You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

tennant

David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

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Yet Another Watershed Moment

This blogpost has also been published on Bella Caledonia, the pro-independence alternative media site. Please visit, subscribe and contribute if you can.

Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.watershed

Scottish mountain-bike daredevil Danny MacAskill in the making of ‘The Ridge’

Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.

We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.

The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.

The Literacy Adviser: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)

BM: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.

TLA: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.

BM: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.

TLA: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.

BM: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.

TLA: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.

BM: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.

TLA: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!

BM: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.

The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.

TLA: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system. 

There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.

 

 

Still Raising the Scores, Still Ruining the Schools

‘Standardised testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it threatens to swallow our schools whole.’

Alfie Kohn, 2000

This was the dramatic – some might argue hyperbolic – opening to American academic Alfie Kohn’s ‘The Case Against Standardised Testing‘ (sub-title ‘Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools’), published in the USA as long ago as the year 2000, but for those who accused him of scaremongering, and for the Scottish Government, which recently pledged to re-introduce standardised testing at regular intervals in the school-life of every young person growing up in Scotland, it is worth considering 15 years down the line whether Kohn’s fears have been vindicated, or whether the focus on tests really has improved the school experience, and performance, of young Americans.

standardized-test-cartoon-pictureFirst of all, let me summarise what I believe to be the main reasons for Kohn’s opposition to standardised tests, although I should point out that while he believes standardised testing to be a thoroughly bad idea, some forms of standardised testing are regarded as slightly less bad than others. I would also acknowledge that in summarising his position, one runs the risk of over-simplifying the case. As always, there is no substitute for buying the book and reading it in full, including the list of references and the research behind his conclusions.

  1. Standardised tests create the ‘illusion’ of objectivity. The results of the tests may sound scientific, since they are assigned a numerical score, but the reality is that they are set by adults who have an assumed ‘correct answer’ in mind, and taken by children with hugely differing experiences and attitudes, even on test day. It is not possible to remove subjectivity from the process.
  2. Standardised tests are no indicator of ability. If the justification for standardised tests is that we need to know what someone is capable of doing, there are very few less reliable ways of measuring that than a paper-and-pencil test, where the tasks are kept secret until the last minute. It is difficult to find examples of this kind of test being replicated in real life situations.
  3. Standardised tests tell us what we already know. The main thing standardised test scores tell us is how big students’ houses are. Research tells us that socio-economic factors (the amount of poverty in communities where schools are located) is the biggest factor in the variation of test scores from one area to another. To suggest therefore that standardised test scores are going to close an ‘attainment gap’ is demonstrably false.
  4. Standardised tests are mainly a test of memory. In the worst kind of standardised tests – those where children are asked to choose the right answer from a selection of possible answers – choosing the right answer gives no indication of understanding. Most standardised tests take no account of how an answer was arrived at, and bear no resemblance to problems faced in the real world.
  5. Standardised tests are designed to separate children into categories. The ultimate goal of standardised tests is not to evaluate how children have been taught, or how well they have learned. If a certain question is included in a trial paper and almost everyone gets it right – or if almost everyone gets it wrong – it will almost certainly be chucked out. Remember, the goal is not to test what has been learned, but to separate and categorise.
  6. Standardised tests teach kids (and teachers) the wrong lessons. When tests are given a status above all else in the education system, they contribute to the ‘already pathological competitiveness’ of the culture. The process of schooling becomes more about winning than learning, and we see others as barriers to our own success. In addition, an emphasis on remembering facts encourages a ‘pub quiz’ view of intelligence that confuses being smart with knowing loads of stuff.
  7. Standardised tests encourage the view that learning is something you do on your own. Tests are given to individuals, and supporting each other is known as ‘cheating’. In real life, learning is something we do with (and for) each other. Standardised tests don’t measure co-operation, collaboration, effort, empathy……..
  8. Standardised tests have inaccuracies built into them. Even when they are scored correctly, and meet the required standards for reliability, many children end up being ‘misclassified’ because of the limits of test accuracy.
  9. Standardised tests do not lead to greater accountability. A common justification for using standardised tests is that there are poor teachers out there and we need to find out who they are. This is based on a flawed logic. First of all, even if you believe that teachers are responsible for their students’ results, it would be irrational to hold a teacher responsible for the results of children who have recently arrived in his or her class. Secondly, and paradoxically, the test-driven teaching which results from the introduction of standardised tests actually reinforces what the worst teachers have been doing all along.
  10. Standardised tests stifle creativity. In an environment where high-stakes testing prevails, teachers become defensive and competitive, making sure everyone knows that low test scores were not their fault. Teaching to the test becomes the norm, and activities which don’t appear to contribute to test preparation are curtailed.
  11. Standardised tests narrow the conversation about education. The more that scores are emphasised, the less discussion there is about the goals of education. The content and the pedagogy of the school are adversely affected; the tests effectively become the curriculum. Spontaneity is discouraged, interesting pathways ignored. Children’s social, moral and intellectual development is put on hold.
  12. Standardised tests are educationally damaging. As teachers are encouraged not only to spoon-feed students the facts they will need to pass the tests, but to provide them with ‘test-taking’ skills, such as skimming a text rather than reading it deeply and reflectively, they spend less time helping them to become ‘critical, creative, curious thinkers’.
  13. Standardised tests don’t ‘raise standards‘. When teachers and students are forced to focus on only those things which can be reduced to numbers, such as how many grammatical errors are present in a piece of writing, the  process of thinking has been effectively relegated to a lesser importance. As the saying goes, we are then valuing what we can measure, rather than measuring what we value.
  14. Standardised tests discriminate against poorer children and parents. When the stakes are high, parents and schools use whatever means they can to achieve better results, which usually means buying more and better test preparation materials, or access to tutors and extra tuition. When schools decide to buy ‘reading schemes’ for example, as a quick fix, it is often at the expense of more exciting and interesting books and materials. The result is a narrowing of the learning experience generally for children in deprived areas.

