Scalable and non-scalable subjects

There is a way to consider mastering a skill as a series of three stages. Take the example of learning the piano. When you first sit in front of those keys every one of them is much the same as another. Sure, some are white and some are black, and you might notice that the black keys have a slightly irregular pattern to them, but you could probably pick your way towards a simple, delightful tune with a few minutes of pecking around. A note is just a note. Spend some real-time getting to know things however, and you discover that the notes can be grouped together into scales, and that some notes sound better in some combination than others, some seem to follow others, and that there is a whole set of rules regarding which note goes where and when in order to build up into incredible moments of grandeur and magic. The musical rules of modes and scales are the framework upon which you construct your music. Go further however, and something more profound happens. Scales and modes begin to dissolve, you find out which rules can be bent and which rules can be broken. Perhaps there were no rules to begin with. Any note is still just a note.

Students are on this never-ending journey too, not necessarily as potential pianists but in whatever skill or subject they turn their minds towards. Our role as teachers may occur at any point along the journey, whether we be the first person to introduce a child to a subject or salute as they surpass anything we ever achieved. But we still have to get them there.

I have spent a lot of time observing, supporting and working with teachers from different subjects. Its usually a very useful experience, but I’ve found that once you are away from the comfort of your own specialism different circumstances come into play. The underlying thinking, structures and ideologies of different subjects can vary hugely. It’s very easy to man the barricades of your own subject and blindly throw accusatory grenades over the top that essentially boil down to ‘in order to improve your lesson you should do it like we do in subject X!’ Good luck with that strategy.

Something I think is useful to consider here is the scalability of a subject. A scalable subject works at both a simple and an advanced level, whereas a non-scalable subject tends towards having fixed limits. Before you raise the objection that there are no limits to any subject, let me assure you I think all subjects have elements of both, but allow me an example.

I would consider English to be essentially a scalable subject. The level of entry is fairly low (excepting young students with genuine language difficulties) because students are (hopefully) familiar with speaking to people, listening, story structure and so on. Yes there are differences and EAL and and and but for the bulk of students the essential ‘elements’ necessary to access the subject are already present: language knowledge. But where does English lead to – there is no end. It can be scaled up from the ability to write ‘what I did at the weekend’ to a Pulitzer Prize winning piece, to get from a ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ to ‘Happy families are all alike…’ is not one that can be done by methodical steps but by an unbounded leap.

So what would a non-scalable subject look like? Well, of course we’re going to science as a prime example. As a taught subject at GCSE and A level (and most of degree level to be honest) it doesn’t really scale up. Compare how many students at your school excel at county or even national level in sports or the arts and compare that to the number of students excelling in the field of science at a national level. I’ll set the class timer for 10 seconds. Science, as we teach it, is non-scalable at this level. There is a a clearly defined set of statements that are assessed and if you know them well enough to apply them to an unfamiliar situation, well, congratulations, achievement unlocked and move onto the next level. Students in non-scalable subjects are like people at the beginning of learning something, they simply don’t understand the ‘elements’ (or as science teachers would call it the content) to start doing anything with it. This is why there is often such a s heavy emphasis on leaning basic content because most students can’t build to anything more complex until they have got past those first mastery stages. There is a high entrance level to access non-scalable subjects, but once you’ve got it the end point is pretty clear. MFL is a clear counterpoint here – how much story writing and poetry analysis goes on at GCSE level in MFL? I don’t actually know, but I’d take a stab in the dark at ‘not much’. Without the ‘content’ of Spanish linguistics, grammar and culture you’re Don Qixote studies won’t get too far.

In the long run you could argue any subject becomes scalable but school students are rarely at that point in their school life for them to have the grounding in content necessary for them to excel in a non-scalable subject. There are non-scalable elements to be found in all subjects of course (there aren’t too many proponents of encouraging creativity in grammar and spelling). If you are working with colleagues in other subject areas go in with an awareness of differences and work with the other teacher. Scalable subjects tend to be much easier to access but there is the trap of staying at the lower levels and being satisfied. Our job often involves taking the students through the less exciting middle level of mastery, not the thrill of first discovery or the incredible heights but the grind of familiarity and fluency. Not all subjects start in the same place nor end in the same place. Don’t assume your experience or subject is Universal.





Teacher heuristics

Like the stinking bloom of titan arum, the rarely flowering giant plant that stinks of rotting human flesh, the garish rosettes of election season have reappeared. My knowledge of American politics is currently far better than my understanding of the British scene and it’s interesting to see how much of last year’s elect-u-geddon tactics from across the pond get repeated by our own politicians. The race is on to plant the seeds early in people’s minds, letting the memes flourish and spread like the red weed, until come election time all that will be required is the mere glimpse of a politician to cause people to spurt out “That Theresa May, she’s so strong and stable in her leadership, I’ve always said so, said it years ago, strong and stable I said.” Ho hum.

