All Of Us First

5This is an initial working paper of a Common Weal Policy Lab on education (see previous post). It will be developed further based on feedback from those involved in the Lab and others, and it is presented to you in the week when the Scottish Government announced its plans to re-introduce standardised National tests in literacy and numeracy for young people in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

“We do not need another policy paper. We need a manifesto for change”
Participant, Common Weal Policy Lab on Education, 7 August 2015

AT the Common Weal’s first ever Policy Lab on 7 August, a group of academics, experts, educators, pupils, and parents spent the day discussing and debating four specific issues chosen by the group:

– What should education in Scotland be for?

– How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

– What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

– How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

While the group recognised the impossibility of holistically tackling each of these issues in one day, a broad consensus on several ideas and methods for addressing them emerged.

This report summarises these ideas, while offering possible avenues for innovation in education in Scotland.

What should education in Scotland be for?

Foundations:

> universal free education

> comprehensive system, from beginning to end

> enabling a true, ‘community’ education by preserving catchment areas

> involving universities in teacher education, in both thinking and doing: the theoretical advancement in the field of education needs the chance to take root and grow in our schools

> a democratically developed curriculum

> providing children the tools to participate as a citizen in society

How can we change?

We need a system-wide change if we truly want to innovate our education system. We need a sustainable collaboration between politicians, civil servants, the educational leadership class, the institutionalised profession, local authorities, pupils, and parents. While we can continue to change ‘easy’ things, we must be dedicated to considering ‘big’ ideas for systemic change. Real democracy should be at the heart of this ongoing conversation, where curriculums adapt to changing democratic decisions, and children learn participation from their interaction in the school system. We need mechanisms which connect the incredible and exciting work in education in our universities with teaching professionals in our schools in order that children benefit from new ideas and methods, and that this research realises its potential.

Assessment

In its current form, Scotland’s Education system tests too much. While recognising the need for our students to gain specific skills and knowledge to gain access to higher education, the role of assessment should be marginal in our education system, instead of its primary goal. This will be elaborated further in section 2.

Democratic Participation

‘Tings’ as a methodology for creating citizen forums emerges as an answer to our lack of democracy in education. Decision-makers and service users should regularly come together to assess development, implementation, and strategies for education, at both a local and national level. This will be an opportunity for our universities to also participate, bringing new ideas and expertise to develop a robust conversation on the standards and practices of our schools.

Innovation

A ‘great’ school can often be traced to one or two dedicated individuals who pioneered and made a lasting impact on a school’s system/infrastructure/community/culture etc. These ideas are powerful because they are location-specific: local knowledge and understanding affords the ideas an organic grounding. In Scotland, with some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe, in both urban and rural locations, we cannot assume that a one-size-fits-all education system can work. By encouraging these schools to share their experiences in Innovation Forums, we can value their enterprise, and facilitate connections with other schools who may learn or improve as a result.

New teachers leave graduate studies armed with ideas and methodologies which could benefit their respective schools and communities. However these ideas are often discouraged as they begin their teaching career, without access to time, position, or resources to facilitate change.

A dedicated Education Development Fund could encourage these new teachers to be bold and brave with their ideas, gain respect from their peers, and use vital expertise from their teacher education. New professionals would have the opportunity to apply for funding for their project, and dedicate time to realising them. This would encourage new teachers to see long-term connections with their communities, and would serve as an ecosystem of new ideas and change for education, which could be fed into the Innovation Forums.

How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

While the foundational principles and goals of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) are still the blueprint for a future education system, we must assess why we still fail to achieve our goals. Why have so many apparent changes in Scottish education resulted in so little difference in terms of outcomes for young people? What are the missing ingredients that would secure that sort of change?

There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of the educational leadership class to communicate the principles of CfE to both teaching professionals and to the pupils directly. This should be part of the process of redefining education not as an endless scramble for more grades via assessment, but instead as a process of betterment with various interpretations of success. This could be achieved within the local and national education ‘Tings’ set up in order to address the lack of direct democracy in our education system.

