Category Archives: Interesting articles

Important new education research


    • Ursula Hoadley and Joe Muller have just published their important paper looking at assessment in South Africa “Visibility and differentiation: Systemic testing in a developing country context” (Curriculum Journal, 2016)- I prefer their earlier title “Testing testing: Investigating the epistemic potential of systemic testing” (Un-gated draft-version of that paper here).
    • Why has large-scale standardised testing attracted such a bad press? Why has pedagogic benefit to be derived from test results been downplayed? The paper investigates this question by first surveying the pros and cons of testing in the literature, and goes on to examine educators’ responses to standardised, large-scale tests in a sample of low socio-economic status (SES) schools in the Western Cape, South Africa. The paper shows that teachers and school managers have an ambivalent attitude to tests, wary of the reputational costs they can incur, but also curious about the differentiated picture test results can give them as they learn to ‘read’ the underlying codes embedded in the results. The paper concludes that a focus on what tests make visible and a recognition of the pedagogic agency of teachers points to potential pedagogic benefits of systemic tests.

    • Craig Paxton has finally finished his PhD thesis “Possibilities and constraints for improvement in rural South African schools” (UCT, 2015). This is on my to skim/read list together with Eric Schollar’s PhD (see below)
    • Part of Craig’s PhD abstract:”Rural South African schools face a complex mix of challenges, which make improvement a daunting task. Not only do schools deal with the time, place and space issues that face rural schools worldwide, but in addition they contend with a legacy of severely deprived schooling under the apartheid system. Using the framework of the Five Essential Supports, developed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, together with Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and doxa, this thesis examines what improvement might mean in this deeply disadvantaged context. The five supports – leadership, learning climate, school-community ties, ambitious instruction and professional capacity – are contextualised to account for both the rural setting and the peculiarities of education in South Africa’s former homeland communities. Alongside this largely quantitative framework, Bourdieu’s conceptual tools are brought to bear, offering an alternative perspective that makes sense of the complex forces produced by history and rurality

    •  Pritchett’s new (2015) RISE Working Paper “Creating Education Systems Coherent for Learning Outcomes.” This has been quite an influential paper for me. Although in the South African context I would almost always add “Capacitation” to his four criteria Delegation, Financing, Information, Motivation. Lant also has a great (and scathing) critique of meta-analyses of quantitative studies:
    • If one were to take this approach of “rigorous evidence” at face value then there is rigorous evidence that nothing in the conventional wisdom actually works. There is rigorous evidence that giving out textbooks doesn’t matter, there is rigorous evidence pay for performance doesn’t matter, there is rigorous evidence that class size doesn’t matter. Of course there is also rigorous evidence that all these elements of the conventional wisdom do matter. The usual approach of doing a “systematic review” of the literature that simply counts studies (in a quality weighted basis) is not at all helpful. Suppose that context A is a system coherent for learning—so that teachers know what students should learn, that learning is measured on a regular and reliable basis and teachers are motivated to achieve high student learning—and class size is reduced. Let’s assume that learning improves (as there is RCT evidence from the USA, for instance, that this is true). Context B is a system coherent for schooling only. Class size is reduced. Let’s assume learning doesn’t improve (as there is RCT evidence from Kenya, for instance, that this is true). Suppose the only two studies in the systematic review were USA and Kenya. Then the conclusion would be that “class size improves student learning in 50 percent of the studies.” Now suppose that 8 more rigorous studies were done in the USA so that a systematic review would conclude “class size improves student learning in 90 percent of studies.” Suppose, in contrast, 8 more studies were done in Kenya. Then a systematic review of the rigorous evidence would conclude “class size improves student learning in 10 percent of the studies.” All three statements are equally worthless. The (assumed) truth is that “class size improves performance in context A but not in context B” and hence unless one knows whether the relevant context is A or B the systematic review finding of impact in 50 percent, 90 percent or 10 percent of the studied cases is irrelevant.

  • Glewwe & Muralidharan’s new (2015) RISE Working Paper “Improving School Education Outcomes in Developing Countries” they find that:
  • Interventions that focus on improved pedagogy (especially supplemental instruction to children lagging behind grade level competencies) are particularly effective, and so are interventions that improve school governance and teacher accountability

Reading to some purpose

nasa 2

Welcome to the future…

big history project

  • 21st century education has arrived. The Big History Project (above). Bill Gates throws his weight behind a brilliant history professor and creates an interactive website which has lesson plans, assessments, videos, links, worksheets, and everything you might want when teaching high school history about the big questions in life. So very happy to see this!! Now we just need this for 25 other topics/subjects and we will have a world-class education available to anyone with an internet connection! How exciting.
  • Two photos of the Shanghai skyline taken 26 years apart. Definitely the most incredible image I’ve seen this year. Pictures speak a thousand words.
  • The history of the world since 2000 BC distilled into a single graph – wow. WOW!
  • 40 maps that will help you make sense of the world – incredible!
  • Great 2 minute video animation about the Pale Blue Dot 
  • Great OECD case study on the success of education reform in Brazil: “Brazil: Encouraging lessons from a large federal system
  • Teaching teachers technology – M&G article summarizing the recent EdTech conference in SA.
  • “You become like the 5 people you spend the most time with” This awesome group photo from the Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Protons has 29 people in it, 17 had already won or would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Go Marie Curie!

We read, we lead…


Some great course outlines for those of you eager to find comprehensive reading lists on curriculum, education in developing countries and the economics of education:


Sunday reading…



M&G 200 Young South Africans :)

  • I recently got selected as one of the M&G’s 200 Young South Africans for 2013 (*happy dance*). You can find the write-up (of which I am very fond!) here. The picture above (from the M&G site) was taken in Kalk Bay and has absolutely nothing to do with education or research…moving swiftly along….
  • Cool blog: FarnamStreetBlog (via ClintClark) – Similar to BrainPickings (which you MUST follow if you don’t already).
  • The best websites in the world – information overload (not for those of the FOMO persuasion).
  • The Bishop of Salisbury weighs in on the legalization of same-sex marriage in the UK. Sensible.
  • US views on same-sex marriage summarized in four neat graphs – basically the issue is generational and religious (no shit Sherlock).
  • Long but interesting (and informed) Politicsweb article about education in South Africa. Sean Muller (UCT) needs to be brought into the education fold me thinks…
  • Some awesome quotes (via GMVP, who refuses to have an online presence – whatevs): “There is no reason to be absolutist about either aggregated data or novelistic narrative as research methods. The tension between qualitative and quantitative methods reflects the contradiction between the impersonal and personal faces of democracy, the moral need to both respect and transcend our finitude.” (213 – 214)
  • “Stories compress characters and events, and statistics reveal patterns we would have missed otherwise. Their key difference lies at another level: in the approach to death. Stories teach us to mourn, and statistics teach us to see impersonal order. (…) Stories teach the ethic of caring, statistics the ethic of not caring. Statistical thinking is a methodological Buddhism.” (214)
  • Quote of the week by JFK: “Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” (can I get an Amen!?)