The annual Scottish Learning Festival takes place next week (21st and 22nd September) at the SECC in Glasgow, and for any teachers fortunate enough to be able to attend I would recommend a visit to the Into Film stand G25 in the Exhibition Hall, where they will be showcasing their new ‘Scotland on Film‘ teaching resource. With links to Curriculum for Excellence, the resource is designed to help educators and young people explore Scotland through film, focusing specifically on the two central themes of Language and Identity.
‘Scotland on Film’ isan engaging, curriculum-linked teaching resource for educators working with 7-18 year-olds, comprising downloadable teachers’ notes and a PowerPoint presentation with embedded film clips. As well as supporting teachers in engaging with film as a core learning tool, the resource is designed to celebrate Scotland and the rich contribution it has made to film. The activities focus specifically on two central themes: Language and Identity. From classic cinema through to modern day representations of Scotland on film, the resource touches on history, myth, and culture. It also uses film with accompanying Scots language texts, encouraging students to explore the language in historical and modern contexts. The sections on identity cover many aspects of what it can mean to be Scottish, from personal identity to rural and city living.
“Film is an important text within the English curriculum and we seek to utilise it at every opportunity. It also serves to provide a supporting context for other avenues of study; such as novels, functional writing and stimulus for creative writing.” Michael Daly, John Paul Academy, Glasgow
Created in partnership with Education Scotland, The Scottish Book Trust, LGBT Youth (Scotland) and Arpeggio Pictures, ‘Scotland on Film’ encourages and supports teachers to use film as a core way of teaching the curriculum. Films featured include Fantastic Mr Fox (PG), Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG), Sunset Song (15) and short film Take Your Partners, whileactivities range from discussing what films made in Scotland tell us about Scotland, through exploring ‘book-to-film’ adaptations, to poetry writing and simple filmmaking.
“It has been fantastic working together with Into Film on this new resource. An essential element of my work for Education Scotland promoting Scots Language is the development of new materials that not only show the vast vocabulary and interesting linguistic history of the language, but also to create modern and vibrant ways for Scots to be explored within the learning settings of today.” Bruce Eunson, Education Scotland
As part of its UK-wide programme to place film at the heart of young people’s learning, Into Film, an organisation supported by the BFI through lottery funding, will also be showcasing the benefits of its school film clubs, which provide free access to thousands of films and related resources. Visitors to the stand will have the opportunity to set up a club on the spot with help from Into Film staff, pose queries about existing clubs, sign up for the charity’s free ‘Teaching Literacy Through Film’ online course (created in partnership with the BFI), and get a sneak preview of its newest curriculum-linked resources.
Those who are unable to attend the Festival in person can listen to the keynote presentations live online at the following times. Check the SLF website for more details.
Wednesday 21 September, 10.30 – 12 noon, Opening keynote address, John Swinney MSP, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.
Wednesday 21 September, 12.30 – 13.30, Fixing the past or inventing the future, Dr Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon.
Wednesday 21 September, 14.00 – 15.00, Leading with evidence for educational improvement, Dr Carol Campbell, Associate Professor, Ontario Institute of Education, University of Toronto.
Thursday 22 September, 14.30 – 15.30, Taking on the impossible, Mark Beaumont, TV presenter and broadcaster, record-breaking round the world cyclist and ultra-endurance adventurer.
The keynotes will also be available to watch online retrospectively.
‘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.
First 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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……..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
‘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 exposing 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.
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 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?
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 to 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.”
Following 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.”
“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 Shipbuilders’ 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.
The ease with which we are now able to access information, which is, after all, the first requirement in the acquisition of knowledge, is what makes the development of literacy so markedly different in this century from how it might have looked for the best part of the previous one. In the typical classroom of fifty years ago, sources of information were severely limited, and what was in the teacher’s head would constitute most of it. To say that things have changed is such an understatement that it hardly needs to be said, but the pervasive nature of the internet has been largely responsible for the term ‘information literacy’ and the sense of urgency with which it has entered the educational lexicon. No one disputes that, more than ever, the ability to find, sift, sort and use information is a key component in the development of an educated mind , but we are all of us still in the early stages of understanding the full implications of the free flow of information across the electronic networks. What the term ‘information literacy’ actually means, and how – in practical terms – it can be developed, is still up for discussion, as are the means by which teachers can ensure that all learners meet this essential learning outcome by the time they have reached the age of twelve or thirteen:
“To help me develop an informed view, I am exploring the techniques used to influence my opinion. I can recognise persuasion and assess the reliability of information and credibility and value of my sources.”
It is quite clear that In order to develop this ability, there are a number of questions which first have to be addressed, including:
What ARE the techniques used to influence opinion? (emotive language? scaremongering? appeal to the senses?, use of statistics?)