Assessment

With an education system which measures itself on attainment via assessment, we lose grasp of the founding goals of education. Teachers are pressured to achieve certain grade proportions in their classrooms, which drives their energy into delivering grades instead of well-rounded learners. Learners lack the bigger picture of their learning, as lessons are crafted in response to assessments rather than the pragmatic and individual needs of the learner. And this affects expectations of success: attaining a university place via achieving a certain roster of grades becomes the highest form of success, which is at best unrealistic in terms of employer’s needs, and at worse reproduces and legitimises inequality. How can we ensure that any ‘exam system’ is not a barrier, but a gateway to success?

We must consider and design alternatives: What use do online or on demand exams have in our future? Why do we need to annually assess? How can we credit ‘experience’ or ‘projects’? How do we design an assessment not simply based on retaining content? What would replace qualifications if they were to be abandoned? And how do we involve parents and pupils in this conversation?

These are difficult questions, but they must be addressed if we are to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence goals.

This would have a dramatic effect on the wider structure of our education system including:

Subjects

With increasing evidence in support of project-based learning, we need to begin to move subjects into a marginal position in the global learner experience. Subject-based learning removes the content from its pragmatic context, which could have an integrated and comprehensive approach via a diversity of projects. Subjects could provide focussed, individual learning possibilities for students who wish to attain specialised knowledge (for example for university admission), but the majority of learning should be around projects and experience. Finland recently decided to limit subject teaching, and it is rated as having one of the most educated populations in the world.

Age Groups

With an acceptance that subjects should play at least a minor role in our education system, project-based learning makes the issue of age-segregation an interesting point of analysis. While separating children into age groups is necessary in some contexts, it can enforce abstract differences and comparisons of ability that are not helpful. Rural schools in Scotland have pioneered, out of necessity, systems which integrate older pupils with younger pupils, facilitating the learner experience as a give and take between a diversity of age groups. This is something that could be modelled in more urban school settings.

Timetables

What does a timetable for a school with mostly project learning and less age segregation look like? Imagine students could learn empowerment and agency by designing their school days in such an environment, where their education provides them the pragmatic tools for competency after school? Thirteen-year-olds should not feel that their education choices will go on to define their careers and lives. We must pay credence to our concept of Lifelong Learning, and ensure that our students realise their potential through a diversity of activities and projects throughout their school careers. To achieve this, we need to redesign our timetabling models to account for this, and to afford schools the options to implement a variety of models to fit their needs.

Universities

We need to hold our universities to account for the undue influence they have on high school students. The blunt instrument of a roster of necessary grades leaves many students feeling helpless, and means the most privileged have easiest access to achieving those grades and the requisite personal statement (whether through private tutoring, parental investment and guidance, better learning materials etc.). Instead, we need to focus on ‘skillsets’ and how we can use our innovation in assessment to guide students into better higher education options after school.

Work Experience

Pupils attending the lab expressed an interest in more work placements and valuing work as an integral part of an education system, whether in the evenings or at the weekend. Students said they felt better prepared for the working world because of regular, part time employment, which, on top of the job-specific skills, provided them experience to manage their time effectively and budget their personal finances.

What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

Education in Scotland is currently a combination of training and coaching. Since families from more privileged backgrounds will always be able to invest in more coaching, it becomes very difficult to level the playing field, and in fact assessment in its current form in Scotland serves to legitimise the existing inequality. This is a problem facing all teachers in Scotland, as it is increasingly evident that it is not the school you attend, but your family’s economic background which has the biggest impact in your chance of success in the current system.

With this knowledge, and the understanding that teachers are under more and more pressure to deliver certain grades from their classrooms, our most vulnerable children are continuing to lose out. What role can our school system and teachers play in attenuating this inequality?

Segregation

One step to reducing this inequality would be to remove unnecessary religious segregation from our school system, and remove the charitable status of private schools, with the ultimate goal of rendering them redundant. Further, reducing unnecessary labelling between children (for example into the ‘best’ subject set etc.) has proven to encourage holistic attainment for all children. In the spirit of all desegregation, one student shared her experience of mentoring and caring for a disabled peer. If we encouraged such a programme for all of our school children, co-mentoring a peer in their community whether disabled or not, we would see lasting impacts on tackling discrimination as well as more well-rounded, worldly, and empathetic students.

