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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Lighting a Spark for Reading

I was quite impressed with this advert for the Kindle Reader from Amazon when it appeared during prime-time TV on Saturday night. It features a number of children extolling the virtues of reading, and seems to send out a very positive message to other kids. Even this sceptical viewer was feeling quite uplifted, especially as it appeared during the commercial break in one of our most popular television talent shows, a spectacle which often reminds me of the classic Groucho Marx quote: “I find television very educating. Whenever somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

Predictably, it wasn’t long before the advert, rather than the show, was the subject of a conversation on Twitter, where one perceptive viewer/tweeter was quick to point out that it appeared to reinforce the commonly-held view that girls read and boys………well……..usually don’t. I must admit that I hadn’t noticed this on first viewing so I went back to check. What I discovered was that there are two versions of the advert, one for the UK and another for the US market, and while in the US version, there is more or less an equal number of boys and girls, in the UK version girls outnumber boys by approximately two to one. This in itself raises a number of interesting questions.

Are Amazon aware of differences in reading habits, or was the difference in the adverts purely accidental?

Is the perception (or indeed the reality) that girls read and boys don’t, only a British thing?

Are there real differences between reading habits in the USA and the UK?

Are the adverts themselves likely to reinforce  or challenge the stereotypes around reading?

Is reading on a mobile device more likely to appeal to boys rather than girls?

What are the likely long-term implications – for readers and teachers – of reading from screens instead of paper books?

I have also uploaded the US version of the advertisement here so that you can judge for yourself. If nothing else, I think showing both versions to your class would be a great starter for discussion, along with the questions I have raised. If you are really ‘up for it’, as they say on X-Factor, having your students make their own version – with Kindle readers or ‘real’ books, or indeed a variety of reading materials – has the potential to be a very worthwhile project. Just think of the creative buzz as they write their scripts (I love reading because……….), choose the best ‘actors’, pick their favourite books, seek out the best locations and bring the whole thing together. As an added bonus, there’s a real ‘job’ for everyone  in the class and a vested interest in making it work. Lights! Camera! Literacy in Action!

Further Reading: Learners as Producers blogpost by Steve Wheeler.

No Trivial Pursuit

triviumWhen Martin Robinson set off in mental pursuit of the kind of education he wanted for his young daughter, he was using a benchmark effective teachers should always have at the forefront of their thoughts – would this be what I would want for my own child? As a successful AHT and Advanced Skills Teacher in London, the former drama teacher’s own formal education had been an uneasy affair, leading to frustration and an early departure from a school system which could not always accommodate his naturally rebellious and challenging nature, an experience which would ultimately shape his own approach to teaching what he describes as ‘that most subversive of subjects’.

Given the subject-matter, Trivium 21C: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past could so easily have turned into a dry treatise on the history of education in the western world, but in fact it could hardly be further removed. Through a combination of wit, humour, diligence and erudition, Robinson travels back to the Greco-Roman concept of the ‘trivium’ – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – traces its history through the ages by way of the major philosophers, and examines in detail his own supposition that the same principles could apply equally well today, in the context of the technologically-enhanced classroom of the internet age. In order to do so, he reckons that he must first address the question, ‘What is the purpose of education?’ His answer is a complex one, reaching far beyond the accumulation of grades, paper qualifications and the currently popular utilitarian concept of readiness for work, yet he is able to summarise it in deceptively simple terms.

“For my daughter, independence – an ability to understand and find solutions – would seem to be a good thing, and I would like her to love learning for its own sake. We are lucky to live in a culture that recognises the rights of women to be educated as free citizens. I would like her to be educated to spend her time in worthwhile activities, including a pursuit of the pure forms of higher culture. However, I would also like her to have experience and skills in the so-called inferior arts, such as an engagement with a craft in which the authentic experience of doing is as important as thinking…….

