Lies, Damned Lies and Christian Statistics

I’m a science teacher. When talking about the characteristics of sound in my lessons, I encourage students to give detail. It’s not enough to say that a change causes ‘more vibrations’. If the sound is a higher pitch, the vibrations of the ear drum will be faster, or more frequent. If the sound is louder, the displacement of the ear drum is bigger; we say the vibrations have greater amplitude or more energy. So it’s not that the ‘more vibrations’ answer is wrong – just incomplete. If we don’t give a full answer it can be misunderstood.

So I was catching up with news and read an article on the BBC about the continued arguments about institutionalized discrimination and hate speech in the Anglican church. Now, this isn’t about Welby being sorry for the discrimination – just not sorry enough to stand against it – or the hypocrisy of them sending out advice to schools on homophobic bullying. Instead, it’s simply about a number in the report.

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I teach my students to do a ‘common sense check’ as part of any calculation and I was bemused that the BBC didn’t appear to have thought this through. Since when was a third of the UK Anglican? Now, I understand that calculating exactly how many (Anglican) Christians in the UK might be tricky, but 26 million seemed too far off to be reasonable. So I did some digging myself, and asked the organisation behind the ‘World Christian Database’ for the source of this number. It’s important to note that on Twitter they were very definite it was an aggregate figure and they used many sources of data.

 

So how should we find out how many (Anglican) Christians there are in the UK?

Simple, isn’t it? Pop into your local church on Sunday morning and count heads. But which Sunday? What about parishioners who are too ill to make it in, or are shift-workers? Would a Christmas or Easter service be more meaningful? And surely some believers prefer to worship in other ways. So church attendance figures, although useful, can probably be considered a lower limit. The Statistics for Mission 2014 (pdf) figures are just under a million for average Sunday attendance during October, with significantly higher numbers for Easter and Christmas services.

Church Attendance: 0.98m (980000)
Christmas Services: 2.4m

There’s been lots of arguments about the census question, starting with the fact that it assumes the respondent will have a religion in the first place. The cultural identity part of this is recognized within the Census analysis, as the quote below demonstrates:
The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practice or belief.

According to the last Census figures, England and Wales has 33m Christians, but this isn’t broken down into denominations. Most data I’ve found suggests around half of UK Christians consider themselves Anglican, so we can get a reasonable estimate.

Census Anglicans: 17m (approx)

Many surveys call this number into question, for example this report discussing data that only 30% of Britons consider themselves religious at all. As a contrast, the British Social Attitudes Survey asks a range of questions of a randomly selected sample (around 3000 people), including their religion and religious upbringing. The last dataset suggests 17% of the population describes themselves as Anglican, a significant drop.
Self-described: 8.5m (from BSAS)
Of course, if we wanted to simply collect data on the number of people who had been baptized, this would be easier. The agreed estimate – which send to have been used for not just years but decades – is 26m. I’d be very interested to know how this value hasn’t changed; surely infant baptisms and deaths of those baptized can’t have coincidentally been in balance for all this time?
Baptized Anglicans: 26m
Most of these are, naturally, infant baptisms – which brings me to an important and obvious point. I was baptized. But like many others, the fact of my baptism is completely irrelevant to my (lack of) belief. This number includes me – and if you were baptized, it includes you too. (Some non-believers, starting with John Hunt in 2009, are trying to do something about this.) So using this figure, while ignoring all the other values, seems disingenuous to say the least and knowingly dishonest at the most. It’s like the TK maxx adverts, ‘always up to 60% off’. It could mean 59% off. It could mean 1% off. That there are apparently 26 million people baptized as Anglican in the UK is a meaningless figure without the context – which significantly undermines any argument based upon it.

Might it be reasonable, I wonder, to suggest that claiming 26m Anglicans in the UK is bearing false witness?

 

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Learning from Mistakes

“So I was arguing on Twitter…”

That’s how all the best blog posts start, just like the best fairy tales start with “Once upon a time…” In this case, it wasn’t a new argument – in fact it was a disagreement I’ve had before, with the same person. But it’s also something which has been discussed in staffrooms all over the country, probably all over the world. A version of it has been had any time two people with the same job compare notes.

