Medical Careers

Apologies if this is a repost, but I can’t find it anywhere even though I created it ages ago. I, like many science teachers, have found that kids have tunnel vision when it comes to careers. Medicine, for a variety of reasons, is a real target for many of them. For some it’s a totally unrealistic one. The progression (anecdotally) goes like this.

  • At the start of Yr12, more than 30 in a year of 120 were ‘going to be doctors’. When it is pointed out that we might send two or three off to medical school in a good year, there are blank looks. Even asking “Are you one of the three smartest students in the year?” doesn’t reach everyone.
  • By halfway through the year, more than half of the students now know medicine isn’t happening for them. They immediately start looking at Pharmacy.
  • By the start of yr13, with results in hand (and yes, I know that’s changing) we used to be down to between eight or ten with a reasonable chance. Some of those who had hoped for Pharmacy are now clinging to the hope of Biomedical Science. And have a private tutor.
  • By Christmas, a few more are being realistic and have switched to other plans; I’ve found they’re a bit more open-minded, but it’s marginal. I had one student tell me they now wanted to do theoretical physics as it was the next best thing to medicine.
  • At Easter, between six and eight think they’ve got a reasonable chance; two or three of those might actually get in.

What’s interesting is that hardly anywhere in this do they consider other clinical options that aren’t Medicine. (Some, of course, started off hoping for Dentistry or Veterinary.) It’s as if the vast majority of medical roles, working with patients and using highly technical skills, simply pass them by. So I created a list, not intended to be exhaustive, which is linked below. Perhaps useful to kick off discussion if nothing else?

medical careers as .docx file

medical careers as .pdf

 

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Doing Physics

A recent Guardian blog was from a 16 year old who felt that Physics at A-level had little to offer her. Sadly the Guardian weren’t interested in the response, so I’m posting it here.

It’s a basic principle of science that anecdotes are not data. Sadly the personal story shared by Sarah is one example supported by wider evidence. There are undoubtedly many reasons why students, male and female, drop physics at sixteen. Things are better than they were, since the low point in 2007 when less than 28000 chose it as an A-level subject. But female students still make up only 20% of sixth form physics classes, despite GCSE results that are as good or better. This is frustrating for students, for teachers and certainly for politicians.

So why should anybody, male or female, choose Physics for post-16 study? The reasons are the same as for any subject; for interest and for usefulness. I can’t imagine not finding physics fascinating, but then you could argue I’m one of the success stories.

I start the school year by turning out my pockets and challenging students to recognise the science implicit in our lives. It stretches from the metallurgy of my keys and wedding ring to drug trials for painkillers, from the link between the shape of my lenses and my prescription to the magnetic coding on my credit card. And that’s before we consider the many facets of mobile devices, from electronics via touchscreen engineering to the EM spectrum and orbital mechanics for the satellites that carry the signals. Science really is everywhere, physics certainly as much as biology or chemistry. From the big, abstract picture to the uses we take for granted day to day, physics is mind-blowing.

In practical terms it’s also a hugely useful, facilitating subject even if you don’t plan to use it directly in the scientific, medical or engineering worlds. Yes, rocket scientists (actually usually engineers) need physics. Yes, it provides an important grounding for medicine. But the skills you learn provide many other benefits in a wide range of courses and careers. When able students choose other subjects we as teachers inevitably feel we missed making that clear enough. Sometimes students making A-level choices don’t appreciate that the courses are a stepping stone, not an end in themselves.

There is a big imbalance in the number of male and female students who choose Physics at A-level. This is not new, and it’s not going away by itself. I think – and more importantly, the data shows – that there are several possible causes worth considering. Unsurprisingly, some of these factors are more difficult to address than others. Many subjects have a gender imbalance, some much worse than physics, but as a physics teacher I have a personal stake. I often describe changes in education happening at different levels.

