Creating A Level Playing Field

level-playing-field

“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).

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The Connected Educator

One of the basic principles of the Scottish curriculum is the concept of the ‘learner’ at the centre’ or the learner as responsible citizen, reflected in the curriculum outcomes which consist of a series of statements beginning, ‘I can……’  The attraction of this format is that it shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning, and places the responsibility for learning exactly where it should be – with the learner. Supporters of the new curriculum, and I am one, have argued that its values, principles and purposes could apply equally well to teachers as to students, which is one of the central themes of a new book from American educators Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall.

I wonder how much longer it will be necessary to preface any educational discourse with a statement about how dramatically the world has changed since the turn of the century, but in case there is still any doubt, the authors of The Connected Educator – Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, reflecting the words and thoughts of  Sir Ken Robinson, lay it clearly and eloquently on the line:

“Producing a skilled workforce in the past required standardization that was easily replicable across classrooms – a need for predictable curriculum and methods. Drill and practice may have prepared a generation of factory workers, but it will not educate learners for tomorrow’s world of work. Schools have habitually prepared students for life by making them dependent on others to teach them, rather than placing power over learning into the learner’s hands. Classrooms that operate like connected learning communities- where students do meaningful work related to service learning and social justice – prepare students for their futures, not ours.”

At the heart of The Connected Educator is an irresistible argument for a new model of professional development to fit the modern-day classroom, one where educators are learners first and teachers second. Connected learners take responsibility for their own professional development. They figure out what they need to learn and then collaborate with others to construct the knowledge they need. Instead of waiting for professional learning to be organized and delivered to them, connected learners contribute, interact, share ideas, and reflect. The ‘connected learning community’ model advances a three-pronged approach to professional development:

Local community: Purposeful, face-to-face connections among members of a committed group – a professional learning community (PLC).

Global network: Individually chosen, online connections with a diverse collection of people and resources from around the world – a personal learning network (PLN).

Bounded community: A committed, collective, and often global group of individuals who have overlapping interests and recognise a need for connections that go deeper than the professional learning community or the personal learning network can provide – a community of practice or inquiry (CoP).

*The main difference between personal learning networks and personal learning communities is that the work of professional learning communities is designed around the specific, identified needs of the school and its students while personal learning networks are something that educators design for themselves to further their short-term and long-term goals for professional growth and personal learning. While each can benefit from the other, they are distinctly different. Communities of practice, on the other hand, are made up of people with a common interest, who collaborate to learn to do it better. By way of illustration, the authors offer the examples of a group of diet enthusiasts experimenting with eliminating grains from recipes without reducing taste, programmers working on an open-source computer application, nurses seeking to reduce errors in hospitals, or educators working to promote writing across the curriculum.

This book will challenge many of your assumptions about learning and about classroom practice. It will make many teachers, young and old, feel uncomfortable for a while as they are asked to ‘unlearn’ much of what would have been taken for granted in the pre-internet era. To take just one example, the  following extracts from the text would make an ideal starter for a lively discussion at any staff gathering. Consider especially, each of the statements listed in the second paragraph:

“Connected learning is a process of learning, unlearning, and then relearning as we participate in networks and communities. A fast-changing world creates a need to unlearn tacit knowledge (Brown, 2001). Unlearning is necessary, although it is often difficult and painful because it involves grieving for what we leave behind………….

Yet in most schools, still, the assumptions are that learning is an individual process, that learning has a beginning and an end, that learning happens in schools separately from the rest of life’s activities, and that learning is the result of teaching. Technology is beginning to shift those assumptions and change the way, we, as educators, learn.”

Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall draw on their own extensive experience to provide solid practical advice on how to go about creating that all-important connected learning community. A whole chapter devoted to finding and using the best online tools for the job, invaluable especially for digital ‘newbies’, comes with the caution that what matters above all else is the building of personal relationships, and leads to my favourite line from the book:

“Contrary to what many techno-enthusiasts believe, he who has the most tools does not win.”

Having challenged us to examine our current practice, a key message of The Connected Educator is that educators (the term ‘teacher’ is avoided, something which will challenge many in itself), as well as taking responsibility for their own learning, ought to think of themselves more often and take the time to build their own networks, a task which the authors admit takes ‘time, effort, and perseverance’. Ultimately though, the tone of the book  is overwhelmingly optimistic and, far from being a threat to teachers or another dull ‘handbook’, it is an encyclopedia of useful information, inspirational in its themes, and infinite in its reach:

“As you start to think about change in technology and education, do not change anything about how you teach or lead. Instead, change everything about how you learn. Be selfish for a time, and make everything about you and your learning. By becoming a learner first and educator second, you are serving your students and will be in a better position to model lifelong adaptive learning strategies for your students. You can’t give what you do not own.”

Amble GPX: Project-Based Learning

Last-minute team briefing

This week I dropped in on the Amble GPX Project in Northumberland to see how they were progressing ahead of the official launch in July. When I arrived they were busy preparing to take their place the following day at the Alnwick Tourism Fair, a perfect opportunity to market their product and explain to the wider community exactly what a ‘geolocation treasure hunt’ is. Great progress had been made since my last visit in August 2010, and despite a number of frustrations with the software, the website has been

Some of the team prepare to meet the public at the Alnwick Tourism Fair

well and truly established. Next week a number of trails are being piloted, with invited guests of all ages being used as guinea pigs over the routes. Their feedback will be invaluable as the final routes and clues are put in place over the coming months. As the official ‘literacy adviser’ to the project, what struck me was how much the young people have matured since my first visit way back in December 2009. As Anna, the project leader, described it so aptly, they have now taken control of the project and are demonstrating leadership skills. Where, in the beginning, people would wait to be told what to do, they are now taking the initiative and doing it their way, because they know how they want it to turn out and they all have a vested interest in its success. There is no better argument than that for project-based learning!

Amble GPX

A mean-looking Amble GPX Project Team

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of returning to the beautiful Northumberland coast to check up on the progress of the young people of Amble and their highly ambitious GPX project.The aim of the project is to create an online community-based game, using GPS technology and geocaching techniques: a very sophisticated treasure-hunt to you and me! The game will be designed to encourage local people and visitors to discover a bit more about the history of this area of outstanding natural beauty. Although played via the web, players will actually follow a trail through Amble and the surrounding countryside as well as exploring the vibrant coastline, finding answers to the clues they are given through cryptic photos, video clips and puzzles accessed from their computer. Answers are then typed in or photo-evidence uploaded via computer or mobile phone, making the game not only active but highly interactive as well.

Facing a barrage of questions from The Literacy Adviser

For the past twelve months the young people have been expanding their own knowledge of the local area, while at the same time developing their interviewing techniques and coming to grips with new technologies such as digital photography, video editing and sound recording: A number of experts, both amateur and professional, have been enlisted to guide and advise the group.  The project has reached an exciting stage, with plans in place to release a pilot version very soon, and discussions are already taking place about future mini-games and mobile apps. The official launch of the full version is scheduled for July 2011.

A flyer designed to promote Amble GPX

Just under a year ago I was contacted by the project’s manager Anna Williams, and asked if I would interview the youngsters and monitor the effect of the project on their literacy skills, a requirement of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation who are funding the project. At that point I spoke to them about what they hoped to gain from their involvement in the project and some of them were less certain than others. Watching them make a group presentation on the project this week, and listening to the way in which they handled a barrage of questions, it was clear that any of the earlier doubts or uncertainties had all but vanished. I’m looking forward to my next visit already!

If you would like more information about the Amble GPX project please contact Anna Williams at the Amble Development Trust (editor@theambler.co.uk)