Stands Scotland Where It Did? (Macbeth Act IV Sc 3)

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?

Related: For an excellent analysis of the review of the curriculum in England see Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?

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The Amulet of Samarkand

I am increasingly intrigued by, and attracted to, the range of graphic novels now available on the market, so when a new one comes along – OK, when a publisher sends me a copy and asks me to review it – how can I resist? Fortunately, in this case, what I can say is welcome to the colourful world of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus and The Amulet of Samarkand. Unaware of the original Bartimaeus trilogy of Jonathan Stroud, and approaching the text with an in-built wariness towards yet another story about a  smart kid with magical powers, I was quite prepared to dislike this book, but by the end of its 144 pages (compared with the original novel’s 500) I was kind of hoping there might be more.

This is a novel aimed at young readers, but one which will be enjoyed especially by those sophisticated enough to appreciate the humour which binds the young Nathaniel (apprentice magician, more able than he is given credit for by a bullying master), Bartimaeus (the 5000-year-old djinni whom he conjures up to assist in reclaiming the said amulet) and the reader, in what is really a conspiracy against the pesky adults who tend to control things and generally make a mess of it. In this case, in a clever reversal of the traditional magical fantasy tale, the demon is the ‘good guy’ and the baddies are the tightly-knit, elitist group of ruthless magicians who run the country from Westminster (sound familiar?)

Set in what is described on page one as ‘London. Now’, the backdrop to the story is actually a dystopian future London which looks a bit like the the London of the middle of last century. And when I say looks like, I mean is stunningly drawn and coloured to look like. This book is first and foremost an absolute visual delight. I particularly liked the depiction of rural England, where Nathaniel and Bartimaeus take a trip to a government conference at Heddleham Hall, organised by the arch-criminal and Junior Minister for Trade, Simon Lovelace. In the words of the ancient spirit with the 21st Century sense of humour, ‘It felt good to be free of the city and surrounded by the natural contours of the trees and crops. I perked up a bit.’ Earlier, he had spoken of escaping London’s congested streets, feeling ‘groggy with motion sickness and the terrible stench of technology.’

The novel comes alive in graphic form. Text copyright Jonathan Stroud 2010. Illustrations copyright Lee Sullivan 2010

It isn’t hard to tell where the author’s sympathies lie. When Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves in a deserted building in the centre of London, having narrowly escaped another attempt on their lives by the villainous Lovelace, the latter muses, ‘What was this place, do you think? A library? Don’t suppose the commoners are encouraged to read much anymore, are they? That’s usually the way it goes.’ So there you have it. It isn’t really about the theft of a precious bracelet at all. It’s about the theft of our intellectual freedom. Read books, be clever, or this is the kind of pickle you will find yourself in. And so say all of us!

Language purists may well pick up on the fact that the novel contains American spellings (such as ‘theater’ and ‘fulfill’), which is strange for a book by an English author, but it was developed and published by Stroud’s American publishers Hyperion in the first instance, before reaching the UK market. A minor irritation for this reader, but I suspect not even that for enthusiasts.

The Amulet of Samarkand is adapted from the original novel by Jonathan Stroud with the help of Andrew Donkin, himself the author of more than sixty books for children and adults. It is beautifully drawn by Lee Sullivan (Transformers, Judge Dredd, Doctor Who) and the amazing colouration is by Nicolas Chapuis (Elephantmen, The Wheel of Time). It is also available from Amazon for less than a fiver, which is a far bigger crime than the theft of a precious brooch.

Click here for a complete list of recommended comic books and graphic novels.

2010 Reviewed

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. This blog was viewed about 29,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

In 2010, there were 32 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 107 posts. There were 158 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 981mb. That’s about 3 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was May 17th with 293 views. The most popular post that day was Sticking to the Plot.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were twitter.com, edu.blogs.com, bbc.co.uk, google.co.uk, and edte.ch.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for romeo and juliet, romeo and juliet pictures, back to the future, lord of the rings, and jaws.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Sticking to the Plot October 2009
26 comments

2

Picture Books, Comics and Graphic Novels September 2009
16 comments

3

Fiction 10-14 September 2009
14 comments

4

To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns January 2009

5

Immortal Memory Robert Burns January 2009
6 comments

Who Needs Teachers?