Nationally, there are some really big issues affecting education across all subjects. Representations of scientists in the media are improving, but Brian Cox isn’t the only reason students choose Physics. The Wellcome Trust raised many issues in their 2011 report about young people’s views on science education. Programmes of study and the exam specifications need to be considered for their impact on a range of diverse students. The type of school makes a difference – although this is nothing to do with academies or free schools. Students with attached sixth forms make up more balanced classes. Girls are more likely to choose physics in independent schools, especially if they are single sex. These findings, along with several of the other links, form the backdrop to ongoing projects at the Institute of Physics to improve UK Physics education. There are often other political choices to be made, from funding of teacher training to rebuilding school facilities. The Royal Society recently published their Vision for science and mathematics education, This is ambitious and far-ranging, considering how we might develop teaching of these subjects over the next twenty years.

School leaders and governers need to consider what affects student choices for A-levels across subjects. The evidence, despite claims to the contrary, suggests that the rapport between teacher and student is generally much more important than the gender of the teacher. Having specialists teaching physics well to younger students also makes a big difference. A school with no Spanish teacher has the option to offer other languages instead, something that doesn’t apply to the sciences. Of course local authorities and academy chains make choices at this tactical level too.

And I can change things in my classroom, with my students. I can ensure examples and textbooks feature male and female physicists. I can make clear links to social implications of the physics we study, something which has been shown to improve engagement for all but girls in particular. I can point out when individuals or the class are making assumptions; for example in a recent question describing the movement of a skydiver, 22 out of 28 in the group used male pronouns for no reason they could explain. I can try out different arrangements of practical groups so boys don’t dominate the hands-on aspect. These aspects are about good teaching methods. At the same time they’re hugely important and completely overwhelmed by the bigger picture.

If I were Sarah’s teacher, I would tell her that Physics is hugely relevant to daily life and always will be. It’s a beautiful subject with fascinating implications. It is a vital part of many careers and studying it provides many future options. I would never criticise a student’s choices – it’s their life, not mine – but I hope their decisions are a truly informed choice. A lot of teaching is helping students to overcome their misconceptions. I hope that we as teachers can do a better job of offering that informed choice to more students across the UK.

Reflecting Badly

It appears I’ve managed – completely accidentally, and certainly unintentionally – to offend people who I like and respect, personally and professionally. I apologise for that, as most of the time I only ever deliberately want to annoy Michael Gove and his minions. I hope that the offence has come from a lack of clarity in 140 character tweets, rather than my actual opinions. My aim in this post is to state my opinions clearly; I’d really appreciate comments telling me how successful or otherwise I’ve been with that.

The Background

Michael Gove has stated that academies (which now make up more than half of UK secondary schools) can now employ staff without QTS. The statement was released on the opening day of the Olympics, during the summer holidays. There have been many responses to this (a few examples in no particular order: Tom Bennett, Geoff Barton, glosswatch.com, @oldandrewUK), some more measured than others. [EDIT: And a great piece by Laura McInerney at LKMco, go read it now.)

My Beliefs

  1. I think anyone who teaches should have been effectively trained.
  2. I believe that we need some kind of ‘label’ to gather together the various routes that lead to a person having that minimum level of competence.
  3. I believe the different routes are not just convenient but necessary to prepare varied individuals for different roles in education.
  4. Finally, I believe that we need a better system to ensure teachers, for whatever age group and in whatever setting, can record and demonstrate their use of a range of CPD offerings throughout their career.

My Tweets

  • Gove’s idiocy is simply way to put non-teachers in academies. Qts is a shorthand for training, presumably FE has equivalent?
  • other routes eg b.ed, gtp, @teachfirst, to getting Qts. Agree it’s a flaw in system. Sadly think Gove not interested.

I had never before realised that teachers in some settings, although trained, don’t finish with the same QTS as I have. In my defence, in my setting it’s irrelevant. I now know a little better, for example that in a range of FE settings teachers will attain QTLS, awarded by the Institute for Learning. It seems that QTS and QTLS are almost but not quite interchangable, according to the government.

