This is the first part of four posts which will make up my presentation from Research-Ed York on May 3rd 2014. I have chosen to present it in parts because it adds up to about 3000 words and, heck, even I couldn’t be bothered reading all of that in one go. Feel free to comment, good or bad.
Imagine this scenario: you are genuinely given a blank slate when it comes to your curriculum. When the powers that be came to a conclusion that this way wasn’t working and they wanted to start all over again. What would you do?
This sort of happened in Scotland around the turn of the century, not long after Scotland was given Devolved powers. We were given the gift of one of those big conversations that Tony Blair used to have: it’s just me guys. The ‘National Debate on Education’. Once again, inequality in Scotland had reached embarrassing levels, one in five children living in poverty. and, unsurprisingly, educational achievement. That ‘big’ conversation with the population of Scotland formed the roots of Curriculum for Excellence, roots which are still developing twelve to thirteen years later.
On 9 October 2004, the Scottish Parliament was officially opened. Our national poet, Edwin Morgan wrote a specially commissioned poem for the occasion. Today I’m going to use that poem as part of my talk, taking the odd liberty as I go. You’ll find the full, original text here:
‘Open the Doors! Edwin Morgan
Open the doors! Light of the day, shine in; light of the mind, shine out!
We have a curriculum which is more than a curriculum.
There is a commerce between inner and outer,
between brightness and shadow, between the world and those who
think about the world.’
The reason I mention this salubrious occasion, the opening of Parliament, is that almost exactly a month later the initial document ‘A Curriculum for Excellence’ was published. This document identified four key purposes of education; those that enable young people to become, “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.”
Those eight words were the first words placed on that blank slate.
However, you’re kind of setting yourself up for a massive fall if you put ‘Excellence’ in the title of your curriculum. The original ‘writers’ of the initial document never intended it to be a curriculum even. They provided some thoughts and guidelines which resulted in that ‘eight -word manifesto,’ as I have called it. What happened after that was up to us. A true blank slate, if you like. And who could argue with those as outcomes for our children. Successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Well, therein lies the rub. Who decided what a successful learner was? Or an effective contributor? And why not a confident learner or a responsible individual?
So, where was the research? Why am I here today at Research ed? Well, there was none. There was a whole lot of talk about what we wanted from our education system, from our schools, from our teachers; but nothing like real research-based evidence to say that those eight words, those four ‘capacities’ – as they came to be called – were based on anything other than a dream. However, for me it was dream worth fighting for.
I had been teaching for about five years by this point and genuinely, naively perhaps, felt a huge surge of optimism about what might happen. A blank page? Surely that was a good thing? What happened might seem frighteningly predictable. This small document turned in to a series of rather longer documents which eventually would be gathered into one of those impressively huge folders we all having gathering dust somewhere. In each there was a series of posters which looked like this. From eight words to ‘War and Peace’.
But still. Teachers were, it seemed, being given more freedom than ever before to create curricular content. The four capacities developed into eight areas of focus. Apart from that, off you go. I’d always heard the cry for autonomy and ‘let us get on with it’. Our bluff was being called. And that brought its own challenges. When you’re given that blank slate you’d better ensure that it works, that children are being challenged and are learning. It might be an uncomfortable thing to admit but teacher autonomy doesn’t always ensure that. And when the more conservative sections of our society who didn’t believe that change was required, that did not trust or support our teachers, sensed that problems were afoot then these were the stories which filled the press. CfE wasn’t working. Children weren’t being taught; they spent all their time in groups, discussing stuff. With no challenge or rigour.
But don’t believe the stories. The problems would be about how to teach children with such a level of challenge that the new way would raise the bar for them rather than a weaker form of what we had before. Yes, the big folder was liberally sprayed with terms like ‘21st century learning’ and ‘child centred-learning’; but there is nothing in there that suggests that we should lower expectations. The word ‘knowledge’ only appears once in the English and Literacy outcomes– ‘using what I know’ also appears once – but it is assumed, I think. So where does research come in? It became clear that the only way we would change for the better was through improved teaching. Easy.
In part two, I’ll discuss some of the difficulties in changing the culture in schools and how CPD needs to be the focus of these attempts to change everything.