Early Years

Evidence has proven that investment in early years education has the biggest impact in the long term attainment of young people. We could invest in this early education by having a robust, universal free childcare system led by professionals, which leads into a comprehensive and equally accessible early years system. The emphasis of early years should be on play rather than formal education like writing and numeracy, so that children learn the necessary social skills and relationship with their environment which acts as the right base from which school education can be built upon.

PSE Syllabus

As part of a strategy to attenuate the impact of discrimination, we need a revised PSE syllabus which enables students to engage in vital discussions (for an example, look at the work of the TIE campaign). Currently, the PSE syllabus has an unnecessary focus on career prospects, and should instead delve into the multifaceted way that we interact in society as citizens. A fundamental part of this is recognising inequality and how it functions in society on both a structural and everyday way. Schools should demonstrate their dedication to human rights as the foundation of all of their teaching, and thusly, new developments in learning, like empathy education and conflict resolution, should be incorporated.

Developing an Infrastructure of Care

When we arrive at any NHS service, we understand the chain through which our information is passed and the routes through which we will receive care. There is no such robust infrastructure within our school systems, despite the fact that they are the state institutions most visited by most people. We need to design better services for parents and pupils to interact with the school system, and return our schools to their rightful place as assets and ‘commons’ of their communities. This involves not only using our schools for more community events and as a local hub, but also directly engaging parents in the progress of their children and the school as a whole.

How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

Ensuring after-school success should not be simply a bureaucratic process in the last year or two of high school. We need to reframe the conversation from ‘I teach [subject]’ to ‘I teach children’. Success is not a linear process, and it should not be taught as such to young adults, who feel pigeon-holed into following certain career routes/university courses without the requisite tools to recognise the totality of options available to them. Fundamental to this is redefining what success is: Is it happiness? Valuing and contributing to our community? Love and compassion?

This will be an ongoing process of change to peel back our engrained system and the assumptions it has worked into our collective psyches, possibly delivered through the democratic methods developed around our school system (see section 1), and through building partnerships and local relationships between teachers, parents, pupils, and our universities (see section 3).

The cornerstones of a strong education system which delivers young adults prepared for the world should include:

Citizenship

Young people should be helped to understand themselves and the role they play in wider society. For example, this could come in the form of understanding local politics and their routes to the levers of power and participation, or perhaps through the various mechanisms discussed in section 3 to remove segregation from our school system. Each student should be made to feel valued in this process, recognising that there is no one way to contribute to society or to achieve success.

Resourcefulness

Not limited to the bullet points in a subject syllabus, a focus on projects and problem solving will provide learners the capacity to be resourceful and enterprising. This involves a holistic approach to their interaction in the school: whether in helping develop budgets for classroom equipment, cooking food for school lunches, or aiding janitorial staff in building management—all examples of vital skills for after school success.

Resilience

Through a revised syllabus with an emphasis on projects and problem solving, a better-developed democratic infrastructure in schools, and the ongoing conversation to resolve assumptions around after school ‘success’, education should be emancipatory in its intentions, helping to develop resilient citizens. Moving away from social ‘mobility’, to social ‘change’, learners should recognise that education as a process should be connective across society, with the ultimate goal of benefitting the whole local, national, and international community.

Conclusion

We recognise that there is the will to see an innovative education system in Scotland, but we must be brave and accept that there are risks in the journey towards such an enlightened system, where children are empowered and engaged in an active learning, and develop as thoughtful, compassionate, and skilled citizens. We need a manifesto for real change, not another policy paper. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Footnote:

It is acknowledged in the paper that Scotland has some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe (the latter, for obvious reasons, located in rural communities). While wishing to preserve the idea of the community school in these areas, my personal preference would be for authorities to re-define catchment areas in towns and cities to ensure secondary schools had, other than in exceptional circumstances, no less than 600 and a maximum of 800 students.