And so in response to a tweet about whether academies would publically state they would only employ staff with QTS, I typed:

My Opinions

Obviously there have been more on this topic, both my own and RTs from others. I thought what I had written, taken as a whole, showed that it is the training – in pedagogy, classroom management, etc etc – that I considered a prerequisite. Of course, PGCE courses aren’t perfect – but I don’t think saying they’re unneeded is the best way to improve them. Should I have used ‘untrained’ rather than ‘unqualified’? Because that was my intention. I don’t care how good somebody is in their subject, it doesn’t mean they have the teaching skills. My post a while back on Jamie’s Dream School makes that clear, I think.

I think allowing academies to hire staff who have not been trained (hopefully effectively) as teachers is a worrying development. There are clearly several ways to obtain this training. As I tweeted at the time, if Gove wants experts in their fields moved into classrooms quickly, why not expand programmes like TeachFirst and GTP routes? The new School Direct route, which includes a salaried option, involves student teachers working in a variety of schools and in many cases also being awarded a PGCE. Until that point, the graduates will be paid as ‘unqualified teachers’, but the point, like every other form of teacher training, is that there is a structured way to gain the skills needed in the classroom. Gove’s suggestion removes this safeguard.

It was not until it was made clear to me on twitter that those of us using QTS as a ‘shorthand’ label for staff who had gone through one of these routes were neglecting FE colleagues, who don’t have the opportunity to gain the same accreditation despite similar training. Hence my point 2 above, as clearly QTS is not properly inclusive. ‘Unqualified’ can be used in several ways, and is ambiguous especially as regards FE, or those ‘en route’ to being a teacher through for example GTP. My fourth point is unfortunately an aspiration, not something we currently do well. I want to record my own professional development – both formal and informal – much better, but the lack of an agreed structure means everyone will use a different method. This is something the GTC could have done while working, if it had really been working in our interests. But this is a separate issue and one I will return to in a future post.

As I understand it, Gove’s decision here is not about FE. It’s about academies. I can’t get the image out of my head of Gove and his lackeys, sitting in an office, rubbing their hands with glee as they see teaching colleagues on the same side ripping each other to shreds. I really hope that those secondary colleagues who have made FE staff angry did so through ignorance, not deliberate choice. I have tried to make my position clearer here, and hope others read, consider and where necessary apologise.

Perhaps now would be a good time to consider what the real problem is. Do we want to argue with each other about how we should use the term ‘qualified’, or should we focus on the skills gained through a variety of routes? Most importantly, should we focus on the problems that might be experienced by pupils in schools which choose to employ untrained staff without the opportunity to learn how to teach?

I’d really value comments and responses. (The title, by the way, was chosen when I was not sure if, on reflection, I would regret my tweets. I’ve decided I stand by them, even if they didn’t express my thoughts as well as they should have done.)

Performance Related Pay as an ISA

I’ve just been reading that the government (in the form of the Education Select Committee) is recommending a return to the idea of performance-related pay for teachers. Now, this is interesting, to say the least – and more than a little political. Because, of course we all know how well a bonus-led culture worked in banking. So I’m going to sublimate my anger and approach this from a scientific point of view. Not just by looking at the data, but by treating it like a GCSE science problem in experimental design.

Background Research

You can find news reports at the Guardian and the Telegraph, among others. It might be an ineresting Politics/Media lesson to compare the reporting of this story in different publications, perhaps? The news stories I’ve seen completely fail to mention that this will presumably only apply to schools governed by national agreements, so academies and free schools may not even care. I’m still checking out research (the actual data that governments like to claim backs up their case) but this from the famous Ted Wragg is interesting.

Confounding Factors

It’s not that long ago that the government stopped collecting what we call ‘contextual value-added‘ data – where the students’ circumstances, social background etc are taken into account. So if we don’t know about all of these things, how can we account for them? An abvious example is that in some schools and areas it’s much more likely that students will access a tutor. And what about kids whose parents help them out, talk them through homework, share study techniques? Who’s responsible for any improvement?

