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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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?

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.

PPP-Practise, Participate, Perform

Took the opportunity on Thursday to visit the new Prestwick Academy. Having worked in the old school for over ten years it was always going to be an interesting experience, but I could not have envisaged just what a difference the change of environment would make. Built on the same site with funding from the sometimes controversial Public-Private-Partnership scheme (PPP), the contrast is like night and day, as what strikes you immediately about

the new building is how light and spacious it is, especially in the public areas such as the corridors. As I toured the school the difference in the body language of many of my ex-colleagues was also striking, with broad smiles and a beaming sense of pride replacing some of the grim sense of purpose which the old buildings often encouraged.

On reflection however, I couldn’t help wondering whether the new Prestwick, just like all the other new school buildings appearing across the country are simply brighter, cleaner, more humane exam factories, in which some of our young people will continue to achieve marginally better Higher results than the previous generation while an increasing number are left behind in the race because they are wearing lead boots. Or is there enough space in there, literally and metaphorically, to transform these new schools into places where all young people have a chance to excel, can expect to participate actively, to practise the life skills they will need long after school, and most importantly have the opportunities to perform on a daily basis.

As Pat Kane reminds us in The Play Ethic, Reggio Emilio’s main theorist Loris Malaguzzi used to describe the space of a school as “the third teacher”. One aspect of each school is the careful construction of “piazza” spaces, both for the whole school and within each classroom. In these, children and adults can find the opportunity to display their projects, mount dramas, performances and concerts, and otherwise express and affirm the collective identity of the school through creative identity.

Fortunately at Prestwick, whether by accident or design, there are enough communal spaces to allow for this kind of active collaborative learning to take place, and I look forward to seeing how that happens in the months and years to come. The plan to “collapse” the traditional first year timetable fo a week or more in May/June for a Health in the Environment event or project, with a member of staff from each curricular area involved in the planning group is a good place to start. Planning is key to the success of such a venture, with clearly defined learning outcomes an absolute pre-requisite.

Two articles in the Times Educational Supplement this week effectively crystallise the choice we are facing in education in this country at the moment. In one, the head of history at Dundee High School explains why they are so successful (ie they have very good pass rates at Higher and Advanced Higher), one of the reasons being that the school believes “first year should be a preparation for Higher”. A few pages further on, Paul Thomson, the rector of Jordanhill School, having been part of a Scottish delegation to Ontario, Canada, describes some of the features of the increasingly successful education system there, which include no external examinations, well-developed vocational pathways and no school inspectorate. Sounds to me like we should be having a closer look there, and asking ourselves how serious we are about the values, purposes and principles of Curriculum for Excellence, before we continue hurtling along the path to even more external exams and greater accountability. Let us not be ambiguous about this – a young person’s first year at secondary school should be about opportunities for learning in a creative and stimulating environment, and a further preparation for life in a rapidly changing world. Highers may or may not be a short episode along the way. Long may they flourish at Prestwick and elsewhere!