Changing education (part four)

Changing education (part four)

4: It all adds up

So far I’ve looked at the systemic failure of our current system, explored some of the external and internal pressures demanding radical change, and suggested what that change might begin to look like. In this final part I’ll consider the influence of formal exams and the need for a different approach.

What you measure is what you get

There’s an old truth that what you measure is what you get, which is to say that examination systems can themselves introduce counter-productive bias. If you put a premium on narrow academic performance then you will skew the rest of the system around it.

This is not about dumbing down; quite the reverse. It’s about asking much more rigorously whether how we test is fit for purpose, which in turn means asking more seriously what the purpose is.

Consider this: if I was managing a call centre I could decide to raise productivity by setting tighter targets for call duration (so agents were under pressure to end each call within say two minutes). You’d probably see a rise in the number of calls handled every hour and might feel you could congratulate yourself, but in doing this it’s likely that you have damaged customer satisfaction. A narrow goal arising from the functioning of the call centre has blinded you to the real purpose of that centre. Similarly in education, if you’re going to emphasise narrow academic achievement you need to ask yourself about the value of everything else that you’re ignoring.

Clearly there are subject areas where you would want to know that a student had the necessary knowledge to move on to the next level, but even here there are many different ways of assessing that knowledge. Traditional formal exams generally test the ability to deploy recent intensively-learned information under pressure. That skill in itself isn’t particularly useful, though I’d accept it has proved itself to have some value when assessing a student’s ability to follow a traditional degree qualification. But there are other ways to get to the assessment, ways that might be more accurate (after all traditional exams are susceptible to intensive coaching, which again reinforces the class bias of the system).

External exams start from a worthwhile ambition to achieve some kind of objectivity in assessment, but again the kind of judgements that get made may be misleading. Two students falling close to either side of a grade boundary will appear to have achieved different grades when in fact their performances were broadly similar. In some ways this is inevitable, but equally it’s probably unnecessary. If the purpose of education is to enable students to develop their skills, then certification needs to focus on demonstrable competence rather than hoop jumping abilities. Internal assessment is likely to be more accurate here than external. It can be made as reliable as any other professional assessment by removing the distorting pressure that comes from correlating teaching competence with pupil performance (abolishing our practically meaningless school league tables would be a good start).

In other words if the purpose of the assessment is look at the strengths and weaknesses of the student, with a view to helping that student rather than pinning a grade on him or her then it’s likely to be more helpful and real. This assessment and certification should be there to help the student move through the modular options of this much wider and more flexible curriculum. The clear purpose of the system should be to prepare its students for the next stage of their lives, whether that means a degree course, further technical training, or direct employment. Students at that stage should be able to present a portfolio of their completed modules and from it build a statement about who they are and what they can do. This could be more meaningful (and useful across a wider range of contexts) than the current system of personal statements required for university entrance, which itself has proved necessary to supplement the commodification of exam performance.

If tutors themselves are not judged against a crude exam performance (let alone having the college’s funding linked to it, as happens at the moment in further education) then those tutors will have no reason to distort their assessments. They can stay focused on the student and his or her real needs. It’s true this means trusting the professionalism of the tutors, but that’s what we usually do with professionals. It’s hard to think of any other area of working life where government ministers and their civil servants feel so entitled to wade into areas where they have neither the professional competence nor the imagination to judge what’s in front of them.

I’d go further and say it’s a sign of how far the current examination system is broken that a first degree has become itself commodified. I don’t believe that this is because those exams have become “dumbed down”, but because what they measure is no longer helpful to potential employers or higher educators. We need a more robust (and broader) understanding of what we mean by competence in the real conditions of our society, and we need to remove an assessment system which is not serving it.

We might then begin to reconstruct an education system designed to give that competence in all its varied forms to all of our children.

I started by saying that this piece is a provocation, not a blueprint. But for once the devil is not in the detail. The devil is in a wholesale failure of vision, a stupefying failure to consider that a changing world might need changing ideas. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers. What I have in reality are some pretty angry questions, and they need answers. If you have your own ideas it would be great to hear them. If you think these ideas are worth discussion, then please share and spread the word.