How can we be the best professionals possible without making all the mistakes personally?

It’s true that people learn from mistakes. Sometimes. When we recognize them. When we can change our behaviour based on that insight. When we’re not too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. When we have the chance to reflect on our actions and plan for ‘the next time’. When we can successfully generalize our specific experience.

I was having this conversation, for the hundredth time, with my eldest this week. In particular, we were talking about how the only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is to learn from somebody else’s. It’s generally less painful, expensive and embarrassing. We talked about how, perhaps, it’s the pain of our own mistakes which means they stick better.

Teaching from Mistakes

In education, we learn a lot from screwing up ourselves. From not labeling the beakers, from letting year 7 use powerpacks with 1A bulbs, to mixing up the two Rebeccas in your class during parents’ evening. We also, especially early in our career, learn a lot from watching our colleagues, deliberately or in passing.

(Brief digression: we should do more of this. Short observations, team-teaching, co-planning, watching a practical, seeing how they manage a demonstration, the ‘spiel’ for radioactive samples… all great chances to learn from a colleague and give them the ‘view from the back’. Go into an A-level English Lit lesson and talk for ten minutes about the ‘science’ of Frankenstein’s Creature, or invite a music teacher colleague into your Sound lesson to demonstrate high and low pitch. The important thing is to make a solemn promise that this will never show up on performance management.)

The argument I had seemed to come down to one principle. I think that we as teachers can – and should – learn from the successes and mistakes of other teachers as summed up in research. My counterpart feels that if someone isn’t a good teacher, they never will be, and that there’s nothing he can learn about teaching outside of a classroom. He sees educational research as a waste of his time.

But there’s a lot of research out there, which means a lot of student experiences added up to suggestions. Test results that might make patterns, implying how one approach on average works better than another. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of crap, too. There’s a lot of context-free claims, a lot of ‘studies’ carried out without a control group, action research subject to the Hawthorne Effect and so on. But the argument I had – in this case and before – wasn’t about the bad ‘research’ that’s out there. It was about the very idea that educational research should or could guide our practice at all. And to me, that just seems weird.

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During the conversation, @adchempages also used #peoplearenotelectrons. Which is true. But isn’t the whole point of science to use models, simpler than reality, to give us an indication of how reality works? We can model people as particles making up a fluid when we design corridors and stairwells. And that gives us useful information. Nobody suggests that those people travelling on the Underground are actually faceless, indistinguishable drones. (I’m saving the sarcastic comment as it would undermine my point.) But with enough data, and enough people, we can make good predictions about what will usually happen most of the time. There are caveats:

  • Averages using large numbers aren’t specific to a small subset, even if homeogenous
  • There are lots of confounding variables, some of which are unknown
  • Kids are all different and there’s a fine line between describing and defining them
  • Many anecdotes are not the same as data
  • We tend to find/remember the results which confirm our expectations

But

I feel like I’ve been here before. In fact, I have – I wrote a similar post back in 2013 about how I might design a trial, and there’s also my post from when the Evidence-Based Bandwagon was taking off. But it’s worth revisiting as long as we are critical about research. We need to be able to ask good questions about the sample sizes, about the methodology, about sources of potential bias. But then we need to take on board the advice and try applying it to our own classes. Let’s imagine a way to test someone’s willingness to use research in their own practice.