kohn‘Testing allows politicians to show they’re concerned about school achievement and serious about getting tough with students and teachers. Test scores offer a quick-and-easy – although, as we’ll see, by no means accurate – way to chart progress. Demanding high scores fits nicely with the use of political slogans like ‘tougher standards’ or ‘accountability’ or ‘raising the bar’.

Alfie Kohn, 2000

Conventional wisdom used to have it that top U.S. students did well compared to their peers across the globe, when adjustments were made for higher poverty levels and racial diversity, but even allowing for these factors the latest available PISA test results, released in December 2013, showed that the best-performing U.S. students were falling behind even average students in Asian countries (or sub entities), which now dominate the top 10 in maths, reading and science. (source). In other words, even in the ‘pro-testers’ world’ and using the success criteria preferred by the pro-testing lobby, the relentless focus on testing does not appear to help kids perform better in standardised tests! It is of little surprise therefore that many leading academics are now questioning the validity of The PISA tests themselves, and the propensity for governments around the world to use them in determining educational policy (source). The key findings of that 2013 report demonstrate that not only were the serially-tested American youngsters failing to make any headway in global comparisons, but that the testing regime was having a damaging effect on their ability to think for themselves and apply their learning in real-life situations.

PISA 2012 Key Findings USA

  • Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th (this is the best estimate, although the rank could be between 23 and 29 due to sampling and measurement error). Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading, (range of ranks: 14 to 20) and 20 in science (range of ranks: 17 to 25). There has been no significant change in these performances over time.
  • Mathematics scores for the top-performer, Shanghai-China, indicate a performance that is the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.
  • While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53 000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115 000 per student.
  • Just over one in four U.S. students do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of mathematics student proficiency – a higher-than-OECD average proportion and one that hasn’t changed since 2003. At the opposite end of the proficiency scale, the U.S. has a below-average share of top performers.
  • Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.
  • Socio-economic impact has a significant on student performance in the United states, with some 15% of the variation in student performance explained by this, similar to the OECD average. Although this impact has weakened over time, disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-belief.
  • Students in the U.S. are largely satisfied with their school and view teacher-student relations positively. But they do not report strong motivation towards learning mathematics: only 50% of students agreed that they are interested in learning mathematics, slightly below the OECD average of 53%.

This week, the first signs appeared that America is about to admit that it got it wrong with George Bush’s inappropriately named ‘No Child Left Behind‘ reforms, when President Obama called for a reduction in testing in American schools (New York Times story), and a warning is issued today to the Scottish Government in the form of a report for the newly-formed left-wing political alliance, RISE. ‘Placing Our Trust in the Teaching Profession: The Case Against National Standardised Testing‘ uses several international studies to show that, far from reducing the attainment gap in education, the introduction of high-stakes national tests may well have the exact opposite effect.