How DO you recognise persuasion? (separating fact from opinion)
How do you assess the reliability of ANY information, but especially that found online? (who produced it and what was their objective?)
How do you ASCERTAIN the source of information, even before you attempt to assess its credibility? (or, do you know how to trace the source of a text?)
A very useful addition to the ‘information literacy’ discussion this week has been the release of web player Mozilla’s Web Literacy Standard. Cutting across traditionally recognised subject spaces, the Standard is grouped under three strands – Exploring, Building and Connecting – and is described by the developers as ‘a map of competencies and skills that Mozilla and our community of stakeholders believe are important to pay attention to when getting better at reading, writing and participating on the web’. While some of our information still comes from traditional sources – word of mouth, newspapers, books, television – we are increasingly moving online, so that ‘information literacy’ and understanding the world wide web may ultimately become one and the same thing. Anything which takes us towards a better understanding of how that relationship works must surely be a good thing.
“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
I am fairly certain that when Churchill spoke those words he had in mind the many Scots whose ideas, creativity and drive contributed to the invention of the modern world (for a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon I would recommend The Scottish Enlightenmentby Arthur Herman), but I wonder whether the Scots who will shape the future world will do so as a result of their formal education, or in spite of it. In my previous post I made comment on a short video animation which attempted – quite neatly I thought – to examine the rationale behind the last major review of the school curriculum in Scotland, and to summarise the progress, or otherwise, of its implementation since. What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was related to a fairly weighty report, By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education, published earlier this week by the Commission on School Reform. It should be pointed out at this stage that the report was commissioned by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (‘Scotland’s only independent cross-party think-tank’) and Reform Scotland, (an ‘independent think-tank’ headed up by two former Scottish Conservative party advisers).
The report begins by asserting that Scottish Education still enjoys a decent reputation, both at home and abroad, while emphasising that there is no room for complacency, and suggests that while our schools are improving, they are improving at a slower rate than those of many of our economic competitors. At its heart, and standing out among its 37 recommendations for consideration by the Scottish Government and others, is the principle that schools should have greater autonomy, which, the report’s authors argue, will in turn lead to greater diversity. It is particularly strong in its analysis of the reasons why change is slow to happen in Scotland, a feature of the report which will immediately antagonise those – and there are many – with a vested interest in the status quo. This 129-page report is challenging, not bland, and deserves a wide readership. It raises a great number of questions of the current system, while calling repeatedly for structural and organisational change. It endorses the principles, purposes and values of Curriculum for Excellence as a mission statement for education, and suggests some of the changes which are necessary to bring it to fruition. Each of the recommendations is worthy of a longer debate in itself, and I will return to some of them in due course, but for now I would simply add one key question to those I raised in my previous post, and invite you all to join the discussion.
“Scotland does not lack good ideas. It has policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and Teaching Scotland’s Future that are forward-looking and have the capacity to bring about real improvement. However, the experience of other major policy initiatives over the past half-century indicates that Scotland often fails to extract the maximum benefit from good policies.
In short, processes of change in Scottish education fall short of what is required.
To a large extent this is because the system is too uniform. It lacks the diversity that is a vital element of any learning organisation. The Commission sees the promotion of increased variety in the system as a crucially important prerequisite of future improvement.
The best way of achieving this objective is to increase the autonomy of individual schools. Every school should have as much control over its resources as is practicable. They should be encouraged to innovate and take well-considered risks.
At present, however, schools are reluctant to take the initiative. This is because the culture of the system as a whole is disempowering. The structure is hierarchical with an ethos of each layer being subordinate to the one above it. There is too little communication or sense that constructive criticism is welcomed. Above all, the Commission considers it essential to develop a sense of common endeavour where everybody involved feels able to contribute on equal terms.
At present the responsibilities of different tiers of management are ill-defined. The strategic leadership role of government is obscured by a strong tendency to become involved in detail. The freedom of action of schools is too circumscribed. The Commission takes the view that headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous bodies. At the same time, it is imperative that a collegiate culture should exist within schools.”
By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education The Commission on School Reform Final Report March 2013
The last two sentences of that extract will be particularly contentious. The Scottish consensus has traditionally been egalitarian in nature, the idea of the all-powerful headteacher a relic of some dark bygone era. The business analogy of chief executive will not play well with many. Others will immediately have a vision of Michael Gove and the mess of ‘free schools’ and Academies currently proliferating in England, and wonder whether that is a route we want to take. Whatever way you read it, there are substantial implications for the role of local authorities, an issue which was raised in the comments on my previous post, and which is dealt with in more detail in the report.
Key Question: Is it possible for a collegiate culture to exist in schools if the headteacher is effectively the chief executive of a largely autonomous organisation?