Here Come The Vikings. With Apples.

vikings-season-2-02There is a story, most likely apocryphal, about a primary teacher who had engaged her pupils in a lengthy project about the Vikings. Anxious to establish what they had learned as a result of their collective effort, she set about giving them a short test. ‘What did the Vikings come in?’ she asked her eager charges. ‘Boats,’ suggested the first child with his hand up. ‘No, James. What were you taught?’ ‘Longboats,’ offered Maria. ‘No, Maria, you haven’t been listening’, admonished the teacher. ‘Rowing boats,’ piped up Charlie from the back of the room.

Exasperated, the teacher raised her voice. ‘Hoardes,’ she shrieked. ‘The Vikings came in hoardes!’

What makes the story funny – I hope you’ll agree – is that there is an element of truth in this game of ‘guess what is in the teacher’s head’. We have all witnessed it, and indeed as teachers, most of us have indulged in it at one time or other.

That story came into my head this week as I was reading about the Conservative Government’s plans to introduce re-sits for those young people in England who get ‘poor results’ in their Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at the end of their primary education, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising ‘more rigour, zero tolerance of failure and mediocrity’ in schools (read the full story here).

Many politicians love tests, because like the terms ‘rigour’ and ‘zero tolerance’, they create the impression that you are doing something to improve the education system, even if your actions and policies tell a different story. There is no evidence, and there never will be, that more tests mean better learning; the routes to better learning are much more complex, and require a far greater degree of trust and patience than most politicians are prepared to invest in the system, especially when the curriculum is seen exclusively as the means of dragging a country out of an economic mess.

testBut it doesn’t stop there. In the same week, it was also announced that the UK Government is considering the introduction of National Reference Tests to help set GCSE grade boundaries (full story here). A spokesperson for the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) said that the aim is ‘to monitor the performance of each year’s GCSE cohort’ and ‘to give examiners a reference point for differences in ability between different year groups. The results would allow Ofqual to make objective judgements on whether to allow grades to rise and allay suggestions of grade inflation.’

The possibility of not only introducing more tests, but introducing a test to test the tests, prompted this wonderful reaction from the arch-critic of government policy, poet and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmith’s, University of London, Michael Rosen.

Guide to Education.

You get education in schools.
To find out how much education you get,
the government gives you tests.
Before you do the tests
the government likes it if you are put on
different tables that show how well or badly
you are going to do in the tests.
The tests test whether they
have put you on the right table.
The tests test whether you know what you’re
supposed to know.
But
don’t try to get to know any old stuff like
‘What is earwax?’ or ‘how to make soup’.
The way to know things you’re supposed to know
is to do pretend tests.
When you do the pretend tests
you learn how to think in the way that tests
want you to think.
The more practice you do,
the more likely it is that you won’t make the mistake
of thinking in any other way other than in
the special test way of thinking.
Here’s an example:
The apples are growing on the tree.
What is growing on the tree?
If you say, ‘leaves’, you are wrong.
It’s no use you thinking that when apples are on a tree
there are usually leaves on the tree too.
There is only one answer. And that is ‘apples’.
All other answers are wrong.
If you are the kind of person that thinks ‘leaves’ is a
good answer, doing lots and lots and lots of practice tests
will get you to stop thinking that ‘leaves’ is a good answer.
Doing many, many practice tests will also make it
very likely that there won’t be time for you to go out
and have a look at an apple tree to see what else
grows on apple trees. Like ants. Or mistletoe.
Education is getting much better these days
because there is much more testing.
Remember, it’s ‘apples’ not ‘leaves’.

Quite.

It Should Have Been Messier

Here we are, a decade on from the launch of one of the most radical and visionary curriculum frameworks anywhere in the developed world, and sadly the focus of the mainstream media and the educational establishment in Scotland seems to be back on familiar ground – the lack of readiness of secondary teachers to ‘deliver’ the new National Qualifications to school leavers (STV News). It is an all-too-familiar scenario, and the language of ‘delivery’ tells you all you need to know about our continuing collective failure to turn the system around. I thought this recent tweet from one of the country’s top educational commentators summed it up rather neatly:

The Scottish Government claims to be fully committed to the vision of Curriculum for Excellence, yet sometimes I wonder if our politicians and their representatives in Education Scotland send out confusing signals  about what was designed to be a ‘seamless’ educational experience for young people between the ages of three and eighteen. Terms like ‘senior phase’ are used to justify the fact that, by the middle years of secondary school, and earlier in some instances, the development of the four capacities appears still to  give way  to relentless exam preparation. If the development of the four capacities in our young people really IS what we believe the purpose of formal education should be about – and the general agreement on that over the past twenty years or so seems to be holding firm – then we need to have the courage of our convictions and look at what is preventing that from happening. Shouldn’t we be spending more time and energy, for example, looking at how we measure that development? Technology has provided us with tools which make it easier for learners to record and demonstrate their own personal development – why aren’t we making more use of them and transferring that responsibility to the learner more effectively? 

