ‘asked by various parties’ to open schools in the UK although a BIA spokesperson said there were no plans to do so at the time.

But the recent Times article promoting the idea that ‘lesser skilled’ personnel using scripts could solve teacher supply problems suggests that for-profit education companies view the crisis as an opportunity.  Why pay for expensive teacher education when all that’s needed is a tablet especially if the tablet delivers a minister-approved curriculum?

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 09/04/2018 - 17:57

KIM COWIE's picture
Mon, 09/04/2018 - 19:19

SCARY! As a former teacher and now a teacher educator I can only say this shows no understanding of how children and young people learn!

Brian's picture
Mon, 09/04/2018 - 19:24

There’s a lot of money in this, otherwise Pearson wouldn’t be involved. A dubious (to say the least) educational rationale, cheap, huge profits for big business ... what could possibly go wrong?

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 09/04/2018 - 21:37

I love this one. But, here's an even better idea. Why not dispose of the person in the room altogether? Simply let computers do the job. In time we'll add robots who will at least add something that looks vaguely human to the scene and they'll be able to walk up and down aisles to make their presence felt. (The odd poke with a lightly charged cattle prod is bound to solve the discipline problems in double quick time.) This simply gets better the more I think about it. What's not to like about it?

It also makes perfect economic sense too. After decades of overpaid, poorly motivated humans, who incidentally do a lot of tiresome whinging, we will have the capacity to rapidly reprogram every time a new super secretary of state for education comes forward with a super new raft of changes that are bound to rocket us to the top of all the international education tables. With no need for expensive pensions, no more staff rooms, ditto staff toilets, no car parking spaces ( more land for sale ) and to top it all lots of lovely dosh for academy sponsors and Pearson Publishing with the need for expensive pensions gone for good.

What are we waiting for? Hell, lets do it!!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/04/2018 - 09:09

John - it's already happened.  The 'Hole-in-the-Wall' experiment placed unsupervised computers in walls in India for children to teach themselves.  It was hailed a success.  But the Guardian  reported in June 2016 that all the original computers had closed down.   Some schools were using 'hole-in-the-wall' computers to encourage collaboration under teacher supervision.  But these teachers don't need special training, it was claimed.  They could even be 'grannies in the cloud'.  But these can't replace properly-trained teachers on the ground as I wrote back in July 2013.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 10/04/2018 - 09:27

John  - my concern is that these 'solutions' are promoted as solving a problem.  This could be a remedy for teacher supply shortfall.  Or as a way of meeting the growing need for education in the global south.  Or of being especially useful in 'disadvantaged' areas in developed countries.

These solutions are viewed as a way of breaking into the global education market estimated to be worth billions.  Hence the interest of global education giants such as Pearson.  Murdoch started his Amplify business to cash in on edTech (although this failed because the tablets came breaking).  In 2012, my colleague Francis Gilbert and I made a link  between businesses pushing edTech in the US (inlcuding Pearson and News Corp) and US/UK politicians.  

But would those who push edTech as a solution to particular problems want this type of education for their own children?  It appears not if the 'tech gurus of silicon valley' are anything to go by.  

That's not to say edTech doesn't have a place but it needs input from a properly-trained teacher who can use it effectively.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 10/04/2018 - 10:59

All of the concerns expressed here are real and very worrying. Matthew Bennett wrote an excellent LSN article about the issue.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 11/04/2018 - 11:23

I'm back, Janet!! After following the link to 'Let Kids be Kids' I came across this nugget, which I admit to have previously been unaware of. It takes us back to Pearson and is, in my view, a chilling reminder of just how perverse and devious commercial interests in education can be in getting their message over. Or am I simply overreacting??

In the foreword, penned by Pearson's UK president, Rob Bristow, I read the following with a growing sense of unease.
"Can ongoing formative assessment relieve - not exacerbate - the pressure of doing an exam at KS 2 or 4?"

This is closely followed by - "I am pleased that this initial report highlights the potential for technology to help teachers make the most of assessment to gain real-time insights into how these pupils and students learn."

