Perhaps the best solutions are not where everyone is looking

In the early 1970s, the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz proved that there was no such thing as the perfect Pepsi. He had been asked by the company to establish the optimum amount of the sweetener to include in their new diet drink. They knew that this magic amount was somewhere between 8% and 12%, and they wanted Howard to find the ‘sweet spot’.

Howard went about the task scientifically by creating multiple Pepsis with varying levels of sweetener: 8%, 8.1%, 8.2%, etc. He then assembled large groups of people in different locations in the US and asked them a simple question: which one did they like best? This would surely establish an optimum level of sweetness.

However, when Howard analysed the data, it did not form the expected bell-curve, with a peak which would point towards Pepsi’s ultimate formulation. It was a mess. It seemed that every person had their own sweet spot, and whilst there were clusters of preferences, Howard realised that there could be no perfect Pepsi, only perfect Pepsis!

Howard went on to apply his research techniques to provide insights to many companies and left in his wake a trail of successful new products. In some markets, he found that you could cluster consumer preferences quite satisfactorily into a small number of groups. For example, he found that when it comes to pasta sauces most consumers at the time either wanted plain, spicy or chunky ragu sauce on their pasta. This was a revelation in the pasta sauce industry as, despite 40% of consumers wanting a chunky tomato-based sauce, there were no chunky sauces on the market! But in other areas, consumers did not divide so neatly in their tastes – there was no average customer, and people didn’t fall into tidy groups.

If you want the full story of how market research and product development was revolutionised by Howard’s work, the author Malcom Gladwell tells it in this talk. For the evidence, look around you at your next visit to the supermarket at the range of product variations.

We may view the proliferation of products in the modern economy as consumerism gone mad. However, Malcom Gladwell sees it differently. He explains how the food industry held onto platonic ideas of how food should be: that there was a perfect version of each food item. This view, he argues, is evident in high-class restaurants whereby the chef produces the perfect dish. They do not offer versions of this dish, or accept feedback from consumers that they would have liked it a little richer, or with a touch more spice. This is because the chef has mastered their craft. They are the expert; the ultimate judge of good taste. Furthermore, they are guided by authenticity. If we are looking for the perfect ragu sauce, we look to Italy and the traditions that gave birth to the dish. It is there we will find pasta sauce in its perfect form.

The transformation in the food industry, and other industries since, was driven by the abandonment of universals, and embracing diversity instead.

We tend to get hung up on ‘form’. We might blame Plato and his notion of ideal forms, but he was just reflecting a human frailty: our attraction towards perfection and surface features of an object. We like to imagine that there is a perfect version of something to which we can aspire.

In schools, we are just as susceptible to idolising form. The pursuit of the outstanding lesson mirrored the incorrect assumptions made by the food industry. We assumed we could find the sweet spot – the bell curve’s peak – when in fact the needs of students don’t distribute so mathematically, and rarely cluster into identifiable groupings, with correlating characteristics. Like the search for the most authentic Italian ragu, we can find ourselves looking to tradition, or to idealism, rather than concern ourselves with what function the lesson needs to fulfil. Teaching is a pragmatic pursuit, not a spiritual quest.

The concept of the outstanding lesson is attractive to all but the pupils subject to it. It appeals to the teacher’s notion of their expertise as ‘master chef’. It fits with the idea that even more accomplished experts can visit the school and quickly recognise the mastery of form (you know to whom I refer). However, we know that there is no perfect lesson, only perfect (and imperfect) lessons. Whilst one child might leave the room more knowledgeable and fulfilled, another will inevitably leave despondent and none-the-wiser. Proponents of the quest for perfection may argue that the outstanding teacher will simply master the art of leaving every child enriched, but that way lies an impossible task: to deliver multiple varieties of a lesson simultaneously. A personalised ragu for every consumer.

A preoccupation with lesson form has had some unfortunate and peculiar side effects. Taken as an entity, we are led towards how the lesson begins and ends, how it is punctuated, and its rhythms. A unit of learning needs an objective (make sure that is on your PowerPoint) and an outcome (so let me see that plenary). School leaders work with teachers to improve lesson form: structure, pace, sequence, delivery.

If we reject the notion of the outstanding lesson, we can accept the unfortunate truth that there are always winners and losers in a lesson, in a subject, or in schooling in general. There is an important pragmatic task which is to configure education such that it functions as well as possible given the infinite variety of its beneficiaries. Who are we serving and under-serving? Can we look beyond form by considering the fundamental purposes of schooling and taking a fresh look at how the system functions?