Similarly, in its ‘Book of Ideas‘, the Scottish independent ‘think and do tank’ Common Weal had this to say to politicians seeking election to Holyrood next May:

‘But education should, at heart, be about improving our quality of life. This can mean many things. It can mean exposingideas ourselves to ideas and thoughts which expand how we see ourselves and our lives. It can mean learning coping skills to help us respond positively to the things that happen to us throughout our lives. It can mean giving us the skills to do the things we enjoy. It certainly means making us feel good about ourselves as valuable members of society. It certainly shouldn’t mean creating a system driven by the need to pass exams as a means of avoiding a bad life. The cycle of pressure and anxiety that an educational regime driven by testing exerts has been shown to change the brain chemistry of children and can affect them throughout their lives. You cannot test a child into being a happy, constructive and productive citizen.’

We have a government in Scotland which is enjoying unprecedented popularity, and which has worn its ‘progressive’ label as a badge of honour when others have sought to use it as a term of abuse. As far as the education system is concerned, the next few months will certainly put that commitment to progress to the test.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Obama Calls For Cuts to Schools’ Standardized Testing Regimens

Diane Ravitch: The Badass Teachers Association Respond To Testing Announcement

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley: The Coming Age of Post-Standardization

Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?

Another Finnish Lesson

books

This post is appearing simultaneously on Common Space. Common Space is part of the Common Weal, an exciting component of the developing, democratic new media in Scotland.

Recently I wrote a comment piece for Common Space in which I suggested that, while the Scottish Government was right to try to address the issue of the ‘attainment gap’ in our schools, it was going about it in the wrong way, and that in Curriculum for Excellence we already had a blueprint for change, if only we had the courage to pursue it in reality.

The ‘new’ Scottish curriculum – which was written over a decade ago – is based on a number of key aims, set out in the report of the Review Group, including ‘for the first time ever, a single curriculum from 3-18’ and ‘young people achieving the broad outcomes that we look for from school education, both through subject teaching and more cross-subject activity’.

In reality, this ‘cross-subject activity’ is what always happened in primary schools, where one teacher at each stage is responsible for delivering the whole curriculum and where CfE, unsurprisingly,  appears to have had most impact. In the secondary sector however, the fragmented nature of the timetable has remained largely unchanged, making the goal of a single curriculum 3-18 seem as far away as ever.

Compare our approach to that of Finland, one of the more progressive and successful education systems in the world today. Not content with bucking the global trend towards exam-based, target-driven success criteria, the introduction of their National Curriculum Framework in 2016 will require all basic schools for 7-16 year-olds to have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, ‘phenomenon’ or topic-based teaching in their curriculum, the length of this period to be determined by the schools themselves (education in Finland is already far more decentralised than it is in Scotland).

Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest local school system has decided to require two such yearly periods that must include all subjects and all students in every school town. This doesn’t signal an end to specialist subject teaching, but a move towards what you might call ‘big picture’ understanding, with topics including ‘The European Union’, ‘Community and Climate Change’ and ‘100 Years of Finland’s Independence’.

A holistic approach, involving the integration of knowledge and skills, is not new in Finland, but for the first time it will be a requirement of all school providers up to at least the age of 16. This will be a challenge to those middle-school teachers who have traditionally focused more on their own subject teaching and less on collaboration with their colleagues.

Pasi Sahlberg, leading Finnish educator and Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, thinks the rest of the world may look at the proposals and wonder why Finland is pursuing these aims, at a time when the country is slipping slightly in the international league tables, and the answer is as bold as it is revealing;-

“The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were. What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.” (full article)

By describing the curriculum in terms of broad outcomes and experiences, Scotland is already thinking more progressively than other countries with long-established traditions of decent public schooling. The challenge now is whether, like the Finns, we will have the courage of our convictions in pursuing that more integrated curriculum, or whether we will continue to talk a good game while just coming up short when we actually take to the pitch.

Still Searching for Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

In this year of the referendum on Scottish Independence (September 18th) it was appropriate that my ruminations on the future of education, and specifically the ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ as it has been labelled, should find me making greater acquaintance with one of the country’s most progressive educationalists of the 20th Century, R.F. MacKenzie, a figure whose name I had heard but about whom I knew very little. Appropriate in more ways than one, in that not only was Mackenzie regarded by many as ‘ahead of his time’, but he firmly believed that it was through the state education system that the British establishment maintained its position of power and privilege, and that only by breaking this mould would ordinary Scots be released from their educational and creative straitjacket.