Subjects overlap too. If I teach a student who’s doing badly in Maths, and this affects their Physics scores, who gets the blame? I’m imagining wars between Maths and Science, between English and Humanities, as teachers accuse each other of causing them problems. Not a pretty image. How are we supposed to work together when we’re also competing? Nobody wants to be at the bottom. Will teachers in one department stop sharing resources with each other?

Measuring the Dependant Variable

Is this going to be based solely on exam results? What about subjects which don’t do an external exam, such as PSHE? The equality or otherwise of subjects is always a huge issue, especially when different types of qualifications are considered. Will it apply to all key stages – what about teachers who only or mainly teach at Key Stage 3, for example?

What happens if one class does ‘well’ (although I’m still not sure how we’ll be able to tell) and another doesn’t? What about when a class is shared between two or more teachers? Or when a teacher is ill or on maternity leave? Do good A-level results matter more or less than good GCSEs? Should absolute scores or percentages matter? For example, if I have 14 students at A2 Physics, 7 of whom achieve an A grade, is this better or worse than, say, Spanish, who have 4 students and 3 A grades?

Bias

Many courses rely to at least some extent on teacher-assessed work. Will the existing pressure on teachers to give students the ‘best possible chance’ be increased? Should only externally-assessed work be used for the judgements? In theory this could lead to ethical teachers being penalised when those colleagues who are more ‘supportive’ – and yes, that was sarcastic – benefit personally from the better results of their students.

What about those students who happen to be taught by their Head of Year? How will their level of support vary compared to others? Or the students mentored by members of SMT, who so often seem to get extra chances or have the rules ‘stretched’ for them? Teaching the children of other staff members may suddenlt be a bigger perk than before.

And who chooses which teachers get the more promising students? It’s already true in many schools that timetabling causes problems when particular teachers are perceived to get ‘easier’ classes. Sometimes this is unavoidable – imagine two A-level Physics classes, who due to timetabling are split depending on whether they aso study Further Maths. I know which one I’d rather have.

Reproducibility

It’s so easy to forget with the rhetoric from politicians, but at a school level the sample sizes are small. Too small, really, for any such judgements to be made on a class by class basis. If we drew error bars on the results to account for the confounding factors – many of which we don’t know about, let alone have the ability to control – they would be huge. Yes, we can look at the effects of various interventions on students, and many of us are trying to use this data (see the fantastic work by Geoff Petty for example, the What Works Clearing House, and Dr Mark Evans’ Teachitso website). Linking research to educators working in the classroom is surprisingly difficult, though see #SciTeachJC for one such effort.

But the useful data comes from large studies, reviews of many classrooms and many teachers. If I have a class of twenty-five (chance would be a fine thing) then every child’s results make up 4% of the total. How many students in the average classroom will lose a relative during exam season? How many will have health problems? You don’t need many to affect the class results hugely, and these factors are unpredictable. Like decaying atoms, we can measure how many of these events will happen – probably with high accuracy – in any particular cohort. But in any one class it will vary hugely.

Resolution

Our results aren’t even very detailed. Grade boundaries change, and we can often break it down into more detail than to an A or a B. Will it matter if students meet a decimalised target, or does just the grade matter? How many subjects will we need to look at? If it’s just about meeting a boundary, those who get over it will be ignored even more than we’ve already seen with the wonderfully-named ‘C-chasing’ strategy.

Conclusion

Sadly, it seems to me that performance related pay fails the test according to what we teach our students. It seems a shame that the MPs haven’t done an ISA recently…

Exit Questionnaire: Useful?

Last year, as part of the Action Research in Physics Project run through the Science Learning Centres, I collected data in my school about those who didn’t do Physics at AS. If this seems odd, think for a moment. If we ask those who did choose our subject, we’re only getting the success stories. Surely what we want to know is what put off everyone else. I was particularly interested in the high number who had achieved well at GCSE (getting A* in the separate Physics course) but had not chosen it as part of their AS timetable.