So it seems one of their main intentions is to lift the present burden of testing on students. Now, how marvellous would that be? Of course they can cut out the expensive exams but they will need to replace them with something, that being, even more expensive on-going assessment tools that carry the threat of degrading, if not destroying children's brain cells over time. But that is not a problem if the prime consideration is the balance sheets of Pearson and others in the ed-tech field.

The other sprat-to-catch-a-mackerel here is the claim that 'real-time insights into how children and students learn' will help teachers make the most of assessment. Most data informs us of 'the what' of learning. As a teacher I wanted to explore 'the how' so that I could make learning more accessible to my students. Perhaps I just don't get exactly how powerful the algorithms driving these assessment tools (eventually robots!!) can be.

I've said this before, what's not to like if your looking for a commercial venture? After all, if you're a student struggling to cope with the oppressive examination system evident at ever younger ages, this is a win-win situation and the same goes for those struggling teachers. The problem is, as those of us who are not able to see the emperor's new clothes know, whereas assessment is a vital element in effective teaching, it cannot replace teaching which aims to develop cognitive ability across the full ability range. My cue to Roger and Janet.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/04/2018 - 08:54

John - Thanks for the link to Testing the Water.   There is much I agree with in the report - ie there is a role for technology both for teaching (if used appropriately by a properly-trained teacher) and for formative and summative assessment.  However, there's the suspicion that Pearson will use the report to plug its own products as a solution.   This suspicion was clear in below-the-article comments under a Schools Week article (mentioned in Testing the Water) which announced the launch of Pearson's consultation.  

Assessment via technology might be a useful tool (or part of a bank of useful strategies including non-tech).  But it shouldn't be seen as an answer to pressures caused by assessment, teacher overload or any other 'problem' for which edTech is promoted as a solution (such as teacher supply deficit, as discussed above).    And accurate assessment needs time.  In Shanghai, for example, teachers have much less teacher contact time than in the UK.  They are allowed time to assess what their pupils have learned on a daily basis and use that knowledge to inform the next lesson.   Can't see that happening here despite Shanghai (aka 'China') being held up as an exemplar for education in England. 


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 12/04/2018 - 10:50

Computer based testing can indeed test what students know (ie. remember). Testing understanding is much more difficult. In maths this is why when students are asked to solve problems they are required to set out their 'working' (ie. thinking). Marks can be awarded as much, or more, for the 'thinking' as for getting a correct answer. Much more important, when an experienced maths teacher assesses such work she can recognise the precise cognitive hurdles that the student is struggling with.

In science it is even harder for a computer program to test deep understanding.

At Alfred Barrow School in Barrow-in-Furness the three storey science block (now demolished) had labs with balconies overlooking the shipyard and a large shipyard crane (identical to the one that regularly appears in images of Glasgow). This too has now been demolished. When teaching the physics of rigid structures, I always asked the class to make a 'structural sketch' of the crane. The weaker students tended to try to draw a realistic copy of the crane, often resulting in one that would not 'stand up'. The students that understood the structural principles were more likely not to try to copy what they saw (usually getting it wrong), but to invent their own simplified sketch of such a crane, but getting the structural principals right.

This exercise was rich in learning and cognitively developmental potential, as the students were encouraged to view and discuss each other's attempts. Deep learning never comes from crude tests of knowledge, but from metacognitive reflection informed by mistakes and peer-peer debate.

Such an approach needs the right culture to permeate the school. This article explains how that was achieved.

There is no way that an 'off the street', low paid classroom operative could possibly cope with the demands of such learning, let alone an iPad or computer.

The same principles apply to all subjects, not just maths and science. Many brilliant examples can be found on Debra Kidd's 'Love Learning' website.

Worst of all 'tech-based' approaches utterly corrupt the learning culture of the schools that use them, leading to student boredom and alienation, that such schools then combat with extreme, abusive, coercive discipline.

If every proper teacher is not shocked, saddened and most important of all, extremely angry about this then they certainly should be.

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