Thanks to Dave Terron, I’ve just finished reading Why Do I need a Teacher When I’ve Got Google?’ by Ian Gilbert, a book which will make you reflect on everything you thought you knew about learning and teaching. Incidentally, the author provides what I think is a fair attempt to answer the question posed in the title as early in the book as page 22:-

‘The role of the twenty-first century teacher, I am suggesting, is to help young people know where to find the knowledge, to know what to do with it when they get it, to know ‘good’ knowledge from ‘bad’ knowledge, to know how to use it, to add to it even, to know which bits to use and when and how to use them and to remember the key parts of it. Add to that your powerful role in helping them develop their communication skills, their creativity, their curiosity, their ability to work well as a team, their confidence and self-esteem, their sense of what is wrong and what is right, their ability to deal with adversity, their understanding of their role as a citizen of the world – in other words all the things which computers can’t do yet – then you have a powerful role for the twenty-first century teacher. If the end of the twentieth century saw the democratisation of knowledge, then the role of the twenty-first century teacher is quite simple – to preside over the democratisation of learning. That’s why I need a teacher when I’ve got Google and Wikipedia and O2 and an iPhone and an iPad…..’

Waiting for Superman

The American education establishment is braced for the release, later this week, of Waiting for Superman, the latest documentary from ‘The Inconvenient Truth‘ director Davis Guggenheim. While the 2006 dual-Oscar winning ‘Truth’ brought the attention of the world to the former Vice-President’s campaign to raise awareness of global warming issues  – the film was distributed free to all Scottish secondary schools, causing some commentators to express concern that children were being fed a politically biased account of an as-yet unproven theory – Waiting for Superman profiles some of the real people behind the shocking statistics  of the US state education system, and looks at the so-called ‘drop-out factories’ and ‘academic sinkholes’, laying the blame largely, if not entirely, on poor teaching standards and the power of the teaching unions.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘The film isn’t exhaustive in its critique — the enormous downside of standardized testing isn’t mentioned, for instance, possibly because testing is how we know just how dramatically today’s system is failing — but it cites plenty of blood-boiling practices, like the $65 million-a-year “Rubber Room” in which bad New York teachers draw full salaries while waiting idly for the school district to prove charges of misconduct.’

How accurate a depiction the film is will no doubt be the subject of much debate, but with the latest statistics suggesting that something in the region of 1.2 million young people drop out of school in the USA each year, almost 50% fail to graduate from high school in the 50 largest cities, and one in six young people attends a high-poverty school,  the inconvenient truth upon which everyone seems to agree is that things need to change.

Book of the Year

It’s that time of year when people compile their favourites lists. As far as my reading is concerned it’s been a rich and varied year. It began with a wonderful trip down memory lane, and the delightfully funny and wistful The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952 by Shulz. This beautifully presented collection, the first of a series, reminded me of my student days, and a good friend who delighted in stealing every edition of the Charlie Brown stories from a well-known Glasgow city-centre bookstore. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and Saul Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet were by way of catching up on gems missed along the way, as was probably Any Human Heart by William Boyd (no relation sadly). None of them disappointed. Michael Ondaatje’s Divisidero was as beautifully poetic as any of his prose. If you haven’t read anything by the author of The English Patient I suggest you do so now! The Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton was enlightening, and exploded a few myths about the imminent takeover of the world by the Chinese, while The Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron restored some of the magic and incense to that particular part of the world. If there’s a better travel writer out there I’d like to hear about them. Finally, I recently caught up with The Play Ethic by Pat Kane, a thoroughly convincing polemic on the insignificance of the old work ethic in the 21st Century. But I’m sure you will have found something I missed. Please contribute!