Stands Scotland Where It Did? (Macbeth Act IV Sc 3)

It is now almost exactly a decade since Scotland’s National Debate on the curriculum, the consultation which led to what is still universally referred to as ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘, but which should by now simply be called ‘the Scottish curriculum’ (see my previous post on the significance of the title here). It is perhaps a good time, therefore, to reflect on the general purpose of that review, especially for anyone coming into our education system for the first time, and that is exactly what this creative animation from the community learning group North Alliance invites us to do. The first half of the film reminds us of the need for change, and sets out the challenges for education in Scotland, which of course are no different from those in any other modern economy. However, there are some big questions which remain unanswered, and which need to be addressed by Education Scotland and the wider education community if the aspirations so well articulated in this short presentation are to be realised. I would like to consider just a few of them.

“Curriculum for Excellence is, firstly, a mission statement. It sets out a vision, and it gives Scottish Education a long-term sense of direction. It will not be implemented over the next few years.”

This is a very welcome statement; had it been made clear from the beginning that this was a long-term vision, much anxiety could have been avoided. I’m sure I didn’t just imagine the very clear timetable for ‘implementation’ from August 2010, which caused no little consternation in local authorities and with the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, but which is no longer to be found (at least by me) on the Education Scotland website. As a mission statement, CfE is a highly commendable piece of work, but as the commentary acknowledges, it is not a ‘national curriculum’ in the traditional sense. The principle is established that it is not the role of governments to determine the detail of curriculum content, but rather to provide broad general purposes and themes within which the outcomes of the curriculum can be met. I happen to believe that this is right and proper, but it does have some serious implications.

Key Question. Who does have responsibility for determining the content of curriculum areas, and what criteria should they use in doing so?

“In the modern world, knowledge remains vital, but it is not enough. Success depends on deep understanding, and on having the skills to turn knowledge to useful effect.”

It is difficult to disagree with this contention, but the reality is that the secondary school curriculum is currently built around subjects and subject knowledge, the primary purpose of which is to prepare students for  National Qualifications at age 17, most of which are awarded on the basis of written examinations. Little evidence is required that this subject knowledge is ‘turned to useful effect’, only that it can be explained in theory. I wonder how different it could be if the curriculum was instead organised around the development of the key cognitive skills identified in the film – particularly problem-solving and critical thinking skills – rather than the traditional curriculum areas which have hardly changed in the past 50 years, and which were not, bizarrely, subject to review during the National Debate. I frequently meet and talk to teachers who are creative, and want to be more creative (that’s why they became teachers) but they are ground down by a regime of constant testing and target-setting by their ‘managers’.

Key Question. Is it possible to have a problem-solving or project-based curriculum while at the same time providing students with a core subject knowledge?

“Subjects are still important. Indeed, the structure of knowledge is perhaps more important than ever, but at the same time we have to remember that knowledge is joined up. The problems of life are seldom solved by using expertise from a single subject area alone. Being able to draw on different areas of learning and apply them together in the real world contexts is a vital skill.”

I have to confess that I have no idea what ‘the structure of knowledge’ means, but this point more or less acknowledges that real learning does not take place in subject compartments. It also seems to  imply that the the connection of the disparate parts of this complex jigsaw will somehow be put together by the learner at some point in the process, without the need for structural change. All the previous evidence from school inspections suggest that this does not happen, and that in fact young people find it extremely difficult to make connections in learning across curriculum areas.

Key Question. Is it possible to make radical changes to an education system while operating within the same subject structures which have changed little in the past 50 years?

“A surprise benefit of CfE development has been a new emphasis on learner engagement, the idea that the learner has to take responsibility for his or her own progress, and needs to be involved in all of the key decisions. This kind of active involvement in the learning process wasn’t a significant part of the original plan, but it has been enthusiastically taken on board by schools.”

I’m not quite sure why this should come as such a surprise, or in what way it wasn’t ‘part of the original plan’. The curriculum is described in terms of ‘I can….’ and ‘I have……’ statements, or to put that another way, in outcomes and experiences written from the point of view of the learner. If that doesn’t imply that the learner has primary responsibility for his or her learning then I have seriously misunderstood it. In fact, it was in this respect that I though the curriculum review was innovative and radical. In reality however, ten years later many young people are still unaware of what these outcomes are, despite the fact that they are freely available online. It may have been enthusiastically taken on board by some schools, but many others need significant support in making that transition.

Key Question. Is it possible to transfer the responsibility for learning to the learner (where it rightly belongs) while holding teachers to account for their students’ examination results?

“Nobody has yet made the breakthrough to genuine 21st Century practice. That is the task that faces us.”

Indeed. Is that because there are barriers to progress which only those in positions of authority can remove, or is it because, as a profession and as a nation, we are instinctively conservative?

Related: For an excellent analysis of the review of the curriculum in England see Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?


12 thoughts on “Stands Scotland Where It Did? (Macbeth Act IV Sc 3)

  1. ‘ Is it possible to make radical changes to an education system while operating within the same subject structures which have changed little in the past 50 years?’

