Education for all, and for all a good night

A month or two ago it was accidentally let slip by the British government that they intend to bring back grammar schools. This has been a controversial decision so I wanted to consider write a bit about them. However, I feel it important to note that I am personally against grammar schools, so this blog post should be read with that in mind.

Grammar schools are a type of school in the UK that have traditionally selected students based on their grades. There are currently some grammar schools in the UK, but since 1998 there has been a ban on the creation of new ones. This ban is what the government is proposing should be lifted. The government certainly seems to have its heart in the right place when lifting the ban on grammar schools. The schools that the government wants to create will take the best and brightest at the age of 11, and, regardless of economic background, will provide them with a high level of education. The intention of grammar schools is therefore to enable social mobility and ensure that those from less fortunate backgrounds have the same opportunities as those from wealthy backgrounds. Enabling social mobility and striving for equality sound like great goals, so why am I against grammar schools?

While I support the sentiment behind grammar schools I believe that the Matthew effect will come into play in this kind of arrangement, meaning that the goal of enabling social mobility is unlikely to actually happen. The Matthew effect is an interesting idea: those who have much will continue to get more, and those who have little will get even less. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers gives great examples of this in action. The basic idea in society is that those who have had an advantage will be presented with more opportunities, which in turn will become even more advantages and lead to greater opportunities. This explains, for example, why British footballers tend to be born in September. The British school system begins its academic year in September so those born in this month are the oldest of their peers, and are almost a year older than the youngest. When you first enter school this extra year makes a huge difference in terms of physical strength and coordination so those born in September are at a natural advantage in sports at that age. This then allows them to join the football team, where they will receive additional training. Due to the additional training the gap between them and the younger members of their peer group becomes even wider, and makes the older students more attractive for selection of regional teams, where they will receive even more training, which in turn increases the gap.

While grammar schools are intended as a way to lubricate social mobility I predict the reality to be quite different. Those who have come from more fortunate backgrounds are likely to be better at taking tests, and therefore more likely to be able to enter a grammar school. Likewise, those who come from more fortunate backgrounds are more likely to have parents who can afford to send them to additional preparation classes for the grammar school tests, which is a huge industry already in Japan and Korea where many high schools and universities have their own entrance exams. An argument against this is that the 11+, the test that grammar schools will use to select pupils, is an IQ test rather than a test of knowledge and test taking ability. Except that it has been shown that those from lower socio-economic statuses perform poorer on IQ tests from ages as low as two, and the gap increases as the children age.

An argument could be made that at least it is better than doing nothing, where there would be no pathways for intelligent children from poorer families to receive a top class education. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case when you look at which school systems are doing well. McKinsey & Company produced a report in 2017 entitled “how the world’s best performing school systems come out on top”, where they looked at what factors made the best school systems in the world so effective. Their conclusion was three things seemed to encourage high quality schooling: make sure the right people become teachers, train teachers well initially and continue developing them through their careers, and monitor students to allow interventions when someone starts to fall behind. In my opinion grammar schools will actually go against some of these principles.

One of the things I disagree with most about grammar schools is that it will cause good teachers to be drawn to grammar schools, where the students are likely to be higher performing. Currently the salary for teachers, along with the long working hours and the status of the profession in general, mean that the best of the best are not often attracted to teaching. There are many amazing teachers in the UK, but there isn’t enough competition to ensure that only those who have a passion for teaching enter the profession. In Finland, for comparison, getting into teacher training is about as competitive as getting into MIT, so the status that teachers have in society is very high. By ensuring that all teachers are high quality means that the level of teaching at all schools is good. Japan and Korea, on the other hand, have an interesting mechanism where teachers are randomly moved every couple of years to different schools, potentially even to a different city. This is quite an extreme system, but it does ensure that teacher quality is roughly even across schools.