“Our approach to the curriculum sees it as a single framework for development and learning from 3 t0 18. The framework needs to allow different routes for progression from one stage of learning to the next, and promote learning across a wide range of contexts and experiences. It should equip young people with high levels of literacy, numeracy and thinking skills and support the development of their health and wellbeing. It should enable every child to develop his or her full potential through a broad range of challenging, well-planned experiences which help them develop qualities of citizenship, enterprise and creativity…As many schools recognise, the curriculum is more than curriculum areas and subjects: it is the totality of experiences which are planned for young people through their education – a canvas upon which their learning experiences are formed.”

A Curriculum for Excellence, Progress and Proposals, Looking at the Curriculum Differently. March 2006

Discussing this issue on last week’s Inside Learning podcast, I repeated my long-held belief that the brakes were put on the new curriculum almost from the start, when it became clear that secondary schools would be ILexpected to implement significant changes within their existing structures, when in fact it is the very structures themselves which should have been up for discussion, a point taken up by Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University in two recent blogposts on the same topic.

“I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools.  Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation …  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).”

Mark Priestley, Professor of Education, Stirling University

While I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Priestley’s observations, I don’t think ‘the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches’ goes far enough; many schools claim to be doing this already, and the evidence of impact is so far hard to find. For me, the problem is caused by having a ‘Broad General Education’ for three years of secondary schooling before reverting in the senior phase to the exam-driven scenario we are all too familiar with. Shouldn’t the whole of schooling be a ‘BROAD, GENERAL, EDUCATION’? As I said earlier, I think the crucial decisions were made with the publication of the Progress and Proposals document in 2006, which made it clear that the structures in secondary schools would remain largely unchanged. This was what launched the next phase of development, when outcomes and experiences were written by ‘subject-based’ groups of specialists. A much more productive next phase, in my view, would have been to tease out the ‘attributes’ and ‘capabilities’ of the four capacities (featured below) into a larger curriculum framework.

It could have been different, and it is never too late. If we are to make real progress in Scotland and re-establish our reputation for a world-class education system, we need to grasp the nettle, admit that our natural conservatism has not brought about the systemic changes we were looking for, and go back to the drawing board. This would be less an admission of failure than a further declaration that we do indeed have the courage of our convictions.

Whether you are working at school, departmental, local authority or national level, and wondering how you might re-boot the curriculum, looking again in some detail at the four capacities would not be a bad place to start.

capacitiesdiagram1_tcm4-392948 (1)

The four ‘capacities’ of the Scottish curriculum.

Footnote: The day after I published this blogpost, I was alerted to the publication of ‘A Common Weal Education‘ from the Jimmy Reid Foundation. I had no idea that it was being written, but an added bonus is that it was written by Brian Boyd, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University and one of the most positive influences on Scottish Education over the past two decades. If you have any interest in the future of education in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter – I could not recommend this report highly enough.

Big Apple For The Teacher

kindlenytimesJust as Scotland’s teachers are digging deep into their final reserves of energy and ingenuity this week in the run-up to the long summer holiday, their efforts received a boost from the other side of the Atlantic in an article in the New York Times, which praises the different approach the country has taken to curriculum design from those in the rest of the UK – as well as the US – an approach which places less emphasis on standardised testing, has lighter-touch inspections, gives greater autonomy to teachers in their classrooms,  and has focused on a re-alignment of the balance between knowledge and skills. The key to this progress (I hesitate to use the word ‘success’ prematurely) has been a general consensus among the general public, the government and the professional teaching associations  – rarely referred to as ‘unions’ these days – as to the kind of educational system we want in a modern-day Scotland.