“The doctrine of power depends on a belief that the majority need an intelligent  élite to guide them. The élite spread the axiom that the majority of earth-dwellers are unintelligent and, to justify the assertion, flood the educational system with incomprehensibility. The majority of children, obviously failing to comprehend, are adduced as proof of the majority’s limited intelligence. The lesson is ‘Leave it to the élite’.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie was born in 1910 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a country stationmaster, and spent much of his childhood travelling between the rich agricultural soil of his immediate environment and the rugged North Sea coastline, with its tales of fishing, survival and adventure. It was travelling further afield which was to enable him to look more forensically in later life at the country he loved dearly: as a young man he taught in Switzerland and Nazi Germany, served as aircrew in the Royal Air Force, travelled widely in Europe by bicycle and lived for a while among the Calvinist Boers in South Africa, before returning to Scotland and taking up a career in teaching. The insights he gained from these experiences, as well as the lessons learned from fellow-Scot and radical teacher A.S. Neill of Summerhill School fame, were to inform his career and his philosophy of education, which would generally  be described as liberal and progressive. Like Neill before him, MacKenzie believed that a person’s education should begin in his or her natural environment and stem from a natural desire to answer the great questions in life – Who am I? How did I come to be here (on the earth as well as in this particular place)? Why is this place the way it is? How can, and should, I shape it while I am here? – and that children needed stimulation, not discipline, in order to learn.

The Ideal Classroom?

The Ideal Classroom?

Learning outdoors is a key feature of the Mackenzie doctrine, having played such a part in his own early education. It is one which he was able to put into practice early in his teaching career, and in his first Headteacher post at Braehead Secondary School in Fife, a ‘Junior’ Secondary for pupils who failed what was then known as the ’11+’ or ”Qualifying’ examination at the end of their Primary schooling. It was with such pupils, whom he believed had been failed by the system, that MacKenzie had most success, often taking them, literally, back to nature in the form of walks and expeditions in the Scottish countryside. In A Search for Scotland, his last book, published two years after his death in 1987, he describes such an adventure:-

“On a June crossing of the high plateau of Scotland from Braemar to Rothiemurchus, from the Dee to the Spey, in which thirty teenagers took part, we discovered a little of the enquiry and discovery that appeals to them, the experience that gives them enjoyment. We left the Linn O’Dee at nine in the morning and stopped four miles later, near Derry Lodge, for breakfast. Some had sandwiches. One gourmet fried bacon and eggs; we thought he would go far. We followed the less-frequented track of the Lairig-an-Laoidh up the Derry Burn past ancient Caledonian pines, quiet, flat-topped like the mediaeval bonnets that Aberdeen professors wear for graduation ceremonies. The gouging out of two neighbouring corries has left between them the tight-rope of an arête but we had twenty miles of tough walking ahead of us and there wasn’t much time to look at it. A.S. Neill, kindest of critics, said that we were compulsive teachers, too keen to offload geology on our pupils. I imagine he was right because when we stopped for mid-morning break to eat a sandwich and gulp lemonade, the pupils were much keener on dropping rocks in the burn to throw up a cascade of water and soak their unsuspecting companions than on listening to a cascade of geological information…….

The compulsive educationalist tries to gather some crumbs of validation for his own over-serious classroom preoccupations. The sixteen-year-old, staggering in his self-imposed task of carrying a half-hundredweight boulder, legs apart, is learning about density, the feel of granite, the musculature of the human skeleton, the endlessly entertaining phenomena of this miracle substance, water. It comes back to the full meaning of the word ‘know’. What is ‘knowing’? We repacked our rucksacks after the midday siesta, laced up our boots and resumed our journey.”

It was a philosophy which was ultimately to lead to his downfall, dismissed from his post as Headteacher at the ill-fated Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in 1974. His own account of these events is recorded in The Unbowed Head, but according to Walter Humes of Stirling University it was a failure resulting less from deficiencies in the man or his philosophy than from a combination of external factors, including the inherently conservative nature of the Scottish educational establishment and the difficulties of scaling up an approach which had worked in a previous school with around fifty – albeit challenging – pupils.

