Still Searching for Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

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, A Search For Scotland

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?

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 toSearch.jpg 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.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)

See also rfmackenzie.info 

Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast

With thanks to my good friend on Twitter Robert Macmillan (@robfmac) for pointing me in the direction of A Search for Scotland. One day soon I hope to meet him in the real world.

‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts

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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

Taking the Metro or Jumping on the Bandwagon?

Anyone taking the bus or train to work in the UK this morning would have been confronted by this headline in the popular free newspaper the Metro, creating the impression (again) that our schools are currently populated by armies of illiterate teachers who can hardly distinguish their anus from their olecranon. So let me try to put the ‘problem’ into perspective. One of my many responsibilities in a previous role as a DHT in a large secondary comprehensive school was to read, comment on and sign the twice-yearly reports for my year group – around 250 students. In the course of doing that I would regularly have to return to members of staff who had errors in their reports and ask, as diplomatically as possible, that they be re-written, to save potential embarrassment all round (Note that ’embarrassment’ is a tricky word to spell). It is a task I did not enjoy. Was it ignorance on the part of the teacher or simply the pressure of deadlines and a hundred and one other things on their minds? In my view it was much of the latter and a little bit of the former.

“Evidence presented to the Review suggested that a small, but none-the-less significant, number of initial teacher education students lack some of the fundamental attributes to become good teachers, including limited interpersonal skills and basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy. Although the evidence was largely impressionistic and applied only to a minority of students, the concern was persistent and widespread and needs to be addressed.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future – Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland January 2011

Teachers do, occasionally, make mistakes when writing reports. But we all mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do, yet teachers, uniquely it seems among the population at large, are not allowed to. They must be above reproach, infallible, superhuman, an expectation all too easily taken up by the mainstream media. Newspapers, and newspaper journalists themselves you may have noticed, also make mistakes, despite having internal mechanisms to ensure that they don’t, a point not lost on independent ICT consultant and founder of L4L Leon Cych, who contacted the Metro and asked them about their newspaper and the role of the sub-editor. You can hear the resulting conversation here (Note that it is easy to confuse ‘hear’ and ‘here’ if you are in a hurry).

shcool

Poor spelling or a case of revenge?

At the risk of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to attend one of my literacy sessions with teachers, I often begin with a spelling test consisting of four or five words, offering a substantial prize for anyone who achieves full marks. Only one person has ever claimed the prize, and he admitted later that he had attended an earlier event so remembered the words, which I hadn’t changed. The moral of the story is that whether you are a teacher or just an ordinary human being, when it comes to literacy none of us is the finished article (Note the singular noun ‘none’ – no one – takes a singular verb ‘is’). The key issue is not whether you know, or think you know, everything, but whether you are aware of your weaknesses and are taking the appropriate steps to improve them.

Footnote: the most common error in the reports I was responsible for checking was a failure to distinguish between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. When I explained the difference to one colleague I was told that I was making it up.

Addressing the Gender Imbalance

In the immediate aftermath of my previous blogpost on how to engage boys in reading, I discovered two very interesting items related to the topic of gender imbalance in the classroom. The first was a report by the Teaching Agency which suggests that the number of men training to be primary teachers in England has increased by more than 50 percent in the last four years, surely a figure to be welcomed by everyone with an interest in education and schools. The second was this TED talk by Ali Carr-Chellman on how to engage boys through the use of gaming in the classroom. Thanks to Fernando for bringing it to my attention via the Transmedia and Education group on Facebook.

A former colleague and fellow DHT of mine used to maintain that many of the problems in schools at the end of the 20th Century had been caused by what he described as the ‘feminisation’ of education. I disagreed with him entirely, and I still do. The issue for me is not that we should treat boys very differently from girls, but that the curriculum should more accurately reflect the broad range of interests and passions which exist in the world, and that the range of texts with which teachers and students engage in the classroom should be much broader than it often is. As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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?

Physics IS Fun. Honest.

I cultivated an extreme aversion to science at school. Or should I say, the way I was taught science at school left me completely cold. My memory of physics for example – and I know I am as capable of hyperbole in the interests of a good story as the next man – is of being set endless homework problems, along the lines of working out how long it would take a stone to reach the bottom of  a cliff if thrown from a great height. Call me an unwilling participant, but I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to care, far less see the relevance of the problem. The fact that our textbook was called, without a hint of irony as far as I’m aware, Physics is Fun, only served to bolster my resistance.

Fast forward several decades, and along with a great many of the population, I have been transfixed recently with the apparent ‘discovery’ by Italian scientists of tiny particles called ‘neutrinos’ moving faster than the speed of light, and in the process upsetting everything we thought we knew about the universe since Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was – er, ‘universally’ accepted. Numerous eminent scientists have subsequently weighed in with huge doses of scepticism of course, which all adds to the fun (Best related joke so far: Barman says ‘we don’t serve neutrinos in here. A neutrino walks into a bar.)