With relation to monitoring students and helping them when they fall behind, this sounds like an area where grammar schools could be a positive. By separating the brightest and smartest won’t that leave teachers to adjust the level of classes to the students, ensuring that less students are less behind as they’re at more suitable levels? I am divided on this and am eager to see what happens in the future. However, is the separation of students of different backgrounds not depriving kids of one of their greatest forms of support: each other. Many studies, for example those by Rupert Wegerif and Neil Mercer, have shown the power of students supporting each other and building many skills by doing so. If you take this approach to education, that students should support each other and develop collaboration skills, is it not beneficial to have as diverse a classroom as possible? After leaving schools students might find themselves in a whole range of environments so should they not learn to communicate with people from a range of backgrounds? Furthermore, I’m sure that there are many students who don’t perform well on the 11+ who have talents in particular areas that could benefit others in the class who have theoretically higher IQs overall.

The question then becomes if not grammar schools then what? In an ideal world I would love to perform an experiment to compare what would happen if the government invested the money it intends to spend on grammar schools instead on teacher salaries. Would that increase the status of the profession and draw more people to the job? Or would investing money in more teaching assistants to provide targeted help for those who need reap better results in the long term? It is easy to criticise the government’s decision to remove the ban on grammar schools without proposing alternatives. In the end the educational system is a complicated beast where results of policy changes cannot easily be predicted with 100% accuracy. That does not mean, however, that policies should be made without looking at what has worked in other countries and what research has suggested.

The World’s Hardest Language

Although learning languages at school was never something that I enjoyed I have since taken quite an interest in them. While living in Japan I undertook the task of learning the local language, gaining conversational ability. Since leaving school I’ve also taken classes in Mandarin, Finnish and Spanish. It’s well known that some languages are more difficult to learn than others, and there are a lot of lists out there on the Internet acting as guides (for example here, here and here). Mandarin and Japanese always seem to in the top with Finnish not far behind. While I definitely agree that for a native English speaker these languages are more difficult to learn than Spanish, the reasons given often centre around grammar and the difference in concepts compared to English. Personally I found Japanese to be far easier to learn than Finnish, for many reasons beyond just how different the language is structurally to English. Here are five considerations of language difficulty besides grammar.

1. Your Goal

The Finnish language was once described to me as being an upside-down pyramid. When you begin studying it the grammatical structure is likely to be drastically different to your own language (unless you are Hungarian or Estonian), and the vocabulary is probably also going to have very little connection. It’s very difficult at first, but then when the rules and vocabulary are learnt it’s possible to perfect. Japanese on the other hand is the reverse, when you initially begin to learn it doesn’t take long to be able to have basic conversations. The grammar is different but logical, and there are very few exceptions or irregular words. To master Japanese, however, is incredibly difficult due to the need to perfect honorific language, a task which even native speakers struggle with. The different writing system present in Japanese and Mandarin are also often presented as a reason for its challenging nature. The question though is what would you like to achieve by learning the language. If your aim is not perfection but communication then Japanese’s easy pronunciation and regular grammar mean you can speak well relatively quickly. Mandarin’s tones are a challenge, but the grammar is some of the most straightforward of any language. If your aim is not perfection, but rather oral proficiency then both these languages are likely to be easier than even more familiar languages such as German.

2. Motivation

Motivation is well known to have links to educational outcomes, after all if you have no motivation then you will certainly not progress much. It is a complicated issue though. While there are some obvious motivating factors dependent upon a person’s individual circumstance, the need to talk to a partner’s family or promise of work advancement, for example, there are some less obvious factors that can help maintain motivation while learning a language. Interest in the target culture is a primary consideration before embarking on learning a language. Culture and language are closely tied, so if you don’t particularly like a certain culture then their language is unlikely to hold your attention for long. I am constantly surprised by people who tell me that they want to learn Chinese because of China’s global economic importance, but have no interest in ever going to China. Your real life experiences with a language will be what make or break your motivation with regards to studying it, if you don’t want to visit a country that speaks a certain language then there are probably better choices.

