“We all know that teachers spend a lot of time preparing lesson plans rather than focusing on how well they deliver those lessons. This is a complete waste of time.” So says Lord Nash, schools’ minister and chair of the Future Academies chain of schools. Well, this is one hell of a statement.
So what are the underlying messages?
1. A one-size-fits-all lesson plan can accommodate all the learners because of course every learner is the same;
2. A teacher is merely a cog in the machine whose sole responsibility is to deliver content;
3. And by the way, there is money to be made. There are serious commercial possibilities for producing off the peg lesson plans.
I sometimes feel my life in education is best illustrated by Munch’s ‘The Scream’. And this is a quintessential Munch moment. How can anyone working with schools possibly believe that teaching can be reduced to a conveyor bank of lessons, laboriously rolled out by teachers with no consideration for the individual needs of the pupils? When did education become just a process?
At an open morning event in our Junior School, I found myself sharing with prospective parents the impact one teacher had on me and my life chances. My History teacher at Sixth Form College made me believe in myself. She went out of her way to help me overcome my shyness and to feel able to contribute to class discussion. She encouraged me to aspire to a future previously closed to me. I am sure others in the class felt the same. This was no accident – the teacher understood that sitting in front of her were a group of individuals. She knew that the lesson had to be nimble enough to address the needs of all the learners. She certainly didn’t just deliver a standardised lesson plan.
Sir Ken Robinson, a global education guru, is on record as commenting that teaching is an art form and not just a delivery mechanism. The implication of this statement is that the teacher has a critical role to play. The lesson plan is the preparation the teacher undertakes to ensure everyone in the class is engaged in the learning. It is crucial that everyone in the lesson accesses the learning. And it is vital that the teacher engages with the youngsters in a way which is meaningful to them.
When we decide that the teacher’s creativity, empathy, and understanding of pupils is secondary to a financial modelling system with standardised lesson plans, then we have arrived at a dystopian understanding of the purpose of education. Our young people are worth more. Shame on those who think otherwise.
What a Goveian dog’s dinner! David Blunkett’s assessment of the reforms to the examination qualifications’ framework at the recent HMC conference – with a nod to his dog Cosby – sums up perfectly the landscape which presents itself to schools across the country. Whether in the maintained or independent sector, we really are all in it together. The phased changes to ‘A’ Levels from 2015-19 are far from desirable and will result in a host of unintended consequences.
Having sat in a packed room of Heads at the conference all eagerly seeking enlightenment, I learnt that a number of colleagues were proposing to offer three of the new linear ‘A’ Levels as their sixth form curriculum offering. I completely understood the thinking behind this, however, I came away with a sense that the proposed reforms were moving us back to the ‘A’ Levels of my youth when studying an ‘A’ Level really was all about preparing for university. The fact that the boards back then were under the umbrella of Oxford, Cambridge and London signalled this clearly and the narrow offering at sixth form was designed to funnel the student to their chosen specialist subject. And of course a relatively small number of students actually studied ‘A’ Levels as university was about a scholarly elite.
Fast forward to 2014 and the world around us has fundamentally changed. This is an age of globalisation, technological revolution and exponential change. An age when, more than ever, citizens need to be capable of interrogating innovation and discovery, of having the capacity to think critically and of being scientifically literate. And an age where large numbers of young people go onto university. How on earth does narrowing the focus of learning at 16 prepare young people for the lives they will live? With universities in this country like UCL offering inter-disciplinary degrees, and with well established Liberal Arts courses here and abroad, the examination reforms fly in the face of the world our young people will live in. Gone are the days when thinking in specialist silos was the desired educational outcome. In tomorrow’s world our young learners have to be able to join the dots in their thinking, linking ideas and thinking creatively. Of course there are specialist areas but how many of our young people will be slavishly following a career defined by a specialist degree?
What we should be advocating is an examination system which supports breadth and values more than the outcome of a test. Sadly, the direction of travel in our educational world, set by Michael Gove, is such that the challenge of educating our young people for tomorrow’s world has become even harder. We shall of course ensure that our students in our sixth form are prepared for our national qualification framework. We shall investigate how we can ensure our students have as broad an education as can be offered within the Goveian straight-jacket of qualifications. Yet the broader imperative will and shall remain learning. As Alvin Toffler said:
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
Learning is for life and not just for university.
When we initially looked at iTunes U as a digital platform, I for one did not really appreciate its true potential. I knew it was widely used in Higher Education as a means of curating digital resources but in schools its use was marginal. Given every student between the ages of 11-18 in our school is issued with an iPad as part of their learning toolkit, the opportunity for our students to benefit from iTunes U was a no-brainer. Yet how to set about it?