The three ways of the trivium – knowing, questioning and communicating – had come together as the basis of a great education. This is what I want for my daughter. I want her to know about things and how to do things. I want her to be able to question, both to find out more and to realise that some things aren’t known, can’t be known, or aren’t fully understood. I want her to communicate about things she has discovered, surmised, or created in the way of an open hand to the world . Finally, I want all this to have a purpose, which can be summed up by the phrase ‘a good life’ (because I certainly don’t want her to have a bad one). When I look at the three arts of the trivium, I wonder why it was beyond the wit of my school to give me this grounding, and why it shouldn’t be the grounding for a great education now. Surely there is nothing that could stop the trivium from being the foundation of schooling for my daughter in the 21st century?”

More astute readers will have noticed that the three original elements of the trivium – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – have become ‘knowing’, ‘questioning’ and ‘communicating’ respectively, though the writer himself arrives at these modern definitions only after a thorough examination of each of the concepts. Adopting the modern-day trivium, he reasons, would enable us to put an end to the sterile ‘debate’ which has so-called traditionalists and progressives arguing over the ‘skills’ versus ‘knowledge’ curriculum, as if the two were mutually exclusive, and instead recognise that all three elements, including the much-neglected art of rhetoric, are of equal importance when providing an all-round education. As a teacher of drama, and a highly successful one at that, Robinson is deeply persuasive about the importance of rhetoric, which he variously describes as communicating, producing, sharing, expressing, arguing, teaching or performing. There can be no critical analysis without knowledge, while knowledge, understanding and creativity are of little value without the demonstration of it to others, an idea which chimes with Seth Godin‘s notion that what matters is the production of art (see previous post).

“The art of dialectic therefore covers a very wide range of important activities in teaching and learning. In the context of whatever they are studying, students are taught the specific grammar that gives them structure and knowledge. This is taught in a way that also opens up the possibility of criticism, which in turn opens up the possibility for dialectic. Therefore, students should become well versed in being able to analyse and challenge, whether it be through logic, scientific method, or debate and discussion. Controversies should be welcomed and addressed. In classrooms, we should see the skills of deduction, induction, abduction, analysis, criticism, debate, argument, challenge, and dialogue. Added to this is the opportunity offered through logos: students should have quality time to develop their own enthusiasms and whether, like Sherlock Holmes, they like to play the violin, or whatever they decide to pursue, ways need to be found to ensure activities like these are recognised as being more than mere hobbies at the fringes of the curriculum.”

I think Martin Robinson has produced a manifesto for education – or more precisely for schooling – which is of huge significance and well worthy of consideration, regardless of one’s own education, politics, class, culture or belief system calvinwhy(he himself is an atheist). At times he paints quite a gloomy picture of the way schools are in Britain at the moment – ‘The current education and assessment system does not like doubt; it has its targets and assessment objectives. Teachers teach children what to think, what to write, and how to write it down for endless tests, which are intended to prove that they know what to think. Doubt is treated as an imposter; despite the language of opening minds, many are in fact being closed down.’ – yet he is optimistic that things can be turned around without adopting a new paradigm – ‘We do not need a new model; our system already has the capability to improve our existing educational landscape. This is truly radical: it is from the root and also progressive.’

Mmmm. Despite the reminder that radical means ‘fundamental’ as well as ‘progressive’, I don’t know that I necessarily share his optimism, and I wonder whether the educational system we have is truly capable of producing young people (and I mean all of them, not just a few) who are truly independent thinkers, capable of joining up the often disparate experiences they encounter while following a secondary school timetable. If you have ever had the opportunity to shadow such a student over the course of a school day or a indeed a school week, where he or she will encounter anything up to fifteen discrete subjects, you will realise what a tall order that is. The ways in which a young person makes sense of his or her schooling, and the question of responsibility for ensuring a smooth and progressive journey, could be the subject of many more books and blogposts. Martin Robinson’s daughter is fortunate to have such a father, teacher and mentor  to call her own. Would that every child could say the same.