Imagine…

  1. Recruit lots of teachers, teaching same subject to same age group.
  2. Match ‘equivalent classes’ or ideally randomize.
  3. Choose two interventions (or simply the same activities in a different order, eg theory then practical or the reverse.)
  4. Compare results of the kids in the same test.
A difference between the two averages might be significant (suggesting a real difference) or not (could be due to random chance). The bigger the numbers, the more we should pay attention to that difference. There are lots of statistical tests we could argue about, but for now let’s assume the difference is dramatic enough to convince us that one intervention is better than the other for students learning this concept. Why would you ignore that hint when planning your own lessons?
Any two classes might be compared without spotting this pattern. Only wider research lets us see what’s going on. The difference might be so small that we decide it doesn’t matter. It might turn out that one intervention works better for girls, the other for boys (which then leads to a hugely political issue, doesn’t it?!). But if we don’t ask, then we’ll never know.
When we look at research, we need to remember that our class might be so different that it doesn’t apply. But if so we need to base that on data, not just ‘because I said so.’ I’m not saying instinct should be ignored, but let’s try informed judgment. Research won’t often give a recipe. It won’t turn us into robots or allow our jobs to be done by computer. What it can do is inform and guide. It can suggest good starting points, or approaches that, more often than not, will be the best way to teach a concept.
We could ‘teach’ science by giving the equation, a load of examples and walking away. But we don’t. Because the data shows that it doesn’t work as well for most students as considering possible links between variables, investigating patterns, explicitly eliminating confounding factors, describing a proportional relationship between cause and effect and then putting this into mathematical terms with fixed values.
In my day job with the IOP, one of the ideas that is really useful at KS3 and KS4 for teaching circuits is the rope model. It’s not new, and it’s not something we invented from nothing. It’s based on research, including ideas summarized in the classic Making Sense of Secondary Science, showing that previous models caused misconceptions about current. It avoids what I call the ‘electron delivery’ trap in models used such as pizza delivery trucks, allowing for clearer explanations of AC later on, as well as being a ‘hands-on’ rather than imagined model.
It’s interesting that @adchempages chooses to describe teaching as an art, rather than a science. I can see what he means, in a way. But I’d suggest that there’s a middle-ground. Is it better to think of teaching as a craft? It might be ‘in person’ rather than strictly ‘hands-on’, but that word hints more at the professional judgment and individual style involved than the common perception of a science. Crafts traditionally guarded their secrets from outsiders but shared them openly within the group or guild. The second part, at least, is a model we should aspire to. Let’s think of research as just a conversation within a larger staffroom, and maybe we can avoid making all the mistakes ourselves.

Why Teach?

EDIT: please note I do not endorse, support or recommend the Central College for Education, a fee-paying distance learning institution. If considering a career in teaching, I recommend you contact university education departments who will advise about the best route for you.
I miss teaching kids.
Don”t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying my current day job, working as a TLC with the Stimulating Physics Network. I work with a dozen schools to develop physics teaching, as well as early career teachers; the adults are, on the whole, more focused and motivated than year 9. I get time to perfect the demonstrations, and I can log CPD time towards my (part-time) working week. I get a lot more time with my family, from the eleven-year-old currently being home-schooled (long story) to the toddler who thinks sleep is for wimps. I can fit in a little freelance work here and there. (I have room for more. Email me.)
But it’s not the same.
The days are more predictable, even though I don’t have a timetable as such. Colleagues get excited about physics practicals, yes, but it’s not the same as the look on a kid’s face when they hear a slinky for the first time. (You can do something similar with a fork.) Digressions happen, but you don’t get to help a students realize how science matters to their life, hobbies, pets or sports. Even attentive teachers – which on a dark evening after a long day is a big ask – can’t measure up to a class of thirty seeing you put out a candle with carbon dioxide, or suddenly silent teens passing around a flint spearpoint made by their ancestor, 300 generations back.
So Alom’s post asking “Why teach when you can tutor?” was an interesting read. I’ve tutored too – although not at London prices – and it’s rewarding, but nothing like being in front of a class. It’s a conversation, not a performance. It’s tiring in a very different way. In the best lessons, what you do seems effortless to the kids. All the hard work, like a swan on a lake, is below the surface. Part of the ‘flow’ is that it looks easy. Maybe that’s why so many non-teachers think they’re entitled to express an opinion about the classroom? At the moment I’m working with adults for my day job and volunteering as a Cub leader. But they enjoyed their Science badge, which is something…
There’s a ‘buzz’ about a good lesson that makes up for a lot of the grief. No teacher goes into the profession wanting to do paperwork and fill out spreadsheets of targets. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who likes marking. Appreciates the need, yes. Enjoys sharing feedback with students and seeing them take it on board, absolutely. The long holidays are good, even if we pay for them in blood sweat and tears during term-time. But they’re a perk, not the purpose.
Kids ask great questions. They get excited about cool things, because they’ve not learned to fake cynicism. At least some of them will find you at break with yet more questions, or an empty chrysalis they found at the weekend, or to borrow books. They’ll act shocked when you say they can use your first name on Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions, because “I’m a volunteer youth leader at the weekend, not your teacher.”
They’ll hate you, sometimes. They resist, and they fight. We don’t get it right every time, and not every student will be a success story in your lessons. Those are the ones where you look really hard for something real to praise them on, whether it’s their sports performance or how their English teacher was raving about their poetry. (If you can link it to science, even better – I had one student who applied her choreography skills to remember the different ‘types’ of energy.) But because you see them on the corridor you can thank them for holding a door, or show them in other tiny ways that you’re still both members of a school community.
The real question – the one which teachers, school leaders, governors and politicians need to answer – is “Why tutor when you could teach?” Some of the reasons might be individual, family commitments or ill-health for example. But if we’re going to keep recruiting and keeping classroom teachers, we need to be able to give good reasons. The draw of the classroom must outweigh the benefits of tutoring. For many, the good things about being in a school aren’t enough to make up for the disadvantages. Only by being honest about those reasons, and being committed to changing them, will we make the classroom a more attractive place for all of our colleagues.