    Very thought-provoking article and I particularly liked this part as it is a question I often ask myself. I worry the structures are too rigid to enable the full potential of education. I also think many of the ideas about this potential are fixed within the system.

    • Thanks Fiona. The voiceover describes the importance of ‘interdisciplinary’ studies and projects, and I know there are many excellent examples of these on the Education Scotland website and elsewhere. The question really is whether these projects are significan enough to bring about the changes which are necessary to develop young people as independent and lifelong learners.

  2. Hi Bill, very interesting article. Though I don’t live in Scotland, I believe all parents are concerned about, how well our education system prepares our children. But what concerns me as well is that constant reform makes it very difficult to bring all the puzzles together over the course of the years. I have heard from friends in Germany that every 2 -3 years teaching systems are changed. It makes it difficult for pupils as well as teachers. I think we need a balance between modernisation and continuity. Peggy

    • Hi Peggy,
      Thanks for the comments. I know what you mean about the frustrations of constant reform, which can be disheartening for everyone concerned. However, in the case of the Scottish reforms, it could be argued that actually very little has changed in the ten years since the review, despite almost universal agreement that these changes were necessary, if not vital, for our system to prepare young people for the realities of the modern world.

  3. Bill this is an excellent article. Yes indeed barriers are high and thick in the daily grind of teaching. I agree it is time to ditch the excellence part of the title. When I worked at LTS in the early days on the science E&Os I was full of excitement at the prospects of this new vision of learning and teaching. Now I am depressed at how this vision has been hijacked by schools with the tick the box mentality and coupled with the lack of time during the day to prepare hinders the delivery of quality. There are too many issues pressing on teachers at the moment for successful implementation of this visionary curriculum. Your article deserves to be discussed at future inset days.

    • Hi Danny,
      Thanks again for your generous intro. One of the interesting questions for me – and one we always find difficult to discuss – is who is responsible for ‘hijacking the vision’ as you put it. It may be unfair to lay the blame with schools. I am frequently puzzled by the local authority role in the implementation of the curriculum eg to what extent they should prescribe what is taught in their schools, if any? What about the role of inspectors – are they a help or a hindrance?
      Who exactly is responsible for driving the ‘performance agenda’? I think these issues need to be addressed before we can make progress. I would be delighted of course if the blogpost was discussed at future inset days, as you suggest, and I would be more than happy to facilitate the discussion, if invited!

  4. Great stuff, as ever Bill. I think we have to make a paradigm shift to a more heutagogical approach. Real meaningful learning will only take place when the learners are interested and engaged. As to holding teachers accountable, it’s probably next to impossible. While we still stick rigidly to an exam system predominantly based on memory rather than ability and skills acquisition we just promulgate the problem. We should ask nothing in an exam that could be found out on Google…
    Now there’s a challenge!

    • Many thanks Jaye. I suspect that learners still have very little say in determining the content and context of lessons, generally speaking, though I’m sure there are a few honourable exceptions to that as well. As far as teacher accountability is concerned no one, including teachers would argue that they shouldn’t be accountable. However, in my view they should be accountable first and foremost to the young people, parents and communities they serve, not through an inspection system which uses a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template, and which still puts a disproportionate emphasis on exam results.

  5. Hi Bill, great post. Questions that need to be asked, questions I’ve asked myself and been asked. I’ve got three comments all to do with Key Question 1.

    “Who does have responsibility for determining the content of curriculum areas….”

    This is thought provoking, it can be phrased to make a worrying point of uncertainty, and to be honest that’s how I felt for a moment when I first read it. If nobody has responsibility then we’re in serious trouble! If the question even needs to be asked, it implies the same. I’m quite surprised to see that it’s 10 years since we collectivity started talking about all of this and, if ten years later it’s still a topic for debate everyone should be worried. However, I remember at the start of CfE the concept that this whole question would be the responsibility of everyone involved in educating the children in Scotland. At the time, it was one of many ideas that caused confusion and uncertainty. The concept behind it was that an education system where responsibility was imposed upon teachers (and thus pupils) from a government structure was detrimental to learning: teaching towards the test because of a specified curriculum was something that we all wanted to move away from . I would argue that if it’s ten years on and kids are still getting educated, schools are working in general, then the answer to the question is… it’s the responsibility of everyone and that is on the way to being achieved! The inability to pinpoint a final person or organisation with this responsibility is the very evidence of success.

    I agree with you that, “the reality is that the secondary school curriculum is currently built around subjects and subject knowledge” and I agree that perhaps the advances in getting students to make connections across the curriculum has not been realised in quite the way it was envisioned that it could be. Again, at the start of the process was the idea that, there was Science in Geography, why shouldn’t those connections be explicit? Students who could write conclusions to English essays couldn’t transfer these skills to their work in History. If only we could break these barriers down, if only pupils didn’t switch to a different mindset when the bell rang and could continue their learning as the organic whole learning experience it should be. So why didn’t this happen? Well, among many factors was the fact that, as you have said, the adoption of cross-curricular project style working didn’t quite work out as well as imagined. There was a LOT of it, we all know that, but it became a thing to tick a box. Why? Because of uncertainty, because of the need to be seen doing something of that sort.

