Reflection on Conference season and Unwritten Codes

Working in the Borders of Scotland means that attending conferences and national events is sometimes quite a consideration.  Hours in the car- after negotiating the tractors, Tesco and Asda lorries, ‘the world’s a 40mph limit’ drivers (and that includes 30mph zones along with the dual carriageway section that keep drivers on the A7 sane) and, of course, the inevitable X95 if you have missed the half hour slot between ‘express buses’, you find yourself on the Edinburgh bypass and then the M8 stuck in traffic and always in the wrong lane. So- you reach the Stirling Management Centre or some venue in Glasgow frazzled but knowing every item of news locally and nationally and you’re starving as you left at 6.30 for a 9.30 start.  It has to be good to make it all worthwhile…and quite often you leave thinking, ‘What one thing do I know now that I didn’t know at the start?’.  Sounds quite arrogant I appreciate but, for many years I did go looking for new knowledge and I think I was wrong.  Of course there is a certain amount of information that is important and necessary but now I think it has been a good day if I have met and talked with colleagues that have challenged my thinking, perceptions, biases or understandings.  The speakers and workshops, I now feel, are there to provide a skeleton to the day and almost all the value comes from learning from colleagues.  Sometimes I wish teachers would feel they could challenge more and start a real debate but, over the years, I’ve observed that the teaching profession has an unwritten code .  It could best be summed up as ‘Respect! You’ve had the guts to stand up there and give your views, shared your knowledge, I might not agree with all you’ve said but ‘fair do’s’ (to use an old Scots expression that may be spelt wrongly!). Now I realise that happens at coffee, over lunch, sometimes in tweets or blogs afterwards, but, rarely, do we find a strong attack or challenge from the floor.  I need to think more about this to understand what’s going on and if it’s cultural.

So- why the reflection on this today?

I have spent three days this week in conferences and national meetings around CfE or Education Scotland/ ADES business. Apart from having an embarassing tumble when I lost my footing outside the Stirling Management Centre when a colleague shouted from behind and hobbling about the rest of the week, it was fairly ‘par for the course’.  I live tweeted from the National CfE conference which started a dialogue on Twitter that evening on whether there were any teachers at the event, which was interesting.  The answer was yes but they were there in the form of Headteachers and Deputes as it was aimed at those leading CfE across schools or authorities but I enjoyed the challenge and the debate.

The conference I attended on Thursday was on Literacy and was focused around the inter- authority hubs across Scotland.  These sessions were good and left me realising that we probably haven’t communicated the work of these hubs sufficiently.- I certainly felt I didn’t know enough about ours, which is in partnership with East, Midlothian and Edinburgh, with Dumfries and Galloway now joining. Interestingly a national parent rep in this workshop made a very stark challenge to the presenters on what exactly authorities were doing and it was almost embarassing that, as a group, we failed to satisfy her with the answers.  She commented that teachers are unable to explain to parents what we are doing without talking in a code that is impossible to understand. It was after this awkward ( but deserved) criticism that I reflected on our unwritten code as a profession about how far we go in challenging.  This parent felt no compulsion to agree that her question had been answered or to laugh it off or give up as we so often do.

There was an interesting presentation on the findings of the SSLN on Literacy, recently published, which drew my attention to some troubling data on ‘middle groups’ by S2 losing ground but I need to go and study this to understand it better. My live tweeting on this was far more challenging and the Multi- tasking of looking at graphs on the screen, listening and encapsulating the key message in 140 characters defeated me at times!  It’s the first time however that I have had a question come in for the presenters from a very astute colleague in Scotland challenging how useful the data is when we don’t have authority sets to use at local level.  It was a good message to the team that the audience was wider than those in front of them in the room.

Yesterday I was part of the Curriculum and Qualifications network (CAQ delightfully) and had a very interesting input from the Glasgow Science Centre which opened up for me the explosion we are about to see in technology and digitisation that would allow classes to stand in the middle of a digitised body and pull it apart from the inside out.  That was one example of the change ahead for us and the notion of ‘flipped classrooms’,  which @pedaggooers talk about all the time but which have not quite made it into accepted practice yet is exciting yet daunting.

I finished the week with the Senior team at Education Scotland as part of ADES executive. We had interesting discussions around the changing contexts and professional relationships across Scotland and it was reassuring to see the recognition of this and the genuine desire to ensure that Education Scotland add value and see themselves as partners in seeking the best possible learning experience for our children and young people. We did talk about the fact that the word ‘partnership’ is getting hackneyed and we need to make sure that all of us in the education world know and understand our distinctive contribution to shared goals. All too often these are in conflict or misunderstood.  I see a time in Scottish Education when every part of the system can have influence and power in moving forward – interesting times…

For me,  a weekend of resting my ankle and ‘milking it for all it’s worth’ is ahead.  The couch and lots of cups of tea beckon.  Enjoy yours.


Bruner and Curriculum for Excellence

Happy New Year friends and fellow bloggers, Pedagoo-ers!

I have been slow in getting back to blogging after Christmas and New Year and my resolutions (in which writing figures prominently) are needing a fresh injection.  So- what prompted me to take to print, particularly during the Murray match in Melbourne??

Firstly, I couldn’t take the stress of the match and firmly believe I seem to be a bad omen for him as he started to go downhill when I started to watch the match?!

Secondly I have been dipping into Bruner’s ‘The Process of Education’ recently and it has whirling around in my head all week and needed breathing space to sort out what has been bugging me. Three words.  Curriculum for Excellence.  One more word…implementation. Don’t get me wrong- I remain committed to the ‘vast programme of transformational change’, however, herein lies the challenge.  It appears to me, perhaps an idealist, possibly a frustrated idealist, that the transformational elements are being eroded the closer we get to implementation of the 1st cohort’s ‘Senior Phase. I find some discussions I am having with secondary colleagues at the moment are structural ones- on the surface at least…and not about structure of knowledge but ‘choices’ at the end of S1 or S2. I mean choices as in dropping subjects although I have now started collecting pseudonyms for narrowing the curriculum and narrowing choice- particularly for those students identified as being ‘less able’ to benefit from the curriculum on offer in S1-3. (Worst case scenario could be that the teachers are ‘less able’ to teach for understanding to groups of students that have not traditionally taken their subjects…) The concern I have is that this appears to be a return to teaching for understanding for students that can naturally understand the ‘harder’ subjects.  A curriculum for more clever and less clever children. Often the subjects dropped or not opted for as an ‘elective’ are the very subjects we need as a society to compete in a global world.

So- where does this fit with Bruner’s 52 year old proposition that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’? Bruner recognised this as a ‘bold hypothesis’ but asserted that ‘no evidence exists to contradict it; considerable evidence… supporting it’.  The Improving School Effectiveness Project’ (ISEP) in the 90s also highlighted a worrying finding in relation to this when teachers responded in a survey rather negatively to the item ‘all children can learn successfully’. I believe that Curriculum for Excellence is all about ‘all children and young people learning successfully’.

I found myself relishing the depth of thought in Bruner’s thesis including his later commentary on his own work. I liked that he quotes ‘brooding’ for 17 years on the theories he propounded in this book and reflecting on other schools of thought.  Yet he had no desire to rewrite or revise. Returning to the ‘spiral curriculum’ that was common currency in the 70s (when I started teaching) I found little to challenge and more to support the Scottish response to the demands for change from the profession in the National Debate: Curriculum for Excellence.  His summary, to me, outlines our aspirations for the transformative nature of CfE; ‘ the curriculum of a subject should be determined by the most fundamental understanding that can be achieved of the underlying principles that give structure to that subject…teaching specific topics/skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical…’.  he goes on to outline his reasoning that sounds remarkably similar to CfE entitlements and curricular design principles.

Those who see CfE as a curriculum devoid of content or subject knowledge  need to stop thinking mechanistically about implementing changes to a curriculum or courses and go back to the foundations of CfE- the design principles and entitlements and what they mean for the fundamental structure of a subject.  They need to understand that this incorporates rather than denies connectedness and the importance of context.

Those who believed in the transformational nature of CfE until the going got tough with colleagues, parents, managers, media, staff room culture need to gird their loins, take courage and talk about what they believe in and hope for, what they know makes a difference to our learners.  As a profession we need to be knowledgeable and reflective about what CfE aspires to achieve for our young people. To return to an over- assessed, exam driven learning experience for our young people that results in a new form of a ‘two term dash’ to NQs is a travesty to a profession that has been handed, on a plate, the greatest opportunity in centuries, to educate not school our learners.

That is a scenario that causes me great sadness.  There is a seam of dynamic, progressive, courageous, pedagogical activity deep within the education community across Scotland- it needs to come to the surface and drive the ‘Leaders’ and ‘Managers’ and ‘Policy- makers’ into putting their money where their mouths were…no change of this nature is easy but educators need to be at the heart of driving the system.  As a good friend of mine once said ‘there are dark forces out there…’. To lose heart now- or to dilute the richness and ambitions of CfE would be madness.