Our strategy as a school is to develop our digital platform offering our students far more enriched resources for learning which they can access anytime, anywhere. With the support of our Digital Researcher, our teachers are skilfully curating resources tailored to the learning of our students. Currently we are targeting resources for Key Stages 4 and 5 offering learning resources which in some cases replace the requirement for a text book.
Two weeks ago 90 of our iTunes-U courses were published in the iTunes-U store. This offered the benefit to our teachers of instant editing. We also hoped that our resources would be useful to others. As of today 11,000 people have subscribed to our account across all age ranges. I received feedback very quickly on Twitter from colleagues who were extremely grateful that we are sharing. After all, iTunes-U is a free platform so there is no commercial benefit to us.
The real benefit surely, as schools strive to offer the best education for our young learners, is enjoying the facility to share. In an age when the future of conventional publishing is in the balance, we have the technology to support sharing not just nationally but globally. Indeed, the digital world makes the walls of a school invisible as its reach is exponential. Teachers become part of a global staff room sharing resources digitally, replicating what happens everyday within the walls of a real world staff room. The potential for learning is so powerful.
My hope is that by opening up our resources to the world we shall encourage others to share. Indeed, we may see a day when colleagues in different schools, in different countries collaborate to curate resources. As digital technology removes physical barriers, we should seize the opportunities opening up to us and think differently about how we support our learners and how we support each other. The digital age is the age of sharing so let’s maximise the possibilities so everyone benefits.
Should we bring the mammoth back from extinction? Can we enable a colour-blind person to hear colours? Did Charles Darwin blunder his way to his seminal “Origin of Species”? Fascinating questions which represent but a snapshot of the discussion, debate, hypotheses which filled a weekend at Science Foo Camp 2014. Sci Foo, as it is affectionately known, is now a well-established annual event hosted at Google HQ in Palo Alto, California. The hub of innovation and enterprise on the Bay offered a uniquely twenty first century backdrop to a very twenty first century gathering.
An invited audience of 250 individuals from primarily science and technology assembled to create a weekend where the audience determined the content of the event. Session after session (failed to make Science and Beyoncé but looked intriguing!) were offered spontaneously by individuals across a range of specialisms at the cutting edge of their area of expertise. The fast-fire five minute lightning talks gave the flavour of the day to come. There was more than a hint of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical – the guests at Sci Foo put on a show but a show where everyone had a speaking role.
Arriving at the Googleplex, I was acutely conscious that I was not a scientist, had not made some mind-shattering discovery nor was likely to do so. Yet I knew my presence at Sci Foo was designed for me to learn and to share the experience of teachers who have the responsibility to educate young people to thrive in the world imagined by those around me. Unsurprisingly the participants talked about a reality which had more than a hint of Science Fiction about it. A breakfast conversation about the potential for cyborg technology to change our lives and the ethical dimension of allowing technology to replicate our intellectual capacity touched on the very essence of our humanity.
The contrast between the world of futurists and the world of education is more than stark – it is as if two worlds existed alongside each other yet with little if any regard for the reality in either. It was fascinating that participants from the States felt that the move in their country to introduce more standardised testing was creating a learning environment which was contrary to the free form thinking they displayed. Indeed I joined one session where the debate about the challenges facing schools in both the USA and UK felt depressingly similar. There was a very strong sense that the education system in both countries was failing to educate young people in ways which prepared them for their future. The facility to be resilient, nimble thinking, persistent were deemed as important as examination results. Yet several American colleagues commented on the strong sense of failure which pervaded their school system because of the testing culture.
Sharing a coach journey with a gentleman on the last morning to Sci Foo, I learnt that – in addition to being a retired Professor of Engineering – he advised the US government back in the 1980s about how best to prepare young people for the world of work. Our discussion reminded me of the the debate in this country about how to address the needs of many young people in our country as we moved from our mighty industrial past to a post-manufacturing age. The short-lived Youth Training System (YTS) of the ’80s was an attempt to provide appropriate training yet, as with many such schemes, proved but transitory. The retired Professor is still grappling with this challenge and how best schools can prepare young people for future employment.
Reflecting on Sci Foo and many conversations which often spun off into education, it is manifest to me that we are not without ambition for our young people nor for schools. Where we appear to be failing is in our imagination of how schools can offer a crucible of learning for all. Whilst we continue to view school through the prism of our own experience, whether here or in the US, we shall never be free to think differently about education. Perhaps a healthy dose of Sci Foo thinking would help….