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.

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Testing Times

the wireThere is an episode in the American hit TV series The Wire (Season 4) which will resonate not only with teacher-viewers in the USA but with many in the UK as well. Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski, a former officer in the Major Crimes Unit, has left the force after inadvertently killing a fellow officer in Series 3, and has re-trained to become a maths teacher in inner-city Baltimore. Initially, he struggles to come to grips with the job despite his best efforts, and the kids refuse to play ball no matter how many approaches he tries, including the introduction of card games into his lessons. The less than subtle message is that teaching is tough, no matter how ‘tough’ a guy (or gal) you think you are. Eventually however, Pryzbylewski’s hard work starts to pay off and most of the kids are beginning to recognise that – hey – he really is in this with them, when all his efforts are suddenly undermined. The district authorities have announced that their literacy scores are too low, and for the coming session the focus will be on raising attainment in literacy. For Prez and his colleagues, what this means is reading directly to a group of kids who are not listening, and administering tests which even he doesn’t understand. Not one person in the school, including the headteacher, believes in what they are doing, but the future of the school depends, literally, on their going along with it.

Watching this scenario play out, you find yourself laughing uneasily at the absurdity of the situation, while realising that perhaps that it isn’t so far from the truth – an education system where statistics and targets rule, and teachers are forced to abandon their better instincts and teach to the test.

lifeRoland Pryzbylewski’s plight came back to me this week as I finished reading  The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Professor Richard Pring, former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. A refreshing analysis of the state of education in the UK, with a particular focus on England and Wales, the purpose of the book is, in Professor Pring’s own words, ” to advocate a secondary education for all which embraces a wider vision of learning, a distinctive role for the teacher in providing the cultural basis for that vision, and a provision of opportunities through which all young people (however modest their circumstances) might have a sense of pride and fulfilment.” In Pring’s view, ‘education for all’ is still a viable goal, but only if we are prepared to address the fundamental question of its purpose, rather than simply accepting many of the assumptions of the past fifty years. The key question as far as he is concerned is, “What counts as education – or, more accurately, an educated person – in this day and age?” According to the author, those who doubt the viability of a genuine ‘education for all’, including the current Secretary of State Michael Gove, rarely address that question, preferring instead to examine how they might do the same things better:-

“However, ‘reform’, so-called, too often begins with qualifications, examinations, institutional provision, paths of progression. All those are very important, but their value lies in the support they give to learners and to their sense of fulfilment. We need to start with what it means to learn (practically, theoretically, morally). We need to question critically the value of that learning. We need also to respond to the many different needs of the learner and of a democratic society into which they are entering.”

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Death.. to anyone involved in secondary education, including, and perhaps especially,  Michael Gove. The key themes for me are these:-

  • There needs to be less top-down control from government and local authorities, not more; teachers and schools are reluctant to innovate for fear of failure
  • There needs to be greater opportunities for teachers to work together in planning the curriculum and their own professional development
  • There needs to be a redirection of resources to those most in need; the single most significant factor in the success or failure of an individual in the system is poverty
  • There needs to be less reliance on performance targets which lead to a ‘teaching-to-the-test mentality’
  • There needs to be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education which has personal development at its centre
  • There needs to be a more robust debate on what it means to be a ‘citizen’ and the concept of the pursuit of the common good
  • There needs to be a greater role for practical learning and knowledge for all – not to be confused with vocational skills or learning for so-called ‘non-academics’
  • Finally, while developing the individual is important, learning to live and work fruitfully in groups is essential to quality learning

“The curriculum, therefore, is not the means to a fixed outcome, but the engagement, assisted by the teacher, with a body of knowledge (theoretical and practical) through which learners come to understand and act intelligently within the physical, social and moral worlds they inhabit.”

In wishing you all the best for 2013, I leave you with a letter from this week’s Guardian, which sums up admirably much of what is currently wrong with secondary education in the UK, and which frustrates the lives of the many dedicated professionals working within it. May Professor Boyle’s wishes also come true.

Letter