Changing education (part three)

Changing education (part three)

3: How to abolish secondary schools

So far I’ve looked at misguided aims and an increasingly misconceived curriculum. I’ll pick up those threads now to look at how secondary education resources could be better organised to support more flexible and useful learning.

Resources and personalisation

Usually within a local authority there might be half a dozen secondary schools (more or less), each with its own version of a library, science labs, sports facilities and so on. Not only does this look like an inefficient replication of resources but it also ensures that the quality of those resources will be diluted.

Worse still, given the limits of available funding, it means that the study options available to students will be limited by the particular decisions of the governing board. Tony Blair encouraged schools to make a virtue of this limitation by giving them financial incentives to become specialised, but the resulting divergence was superficial and the mechanisms of parental choice were never going to function properly. Schools themselves have tried to alleviate the situation, particularly at sixth form, by linking up with other schools to broaden their curriculum offer, but this too is a half-baked solution.

In most authorities, the assumption is that children will go to their local school, but in practice the allocation of places is messier and not least has given us the phenomenon of selection by postcode (where parents jostle to buy their homes in the catchment areas of higher performing schools, pushing up house prices and so perpetuating the deep class bias in English education).

This is all the more frustrating because technology has transformed the significance of geography in many areas of our lives (we can do so much over the internet, from research to video conferencing) and yet has hardly touched education. School is still a building you go to, an institution which as an institution will quickly acquire its own priorities, rules and culture. It’s become imperative to clear away these barriers.

I want to put the idea of personalised learning in its rightful place, in the light of what technology can do now. There is no point whatsoever in pushing children (or young adults) into classes where they have no interest in the subject and do not understand the value of being there. It’s hardly surprising that they then fail to learn anything. I believe that learners from the age of 12 should have the ability to construct their own curriculum, choosing the subjects they see as relevant to them at each given stage in their development. And unlike the current system I want to build in the flexibility which recognises the obvious truth that we mature at different speeds, so that something which seemed irrelevant at 12 but which suddenly seems compelling at 15 is not blocked by a decision we made three years earlier.

In each local authority area we should stop replicating resources. Instead of schools we should have a group of defined faculties (much like a university). So each area should maintain a science and maths centre, a humanities centre, a performing arts centre, a sports centre, a a language centre, a design and engineering centre, and so on. These centres should be as close to each other as possible, and as close to the centre of town as possible, and could be integrated with local resources like libraries and museums. They should be available to adult learners as well as teenagers, probably taking the place of FE colleges. Within the various faculties then there would be need to be provision for the kind of vocational options usually covered by FE colleges though now being picked up by some schools.

Indeed one of the prime benefits of doing things this way is that it would remove the stupid anti-technical/vocational bias that we have built into our educational system. It means recognising that you don’t need an academic degree in nursing to be a good nurse, and that instead of pushing people into expensive and misguided higher education courses we should be supporting more flexible combinations of academic and technical paths that do not denigrate the value of either.

Clearly few learners at 12 will have the maturity to pick their way through these different open choices on their own. This concept would be founded on a system of personal tutors, whose task was to understand individual learners’ needs and interests, and guide them through their options, to monitor their progress and encourage them to follow whatever options looked most promising for them.

Part of these tutors’ responsibilities would be to ensure that there was some breadth in each student’s work programme. For academic students this might not look so different from current arrangements, apart from the fundamental shift towards a personal development plan (managed through the personal learning space on the “learning platform” intranets that are already supposed to exist in every secondary school).

For more vocationally inclined students their vocational study (for instance in car mechanics, childcare or hairdressing) could be set as a goal for their learning, with specific skills teaching introduced at fifteen or sixteen. Before that age the ground could be prepared by imaginative teaching of more advanced (but perceptibly relevant) functional skills as well as tailored approaches to mainstream subjects: you can teach quite a lot about history or geography by the looking at the development of fashion, or transport; you need to have some understanding of chemistry, biology, and the arithmetic of ratios to use hair dyes well. Those teaching the vocational subjects could work closely with colleagues in the academic faculties to design and develop these modules.