My interest in the story was already primed, having recently finished reading Free Radicals – The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks, in which the author argues that science has suffered over the years from a very safe and conservative image, with scientists portrayed through the mass media as dependable, rational and almost always correct, an image which Brooks claims is inaccurate and which has done science and science teaching little favour. Here is how he describes the situation in his own words:-

Then there is the issue of science education. How do we inspire the next generation of scientists? Since the 1950s, the public face of science has been dull, spiritless and cautious. Scientists have taken a back seat in society and culture, allowing rock stars, sportsmen – and women, and fame-hungry TV celebrities to win the attention of our children….If the high school students of today were permitted to learn – perhaps through scientists taking a more honest approach with the media – what science and scientists are really like, the days of a career in science being the dull, dismal road less travelled would be behind us.

There is also the problem of methodology: science teaching methods and curricula have also been the victim of the cover-up. Children have, by and large, been taught the letter but not the spirit of science. As the philosopher Rousseau suggested, we should not teach children the sciences, but give them the appetite for them.

It is open to question, for instance, whether students really need to learn all of the scientific information on the science curriculum. For most, it is an experience that seems to destroy any interest in science. And anyone who has done a school science practical will know how hard it can be to get results that the textbooks say they should. Why is this seen as a failing? Imagine if teachers were then allowed to use this experience to explain the challenges and rewards involved in making breakthroughs and discoveries, rather than having to press on to the point where the student’s notebook contains the ‘right’ answer. Science teachers have been unwittingly co-opted into the effort to conceal the true nature and spirit of science.

It strikes me that the new Scottish science curriculum provides teachers with the opportunities to do exactly as Michael Brooks suggests here. But then again, I’m not a science teacher, so what would I know. Any science teachers out there care to comment?

STOP PRESS

Since writing this post I have been directed to two exciting new, free, science teaching resources from the BP Educational Service.

 

There is a teaching resource for Primary called Young Science Investigators: Project Kit www.bp.com/bpes/ysiprojectkit,  which is a new interactive resource for pupils aged 7–11 that focuses on science at work in the real world and scientific enquiry skills through practical hands-on activities, animations, lesson plans, worksheets and teacher guidance.

How Science Works – Clip Bank www.bp.com/bpes/howscienceworks is the secondary resource which provides students aged 11-16 with great examples of real-life science in action. The materials include video clips, animations, interactive activities, photo slideshows, teacher guidance and curriculum links.


 

Warning. Joined-Up Learning Ahead

I’ve just been reading about a really interesting experiment in Kirn Primary School in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. Faced with a reducing number of full-time staff, supplemented by an increasing number of part-time teachers who had been re-deployed from other schools with falling roles, the headteacher decided to play to the strengths of his team, while providing stability and continuity to the learners. An early years and first level ‘department’ was created for P1 – P4, staffed by full-timers, where the nurture and support so critical for youngsters in the early stages of schooling would not be compromised. From P5 – P7, however, the learning would take place in what are described as ‘subjects’, with part-time teachers offering specialist topics to each of the classes in turn, according to their own (that is, the teacher’s) strengths and interests.

The gamble seems to be paying off. One of those part-time teachers, who specialises in music and RME, describes how she and the children worked on a school production called The Peace Child, where they had to pull together all the aspects of theatrical production while exploring the theme of conflict resolution, and where they now had ‘time and space to reflect on their learning’. The six-week block of time allowed them a greater element of personal choice, and the opportunity to explore in greater depth aspects of the topic which had a special appeal. A welcome by-product of the new way of working has been an increase in the amount of outdoor education offered to the pupils  – surely a welcome development at a time when Play England reports that 42% of children in England and Wales have never made a daisy chain and 32% have never climbed a tree; there’s no reason to believe that the figures for Scotland would be very much healthier.

One particularly interesting – and slightly curious – aspect of this story for me is that the headteacher himself describes the six-week blocks which teachers offer as ‘subjects’, causing the TESS, where the story was reported this week, to wonder:

“But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.

It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?”

The reason for this concern and confusion, in my opinion, is in the terminology. Potentially, what Kirn seems to be offering here is successful project-based learning, the very antithesis of learning in ‘subjects’. The learners are engaged in one topic at a time,  over a relatively short period of time, with one teacher, not many. In other words, it is nothing like a secondary model. Other schools have experimented with versions of the ‘rich tasks’ approach with mixed results, but this is one experiment which should definitely be worth watching.

This is the Common Craft team’s take on Project Based Learning: