The Inestimable Dr Memes

There is much talk about leadership in education these days, and there isn’t a day goes by without the publication of a book or a paper, or a tweet or a blogpost on how it should be ‘done’, or how it should be ‘done better’. It was quite refreshingly amusing therefore to come across the following description of a school ‘leader’ from an earlier age, the inestimable Dr J.S. Memes, rector of Ayr Academy from 1826-1844. If leading by example is the best form of leadership, I don’t think you could find a better example than this.

Dr John Smythe Memes, LL.D., came from Brechin, and had distinguished himself as a student at Aberdeen University, taking Latin, Greek and Divinity classes, to which he added Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, as well as Botany and Anatomy. Initially finding employment as a tutor, he travelled during 1821 and the next two years on the continent, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German, and picking up a knowledge of several unspecified ‘Oriental languages’. He lectured to the Philosophical Society of London,contributed to the proceedings of the Astronomical Society, and interested himself also in literature and art. And so it was that this ‘gentleman of varied and elegant accomplishments’ took over as rector of Ayr Academy in February 1826 just after his 31st birthday. The Academy itself was enjoying a growing reputation, having re-fashioned itself in 1796 from the old Ayr Grammar Schule, famously attended by a young Robert Burns for a very brief period in his fourteenth year.

JDDr Memes flung himself into the work with enthusiasm. He took over classes in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He added History, Botany and English Composition with Rhetoric and Logic. He applied his skills as a draughtsman to preparing a series of large wall maps for his geography classes. He persuaded the directors to erect scaffolding so that he could personally paint two large terrestrial spheres on the ceiling of the school hall. In 1837 he introduced geographical ‘excursions into the country’. To extend the study of Natural History he acquired botanical specimens and created a botanical garden. He inspired the pupils of his senior English class to original composition and had printed two collections of their poems.

When, in 1838, the Classics and Modern Languages post became vacant, Memes convinced the directors that the remaining masters could easily cope if they ‘devote their individual attention to their classes’. In the summer of 1840 he spent six weeks in Paris, visiting six colleges, twenty-four municipal schools, the military academy and a college of education, ‘to acquire the most perfect methods of teaching the French language’. In the meantime, he was producing books on a number of subjects: A Memoir of Canova and Modern Sculpture (1828) and A History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (1837); Works of William Cowper (1834) and A Life of Cowper (1837); Memoirs of Josephine (1832) and a translation of Memoirs of Bonaparte (1836); with one of the earliest books on photography, Daguerre’s History and Practice of Photogenic Drawing (1839).

His enormous energies were recalled by staff and pupils alike – he was known on occasion to take extra classes as early as 6 a.m., teach for twelve hours with ‘trifling intervals’, sketch large maps for his geography classes till eight in the evening, meet with the Library Society to superintend their arrangements, and dismiss them at ten or eleven o’clock. Next morning, as early as four o’clock, he could be found working with his mathematics class, making plans of the town harbour to be exhibited at the annual examination.

Dr Memes became recognised and respected in the wider community of Ayr, and his polymathic powers were widely appreciated. He conducted evening classes in Astronomy, and gave free instruction to the  Ayr Mechanics’ Institute. When he delivered a series of Sunday evening lectures on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ in Wallacetown chapel, all 900 seats were occupied, and people had to be turned away. He provided evidence to be presented in parliament on behalf of the Glasgow and Ayr Railway Company. His knowledge of anatomy was recognised by the Ayrshire Medico-Chirurgical Association. With a party of senior pupils he made a survey and prepared a report on the feasibility of bringing piped water from the Carrick Hills into Ayr – for which he was rewarded with a public dinner in his honour. He assisted the Sheriff of Ayr by calculating the trajectory of a bullet from an air gun. When Ayr Town Hall was struck by lightning in January 1838, Memes ‘quieted public alarm’ and earned the gratitude of the town council by climbing the steeple and assessing that the structure was safe.

Under his leadership the school continued to make steady progress, but an outbreak of cholera in 1832 meant a declining roll, and by the time he left the Academy in 1844 to take up a role as minister in Hamilton parish church, his boundless energy seemed also to be in decline. One pupil recalled how in the senior Geography class, which was held daily in the hour before lunch, Dr Memes would have a glass of wine and a biscuit brought to his room to sustain him, after which he would frequently nod off to sleep.

At this point it would be easy for me to apply the usual clichés – they don’t make them like that any more, what happened to all the ‘characters’ in education, and so on. However, it’s probably best just to read all that again, take a deep intake of breath, and say, ‘Wow!’

Source: 750 Years of a Scottish School – Ayr Academy 1233-1983 by John Strawhorn

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Still Raising the Scores, Still Ruining the Schools

‘Standardised testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it threatens to swallow our schools whole.’

Alfie Kohn, 2000

This was the dramatic – some might argue hyperbolic – opening to American academic Alfie Kohn’s ‘The Case Against Standardised Testing‘ (sub-title ‘Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools’), published in the USA as long ago as the year 2000, but for those who accused him of scaremongering, and for the Scottish Government, which recently pledged to re-introduce standardised testing at regular intervals in the school-life of every young person growing up in Scotland, it is worth considering 15 years down the line whether Kohn’s fears have been vindicated, or whether the focus on tests really has improved the school experience, and performance, of young Americans.

standardized-test-cartoon-pictureFirst of all, let me summarise what I believe to be the main reasons for Kohn’s opposition to standardised tests, although I should point out that while he believes standardised testing to be a thoroughly bad idea, some forms of standardised testing are regarded as slightly less bad than others. I would also acknowledge that in summarising his position, one runs the risk of over-simplifying the case. As always, there is no substitute for buying the book and reading it in full, including the list of references and the research behind his conclusions.

  1. Standardised tests create the ‘illusion’ of objectivity. The results of the tests may sound scientific, since they are assigned a numerical score, but the reality is that they are set by adults who have an assumed ‘correct answer’ in mind, and taken by children with hugely differing experiences and attitudes, even on test day. It is not possible to remove subjectivity from the process.
  2. Standardised tests are no indicator of ability. If the justification for standardised tests is that we need to know what someone is capable of doing, there are very few less reliable ways of measuring that than a paper-and-pencil test, where the tasks are kept secret until the last minute. It is difficult to find examples of this kind of test being replicated in real life situations.
  3. Standardised tests tell us what we already know. The main thing standardised test scores tell us is how big students’ houses are. Research tells us that socio-economic factors (the amount of poverty in communities where schools are located) is the biggest factor in the variation of test scores from one area to another. To suggest therefore that standardised test scores are going to close an ‘attainment gap’ is demonstrably false.
  4. Standardised tests are mainly a test of memory. In the worst kind of standardised tests – those where children are asked to choose the right answer from a selection of possible answers – choosing the right answer gives no indication of understanding. Most standardised tests take no account of how an answer was arrived at, and bear no resemblance to problems faced in the real world.
  5. Standardised tests are designed to separate children into categories. The ultimate goal of standardised tests is not to evaluate how children have been taught, or how well they have learned. If a certain question is included in a trial paper and almost everyone gets it right – or if almost everyone gets it wrong – it will almost certainly be chucked out. Remember, the goal is not to test what has been learned, but to separate and categorise.
  6. Standardised tests teach kids (and teachers) the wrong lessons. When tests are given a status above all else in the education system, they contribute to the ‘already pathological competitiveness’ of the culture. The process of schooling becomes more about winning than learning, and we see others as barriers to our own success. In addition, an emphasis on remembering facts encourages a ‘pub quiz’ view of intelligence that confuses being smart with knowing loads of stuff.
  7. Standardised tests encourage the view that learning is something you do on your own. Tests are given to individuals, and supporting each other is known as ‘cheating’. In real life, learning is something we do with (and for) each other. Standardised tests don’t measure co-operation, collaboration, effort, empathy……..
  8. Standardised tests have inaccuracies built into them. Even when they are scored correctly, and meet the required standards for reliability, many children end up being ‘misclassified’ because of the limits of test accuracy.
  9. Standardised tests do not lead to greater accountability. A common justification for using standardised tests is that there are poor teachers out there and we need to find out who they are. This is based on a flawed logic. First of all, even if you believe that teachers are responsible for their students’ results, it would be irrational to hold a teacher responsible for the results of children who have recently arrived in his or her class. Secondly, and paradoxically, the test-driven teaching which results from the introduction of standardised tests actually reinforces what the worst teachers have been doing all along.
  10. Standardised tests stifle creativity. In an environment where high-stakes testing prevails, teachers become defensive and competitive, making sure everyone knows that low test scores were not their fault. Teaching to the test becomes the norm, and activities which don’t appear to contribute to test preparation are curtailed.
  11. Standardised tests narrow the conversation about education. The more that scores are emphasised, the less discussion there is about the goals of education. The content and the pedagogy of the school are adversely affected; the tests effectively become the curriculum. Spontaneity is discouraged, interesting pathways ignored. Children’s social, moral and intellectual development is put on hold.
  12. Standardised tests are educationally damaging. As teachers are encouraged not only to spoon-feed students the facts they will need to pass the tests, but to provide them with ‘test-taking’ skills, such as skimming a text rather than reading it deeply and reflectively, they spend less time helping them to become ‘critical, creative, curious thinkers’.
  13. Standardised tests don’t ‘raise standards‘. When teachers and students are forced to focus on only those things which can be reduced to numbers, such as how many grammatical errors are present in a piece of writing, the  process of thinking has been effectively relegated to a lesser importance. As the saying goes, we are then valuing what we can measure, rather than measuring what we value.
  14. Standardised tests discriminate against poorer children and parents. When the stakes are high, parents and schools use whatever means they can to achieve better results, which usually means buying more and better test preparation materials, or access to tutors and extra tuition. When schools decide to buy ‘reading schemes’ for example, as a quick fix, it is often at the expense of more exciting and interesting books and materials. The result is a narrowing of the learning experience generally for children in deprived areas.