Many would argue that there is an inherent contradiction in a man who is himself so well-read and able to quote extensively from the Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare, doggedly pursuing a child-centred, ‘discovery learning’ approach toSearch.jpg schooling.  Surely a proper education must be about the acquisition of knowledge? My guess is that Mackenzie himself would not have argued against the idea that knowledge was the key to learning, but would have had very sound views on what it is that stimulates the desire and motivation in individuals to acquire it. It could be said in fact that much of what MacKenzie was trying to do was to put into practice the principles of the current Curriculum for Excellence, and that the barriers which stood in his way then remain firmly in place now. Whatever your view, I challenge you to deny that the following extract, written 25 years ago, does not still have some resonance today.

 “The richest of the resources that Scotland is wasting is her young. We would be immeasurably richer for their cooperation, and their reintegration into the community. Many years of dealing with these edgy youngsters of industrial Scotland have convinced me of their intellectual ability and potential goodwill as well as their spiny independence. I suspect that our prolonged schooling of them is to hold them down, to protect us adults from their explosive initiatives. Keeping them into their late teens memorising swathes of barely comprehensible information takes the steam out of them. Maybe schools aren’t the best way of bringing up the young. All the politicians in the last election thought that excellence in education is better examination results.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)

See also rfmackenzie.info 

Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast

With thanks to my good friend on Twitter Robert Macmillan (@robfmac) for pointing me in the direction of A Search for Scotland. One day soon I hope to meet him in the real world.

‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts

A Common Weal Education

Commonweal.jpgFollowing hard on the heels of my previous post on the current state of play regarding the Scottish curriculum, last week saw the publication of a brand new report from the Jimmy Reid Foundation*, A Common Weal Education. Its findings and recommendations are potentially quite radical, but is there the collective will to carry them out?

The report’s author, Professor Brian Boyd, a member of the Curriculum for Excellence Review Group and a lifelong advocate of comprehensive education, argues that we have a clear choice in Scotland at the moment – to mimic those systems which are set on pursuing high-stakes, elitist models of education, based on selection, whose main or sole measure of success focuses on examination results (and yes, he does mention Michael Gove and England by name), or to look to the Nordic countries, where social conditions and aspirations are arguably closer to our own. The Finnish model provides the template for what is described as a ‘common weal model we can learn from’ (NB ‘common weal’ means ‘common wealth or public good’), and its main features are set out in the report:-

  • formal schooling begins at age seven; up until then, play is the core activity
  • all children attend comprehensive schools until age 16
  • there is no ‘internal selection’ (setting and streaming)
  • there are no private schools and fee-paying is banned
  • the curriculum is not prescriptive, offering professional autonomy within guidelines
  • formal exams do not take place until age 18
  • league tables do not exist
  • teachers take five-year degree courses covering theory and practice, and teach no more than four lessons daily
  • there is no schools inspectorate

Though brief (20 pages including reference section) the report makes a number of telling, and sometimes controversial, points.

On the importance of aims:-

“The Ministerial Review Group (2004) considered these aims (UNESCO’s ‘four pillars of lifelong learning’) and produced what it saw as an uplifting vision of the school curriculum, 3-18 – the first time the curriculum as a whole had been reviewed since the Advisory Council Report of 1947. Now, almost a decade since this publication, the question of aims appears to have been lost among the controversy over ‘age-and-stage’ targets, national assessments and subjects versus interdisciplinary study…Every school in Scotland has a published set of aims – yet few staff, parents or pupils would be able to say what they are…the time is right to re-evaluate what is important in our schools and to challenge the false dichotomies of academic/vocational, core/minority and classroom/practical as applied to subjects.”

On the ‘knowledge’ debate:-

“Finally, learning to know, in the digital age, may  now be the least important aspect of schooling. Knowing ‘stuff has a value (cf. the proliferation of general knowledge games shows on television) but it is no substitute for critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. Historically, the balance has been wrong; as one commentator put it: ‘It seems unlikely (in the digital age) that remembering large amounts of information and writing it down quickly’ (Burgess, 2013) is what employers value most.”

On inter-disciplinary learning:-

“At present, ‘subjects’ dominate the curriculum. They derive from attempts, over the centuries, to place order and rationality on the world…But what is largely missing is inter-disciplinary learning, focusing on the big issues affecting human beings and how they interact with one another and their environment. Primary schools have managed to hold on to the concept of inter-disciplinary learning , but secondaries, constrained by the exam system, have largely rejected the concept, or have made it the preserve of the ‘less able’ student…Exams, largely to serve the needs of universities – and possibly employers – are subject-focused and so the curriculum, particularly in the senior phase, has to follow suit.”