This “non-curriculum” would indeed be far more modular than current practice, giving students the option to move in straight lines or to cut sideways and diagonally, exposing them to new areas of knowledge and letting them pursue things in greater depth when they want to. Practically there would need to be some structure. Modules might be project based and designed to last for a manageable period (six weeks perhaps). Students’ progress in each assignment would need to be visible to subject and personal tutors, who would help those students plot the most fruitful path forward. Within those options there should be some presumption that every student should be encouraged to investigate at least one creative activity (perhaps painting, dance, or drama) and probably some kind of physical exercise. These creative activities should be positioned as core subjects, not optional extras.

Or perhaps for the first two years of this phase students would be encouraged to explore as wide a range of possibilities as feasible, rather like a foundation year at art college, and then for the next two years start narrowing their choices according to the interest or abilities they are discovering in themselves. They might spend their final two years with a sixth-form like specialisation, though I’d like to think that there would still be the flexibility to shift between areas of study if necessary and pursue other learning topics simply as matters of interest.

In this steady narrowing of focus these ideas may seem to come closer to current practice, but there’s a very different ambition underpinning what’s being proposed here. There’s no great value in seeking to inculcate any particular set of “facts” even through the secondary education phase. It’s a given that the system needs to nurture basic functional skills, but beyond this the underlying objective is to give learners a foundational sense of how the world is, what knowledge is “out there” and how they can take that information and deploy it through the evolving needs of their lives. It’s about nurturing the natural enthusiasm for learning carried by every infant, inspiring and exciting the continuing thirst for knowledge. It’s about laying firmer foundations for lifetime learning, which is what we need as individuals as well as in the changing world of work. It’s about placing this idealism at the heart of education, because without it we have the reactionary factories that are busily destroying our capacity to develop knowledge.

I don’t underestimate the practical challenges, not least around timetabling, although those challenges could be significantly eased by an effective use of technology. Much of the required tuition could be delivered online, with students having some flexibility about when and where they worked. Apart from anything else this would be a necessary introduction to the reality of assessment by output rather than presence, a lesson that needs to be learned for the coming world of work. I recognise too the importance of sustaining social interaction. This could be achieved partly through the pastoral organisation surrounding the personal tutors, partly through an emphasis in many projects on collaborative work: this would have an obvious pertinence in creative activities like performing arts, but could be successfully applied to field trips and lab work.

Another element here is the importance of working with the grain of the way young people already live and function, because if we don’t do this we can hardly be surprised if they see what’s on offer in school as irrelevant and out of touch with the real world. Only if we work with this grain can we hope to help young people discern when best to work through a screen, and when best to turn to the living world.

Part four

Changing education (part two)

Changing education (part two)

2: Matters of fact

In the first part of this essay I focused primarily on the misguided aims of our current system. I want to look now at the way curriculum design reflects those misguided aims and ignores the skills that students will increasingly need for their futures.

Enriching experience

The curriculum is vastly overspecified and overcrowded. I don’t know of any teacher who doesn’t struggle with the daily pressure of trying to cram things in. This pressure isn’t conducive to imaginative and inspiring teaching and it’s also easing out so-called soft subjects like music and art, which in the circumstances is little short of catastrophic.

Why do children need to be forced a diet of “facts” about how the world is or has been? Unless some disaster overtakes the internet, in the future those facts will always be at our fingertips.

To take just one example, what is the point of teaching children laborious techniques for long division or multiplication, when for the rest of their lives they will have a calculator at hand? I’m not a mathematician, but as far as I can tell learning these old techniques doesn’t teach us anything fundamental about numbers. Certainly when they were inculcated in me they were just steps you had to go through mechanically in order to get to an answer. I can see now they involved some underlying principles around working in base 10, but these were not explained, presumably because it was thought (rightly) that they would just confuse us. So in terms of what we learnt it was just a process, a process which can be done far more efficiently and reliably with your mobile phone.