“In the same week that Britain’s (sic) education minister, Michael Gove, announced yet another measure to make the national exams taken by high school students in England more rigorous, their counterparts in Scotland were taking a curriculum in which national exams for 16-year-olds had been abolished……….

In 2005, Scotland introduced the Curriculum for Excellence. While education in England became increasingly prescriptive — with public debate on precisely what students were expected to know and whether, for example, there ought to be a greater focus on kings and queens, or the history of the British empire — the Scottish decided to pay more attention to how subjects were taught.”

Scottish Schools Focus On More Than Just Tests, New York Times, June 23, 2013

It is worth reminding ourselves how we came to this parting of the ways. In 2002 the then Scottish Executive undertook the most extensive consultation ever of the people of Scotland on the state of school education, through the National Debate on Education. Through that debate, most stakeholders – pupils, parents, teachers, employers and others – said that they valued and wanted to keep many aspects of the current curriculum, especially those principles which had a long tradition in this country stretching back to the introduction of public schools, and including:

  • the flexibility which already existed in the Scottish system – no one argued for a more prescriptive ‘national’ system
  • the combination of breadth and depth offered by the curriculum
  • the quality of teaching
  • the comprehensive principle (privately-funded schools account for around 5% of schools in Scotland)

Some also made compelling arguments for changes which would ensure all our young people achieved successful outcomes and were equipped to contribute effectively to the Scottish economy and society, now and in the future, changes which would:

  • reduce over-crowding in the curriculum and make learning more enjoyable (the implication being that it wasn’t enjoyable enough!)
  • better connect the various stages of the curriculum from 3 to 18
  • achieve a better balance between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects and include a wider range of experiences
  • make sure that assessment and certification support learning (rather than lead learning as had been the case prior to the introduction of CfE)
  • allow more choice to meet the needs of individual young people

piperA key element of the changes has been the replacement of 5-14 national tests with The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), a national sample-based survey which monitors performance in literacy and numeracy in alternate years at P4, P7 and S2, and involves only a handful of randomly chosen young people from each school. Information from the survey is also used to inform improvements in learning, teaching and assessment within the classroom; it has been aligned with Curriculum for Excellence and includes written, online and practical assessments.

There is still much work to be done, especially I believe in respect of the last two objectives on that list of changes which people wanted to see, but as another academic year draws to a close, it is reassuring to know that what we are attempting to do here is attracting some admiring glances from other, bigger nations, who have perhaps found themselves seduced into thinking that more and better tests were the answer to better learning, only to discover that the two are only loosely connected.

The Sad Story of Kid B

Mary Berry, CBE , is an English food writer who has become quite a national celebrity recently as co-presenter of the unexpectedly popular BBC television programme, The Great British Bake-Off. However, unlike many of today’s media celebrities, Random_House_Mary_Berryrather than being famous simply for being a television presenter, she is celebrated for having considerable other talents – among them the ability to turn out near-perfect baking at the drop of the proverbial hat, and with apparent ease. The apparent ease comes after many years of dedication to her chosen profession, having moved to France at the age of 27 to study at Le Cordon Bleu school, before working in a number of cooking-related jobs. She has published over 70 cookery books and hosted several television series. How fitting then, that her own life story would be the subject of a BBC documentary this week, and how sadly predictable that the story of her time at school would be such an unhappy one – “I can never remember, in all my life, having any praise from Miss Blackburn (the Headmistress)”. At the age of 14, she had the opportunity to study what was then called ‘domestic science’ and the rest, as they say, is history, but listen to the language she uses to describe herself, over sixty years later, despite the accumulated weight of evidence pointing to a hugely successful life and career:-

“When you reached 14, there were two options; you either took Latin and maths – that was for the clever ones – or if you were a pupil like me – it was domestic science.”