At my workplace, students are selected for triple science GCSE rather than choosing it themselves, which might account for some of them – they were bright students who achieved well in all or many of their subjects. And we have a lot of students doing Physics at AS, it’s not as if we’re in danger of losing classes. However, we do lag behind Biology and Chemistry. Boo. Hiss. I’m obviously not the first person to consider this, and I noticed some of the issues raised in, for example, the IOP Girls in Physics report. Numbers seem to be rising (32860 finished A2 last year, according to this Telegraph story which credits Brian Cox, or see this IOP press release for more detailed numbers.)

Scientists always like more data, and one school is hardly respresentative. So, I thought, why not collect more? If only there was some way to make this kind of quick survey available to colleagues in other schools, so that we could get a bigger sample. If only there was some way to automate and easily share the results, so that we could all learn from it…

At the risk of sounding like a Year 8 stuck on their homework, the answer is Google. A Google form, to be precise.

Obviously the results will be skewed, as I expect only students who have continued to their school 6th form will be pointed towards this, but the more data we can collect the better. Obviously the results will be open to all participants and I will also be blogging about them – it’s also possible that they will inform an article somewhere, perhaps SSR.

What I need to know is whether this is worth taking forward. I’ve put a draft Google form together, based on the paper version I used at my school last year. I have some questions to use, although obviously I’d be interested in any extra suggestions. I want to make this a fast questionnaire, not something students or teachers have to spend a lot of time on. My plan is to finalize the form in a week’s time, so the more feedback and suggestions I get in that time the better. I plan to post and tweet the link to the improved version on September 1st, and hope that as many colleagues as possible will get kids to fill it in. I’d also appreciate suggestions about how to get the word out to as many teachers as practical in a short space of time.

Anyone interested?

The First Rule

The first rule of Journal Club – is do talk about Journal Club.

Journal clubs aren’t a new idea – as I understand it, their most wide spread incarnation is within medicine. A bunch of professionals get together to argue about an academic paper, both how it’s written and what the consequences are for their professional practice. #TwitJC from @fidouglas and @silv24, is just like that, but on Twitter. I seem to remember reading it had been mentioned in the BMJ, but now can’t find a link. Correction – have been told is in Nature News.Html Suffice to say it’s had lots of positive attention and comments.

So now we have #SciTeachJC, run by @alby and @alomshaha. The idea is for professionals to get together and argue about an academic paper, both how it’s written and what the consequences are for their professional practice. And no, that’s not a typo – I’m deliberately putting this in the same context as that of medical professionals. This isn’t to try to start a pissing contest with medics, but to challenge my teaching colleagues to see themselves as part of a profession, not just a job. My misquote at the start is to make the point that the more people are involved, the better the outcomes will be. We need to tell our colleagues about it – maybe even look at the same papers ‘in-house’, before or after the sessions – and encourage professional organisations to take part. It isn’t something that needs huge budgets or large amounts of time, but what better way to demonstrate that teachers are engaged and enthusiastic than taking part in their discussions? (All welcome, even Michael Gove.)

Two Purposes

From my point of view – and I’d love to hear alternative perspectives in the comments below, or via twitter if you’re feeling lazy – there are two main reasons to be involved with something like #SciTeachJC. One is to provide a prompt to the bigger ideas that are so easy to lose sight of in the daily routine of lesson planning and marking – perhaps it’s a way to ‘reprofessionalise‘, as @informed_edu puts it? And the second, if course, is that you finish the session, or read through the archive, and pick up things you can apply pretty much instantly to your own practice. I guess that most CPD, if it’s going to be worthwhile, should aim to tick both these boxes. Any readers with military experience (other than being outnumbered 30 to 1 on a daily basis) will recognise this as a distinction between strategy and tactics.