Let’s turn away from Plato and consider whether the philosopher Aristotle has more to offer. Aristotle encouraged us to think from first principles: that is, the basic assumptions from which things cannot be deduced any further. We should ask ourselves ‘what do we know to be true?’

The author and blogger, James Clear, writes eloquently on this subject. Clear’s argument is that ‘different solutions present themselves at different levels of abstraction’ and that we do not always need to go to absolute first principles to get at a new way of seeing a problem, just to one or two levels deeper than most people. We begin by breaking down items into their constituent parts then putting them back together in a more effective way: deconstruction and reconstruction.

Clear gives a striking example of people’s tendency to become pre-occupied with form over function. Throughout decades of science fiction, we have imagined a time when the grounded motorcar will take wing and deliver a three dimensional mode of travel (typified by the wonderful final scene in Back to the Future where Doc declares “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”). But where are the flying cars, we might ask? To this, Clear says that they are already here: we call them airplanes. Our minds are so focussed on transforming one type of vehicle to meet our needs, we forget that there are other forms of vehicle which perform the function we are looking for. By reminding ourselves of what it is we are actually trying to achieve – moving from point A to point B – we step back from perfecting the form of one thing, and see the problem more holistically, and free ourselves from being shackled to form over function.

Clear argues that ‘the best solution is not where everyone is looking’. Guttenberg borrowed the technology for making wine to create a revolutionary method of printing; the solution to transporting heavy suitcases was not to provide carts to pile them onto, but to attach wheels to the suitcase itself. These innovations were not arrived at by perfecting the current form.

What do we know to be true about the lessons teachers teach every day?

  • There are things I need pupils to know.
  • Some of the pupils in the room will already know some of these things.
  • Some of the pupils in the room will never know some of these things.
  • Whatever I choose to do will be imperfect.
  • I will never know just how imperfect.
  • I need to find a way to get through the next hour (after which, these things will cease to weigh on me)
  • I haven’t got much time to work out what to do.

I believe the above to be largely true. What interests me is how far I can break away from preoccupation with the form of the lesson by deconstructing the problem in this way.

What is it exactly that pupils need to know?

This seems fairly fundamental. The ‘effectiveness’ of a lesson, or series of lessons, is likely to depend to a significant degree on how clear we are about this. I might be dragged back to lesson form at this point and ask how clear the teacher is about what they want pupils to understand in this lesson, but that thinking would lead us away from other important questions. What pre-conditions are there for acquiring new knowledge? In other words, how does knowledge build over time? Which new knowledge are my class most ready for? A useful metaphor for this may be the decorator’s craft: am I going in to sand, prime or finish? We must place this moment in temporal context to discern its contribution. How futile it would be to judge the form of a lesson without knowing this.

However, I would caution against replacing the idolatry of one form with another. If we turn too far towards curriculum as an object of concern, we risk falling into the same trap: the pursuit of Platonic ideals. There is no perfect curriculum, only perfect curricular. Our interest in selecting, defining and sequencing knowledge must be pragmatic. The efficacy of a curriculum should be judged by how it survives the diverse reality of the classroom, not by how beautiful it is to the expert beholder.

How to I efficiently estimate the current saturation of this knowledge?

By this I mean how pervasive is understanding of the specified knowledge among the class already? Pragmatically, we should concern ourselves with low-saturation domains i.e. where prior knowledge, in aggregate, is weakest. This should not be our only measure for determining what to teach: some knowledge will have more value in terms of how it prepares pupils for future study. We typically think of this problem in terms of assessment, but much of the teacher’s wisdom comes from their ‘sense’ of the class (the tacit knowledge they have built up about the class over time) rather than the grades or colours on a spreadsheet, or complicated question-level analysis.

If true, this observation should point school leaders towards a greater concern with continuity of staffing. A teacher who comes to know a class, not just personally but in a curricular sense, will make better decisions about what to teach, how much attention to give a topic or idea, and when the class are ready for them to move on. Gains in stability of staffing may prove to be equally, if not more, important to time spent working with teachers on their questioning techniques or low-stakes test designs. It is interesting that Ofsted have given so much attention over the years to how teachers classroom practice reflects Platonic ideals of the perfect teacher, and absolutely no attention to staff turnover or teacher-class continuity.

What does success look like?

If we accept the inevitability of imperfection and that pupils will gain differently from their experience of a lesson, our question should be ‘what scale and pattern of imperfection is tolerable?’ For example, would we be more satisfied that 90% acquired the basic knowledge or that 60% achieved a deeper understanding of the domain? And once we have some approximate conception of aggregate success, what are we prepared to tolerate in terms of the pattern of loss? Is it important to us that the same pupils do not continuously reside in the ‘low gains’ group? Probably so. Therefore, we should consciously act to ensure that disadvantage is spread.