“Schools should ensure that opportunities to perform and communicate are at the heart of what they do. Performance means making theatre, speech making, poetry readings, dance, sports events, community spectacles, art, and so on. Some schools run their own theatres, concerts, radio and TV stations, film companies, multimedia platforms, publishing houses, school newspapers, web pages, Twitter communities, blogs, computer programmes, art galleries, and workshops, with the philosopher kids (the term Robinson has coined for young people in the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom) developing their communicative skills through performance. This should be about creating content, not capital. In order to do this, schools should use their partnerships with local communities, businesses and individuals, as well as their heritage, history and cultural institutions.”

This review has also been posted on the Amazon website.

Superpower: The Power of Speech

As I write this post, 16-year-olds and their teachers in Scottish secondary schools are, literally, wrapping up their Standard Grade English folios for the last time, as the qualification which was introduced to bring equality to the qualifications and certification system  is being replaced from next year by new National 4 and National 5 Certificates. Loved and despised in almost equal measure, Standard Grade and its attendant portfolio of writing, ushered in the era of ‘exams for all’, in the mistaken belief that treating everyone the same was the same as treating everyone equally. The subsequent ‘setting’ of classes and the self-fulfilling prophecy of identifying ‘Foundation kids’ from the start of the course soon put paid to that notion.

Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 6.05.23 PM

One of the rarely-mentioned consequences of the current change, it would appear, is that talking and listening will no longer be a formal, assessable element of the course, which will come as a relief to many teachers, for whom the administration of talk assessments was of nightmare proportions, and to many kids, for whom standing up and delivering a speech in front of their peers was an ordeal, to say the least. It was never meant to be done that way of course, but not for the first time, expediency and the assessment tail found itself wagging the curriculum dog. Nevertheless, one of the unintended outcomes, I fear, is that the development of the spoken word, so vital in a hyper-networked world, will yet again be relegated to the category of ‘desirable, but not essential’. Which is a real shame, considering that young Scots, with some notable exceptions, have not traditionally been renowned for their verbal dexterity, and considering  the emphasis put on orality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), especially in terms of valuing one’s own culture and identity. In its 2004 position paper, The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, the organisation for whom the meaningful acquisition and application of literacy lays the foundation for positive social transformation, justice, and personal and collective freedom, recognises the importance of spoken language in enabling individuals and groups to articulate their own ‘meanings, knowledge and identity’.

“In acknowledging the fact that literacy involves oral, written, visual and digital forms of expression and communication, literacy efforts conceived in terms of the plural notion of literacy intend to take account of the ways in which these different processes interrelate in a given social context. Because all such processes involve expressing and communicating cultural identity, the promotion of literacy must foster the capacity to express or communicate this identity in one’s own terms and especially language(s). In a multilingual society, the plural notion of literacy entails designing multi-lingual policies and programmes for both the mother tongue and other languages as well as recognising the complementary relationship between literacy and orality.”

The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO 2004

All of which gives me an excuse, if I needed one, to share with you this wonderful TED talk by Ron Finley, which I think demonstrates admirably the power of the spoken word, the importance of pride in cultural identity, and the ability of individuals to make a difference if they feel powerfully enough about the need to do so. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your students.

Many Stories, One Scotland

My favourite aunt, now living in Houston Texas, has been researching our family tree for a number of years, and in September last year I discovered, thanks to her efforts, that my great, great, great, great, great grandfather was the parish minister who christened Robert Burns. There is nothing quite so powerful as finding another piece in that great jigsaw which is the bigger picture of yourself and your place in the world. Which is why I was delighted when I was approached by the Scottish Council on Archives Education Working Group earlier this year and asked if I would help them to develop a National Plan for Learning 2012-2015. The end result is Many Stories, One Scotland, which I hope will provide the SCA with a platform from which to achieve the twin aims of raising awareness of the national archives and bringing together teachers and archivists to make sure the archives have a central role in the formal education system in Scotland. As a former English teacher of many years, and a firm believer in the power of storytelling to transform the learning experience of young people, I wish that I had been more aware of the vast store of fascinating resources which the archives provide, both locally and nationally. Advances in technology have made it possible for us to create and tell stories in so many inventive ways, but it is the raw material of the archives which gives us that rich content to bring the stories alive.

