The need for educational infrastructure.

Part 1 – What’s the difference between a bad teacher, and a good teacher in a bad system?


Here’s what we do every time a child is born in the UK:


But you’ve got to picture it with millions of dice:

I’ve been flirting with some of the writings of Prof. David Cohen recently.  He uses language that I like.  In one paper discussing education reform he references a ‘veritable deluge of critiques, reform ideas, proposals and materials… the aggregate [of which] was a blizzard of different and often conflicting ideas.’  Sound familiar…?

The other language I like is ‘educational infrastructure.’  Broadly speaking, these are what must be in place for effective and incremental improvement in education – the kind we see in Singapore or Shanghai maths curricula, for example.  A short summary of his infrastructure top three would be:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Assessment
  3. Teacher Education

The assessments are tied directly to the curricula, and importantly this isn’t curricula in the UK NC sense of ‘teach whatever you want, but roughly something about x,’ but more in line with the Engelmann and Carnine sense of ‘Precisely what to teach, how to teach it, what textbooks to use, what questions to pose and so on.’

Without educational infrastructure even the good teachers will not do well, because they operate in a bad system.  This is what I started to discuss in the last post, in which I called the second video an example of a good teacher in a bad system.

It was a bad system because you can’t really convey what energy is in only 4 minutes – no matter what, it was going to fail in its explanation for most people.  The explanation was a good one though, which can be seen clearly when compared with the first video.

What video 2 needs is time and sequencing.  For example, Kinetic Energy probably needs to be explored in greater detail before this video would make sense.  Except now there’s a circular problem: how can you talk about Kinetic Energy without first talking about Energy…?

The solution, I suspect, is to explain the concepts in a limited form first, identify the limits of the explanation, then systematically push those limits out, introducing new concepts to solve the problems presented by our previous limitations.  We see an example of this in the video itself: having fleshed out the concept satisfactorily to some extent, right at the end it points out that a passenger in a car would see the driver as stationary, whereas someone outside the car would see them as moving – so do they really have Kinetic Energy or not?  That question identifies the limits of the explanation to date, and sets the scene for the ‘next stage,’ Relativity, in this case.

If the video were one in an extended series, I reckon it could do a seriously good job.

In schooling, I believe the KS2-5 system was supposed to provide this staged approach to exploring and fleshing out scientific concepts.  It failed, and how could it not?  In order for it to work a child’s teacher must have clear knowledge of what their pupil was previously told, how the concept was explained to them, so they can introduce the next step.

Here we have a problem.  A child’s science teacher in one year has *no* idea what last year’s teacher told them.  There is a limit to the information assessment can provide.  So we fly blind, often finding we need to repeat content we would expect to be known, or accidentally missing out important steps and leaving children to feel that they’re too stupid to get it, when the fault probably lay in our instruction.  Unavoidably, in a bad system, some kids are well placed to follow the current explanation, and others are not, and we roll dice to determine who wins and who loses.

We need consistency from one teacher to the next.  We need to know what teachers are saying to children so we can pick up where they left off.  We need educational infrastructure, so that in future we guarantee that every child wins.



About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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2 Responses to The need for educational infrastructure.

  1. Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

    You have neatly described the things that make me tired of trying to teach maths….but the advent of ‘the mastery curriculum’ makes me feel hopeful – and also enormously frustrated that so many people don’t see the point of it! Thank you for writing this; hope lots of people read it.

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