It is now almost exactly a decade since Scotland’s National Debate on the curriculum, the consultation which led to what is still universally referred to as ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘, but which should by now simply be called ‘the Scottish curriculum’ (see my previous post on the significance of the title here). It is perhaps a good time, therefore, to reflect on the general purpose of that review, especially for anyone coming into our education system for the first time, and that is exactly what this creative animation from the community learning group North Alliance invites us to do. The first half of the film reminds us of the need for change, and sets out the challenges for education in Scotland, which of course are no different from those in any other modern economy. However, there are some big questions which remain unanswered, and which need to be addressed by Education Scotland and the wider education community if the aspirations so well articulated in this short presentation are to be realised. I would like to consider just a few of them.
“Curriculum for Excellence is, firstly, a mission statement. It sets out a vision, and it gives Scottish Education a long-term sense of direction. It will not be implemented over the next few years.”
This is a very welcome statement; had it been made clear from the beginning that this was a long-term vision, much anxiety could have been avoided. I’m sure I didn’t just imagine the very clear timetable for ‘implementation’ from August 2010, which caused no little consternation in local authorities and with the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, but which is no longer to be found (at least by me) on the Education Scotland website. As a mission statement, CfE is a highly commendable piece of work, but as the commentary acknowledges, it is not a ‘national curriculum’ in the traditional sense. The principle is established that it is not the role of governments to determine the detail of curriculum content, but rather to provide broad general purposes and themes within which the outcomes of the curriculum can be met. I happen to believe that this is right and proper, but it does have some serious implications.
Key Question. Who does have responsibility for determining the content of curriculum areas, and what criteria should they use in doing so?
“In the modern world, knowledge remains vital, but it is not enough. Success depends on deep understanding, and on having the skills to turn knowledge to useful effect.”
It is difficult to disagree with this contention, but the reality is that the secondary school curriculum is currently built around subjects and subject knowledge, the primary purpose of which is to prepare students for National Qualifications at age 17, most of which are awarded on the basis of written examinations. Little evidence is required that this subject knowledge is ‘turned to useful effect’, only that it can be explained in theory. I wonder how different it could be if the curriculum was instead organised around the development of the key cognitive skills identified in the film – particularly problem-solving and critical thinking skills – rather than the traditional curriculum areas which have hardly changed in the past 50 years, and which were not, bizarrely, subject to review during the National Debate. I frequently meet and talk to teachers who are creative, and want to be more creative (that’s why they became teachers) but they are ground down by a regime of constant testing and target-setting by their ‘managers’.
Key Question. Is it possible to have a problem-solving or project-based curriculum while at the same time providing students with a core subject knowledge?
“Subjects are still important. Indeed, the structure of knowledge is perhaps more important than ever, but at the same time we have to remember that knowledge is joined up. The problems of life are seldom solved by using expertise from a single subject area alone. Being able to draw on different areas of learning and apply them together in the real world contexts is a vital skill.”
I have to confess that I have no idea what ‘the structure of knowledge’ means, but this point more or less acknowledges that real learning does not take place in subject compartments. It also seems to imply that the the connection of the disparate parts of this complex jigsaw will somehow be put together by the learner at some point in the process, without the need for structural change. All the previous evidence from school inspections suggest that this does not happen, and that in fact young people find it extremely difficult to make connections in learning across curriculum areas.
Key Question. Is it possible to make radical changes to an education system while operating within the same subject structures which have changed little in the past 50 years?
“A surprise benefit of CfE development has been a new emphasis on learner engagement, the idea that the learner has to take responsibility for his or her own progress, and needs to be involved in all of the key decisions. This kind of active involvement in the learning process wasn’t a significant part of the original plan, but it has been enthusiastically taken on board by schools.”
I’m not quite sure why this should come as such a surprise, or in what way it wasn’t ‘part of the original plan’. The curriculum is described in terms of ‘I can….’ and ‘I have……’ statements, or to put that another way, in outcomes and experiences written from the point of view of the learner. If that doesn’t imply that the learner has primary responsibility for his or her learning then I have seriously misunderstood it. In fact, it was in this respect that I though the curriculum review was innovative and radical. In reality however, ten years later many young people are still unaware of what these outcomes are, despite the fact that they are freely available online. It may have been enthusiastically taken on board by some schools, but many others need significant support in making that transition.
Key Question. Is it possible to transfer the responsibility for learning to the learner (where it rightly belongs) while holding teachers to account for their students’ examination results?
“Nobody has yet made the breakthrough to genuine 21st Century practice. That is the task that faces us.”
Indeed. Is that because there are barriers to progress which only those in positions of authority can remove, or is it because, as a profession and as a nation, we are instinctively conservative?