As long ago as November 2007 I wrote an article for TESS arguing that if Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence was to succeed, there would need to be a major shift in attitudes to what I called the ‘hierarchy of subjects’, a kind of intellectual elitism which prevailed in the last century and which led, among other things, to the false dichotomy between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways in schools. Scotland as a nation had always taken pride in the concept of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ which developed in the 19th Century, the ideal that a boy should strive to be an all-rounder, a pioneer, broad in knowledge but at the same time practical (Note: girls had not yet been invented in 19th Century Scotland). In the TESS article I set readers a challenge – to stop the first ten people over the age of sixteen that they met in the street, and ask them to write down – in order of importance – the subjects they studied at school. They knew, as well as I did, what the results would be; maths and English at the top, science and languages somewhere in the middle, the arts and ‘practical’ subjects towards the bottom. As I said at the time, the origins of this emphasis on a particular set of skills in preference to all others are not too difficult to trace. In Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Howard Gardner puts it like this:

“Having a blend of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is no doubt a blessing for students and for anyone who must take tests regularly. Indeed, the fact that most psychologists and most other academics exhibit a reasonable amalgam of linguistic and logical intelligence made it almost inevitable that those faculties would dominate tests of intelligence. I often wonder whether a different set of faculties would have been isolated if the test developers had been business people, politicians, entertainers, or military personnel.”

“I have no objection if one speaks about eight or nine talents or abilities but I do object when an analyst calls some abilities (like languages) intelligences, and others (like music) “mere” talents. All should be called either intelligences or talents: an unwarranted hierarchy among the capacities must be avoided.”

Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

The debate about the very purposes of a broad education continue to rage of course – and rightly so – and nowhere more so than in England at the present moment, where Education Secretary Michael Gove‘s plans for an English Baccalaureate have not met with universal acclaim. One London teacher decided to respond by making this short but powerful video, which tells the story of Kidb, and of all the kids we write off if our definition of education, or intelligence, or literacy, becomes too narrow to fit everyone in, and if the pursuit of better test scores takes precedence over the development of better people.

Kidb from darren bartholomew on Vimeo.

Related Posts:-

Testing Times

No More Curriculum for Excellence

Multiple Intelligence Revisited

The Tyranny of the Test

Painting the Bigger Picture

A decision this week by one of Scotland’s 32 local authorities to delay the introduction of new national qualifications has re-ignited the debate over the implementation of the revised curriculum guidelines, and raises a number of important issues. With one media commentator referring to the aforementioned council as a ‘flagship authority’ (one wonders in what sense an authority which is, by its own admission, unprepared for changes it has known about for at least two years can be described as a ‘flagship authority’), you have to ask yourself whether those in the mainstream media have really made an effort to understand the extent of the changes, or whether they are happy to perpetuate the simple notion that successful educational outcomes and good exam results are one and the same thing. This kind of conservatism is disappointing, though hardly surprising, but increasing resistance from some within the secondary sector begs the more serious question of whether real change and ‘joined-up learning’ can actually be achieved in our secondary schools within the restricting constraints of timetables which send young people on a daily tour of subject departments.

Big History Naked from bgC3 on Vimeo.

This question was uppermost in my mind again today when a friend on Twitter directed me to the Big History Project, a scheme described as ‘an attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity’, initiated by the Anglo-American historian Dr David Christian and supported by Bill Gates. I suppose it may be asking too much that all our young people leave school with a complete understanding of life and the history of the universe, but wouldn’t it be good if we were able to give them more of the bigger picture than a few random pieces of the jigsaw?

Failed in Style – Best Exam Clangers

Exams can be a real pain for teachers and students alike, but they sometimes do provide a bit of light relief and of course they don’t always produce the answers you were expecting – if you have ever had to set an exam you will know how difficult it is to set questions which are clear and unambiguous.

Take the case of the class sitting their practical cookery exam who opened their papers to find the instructions 1) Heat 3 tbs of oil in a pan; 2) Add chicken and seal. After a pause of a few seconds a hand went up at the back of the room and………..yes you’ve guessed the rest.

 I remember also the story – perhaps apocryphal – of the student who, when faced in a philosophy exam with the question “Is this question a question?” answered in a completely logical manner with “Is this answer an answer?” It is often when students have no idea of the answer however that they are at their most inventive. Here is another of my favourites from real exam papers. I think there should be some kind of honorary award for the most imaginative answer even if the candidate has no idea about the subject being examined.

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