Big Picture

A teacher could get their planning down quickly and easily by doing the same old thing all the time. Of course kids vary, but after a few years you do tend to see a lot of the same attitudes, hear a lot of the same complaints and questions. You could ignore the exceptions, if you chose to. I try not to, but we all have bad days and busy weeks – I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we claimed to always be working at 100%, because we’d kill ourselves. Engaging with more challenging ideas, thinking about our professional practice, is really valuable for it’s own sake. It makes us ‘conscious teachers’, in the same way that we want our students to be thinking about the how and why of their learning, not just the what. There are many ways to trigger these ‘professional attitudes’ – perhaps get involved with Purpos/Ed, start blogging or just run a weekly ‘ideas swap’ in your workplace. Or you could try reading a challenging academic paper, and then spend some time discussing its implications with colleagues, near and far. Hence SciTeachJC.

Takeaway

This is – and I hope nobody takes this as a criticism – how I approach #ukedchat and #asechat, when I can make it. (That pesky real life thing.) I want ideas that I can use pretty much straight away. It’s always good to get a fresh, often contrasting perspective. That said, it’s great when people tell you that they like, and intend to steal, your ideas; there’s nothing like a little validation!

I’ve babbled for longer than I planned – but I think it was worthwhile babble. This post was intended to be just about the ideas I’ve picked up from the first #SciTeachJC (full archive and participation graphic also available). So my actions and ideas to takeaway were:

  • A reminder that girls often don’t see themselves as having potential in science, or careers that depend on it. (Also covered in the IOP Girls In Physics report of course.)
  • Made me wonder (and since then, check my reports) – am I guilty of seeing boys high marks as indicative of ability, and girls’ (equal) achievement as reflecting hard work?
  • Plan to do work in class contrasting the action of ‘doing’ science, with ‘being’ a scientist. This will give me a new way to use the ‘Spot The Physics’ worksheets I did as well as getting kids to look at the Hidden Science Map or the IOP’s Once a Physicist feature (behind paywall). Aim will be to help them to realise that scientific skills are widely applicable.
  • Get myself organised to apply for I’m A Scientist… and Cafe Science to allow students to meet ‘real’ people who use science in their careers, overtly or more subtly.
  • Several discussions flagged up the difference between ‘science for (future) scientists’ and ‘science for citizens’ – not sure what influence a humble classroom teacher can have, but still! Should we be considering ‘being science literate’ as a skill that can be demonstrated across subject areas, like ICT techniques?
  • Need to emphasize to kids that scientists are creative in suggesting hypotheses to test, methods to try, approaches to investigation.
  • Consider writing or organising a regular review (book, film, TV) to go on the VLE/noticeboard which will look at the science used or abused in something kids may have seen or read.

And Finally…

I really enjoyed the session, and plan to ‘attend’ the next one. I’ve even printed off the next paper, although I’ve not read it yet. I wonder if we’ll all get more out of it if we can be a little more focused – although giving useful feedback and ideas in 140 characters is obviously a limitation of the medium, not our span of attention. I’m going to look more closely at the suggested questions list, and perhaps even be organised about finding some references online beforehand to make it easier to keep up.

And this brings me to the final advantage of something, anything, like #SciTeachJC. It’s easy as a teacher to stay in our comfort zones. This means it’s easy to forget how our students might sometimes feel. I found the first paper challenging – I scribbled in the margins, checked my understanding, had to go back and reread some parts. Feeling a little out of my depth made me appreciate how our students sometimes feel. Even without the ideas, the discussions, the chance to ‘meet’ other teaching professionals, that empathy would have made it all worthwhile.

So remember the first rule of Journal Club… and maybe I’ll catch up with you next time?

References and Trust

A while back I had an interesting Twitter discussion about the problems with assessment in education, and how different approaches might be useful. The others involved (@richardtibbles and @informededu) were much more organised than I am so have long since moved on, after blogging about it. David suggested this concept originally at his blog and here is Richard’s much prompter response. Belatedly, however, I’ve typed up my own somewhat confused viewpoint. It’s more philosophical than practical…

What We Already Do

I like talking about ideas. Something that’s really important to me is getting my facts straight, and I’m a firm believer in checking what I’m saying and correcting myself when needed, which is fairly often. For example, I expressed surprise to a student who told me that he could download Wikipedia to his phone and access it offline. This seemed unlikely to me, but he was absolutely right. (Let’s take a moment to consider that today’s mobile phones usually have enough memory for millions of pages of text information). So I apologised to him in front of the class, and put the link on my page on the VLE.