One of the (many) disturbing things to come from the US was how many people appeared to base their vote not in terms of what they wanted but in order to cause perceived damage to the ‘other side’. Commentators [citation needed…] made the comparison with sports, where the delight in the opposition’s downfall and misery becomes the primary motivation, even over one’s own self-interest. American floors were strewn with self-inflicted nose amputations. Some voters chose harm above self-interest. All of this is interesting from the perspective of decision making and influence, yet this is a blog that tenuously holds on to an educational slant, so what’s the thread I’m trying to weave?

I’m interested in why people make particular decisions. I’ve written before about the affect on option choices, but of course students are constantly making decisions with less long lasting importance, such as behavioural and social choices in lessons. These decisions are based absolutely on their prior experiences and biases. And once the tide of hormones, peer pressure and snapchat has breached the walls of Year 8, the decisions become infinitely more complex. Students are forced to rely on their newly formed heuristics, the mental shortcuts needed to make rapid choices in the everyday world to save ourselves from spending too long evaluating the best course of action. Unsurprisingly, part of the learning process of fine tuning these heuristics into something useful involves a lot of mistakes along the way. Unfortunately for teachers, these mistakes have a habit of manifesting during the penultimate lesson of a full-dayer. So it goes.

It strikes me how many times students will define themselves not by what they are, but what they are not. This is no revelation; the familiar push-back of young people in order to find their own personalities is familiar to any teacher who has asked for a student for the thirteenth time in two minutes to tuck their shirt in, put shoes on that they ‘forgot’ to change back into after lunch or not to lean back on their chairs (4,129 students broke their necks in British schools last year after leaning too far back on their chairs, possibly). The active rejection of cultures and acceptance of others helps develop personalities. If the rejection is one of school culture in general you may have some problems. One solution is to make sure you only select students who already buy into the culture so there is less chance of push-back. You will have your own opinions on the rights and wrongs of that particular issue. But there is another issue in the school: the staff. If you are in any position that seeks to change staff practice or opinions you are in the same position as politicians seeking influence and dealing with the same issues that affect students. The shortcut here involves a top down approach of regulation and ‘selecting out’ staff who do not fit with the culture. You’ll doubtless have an opinion on that too. Yet teachers have their own heuristics and biases that are in play, constantly influencing their decisions not only in the classroom but at strategic levels right to the very top of Government and Ofsted. Perhaps we need to start looking at picking the scab of how much our own decision making processes.

Many people are familiar with the idea of confirmation bias, the tendency to only look for information that confirms what we (think) we already know and favour that information. But there is a counter bias too, disconfirmation bias, where more time is spent attacking and resisting an unfavourable position rather than examining the benefits of your own. Ideas do not float around in an ethereal haze waiting to flourish in a receptive mind, they are hugely influenced, if not formed entirely from, our emotional responses. The ideas we hold to or reject are far more heavily dependent on our positive or negative feelings towards them than we may like to accept.

Take the example of the current progressive/traditional argument. Ignoring for the moment people who are not particularly bothered either way, the more vocal proponents on either side not only have a preference for one side, they have an active dislike for the other side. This isn’t to say either side is necessarily wrong, just that the methods used to approve or dismiss a viewpoint may be more influenced by an emotional response for or against than by a dispassionate response. The phonics ‘discussion’ bleeds raw with this; each side seems to perceive the other in terms of the damage that they will do to students rather than starting from the perspective that both sides do actually want the best for students but differ in the methods of achieving that aim. Even accepting that as a starting point I doubt the opposing sides would come to a conclusion. Cards on the table, as essentially an empiricist I’d prefer the use of evidence though I accept it’s not always applicable, but you could argue that’s due to my positive feelings towards the scientific method. Am I biased towards certain outcomes? Are at least some of my heuristics faulty? Can I be convinced that ideas or right or wrong based on duff information? Most probably, yeah. There will be ideas and positions I hold that would benefit from a closer look and some recalibration. It’s just not always easy to detect your own biases and to be sure that decisions are not based on rejection rather than a clear positive affect. My views are definitely influenced by my educational background in science; it influences so many of my perspectives on pedagogy. As much as I respect science that doesn’t necessarily mean I will always make optimal decisions based on it, particularly if I’m overly influenced by personal preferences, or more uncomfortably, what I reject. None of us are completely rational decision makers (sorry, neo-liberal capitalists…no wait I’m not sorry, screw ‘em). If you genuinely want to change a person’s perspective, whether student, teacher or voter, you’re going to have start accepting that we can all approach the same situation with personal heuristics that we’re already pretty attached to.