Bruner identified the critical success of curricular development as being for teachers not pupils. ‘If it cannot change, move, perturb, inform teachers, it will have no effect on those whom we teach. It must be first and foremost a curriculum for teachers.’

Bruner cited that his ‘Process of Education’ (1960) was ‘a creature of its time, place and circumstances’.  I found much that was a ‘creature of now, Scotland and the opportunities we as a profession have been given…should we have the courage to run with it.

Broad General Education-urban myth?

I have had a weird week.

I found myself in a very challenging meeing with Parent Councils Chairs of our secondary schools.  The agenda was officially considering the Universities paper, ‘Beyond the Senior Phase’.  Of course the agenda became for some, ‘how can can my child do less than 8 subjects and not be disadvantaged in applications to Universities?’. There was a diversity of view around the table but the strongest voices were where their own school had not ‘grasped the nettle’ and engaged with parents on the purposes of education and, particularly, the purpose of a broad general education.

Under heavy pressure from a small group of irate parents that repeatedly accused me of restricting choice at S4 and limiting their children’s opportunity to achieve as well as other Borders’ pupils or East Lothian pupils or English pupils, I found the answer lay firmly within the proper understanding of a truly broad and general education.

There is a tendency for secondaries to think of the BGE as three years…where it is actually 12 years.  I spoke passionately to the earnest, intelligent and caring group of parents about what we want to achieve for our young people, what we want to achieve for Borders and what we need to achieve for Scotland.  Not a word of overstatement on my part, not a word I do not feel passionately…but I heard my own voice within theirs…’what about Angela?’ (Daughter no 2) ‘what about Katie?’ (Daughter no 3).  Yet my passion and belief is driven by the fact that I believe that a ‘proper’ CfE and broad general education would have helped my three daughters.  It would have helped me.  I spent so many years not feeling ‘educated’ and striving to fill the void school left for me and later discovering a world that was like a bottomless pit of imagination, ideas, theories, arguments, knowledge, skills and understandings.  My greatest desire is that every one of our young people in Scotland is supported in accessing what is there for us in the rich seam of theories, understandings and mysteries that underpin our Scottish heritage and our academic legacy.

Ironically colleagues at the meeting reported back that parents listened best when the voice of belief, passion, hopefulness, ambition and aspiration for our young people trumped the instrumental information about how the curriculum would be organised.

Then I attended the Education Scotland BGE seminar in Edinburgh on Friday.  Still smarting from the wounds of the previous night, I heard educators who believed or wanted to believe that change was better.  Timetabling was central to the activities and this is a major barrier (or so it would seem for the majority) but if you listened, really listened to the teachers round the table, they wanted to see how to do it differently.  So I asked at our table, could we start with a blank sheet and think ‘how would timetabling work in a new world order’…………yes, silence.  First one of the day.

Education Scotland do not want to come across as heavy handed or critical, they want to connect to where people are and help them to move to the ‘next rung’…but what happens if they’re on the wrong ladder?  Think of snakes and ladders- that snake is waiting to plummet unsuspecting folk down to the bottom again.  Yes- fear of losing is high on the agenda.

There is an underlying power in educators in most ‘ecological’ layers of development and practice, recognising the rationale and worthiness of CfE.  Are we all- Education Scotland, Local Authorities, Scottish Government, Teacher Unions and Headteachers guilty of ‘pussy-footing’ around in case we upset people.

This is the moment and Carpe Diem has never been more appropriate. Courage is needed.  Education leaders need to lead and show their hand.  This Emperor has got a magnificent set of clothing but are we in danger of agreeing with others that it is flawed, faded, faulty or non-existent to ‘stick in with the crowd’?

Broad General Education starts 9 years before it continues in secondaries.  Have we truly embraced that?  If not the assurances we give parents about their young people having a broad general education that enables them to make informed choices about an uncertain future, is built on sand.

But, if it works, we have cracked a system that has been built on sand, perhaps tidy sand, but sinking sand when it has been matched against the needs of the present climate.

We have to get beyond timetabling, beyond subjects (while retaining ‘forms of knowledge’), beyond artificial sectoral divides and we have to get to the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy to synthesis.

But most of all, we have to focus our attention on the reality that, if we don’t focus and invest in the teacher at the interface with the young people, we completely miss what other countries across the world are waking up to…change happens in the classroom. Not through delegated or dispersed messages.  Direct engagement.  Teachers matter stupid.