You can download a free copy of the final document by clicking on the title, Many Stories, One Scotland here.

Scotland stands yet again at a critical time in its history, and never has there been more interest in personal or national identity. This is reflected both in the Scottish Government’s commitment to develop the concept of ‘Learning about Scotland’ – including the promotion of the use of Gaelic and Scots languages –  in our educational establishments, and in the increasing number of Scottish adults engaged in researching their own family histories. Scotland’s archives have a major role to play in both of these objectives, as The Scottish Council on Archives publication ‘Scotland’s Archives Matter’ describes in some detail, while also putting it more succinctly:
‘Taken together the individual documents found in the archives provide a comprehensive picture of what over the centuries has created the Scottish nation. They give an insight into the nation’s contacts with other peoples and cultures. Archives matter because they tell the story of Scotland, but they also tell my story, your story and the stories of our families and communities.’
It would be wrong, however, to assume that Scotland’s archives are simply about recording history and the past. They are equally important in informing the present and securing the future development and prosperity of the nation and its citizens, helping to meet the Scottish Government’s strategic objectives of a wealthier and fairer, smarter, healthier, safer and stronger, greener Scotland, within which its young people are empowered to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Many Stories, One Scotland June 2012

Transmedia and Education – Living Lab Madrid 2012

Just catching my breath after a great conference in Madrid where I had the privilege of sharing a platform with some very impressive speakers and activists from the emerging world of transmedia, including a truly inspirational masterclass from the master of transmedia himself, Henry Jenkins. The three-day event was perhaps the most professional and well-organised event I have ever attended, thanks to the tireless efforts of the organiser Fernando Carrion, and the sponsors Fundacion Telefonica of Spain, who hosted the conference in their new state-of-the-art auditorium in central Madrid. One of the key themes of the conference was of course literacy, and the implications for formal systems of education of the developing culture of transmedia.

You can watch all the presentations from the conference, including Henry Jenkins, here.

“What skills do children need to become full participants in convergence culture? Across this book, we have identified a number – the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema). The example of The Daily Prophet (a web-based ‘school newspaper’ for the fictional Hogwarts) suggests yet another cultural competency: role-playing both as a means of exploring a fictional realm and as a means of developing a richer understanding of yourself and the culture around you. These kids come to understand Harry Potter by occupying a space within Hogwarts; occupying such a space helped them to map more fully the rules of this fictional world and the roles that various characters played within it. Much as an actor builds up a character by combining things discovered through research with things learned through personal introspection, these kids were drawing on their own experiences to flesh out various aspects of Rowling’s fiction. This is a kind of intellectual mastery that comes only through active participation. At the same time, role-playing was providing an inspiration for them to expand other kinds of literacy skills – those already valued within traditional education.”

HenryJenkins, Convergence Culture, 2006

The American-inspired Telefonica building on Madrid’s Gran Via

It strikes me that if schooling is to continue to be relevant in the modern world some fundamental changes have to be made. We need to have a much broader approach to literacy and literacy development than we do at the moment. In Scotland, as in many other countries, the curriculum narrows as young people develop into their mid-teens, and their formal education ends with the study of perhaps five or six subjects, one of which is English, which consists of the analysis of printed text (usually prose) and the ‘critical evaluation’ of one or two works of ‘literature’ (usually historic and too often repeating long-established interpretations of the text). The students’ success or failure in this endeavour often determines their future career pathway, as Higher English or its equivalent is the benchmark of acceptable intelligence. I have in fact often heard it referred to, with some affection in educational establishments, as ‘the gold standard’.

But think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t a more appropriate measure of literacy for the mainstream school leaver be an awareness of popular cultural media and an ability to make critical comment on their creation, distribution and effect? And shouldn’t a key aspect of that assessment be of the student’s ability to create and share such texts? Let’s call it Transmedia Studies.

See my photos from the Living Lab Conference here.

See previous post on Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture here.