Information Asymmetry and Options

Despite Spring peering bleary-eyed from under its duvet before ducking back into the womb-like warmth and muttering ‘five more minutes’, time rolls on nonetheless. That means for students up and down the land it’s time to get those Options forms handed in.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time this year talking with Year 9 about their Option choices. The first step involved getting an idea of what (if anything) the students had in mind for their careers. It’s a really good exercise to try for a school – there are some great insights into the thinking of students and gives a practical chance to guide students along. The process is not value-free however (I wrote here about some of the ethical issues around giving guidance), though thankfully in most cases the advice is simply to emphasise the importance to employers of English and Maths (I had to take a guess here and say aim for level 4 or 5). Except for a some specific cases the actual courses themselves are, well, not that important to employers and courses. Yet there are those handful of cases where students will benefit from being guided towards some choices.

A field of economics known as Information Asymmetry basically looks at the idea that when people make decisions some may have more information than others, leading them to make more rational choices about what is in their interests. It clashes with an idea embraced by some economists that people will always act in their own best interests since if everyone has access to the same information. That’s essentially the idea behind the Stock Market; companies do well and people invest in them, companies do poorly so less people invest in them. Part of reality seems to be though that some people have better information about stocks than others – an asymmetry of information. They know things other people don’t. That’s why hedge some fund manager will spend tomorrow morning eating swan’s eggs with caviar flavoured truffles while I’m grinding through osmosis in potatoes with Year 9. A classical economic approach suggests that all of the information is potentially available, but who really has either the time ability or connections to gather all of that information about a particular stock unless you are already well connected to the trading community? In the real world most of us are information poor about most things. We need help.

But how do you apply this idea to students? Knowing what we know as adults, should we pushing students a certain way? It doesn’t necessarily make sense to talk about rational decisions here without defining the intended outcome. Opportunity to make the most money? Happiness? A fulfilled creative life? Even these phrases are more open to interpretation than a Damien Hirst installation called “Postmodernism..?”. So what is driving the choices that students make?

A look back at my survey of Year 9 options reveals that the favourite careers are as follows:

  • 1) Trades – About 14 % of the total. To be fair, this contained the category ‘engineer’, which although it covers a huge range of possible careers in the absence of anything more concrete I put them all in this category. Many expressed an interest in running their own company too.
  • 2) Teacher – almost 12 % of students opted for this in some form. About a third of them specified Primary. History came out top among Secondary. No Science teachers…L
  • 3) Business, including owning their own – I found this one surprising. There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm from students. Made life easier for me in being able to suggest Business GCSE.
  • 4) The Police – including armed response unit and detective


Then there’s a whole bunch of things close together, with some interesting oddities such as Youtuber, Radio Host and Comedian. With many of these choices I suspect students have been highly influenced by the world around them. That includes family, ‘TV’ (do kids still watch TV?) and of course us, the humble teacher. All of this is fine and dandy. But there is a nagging doubt that students in other schools might be getting access to more. There’s an asymmetry of information that favours access or inside knowledge of those careers that are, how shall we say it, more influential in the world than others? Despite the championing of the few people who have been successful in areas like law, journalism and (modern) politics there is a clear disparity in numbers of students from state school backgrounds in these professions. You can’t really blame those students, schools or parents for doing what they think are in their best interests. As for the systems behind schools…Ebacc is an attempt to ‘nudge’ students towards courses that give a competitive advantage in some courses and jobs. I’m not convinced schools would need nudging if they weren’t responding to the perverse incentives in the system to not go for the more harshly graded subjects, so it seems to be a Government fix to a problem created by successive Governments. There is now the confusing situation where some (many?) left leaning educationalists are veering towards an individual choice and laissez-faire approach and some right-leaning educators are promoting a common approach for all.

The current job market could be viewed pretty negatively from the perspective of current students. They are exposed to it constantly from their families and media. Whether our current school systems are fit for purpose remains to be seen. The well-intentioned, if flimsy, claims of 21st century skills may find themselves drawn back into the fold as the Mumakil in the room of workplace automation nibbles at the edges of the job market. Should we be then pushing students towards careers options that are future and robot-proof? I think not. The liberal style education with access to all subjects is still the best defence against an uncertain future. Deservedly or not, English and Maths are still the most important subjects for most students. Sure, if a student wants to be a Vet than I’m going to suggest Triple Science or Law at Oxbridge I’d highlight languages, but in most cases at GCSE level courses aren’t that big a deal. Students deserve access to impartial and effective advice on their career choices. If that means pointing out that they may be better off taking certain subjects, do certain types of work experience or going all out for apprenticeships then so be it.