2016: Looking Ahead

2015 was a pretty busy year. Lots going on – not that life with three kids is ever any different – and it didn’t always feel like there was a chance to breathe. So now I’m taking a moment to write what I’m hoping to get out of 2016.
Professionally, I’m hopeful. The day job is going well, I think, and I’m looking forward to sharing more ideas with colleagues. I’m hoping to collect some data on the classroom impact of what I’ve been doing with ‘my’ schools, which will possibly lead to an article with my name on it. I need to start searching more systematically for freelance work, delivering CPD or getting involved in the textbook and resource side of things. I think my blog can be a good way to showcase what I do, so I’m planning to schedule days to build it up each month. I’d like to get some more classroom time, with real students, but supply work is both hard to fit in and really badly paid, so it will probably be in small chunks in my partner schools.
As ‘payment’ for a recent review piece I scored several education texts, so the reading will form a fair bit of my own CPD over the coming months. I plan to share highlights and insights on here as ever. Plus I got What If? just before Christmas, which will get a post all of its own. (Summary: it’s great.) I was hoping to make at least one day of #ASEconf but my wife and I are both shattered as smallest person is doing a lot more teething than sleeping. I’ll have to look out for something later on in the year. Suggestions?
Due to circumstances beyond our control – persistent bullying by pupils, and a lack of willingness to deal with it coupled with deeply unprofessional behaviour on the part of the school management – we’ve taken our eldest out of school. He’ll be finishing his year 6 being educated at home, which has its own set of challenges but also opportunities. To start with, he’s missing the huge ordeal of SATs. They had already started doing practice papers, in November, showing how disproportionate an effect external testing can have. So instead he’s learning to cook, improving his photography and gymnastics skills, and developing his computing by designing and building a website for our child-minder. Plus regular maths practice, book reviews and comprehension exercises based on articles from chicken care to architecture. The good news is that by September he will also have all the skills I’ve so often seen lacking in Year 7 science students, if it kills me. Which it might.
Illness on my side of the family – Dad’s very much past his best-before date, and it shows – means we’ll be making the trip south on a fairly regular basis. Several hours stuck in a car with a crying infant now constitute a hot date for my wife and I, sadly. This is probably one of many issues that have encouraged the return of my personal ‘black dog‘, so apologies for frequent silences and grumpiness on Twitter. More running might help. I need to sign up for some events – I won’t call them races because I’m only competitive with board games – to motivate me to get out and train. I got out climbing with the boys last week, which reminded me of just how much I ennjoy it and just how out of shape I’ve become. Less chocolate. More climbing. Repeat.
I’d like to get into the habit of baking bread. I want to get at least one more tattoo, and I’m still playing with some science-inspired ink designs. Drink good coffee. Read good books.
And to all my loyal readers… all the best for the coming year.