On formal qualifications:-

“We need to move to a system of ‘exit exam’ only in the last year of school which is designed to assess how well a pupil has learned and how well they are able to apply their learning in new and different contexts. These could be different exams for different purposes, taking into account the proposed destinations of the student.”

On Early Years Education:-

“Whatever the figures involved, there is consensus that early intervention is critical and there is growing evidence from nurseries in our most deprived areas that their input is making a difference to children’s life chances. However, challenges remain. There has been, in recent decades, a creeping ‘downward incrementalism’ in curricular terms, where ‘preparation for school’ has been a focus. In the UK, we begin formal education earlier than most of the rest of Europe, often distorting the work of the nurseries.”

On Primary Education:-

“Scottish primary schools are among the best in the world…They have had an all-graduate profession for decades and yet primary teachers, as generalists, are less highly regarded than the secondary school specialists…Nevertheless, the expectations placed on our primary teachers have continued to grow; they are expected to teach every subject in the curriculum, meet government-imposed targets for every child, meet the expectations of interest groups (from sport to music, from diet to vocational skills, from ‘the basics’ to creativity) and teach the same pupils all day every day.”

On Secondary Education:-

“Examinations dominate secondary schools. They influence the shape of the school day, they are the starting point of the timetable, they dominate the discourse around pupil choice and, most recently, they dictate how many subjects a pupil may study. They distort the curriculum, they narrow the focus of learning and, as the exam diet draws closer, understanding – deep learning – becomes a luxury. The goal is to get through the syllabus and second-guess what the examination paper will contain. ‘Prelims’ provide a dry run, timed-pieces are practised in class and pupils’ progress is meticulously tracked by teachers who care passionately about them and who go the extra mile to support, cajole and nurture them through the process. The stress is often palpable as the exams approach.”

On parental choice:-

“The situation was exacerbated in the UK when, in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher introduced ‘parental choice’, a measure designed to undermine the comprehensive school. If our goal is a fairer and more equitable society, parental choice should no longer be the guiding principle. I would argue that for most parents having a good school in their neighbourhood is more important than having the right to choose. Thus, just as with the right-to-buy scheme, also introduced by Mrs Thatcher on ideological grounds, the right to choose a school needs to go.”

On inclusion:-

“The drive towards inclusion is about equal value and recognition that difference is to be celebrated not feared. Put simply, if resources were adequate, if teachers and support staff were given access to the required CPD and if schools were measured on criteria which were much wider, more focused on added value and pupil progress, however small, inclusion would cease to be a major issue.”

Following the publication of A Common Weal Education, I went on the Inside Learning podcast to discuss its implications with regular presenter Steve Rodgers. You can listen to the episode here..

*The Jimmy Reid Foundation is named in honour of the globally-renowned Scottish trade union activist, orator, politician and journalist Jimmy Reid. Born in Govan, he rose to international prominence during the Upper Clyde reidShipbuilders’ work-in which took place in the early 1970s in response to Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath’s plans to close the Clyde yards, threatening 6,000 jobs. Reid, along with senior trade union colleagues, decided that, rather than strike, they would conduct a ‘work-in’, locking out management and proving that the workers could complete outstanding orders. Eventually the government was forced to back down and the yards received £100m in public support over the next three years.

Knowing that the eyes of the world were on them during the strike, Reid famously pronounced to fellow workers, “We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying (drinking), because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

Reid became rector of Glasgow University in 1971, largely on the back of his union activities, and his installation speech, which became known as ‘the rat-race speech’ was printed in full in the New York Times, the newspaper describing it as ‘the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address‘. A one-time member of the Communist Party, Reid eventually joined the Labour Party and stood, unsuccessfully, as a parliamentary candidate for Dundee East in 1979, earning him the unwanted title ‘best MP Scotland never had’. He continued to support Labour up until the 1997 General Election, but thereafter became disillusioned with the New Labour phenomenon, and subsequently urged people to support either the SNP or the Scottish Socialist Party(SSP) before joining the SNP himself in 2005. Reid retired to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and died on the 10th of August 2010.