What this was leading to is that to check an idea, I look for the facts. I don’t think much of personal authority – that will be the science background and general stubbornness – but I appreciate the value of a personal reputation. And so I always want to check the references. In lessons I’ll do this by regularly including links on my teacher’s page, even though I know relatively few kids will bother to use the VLE to that extent. Online, I love having the ability to include links on my blog posts and more recently in my tweets. Whenever I link to a website, news story or blog I am referring to them. In a way, I am demonstrating that I trust them.

When we suggest other people who might be interesting as part of ‘Follow Friday’ by tagging their IDs with #ff, we are giving them a reference. We possibly, almost certainly in my case, haven’t met them ‘in real life’. When we retweet someone’s idea, message or link we are also vouching for them, or at least the idea. Our commentary shows why we are doing so, which can be for both good or bad reasons! I suspect I’m not the only one who looks at those individuals a person follows, before I follow them in turn. We are trying to get a feel for how our peers judge a person. (If you’ve no idea what I’m on about because you’re not on Twitter, check out this post, one of many suggesting why it may be useful for educators.)

Google is based on the idea that the ‘worth’ of a website can be determined by how many others link to it. Whether we agree or disagree with the result, it can hardly be denied that it has been an effective approach.The links I make in blog posts are also references, although they lack academic rigour. The same could be said of my blogroll in a general way. I don’t read everything written on these blogs, but I’m saying by including them that “these people are worth a look.”

Blurbs on a book cover are also a recommendation, tapping into the human assumption that we can trust what people say. Suggesting that ‘if you liked X you may like Y’ gives us a comparison, tells us why this is being recommended. It amuses my family that I can rarely spend time in a bookshop without giving and receiving suggestions from other customers. There’s some evidence (such as this survey from an advertising company) suggesting that this makes a bigger impact if the recommendation seems personal. From a science point of view this is the danger of anecdotes – that we give higher credence to isolated facts than a bigger picture would justify. It seems unlikely that we are actually going to change human nature, though. I remember reading about ‘Salesmen’, people who would spend a lot of time recommending products or concepts, from the book The Tipping Point. I don’t know if more recent research still shows that a small number of people do a lot of recommending. Twitter and the rest of the internet has given us all the chance to be persuaders.

Why It’s Useful (Here comes the Science Bit)

If one bird in a flock starts flapping, so do the others. Flapping is infectious. Mass panic may result from a minor cause, an example of something we call emergence. We tend to act like this more when it involves problems than benefits, probably because in an evolutionary sense we are fine-tuned to trust others when they hint at danger. The Tiger That Isn’t is a great bok explaining the mathematical reasons for the human ability to spot patterns so well. If others in a group are acting scared, then maybe we need to be scared too. All kinds of superstitions, tragedies and historical events have happened because we, like so many other species, have evolved to ‘follow the crowd’. It’s not always right. But it’s right often enough that overall, on average, in the long-term, it’s a useful adaptation. This is why we trust other people’s opinions, modified by who they are. Humans rely on reputation to ‘filter’ our opinions of other people, as ideas like the Prisoner’s Dilemma show. So how could we use the idea of reputation to help when it seems that academic achievements don’t tell us everything we need to know?

Giving Online References

During the discussion, we commented that the best evidence of competence would be to show what is actually produced. It’s expected that photographers and artists will take a portfolio to interviews – why not others? This develops quite quickly into the idea that it shouldn’t be hard, in some professions, to have a permanent online portfolio of your achievements. Everyone who has an ‘About’ page on their blog does this in some way. Adding speaking engagements, videos of what they’ve done or bibliographies extends this. Of course, your online presence can be negative too; just think about advice given to job-seekers about checking what strangers can see on their FaceBook page. I Google myself fairly regularly to see what my students would find, assuming they were ever that bored.