kohn‘Testing allows politicians to show they’re concerned about school achievement and serious about getting tough with students and teachers. Test scores offer a quick-and-easy – although, as we’ll see, by no means accurate – way to chart progress. Demanding high scores fits nicely with the use of political slogans like ‘tougher standards’ or ‘accountability’ or ‘raising the bar’.

Alfie Kohn, 2000

Conventional wisdom used to have it that top U.S. students did well compared to their peers across the globe, when adjustments were made for higher poverty levels and racial diversity, but even allowing for these factors the latest available PISA test results, released in December 2013, showed that the best-performing U.S. students were falling behind even average students in Asian countries (or sub entities), which now dominate the top 10 in maths, reading and science. (source). In other words, even in the ‘pro-testers’ world’ and using the success criteria preferred by the pro-testing lobby, the relentless focus on testing does not appear to help kids perform better in standardised tests! It is of little surprise therefore that many leading academics are now questioning the validity of The PISA tests themselves, and the propensity for governments around the world to use them in determining educational policy (source). The key findings of that 2013 report demonstrate that not only were the serially-tested American youngsters failing to make any headway in global comparisons, but that the testing regime was having a damaging effect on their ability to think for themselves and apply their learning in real-life situations.

PISA 2012 Key Findings USA

  • Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th (this is the best estimate, although the rank could be between 23 and 29 due to sampling and measurement error). Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading, (range of ranks: 14 to 20) and 20 in science (range of ranks: 17 to 25). There has been no significant change in these performances over time.
  • Mathematics scores for the top-performer, Shanghai-China, indicate a performance that is the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.
  • While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53 000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115 000 per student.
  • Just over one in four U.S. students do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of mathematics student proficiency – a higher-than-OECD average proportion and one that hasn’t changed since 2003. At the opposite end of the proficiency scale, the U.S. has a below-average share of top performers.
  • Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.
  • Socio-economic impact has a significant on student performance in the United states, with some 15% of the variation in student performance explained by this, similar to the OECD average. Although this impact has weakened over time, disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-belief.
  • Students in the U.S. are largely satisfied with their school and view teacher-student relations positively. But they do not report strong motivation towards learning mathematics: only 50% of students agreed that they are interested in learning mathematics, slightly below the OECD average of 53%.

This week, the first signs appeared that America is about to admit that it got it wrong with George Bush’s inappropriately named ‘No Child Left Behind‘ reforms, when President Obama called for a reduction in testing in American schools (New York Times story), and a warning is issued today to the Scottish Government in the form of a report for the newly-formed left-wing political alliance, RISE. ‘Placing Our Trust in the Teaching Profession: The Case Against National Standardised Testing‘ uses several international studies to show that, far from reducing the attainment gap in education, the introduction of high-stakes national tests may well have the exact opposite effect.

Similarly, in its ‘Book of Ideas‘, the Scottish independent ‘think and do tank’ Common Weal had this to say to politicians seeking election to Holyrood next May:

‘But education should, at heart, be about improving our quality of life. This can mean many things. It can mean exposingideas ourselves to ideas and thoughts which expand how we see ourselves and our lives. It can mean learning coping skills to help us respond positively to the things that happen to us throughout our lives. It can mean giving us the skills to do the things we enjoy. It certainly means making us feel good about ourselves as valuable members of society. It certainly shouldn’t mean creating a system driven by the need to pass exams as a means of avoiding a bad life. The cycle of pressure and anxiety that an educational regime driven by testing exerts has been shown to change the brain chemistry of children and can affect them throughout their lives. You cannot test a child into being a happy, constructive and productive citizen.’

We have a government in Scotland which is enjoying unprecedented popularity, and which has worn its ‘progressive’ label as a badge of honour when others have sought to use it as a term of abuse. As far as the education system is concerned, the next few months will certainly put that commitment to progress to the test.

Further Reading:

The Guardian: Obama Calls For Cuts to Schools’ Standardized Testing Regimens

Diane Ravitch: The Badass Teachers Association Respond To Testing Announcement

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley: The Coming Age of Post-Standardization

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.

Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?

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.

A Novel Approach To Reading

Italia.jpg

Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

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