Sleepwalking into the Past – Life After Levels? Be Very Careful.

After reading this tweet the other night – and then having to clean porridge and haggis off my sporran for the next hour, obviously – a worrying irony began to seep through. Of course it’s beyond ludicrous but the fact that I thought of nothing else for a good wee while kind of worries me. In addition to reading David Didau’s post on Assessment, I realise that we tend to get on our moral high horse about education in Scotland. David opens his post with this:

“With the freedom to replace National Curriculum Levels with whatever we want, there’s a wonderful opportunity to assess what students can actually do rather than simply slap vague, ill-defined criteria over students’ work and then pluck out arbitrary numbers as a poor proxy for progress.” @LearningSpy

Sound familiar? About twelve years ago, at the inception of the Curriculum for Excellence, that’s where we were too. And I worry that we’re making a fumbling, stumbling, crumbling arse of it.

If you ever speak to the originators of CfE these days, those who wrote the original ‘vision statement’ for our Brave New World of education, they look on in amazement, perhaps despair, at the explosion of what I’ve previously called an Eight Word Manifesto into a massive bureaucratic nightmare of assessment criteria. It seems we’ve sleep walked into this and our now waking up into a world which, far from being decluttered, is more rigid and confusing than ever. And while pupils – and parents – need to know where they are in terms of their learning, we should be very careful about how we use that opportunity.

The eight words became ‘levels’ because we needed to assess progression. But that wasn’t enough so within each subject and and within each level we had to create ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ or Es and Os as they’ve become known. We now have a system which has more ‘levels’ than ever before. Even the levels had to be broken down into ‘Developing, Consolidating and Secure’. No-one seems to be able to pinpoint where the things came from. But we all use them. We all forget. We all become compliant. Before long, the optimism and hope of the original documents will become a distant memory.

The problem arises when the language of the Es and Os become the language of the every day; the language that we use to frame just about everything we do in schools and everything we say to parents, pupils and, even worse, to each other. Language becomes embedded and we no longer have to reference the documents. We are using Levels. We never intended to do so but it’s happening at the moment and we don’t seem to be able to do anything about that. So, like the tweet at the top of the page, I do think of England and their new adventure of “No Levels.” I trust that they will do a better job of it than we have.

I hate for this post to sound so negative. I am still incredibly optimistic about the direction of much of we’re doing in Scotland but the assessment part isn’t working in the way we intended it. We are in danger of missing a massive opportunity to alter our approach to assessment. The Language is too important to take for granted. It defines who we are. But rather than us defining ‘almost all we do against England’ perhaps England will be watching closely and learning from us. We may well be attempting ‘to map a mystery with a metaphor’ – see David’s post again – but if we have to create a new language to do so then we change nothing.

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Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

It’s strange to be apologising out loud to Google Maps when I’m in the car on my own. I can see a school in the distance but don’t appear to be getting any closer so I go off message. A couple of seconds later and I’m in a cul-de-sac, both literally and metaphorically. My new iPhone friend informs me politely how to get out of this mess. I promise not to do it again. But I have repeated this numerous times over the last couple of weeks, visiting schools, assessing student teachers. I am, I hasten to add, having an amazing time.

Finding a spot in the car park of any school is a nightmare but I usually squeeze in somewhere. Every one seems the same. I ask similar pupils every time where the office is: they respond with exquisite manners, bursting with pride in their school. I’m welcomed  by wonderful, enthusiastic Departmental Heads who introduce me to engaging and supportive teachers, offering the hospitality of departments of which they are clearly proud to be a part. This has happened almost a dozen times in the last week or two, without fail; and it reminds me of how trapped and compartmentalised we can be as teachers. Trapped in our own circumstances, forgetting sometimes that others experience what we experience.

When I get into the classroom and take my seat – usually at the back but sometimes nearer the front – I see enthusiastic kids entering their lesson with respect and manners. They are always keen – always – and intrigued by what is to come. I was initially surprised by this because we convince ourselves of the myth of the disengaged kid, intent on disruption. I never see that. Never. Perhaps because my presence affects behaviour but I don’t think so. Relationships with each other and the teacher don’t suggest that. They know why I am there and are determined to make sure all goes well.

I am there to observe the future of teaching. I was there once. It seems like yesterday. The enthusiasm, the overly elaborate lesson plan, the future in front of me. The student teachers I see are, more often than not, outstanding in their energy and creativity; their inexperience disguised by a confidence underpinned by a high level of theoretical knowledge and ability to engage with the children in front of them. They surprise me and teach me in equal parts. There are times when I get so caught up in lessons I forget why I am there. We should all have experiences like this; I am honoured and humbled.

So I return to school refreshed and invigorated; like the best teachers, I have stolen ideas from the students which I can use today. Fifteen years in and I, once again, see a life in teaching as a life’s work. We get stuck in our own wee worlds sometimes; stuck in our classrooms, our departments, our schools. But when I see new teachers at the beginning of their careers I don’t sigh and think of what I once was. I realise how much I’ve learned and continue to learn; how many I’ve affected, good and bad, and will go on to affect. I’ve had a wee glimpse into the future and it looks good. I want to be a part of that.