My blog could be seen as a portfolio of what I do and how I do it. If, of course, I planned to use it that way. At the moment I blog and tweet discreetly. I’m sure it’s possible to find out, if you’re so inclined. I’m sure people who know me in person might be able to recognise my personality in my comments, but I’m equally sure the chances are pretty slim of anyone doing so accidentally. This has been a deliberate choice so that I can say what I like, although I try very hard to stay professional. But many other educators (and others) use their blogs as an ongoing record. Their choice and, I’m sure, a very effective one. The potential for this strikes me as so significant that my wife and I are currently considering grabbing ‘named’ domains for our sons,so they have that opportunity in the future.

I’ve given written references for kids. Not often, as I’m perfectly happy to stay as a ‘form tutor’ in our pastoral system, but a few kids from my DofE groups have asked. I gave a personal reference for a friend of mine as I’d also worked with him; it’s odd in a way that I couldn’t honestly write, “Look, he’s godless father to my son, a great cook and I’d trust him with my last penny. Just hire him!” Instead I had to comment on his personal qualities, of which he has many. I still treasure the testimonial I was given by an editor at the end of a work experience, back in my university days. I didn’t continue in journalism or use the letter she wrote me, but the idea was fantastic. (Thanks, Vanessa!) We rely on word of mouth to choose electricians and builders, mechanics and masseurs, presumably because you can’t demonstrate those skills on a webpage or a quarter-page advert. So why not give professional and character references online?

I imagine some kind of social networking site. It would need to use real names and have a contact email address for verification, but that’s not impractical these days. You would recommend or vouch for other people, and say why or what for. Categories of recommendation would be easy enough to evolve, or it could be a simple paragraph, perhaps with hashtags of some kind. Etiquette would probably include listing any potential conflicts of interest. There wouldn’t need to be a limit to the number of recommendations, but viewers would be able to see how many people you gave these recommendations to. It would need to show if these recommendations were reciprocal. And at the same time, they would be able to see who recommended you. These references could have an expiration date, or be ongoing until you cancelled them. I imagine that those taking part would also need to be able to refuse references from other members too.

As I commented at the time, this is not a million miles from the concept of ‘Whuffie’ (Wiki explanation here) as suggested by Cory Doctorow. I don’t know whether trying to define this in numbers would be useful. Maybe members would get a score for the number of actual recommendations they have, and a cumulative one where a bonus score is added on, based on how many each ‘referee’ has. The more recommendations a person had in their field, the more their opinion would be seen as significant in turn. I’m sure some people’s judgements would be seen as more ‘valuable’ than others, something we already see with advertising. Some of this will depend on the reader or viewer, of course; I am far more likely to seek out a book if it has been recommended by Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods, which I think is fantastic) than Stephanie Meyer (I found The Host only okay and couldn’t make myself read the Twilight books), while others would say the opposite. Students applying to university are limited with the number of referees they can give; imagine if instead they could show off the opinions of their current employer, fellow volunteers, youth leaders or subject teachers.

This kind of system would offer everyone the chance to offer testimonials, in a rather more constructive way than FaceBook’s ‘Like’ button. I think to be useful it would have to be combined with exam results and standardised assessments rather than stand alone. (Although it’s not hard to imagine an automated system to include the exam results as part of the list of recommendations.) A good postal system allowed us to move from the written testimonial system to one where we responded to individual requests for information. Now the web would give us the chance to combine the best of both worlds, in the same way that small deli shops can now do a lot of business nationally via a website. Like all teachers I treasure the ‘thank you’ notes a few students have given me over the past few years, and the comments at parents’ evenings. Imagine how valuable it would be to be able to offer that kind of ongoing recommendation for somebody, backed up by your own long-term presence online. I’d like to feel that by sharing my good opinion of my students I’d helped them, somehow. Wouldn’t you?