There are many basic mathematical and arithmetical concepts that still need to be taught, and there are still some unpalatable things like the rote learning of multiplication tables which might be valuable for a few reasons. But let’s distinguish these concepts from things which really have no value, and in doing so free some time to look at things that matter.

IT has changed the rules about what information we need to retain, and in doing so has highlighted a useful difference between information and knowledge. Knowledge you might say is what you get when you combine information with experience, and in a world where information is always going to be easily available, the focus of education needs to shift to enriching experience.

Specifically this means equipping students with the intellectual and experiential frameworks not only to find the information they need, when they need it, but also to make useful sense of it. This has always been true, but the task must look very different now from the way it did fifty years ago (even if Michael Gove and his cronies seem to have their heads firmly lodged in a fifty year old model).

Most work now in one way or another is “knowledge work”, which is why employers have started putting a premium on the abstractions of creativity or “thinking out of the box”. If employees are to bring these qualities to work then the enriched experience delivered by education needs to one which stimulates curiosity, imagination and a continuing hunger for learning. We have moved beyond a condition where the information acquired at school or college can sustain us through a working lifetime. Nurturing flexibility, adaptability, and an embrace of lifelong learning has become far more important than remembering exactly what Metternich was up to at the Congress of Vienna (these things aren’t mutually exclusive, but actually the latter is a means to an end, while the former is the proper object of a modern education).

These qualities of flexibility and self-directed learning have to some extent been more visible in a good higher education, which has tended to give students more choice in what they studied, and how they studied it (combining lectures, reading, small group tuition and larger group seminars). It would seem sensible to extend the best of these methods (though not the narrow academic goals) to secondary education (and transform higher education in the process, but that’s for another piece).

You might say that few students in secondary education have the maturity to shape their own learning like this. I’m not suggesting they do it without support and structure, and I would only observe that our current practice of forcing students to sit in classes while throwing information at them has proved itself totally ineffective for nearly half of our young people. It is literally a waste of time and money.

Instilling enthusiasm

We need to do things differently, though ironically through something educationalists have been pushing for for years, namely personalised learning. And really what I want to say here is that the current structure of secondary education has itself become an unnecessary barrier to personalised learning, and that’s why we need to get rid of it.

So here are a few suggestions.

Don’t force children into primary school at four or five, or more specifically, don’t start the curriculum at that age (in any case I am going to be arguing shortly for a much looser or broader notion of a curriculum). Ideally there should be universal nursery provision from three to seven. Children could still be introduced to concepts of number and reading in this phase, as well as other ideas that might excite their natural curiosity, but that’s the point. Nursery provision should be about socialisation and stimulation, stimulating imagination and the free play of ideas.

From seven to 12, primary schools should continue with this stimulation and openness, but with a clear agenda to impart good functional skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. I don’t apologise for this traditional emphasis. Too many children are still emerging from school (primary and secondary) without those functional skills, and without those skills they are cut off from their proper heritage.

There is no short cut here: improving performance depends fundamentally on individual attention to the learner, so class sizes will need to be halved (at least). Some of the cost could be offset by the fact that the primary stage is starting later (the nursery stage, while important, will not require the same number of fully trained teachers, freeing those teaching skills for the primary stage). We also need to see the bigger picture when it comes to cost. A substantial proportion of the prison population is functionally illiterate. The causal chain is no doubt complex, but equally there can be little doubt that a substantial investment in primary education could radically reduce other (high) social and economic costs.

The literacy and numeracy goals should be clearly defined, but in every other respect we need to trust our teachers to work out the most stimulating ways to help children develop these skills. It’s unlikely to be through rote teaching of dry techniques and facts, but through project work which might happen to include (for instance) arithmetical elements. There could be a general requirement through these projects to introduce basic ideas about history, science, and other languages, but I can see no value at all in insisting that all children should be taught a uniform group of government-defined “facts”. Teachers need to be free to teach via their own passions and enthusiasms, because that enthusiasm is usually the most infectious element, and the most important thing a child can retain (the facts are always out there to search and find quickly).

All of this will lay the foundations for the radical change at the age of 12, the subject of part three.

Part three