This may read as fatalistic and defeatist, but accepting the fundamental impossibility of the teacher’s task does not mean that we should stop striving for greater average gains. However, it does mean we engage in an open dialogue about our priorities and ethical considerations. There are daily trade-offs in the classroom, and pretending they do not exist is in no-one’s interest.

What are the diminishing marginal returns of estimating success?

How much time are we prepared to spend in finding out how successful we have been in educating pupils? We know that the more time we spend weighing the pig, the less time we have to fatten it. However, there are also diminishing returns in attempting to establish how much our teaching has resulted in pupils’ learning. We can probably ascertain a rough approximation of gains in a small amount of time, and this may be enough. Aiming for high validity and reliability is tempting, but comes at a cost. If we judge every assessment according to the perfection of its form, we ignore the more important question of what function do we need this particular assessment to perform. Imperfection may be optimal when viewed from afar.

Hopefully, I have given a sense of how moving away from the form of lessons allows us to ask some interesting questions which might lead to a different range of concerns and actions. It is my belief that the ‘quality’ of lessons is largely determined by attention to factors which will not be visible, or even resident, within the lesson itself. Furthermore, it is possible to ‘set up’ teachers for greater success by acknowledging the impossibility of their task, confronting some home truths, and outing some issues that don’t often get talked about.

The final two bullet points in the list above should also not be underestimated. The main concern of teachers is often survival, by which I do not mean that every teacher struggles just to get through the day, but that there are pressures of time and practical considerations which make some of the idealistic discussions and professional development activities seem quite remote from their daily experience. Sometimes, our objective is to get through the next hour as best we can. How might we steer the odds of success in the face of this reality? ‘Pre-loading’ quality – making it so that a teacher can walk into a classroom with no thought about the form of the lesson and still get children to learn something – provides a baseline of impact. That is not to say that we do not want teachers to plan their lessons, just that the foundations for success are already in place and the odds of the time being quite well spent are tipped in our favour.

Regularising functionality in a school (making effectiveness routine) means making time for curriculum thinking, developing the habits of attention in pupils, normalising high-frequency interactions between teachers and pupils (to maximise information flow), equipping teachers with the instinct to accelerate and brake according to how much ‘congestion’ in processing their pupils experience, and developing a shared conception for how success should be spread across a cohort. We should also find ways to make the work of teachers more tolerable, and to minimise their cognitive load so that they are more likely to consider the children in front of them, and less likely to direct their attention towards merely getting through to the end of the day.

Form-worship is not only evident in the attention we pay to the lesson as a unit of activity. The school itself suffers from the same quest to secure perfection. We long for our schools to have wings: to transform from the mundane road-bound vehicle to a flying spectacle of modern transportation.

There is no better example of form-over-function thinking than the expectation that schools can perform the task of re-engineering society. In the perfect school, there are no gaps between the educational outcomes of rich and poor. The school has stumbled upon the elixir (the Red Bull that gives it wings!) which enables it to fly higher than those lesser schools. We can indeed make marginal gains towards the goal of closing attainment gaps, but how many significant gains will be made if we hold onto the Platonic ideal of the perfect school too dearly? Analysis by reputable bodies, such as FFT datalab, suggest that the ‘progress’ made in closing attainment gaps may be illusory, and that the task is far harder than we anticipated. Perhaps we should return to first principles and stop expecting the continuous improvement of schools as a thing of beauty and perfection? If we did, we may find another form to deliver what we desire. Or we might find better ways to configure the system such that it delivers the outcomes we require.

Schools, like lessons, cannot be perfect in and of themselves. Their beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In the same day, I can receive a parent email which describes a school of near perfection and another which damns us as incompetent and immoral. There are as many versions of the school as there are those who experience it or form a view on it. But it is no more useful to become preoccupied with each individual’s subjective view than it is to believe that there is a sweet spot recipe that represents Platonic perfection, regardless of what the uneducated consumer may prefer. Both place form over function. We can only get so far with marginal gains to form, or with a relentless ‘school improvement’ ideal. If we want transformational change, we must return to first principles: delve to a deeper level of abstraction to see the systemic problems we face in a new light. Many of the solutions will begin outside of the school, some will cut across schools, and a few will be within the control of the school. The endless pursuit of the perfect form may be the most significant barrier to improvement.

Perhaps the best solutions are not where everyone is looking.

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