    “CfE can all be delivered through project work, it’ll be great.” was an idea that some people clung to like a drunk man to a lamppost: more for support than illumination. In general the kids loved it, and there’s no doubt that it increased engagement and encouraged innovation in teaching. However, we (collectivity) never found a way to prove it worked educationally, these activities became pleasant “low risk” diversions for pupils and for some staff inconvenient diversions that were hard to justify when subjects lead to exams and exams lead to qualifications.

    What seems to have happened is that the approach of non-standard assessment has been embedded lower down the educational system but we still have formal exams at 17. Why? Because “people”, employers, universities, both value and, at the end of the day, really need these things. Put yourself in the mind of the employer: if you have 400 applicants, what are you going to sift by first?

    I am neither pro nor anti exams. I was enthused by CfE by the promise of a broad range of assessment methodologies, including exams, which would be all round fairer to the individual student. I worry that kids will never sit an exam upon which “real life” depends until they are 17. I worry for the kids who are competent but do not perform well in exams. I worry that by setting the exam experience so late we are making a new 11 plus. In real terms, a one off shot upon which everything else depends. Failure equals dreams shattered and success becomes a vague yardstick by which to measure ability. That’s certainly not a fair thing where it’s one event that determines the rest of a person’s life. I had hoped we’d get away from that.

    My third point is related and follows on from, “I wonder how different it could be if the curriculum was instead organised around the development of the key cognitive skills identified in the film – particularly problem-solving and critical thinking skills” The part of me that is a teacher really cares about this. I was working on just that when working on Rich Tasks, developing the Queensland model and adapting it for CfE. It worked, pupils made great strides and DID make connections across areas of learning and it DID work as a method of assessment. It was as robust as something like assessing talk and it would have developed/challenged the problem solving skills and critical thinking skills we aim to instil without the horrible (personal opinion) formal teaching of such things as critical thinking. Teaching of critical thinking is just box checking, critical thinking is not a panacea. Not at all.

    If project based tasks were more “high value” in general (i.e. it was like a Standard Grade English talk grade, which counted for less than a third of the grade but could swing/ compensate for poor exam performance due to the maths of the folio of 5 pieces plus the two exams) then perhaps we would not be worrying about a final exam point at 17 quite so much. At the end of the day you need some kind of assessment with some kind of value to develop and foster the view that learning is valuable for the learner.

    Phew, sorry that was so long, but I wanted to say it fully. To conclude, let’s be realistic, yes it took ten years to get here, and IMHO it will take another 5-7 years (2-3 digests/ cohorts of pupils going thorough the new system) before we arrive at stability and can fully assess the advances we have made. Then there will, and should, be further adjustments to be made, further things to focus on. Nothing is ever perfect in education. It was always going to be that way, given the radical change that needed to be made to move away from the SUBJET=EXAM=QUALIFACTION formula.

    We’ve done something right with CfE (call it whatever you like). The gap between girls and boys when measured nationally and internationally is better than average. I could on at length about this. It might not seem like much, but it’s one of the harder statistics to improve on and I think it’s one of the ones that matters. Achieving a curriculum that is relevant is always going to be a process that is constantly changing.

    • Hey Paul,
      Good to hear from you, and thanks for the lengthy response! Just proves the point that you should probably be writing your own blog. You make many interesting points, and I don’t intend to respond to all of them, but let me take your first point, ‘the inability to pinpoint a final person or organisation with this responsibility is the very evidence of success.’ I disagree. I think it is the very evidence of confusion. I wholeheartedly agree, as I said in the original post, that it is not the role of governments to determine curriculum content, but neither do I believe that it can simply be left to chance. There is no doubt in my mind that local authorities need to back off from the ‘target-setting’ and so-called ‘quality assurance’ agendas which have ballooned over the past couple of decades, and be more involved in setting a broad curriculum framework within which their schools operate. This is the missing link at the moment and it is vital if young people are to show progression in their learning rather than simply moving from one fairly random set of experiences to another. In a very broad sense, learning is of course ‘the responsibility of all’ but within that key figures, and dare I say it especially well-paid ones, should have specific responsibilities to provide guidance and support to teachers and schools.

  6. Bill
    Agree wholely that we need wider consultation on what we learn and also to cut down on change for changes sake. How many reports and projects are moved on from without full and complete implementation then evaluation.

    Would be keen to hear your views on my report into history education which draws on both the above themes- consulted curriculum planning and completing old recommendations (eg excellence group reports)

    • Thanks for the contribution Neil. Have watched with interest the debate on history teaching in England but was unaware of your report on the Scottish situation so I will definitely read it.


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