Testing Times

the wireThere is an episode in the American hit TV series The Wire (Season 4) which will resonate not only with teacher-viewers in the USA but with many in the UK as well. Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski, a former officer in the Major Crimes Unit, has left the force after inadvertently killing a fellow officer in Series 3, and has re-trained to become a maths teacher in inner-city Baltimore. Initially, he struggles to come to grips with the job despite his best efforts, and the kids refuse to play ball no matter how many approaches he tries, including the introduction of card games into his lessons. The less than subtle message is that teaching is tough, no matter how ‘tough’ a guy (or gal) you think you are. Eventually however, Pryzbylewski’s hard work starts to pay off and most of the kids are beginning to recognise that – hey – he really is in this with them, when all his efforts are suddenly undermined. The district authorities have announced that their literacy scores are too low, and for the coming session the focus will be on raising attainment in literacy. For Prez and his colleagues, what this means is reading directly to a group of kids who are not listening, and administering tests which even he doesn’t understand. Not one person in the school, including the headteacher, believes in what they are doing, but the future of the school depends, literally, on their going along with it.

Watching this scenario play out, you find yourself laughing uneasily at the absurdity of the situation, while realising that perhaps that it isn’t so far from the truth – an education system where statistics and targets rule, and teachers are forced to abandon their better instincts and teach to the test.

lifeRoland Pryzbylewski’s plight came back to me this week as I finished reading  The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Professor Richard Pring, former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. A refreshing analysis of the state of education in the UK, with a particular focus on England and Wales, the purpose of the book is, in Professor Pring’s own words, ” to advocate a secondary education for all which embraces a wider vision of learning, a distinctive role for the teacher in providing the cultural basis for that vision, and a provision of opportunities through which all young people (however modest their circumstances) might have a sense of pride and fulfilment.” In Pring’s view, ‘education for all’ is still a viable goal, but only if we are prepared to address the fundamental question of its purpose, rather than simply accepting many of the assumptions of the past fifty years. The key question as far as he is concerned is, “What counts as education – or, more accurately, an educated person – in this day and age?” According to the author, those who doubt the viability of a genuine ‘education for all’, including the current Secretary of State Michael Gove, rarely address that question, preferring instead to examine how they might do the same things better:-

“However, ‘reform’, so-called, too often begins with qualifications, examinations, institutional provision, paths of progression. All those are very important, but their value lies in the support they give to learners and to their sense of fulfilment. We need to start with what it means to learn (practically, theoretically, morally). We need to question critically the value of that learning. We need also to respond to the many different needs of the learner and of a democratic society into which they are entering.”

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Death.. to anyone involved in secondary education, including, and perhaps especially,  Michael Gove. The key themes for me are these:-

  • There needs to be less top-down control from government and local authorities, not more; teachers and schools are reluctant to innovate for fear of failure
  • There needs to be greater opportunities for teachers to work together in planning the curriculum and their own professional development
  • There needs to be a redirection of resources to those most in need; the single most significant factor in the success or failure of an individual in the system is poverty
  • There needs to be less reliance on performance targets which lead to a ‘teaching-to-the-test mentality’
  • There needs to be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education which has personal development at its centre
  • There needs to be a more robust debate on what it means to be a ‘citizen’ and the concept of the pursuit of the common good
  • There needs to be a greater role for practical learning and knowledge for all – not to be confused with vocational skills or learning for so-called ‘non-academics’
  • Finally, while developing the individual is important, learning to live and work fruitfully in groups is essential to quality learning

“The curriculum, therefore, is not the means to a fixed outcome, but the engagement, assisted by the teacher, with a body of knowledge (theoretical and practical) through which learners come to understand and act intelligently within the physical, social and moral worlds they inhabit.”

In wishing you all the best for 2013, I leave you with a letter from this week’s Guardian, which sums up admirably much of what is currently wrong with secondary education in the UK, and which frustrates the lives of the many dedicated professionals working within it. May Professor Boyle’s wishes also come true.

Letter

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Transmedia and Education – Living Lab Madrid 2012

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

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

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

HenryJenkins, Convergence Culture, 2006

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

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

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

See my photos from the Living Lab Conference here.

See previous post on Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture here.

Learning to be Independent

“It’s ridiculous to think that kids can be trusted to learn things on their own.” Teacher, anon.

A couple of months ago I wrote about a primary school in Scotland which had embarked on some very interesting ‘joined-up’ learning, and I have often written or spoken about the challenges which secondary schools face when attempting to do the same thing. By definition, when your starting point is a structure which is built around a number of subject departments, when time is allocated to those subjects on the basis of their perceived importance in the hierarchy, and where young people move around from one to the next in the course of the school day, it is always going to be difficult to provide experiences which add up to a coherent whole. Add to that the enormous pressure to produce better and better exam results at the exit point, and the opportunities for real student choice, self-directed learning and learning based on outcomes rather than inputs are going to be restricted, to put it mildly. So is it possible for every secondary school to accommodate the needs of every young person? Can they support and challenge the more creative, the non-conformists, the independent thinkers? And is it reasonable to expect them to deliver learning which is relevant, joined up and personal in every case? Do we need to think about alternative school models, or should we begin by looking at the possibility of creating ‘ a school within a school’ as they have done in this bold experiment at Monument  Mountain Regional High School in Berkshire County, Massachusetts? Incidentally, if you listen carefully you will realise that the quote at the top of the blogpost is taken from near the beginning of the video.

My thanks, as so often, to Kenny Pieper for bringing the film to my attention. If you haven’t found Kenny’s blog yet, you’re in for a treat.