A similar thought for those considering which language they should study is ease of meeting real life speakers. I’ve been toying with the idea of learning Esperanto, after studying Spanish it looks incredibly easy to pick up, but in the end it would be difficult for me to ever use in realistic settings so I have decided not to. One of the best things about studying Spanish and Japanese is that I can encounter them regularly in my life at home, as well as desire to go to the countries that speak the languages. Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and is often used in US TV shows. Japanese tourists are some of the most enthusiastic in the world and can often be met abroad. Besides having an extensive movie and TV production business, Japanese is often heard in pop culture as a language of business men, ninjas or Yakuza. One of the biggest factors that I’ve heard cited for a lack of motivation for studying Finnish by my peers is that only 5 million people speak it natively. Whatsmore, of those 5 million people a very large percentage have functional English, meaning that even when you do meet a Finn, Finnish is unlikely to become the lingua franca.

3. Directness of Target Culture

The time will eventually come when learning any language when you need to interact with native speakers. Suddenly being asked to communicate with people who aren’t aware what set phrases your textbook included is intimidating, and yet so rewarding if successful. So what affects if this transaction is successful? Your skill in the language is an obvious factor, but so too is the ability of the person you’re talking with to guess that your utterance of ‘Have orange, apple, banana?’ means that you would like to know if the shop has any fruit.

While there are several ways of classifying cultures on different scales, one of the the most influential is that of the high- and low-context societies based on the work of anthropologist Edward Hall. This concept can be seen well in English by comparing the US and the British culture. As this Buzzfeed article illustrates, the British often say things and expect their conversation partner to understand a hidden meaning, while this is rarer in the US. The US would be described as a more low-context society than the UK as the literal meaning of the words are more likely to contain all the information needed, regardless of the context of the conversation. East Asian societies are often very high-context where much information is left up to a person to infer from a situation. While this may sound frustrating to those from a low-context society, it means that people from these cultures are more used to placing less importance on specific words and using context to provide clues as to what their partner might be trying to communicate.

I witnessed a good example of this when I first arrived to Finland, a very low context society. I stood outside a restaurant with two Finns and a Chinese friend at lunch time. The friend was trying to communicate in Finnish that we should go and eat by saying ‘let’s go for food’ in Finnish. His pronunciation of the Finnish word food, ‘ruoka’, however was not great and the Finns seemed to have no idea what he was saying. I knew perfectly what he was saying, and from context it was obvious that this was what he was trying to communicate. However, the Finns had to ask in English what he was saying. If perfection, or something close to it, is needed to communicate in a language then the language becomes very challenging.

4.Availability of Material

Everyone has different ways that they like to learn, and your preferred study methods are likely to vary depending on what is your eventual goal. The more popular your language is then the more likely it is that there will be study material to match your desires. I am a huge fan of both Duolingo for Spanish, and make use of a lot of the pre-made flashcard decks available for Anki for Japanese. Finnish has resources available online, as well as in textbooks. However, these materials are not nearly as extensive as those for many other languages. Variety is important for keeping motivation high, so this is a very practical consideration when deciding if you should begin studying a language.

5. Success of Others

While taking a slightly different perspective than the other entries in this list, the success of others in a similar position to yourself is another thing you might want to think about when starting to study a language. The planning fallacy is a concept that Daniel Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. The basic idea is that people always underestimate the amount of time that they predict a task will take to complete. One way that he suggests of getting around this is by looking at how long it has taken others to complete similar tasks. This is often a much better estimate than if you think about each of the steps that will be necessary and how much time it will take. A similar approach can be useful to thinking about your success when it comes to learning a language. When I lived in Japan a lot of the foreigners I knew who were living there spoke excellent Japanese. In Singapore the number who spoke Chinese was considerably less, however I have heard that those who actually live in China often develop a decent command of the language. While I know many foreigners who live in my city in Finland the number who speak Finnish well is small. A person’s environment is a huge influence on what he or she is likely to achieve, and so the achievements of people in similar situations to yourself is a sensible consideration when thinking about potential language success. Despite this, however, every person’s situation and internal motivation is different, added to which no language is impossible to learn. Studying a foreign language is a useful and enjoyable activity for most, and the process itself may be enough of a reward regardless of resulting language proficiency.

The Placebo Effect and Education

How do you measure learning? What do you want a participant to walk away with after attending training? These are questions that educational researchers have been considering for a long time. Often when researchers want to see how effective some kind of educational intervention has been they will give students a test. It’s quantifiable and so easy to compare results before and after an intervention, or between an experimental group and a control group. Indeed tests are a favourite way to assess many things, from individual knowledge to the standard of whole country’s education system. While many dislike tests, and teaching solely to a test can hinder growth rather than encourage it, there’s no doubt that the ability to recall facts, rules and information is useful. Good tests even include problems that require candidates to apply what they know and show understanding. So is this the best way to assess progress?

A paper that I often like to refer to is Dunlosky et al.’s (2013)1 meta-analysis that compares ten of the most popular revision methods employed by students, and how effective they actually are. To give a sneak preview it seems that periodically testing yourself on material is a much better way to learn than reading your notes three or four times the day before an exam. However, if you were to ask how confident students felt after using the techniques then they would probably feel more comfortable after re-reading their notes. Their ability to recall data might be lower, but as testing yourself means you’ll make mistakes it’s easy for a student to feel like they haven’t learnt much, despite each wrong answer being a great learning opportunity that will stick in their head! On the other hand, when re-reading notes everything seems familiar and so a person’s confidence grows. The problem with this is that as everything seems familiar people don’t actually pay close attention. It seems obvious that this is a false confidence, and so the methods that actually improve recall ability are definitely better, right?

Recently I was reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science and came across the chapter on the placebo effect. In an experiment where patients with pain were given sugar pills and aspirin it was shown that the sugar pills had some effect, although not as much as the actually aspirin. Nothing too surprising there. What I found very interesting, however, was the fact that both the sugar pill and the aspirin were more effective if taken from a branded box than a plain black one. The mind has a powerful effect on the way our bodies work. In educational research there is a popular theory called Social Cognitive Theory, a collection of ideas popularised by a psychologist called Albert Bandura. The theory has many parts but one central portion is self-efficacy – a person’s confidence in their ability to successfully complete tasks. How people behave is directed linked to their beliefs about what the outcome of their actions is likely to be. This applies to educational contexts as well, if a person is confident that they will be able to learn, then they are more likely to learn. One of my favourite quotes on learning, from Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, nicely sums up this idea:

We can say that Maud’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is so shocking to find out how many people do not believe that they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult.

Your confidence in what you have learnt influences your emotions, which in turn influence how receptive you will be to learning. Self-efficacy is therefore not a placebo effect, the fertile mindset it creates for learning is genuine. If confidence is not considered then motivation can become a serious problem, and over an extended period of time learning can be hindered. What self-efficacy does share in common with the placebo effect is that the perceived value of your experience affects how effective outcomes are.

As an example of this in practice I’d like to offer my experiences learning Finnish. Our classes were excellent, designed for those living in Finland, who would often encounter situations where they don’t understand much around them while their language skills are still in a fledgling stage. The teachers employed a lot of good tactics for placing students into uncomfortable situations, trying to teach them the skills to survive and function. Nonetheless, this is not the way that many are used to studying a language. In schools grammar is normally given a central importance, and exercises start from basic sentences with perhaps only a couple of new words. When you have years to develop a language this is a fair way to approach its development, but it develops few strategies for those who need to have some competence almost immediately.

In my opinion people learnt a lot from the course. They could quickly survive in a restaurant conversation, or ask for directions. Perhaps most importantly strategies were developed to help students guess what is happening in situations where they don’t understand much. People’s opinions at the end of the course were, however, that they had learnt little. Most of the class exercises had placed them in situations where they had felt uncomfortable and therefore they felt they could not cope. Objective learning and perceptions did not align in a sense. After the course many people decided not to continue studying Finnish as it was too difficult. If the teachers had perhaps prepared people for this style of study, altering people’s expectations of what they should be able to do, then more might have continued studying, eventually attaining a high level of skill.

In a world where most knowledge is searchable on a mobile device, confidence at finding and applying knowledge becomes more important. Applying knowledge in unfamiliar situations is a disconcerting experience though, and so developing confidence simultaneously with competence will become increasingly more important in training.

1Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.