New breed of teachers; old breed of reaction

One of the big disappointments for me in the development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has been the lack of any perceptible system-wide development of the Broad General Education (BGE) phase in years one to three of the secondary school. To the casual observer, S1-3 in the secondary will look remarkably similar today to what it did pre-CfE, largely comprising a fragmented and disconnected set of subjects that mirror the subjects examined in the senior phase (S4-6), and indeed often seen as a dress-rehearsal for the serious business of passing the senior phase qualifications. Recent figures suggest that the typical school week of 30 periods (each of around 50 minutes) is experienced by pupils as between 15 and 20 separate subjects. In this context, I am reminded of Elliot Eisner’s (1992) observation that:

There is no occupation . .  in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program

Furthermore this is not a new phenomenon. John Dewey, writing as long ago as 1938, observed that:

Custom and convention conceal from most of us the extreme poverty of the traditional course of study, as well as its lack of intellectual organisation. It still consists, in large measure of a number of disconnected subjects made up of more or less independent items. An experienced adult may supply connections and see the different studies and lessons in perspective in logical relationships to one another and the world. To the pupil, they are likely to be curiously mysterious things which exist in school for some unknown purpose, and only in school

All of the above raises the question of why schooling is so stubbornly resistant to policy that seeks to change such practices, as CfE manifestly did. One could take the view, as is becoming fashionable with the new traditional turn in educational thinking, that the ‘traditional taxonomy’ of knowledge (to quote one teacher) has intrinsic value and/or that subjects are the best ways of dividing up the school week. I do not buy these arguments, while accepting that knowledge is fundamental to curriculum planning and that subjects may be an excellent means of dividing up the knowledge cake. First, knowledge is not the same as subjects. Subjects, as configured in schools, are not the end of education, but instead become a means (as applicable) of promoting the educational goal of educating young people. Thus, the question we should ask is not ‘what subjects do we teach?’, but instead ‘what does an educated person look like, what knowledge do they need to develop, and what means (including subjects-based provision) are best suited to achieving this?’ Going through this intellectual process of curriculum-making avoids subjects becoming set-in-stone entities – ends instead of means – as exemplified in Peddiwell’s curriculum parable ‘The Saber-Tooth Curriculum’ (see https://cse101.cse.msu.edu/visitors/saber.php). It will avoid, as I have argued previously on this blog, a situation where the curriculum becomes fragmented instead of holistic; incoherent and incomplete, with serious gaps in knowledge (e.g. little systematic exposure to political and sociological knowledge, or a History curriculum that focuses on the Nazis repeatedly).

Reasons for a lack of change in schooling are various, being primarily cultural and structural. A major issue lies in the familiarity of schooling to the wider population. Everyone has been to school, and thus everyone knows what schools are (should be) like. To suggest otherwise – to challenge the deeply ingrained grammar of schooling – is to challenge common-sense and to invite ridicule. Teachers too can be conservative in their thinking, and this is not pig-headed opposition to change, as some who advocate changing teachers’ mindsets may suggest, but due to deeply-held beliefs rooted in professional socialisation from their education and experience (and as Eisner also quipped, teacher professional socialisation begins at the age of five!). Research suggests that teachers who engage with research findings and new concepts about education as a part of a process of collaborative professional enquiry are likely to develop enhanced professional knowledge, and consequently become more readily able to envisage alternative educational futures (e.g. see http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/JPCC-09-2015-0006). Structural reasons include the set-up of a system geared primarily to qualifications, which rewards schools and teachers achieving high attainment in subjects. The tendency for school systems to encourage performativity has, of course, been well-documented in the research literature. And the professional education of teachers reinforces such thinking: in Scotland, for example, teachers train to be primary specialists (generalists who teach children) or secondary specialists (experts in a subject). This has led over time to a sharp dichotomy between primary and secondary schools, which are effectively very different institutions with different cultures and different practices. The corollary of this is that many pupils experience the transition as a dislocation that is not conducive to a coherent programme of education from 3-18.

It was, therefore, with a sense of resignation that I have read some of the reactions on Twitter and elsewhere to the announcement this week of a new GTCS teaching accreditation for teachers to span primary and secondary (see https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/new-breed-teacher-will-work-across-primary-and-secondary). The criticisms invariably miss the point, in my view. This is not an attempt to fix a teacher shortage by widening the pool of teachers (as the article seems to suggest). Nor is it about diluting standards by putting non-specialists in front of classes (with unfortunate echoes of the hierarchical notion that secondary specialists are somehow superior to primary teachers). Instead it is about recognising that the BGE is about something different, and that a reconfigured curriculum needs reconfigured teachers. I am not here criticising either secondary or primary teachers, but simply acknowledging that the BGE is different, and therefore requires teachers with different skills; not complete generalists as has traditionally been the case in primary schools, or the more narrowly focused disciplinary specialists who will continue to be needed for senior teaching, but highly skilled teachers who can teach across a range of subjects at the crucial transition phase from P6 to S3. Such teachers will probably have a specialism as their central focus, but will be much more versatile than the current workforce at this level. I am reminded here that this would be far less controversial if such teaching were conducted in intermediate or middle schools, as used to be common in the UK, and is still the norm in other countries such as New Zealand.

For the above reasons, I very much welcome the new approach to accrediting teachers, and would indeed welcome the development of yet more varied routes, for example teachers educated and accredited to teach social studies and integrated science. I suspect that this is currently a challenge too far for the status quo in Scotland.

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Regional Improvement Collaboratives: a new strengthened middle in Scottish education?

The recent and long-awaited publication of the Scottish Government’s review of governance (http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0052/00521075.pdf) is, in many respects, a welcome development. The practical steps outlined in this review have the potential to transform the ongoing development of Curriculum for Excellence by explicitly addressing some of the weaknesses in the curriculum development process to date. In particular, the establishment of Regional Improvement Collaboratives provides a constructive response to the OECD’s call for Scotland to ‘strengthen the middle’; to establish a meso-level infrastructure that will (to quote the review) ‘mean that hands on advice, support and guidance can flow directly to schools to support improvement’ (p.7). This in turn will facilitate more meaningful engagement in schools with the core principles of CfE, to address, in the words of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, the need for Scotland to move from an ‘intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum’ ( BBC news on 6 December 2016).

In this context, the newly proposed Collaboratives look promising. According to the review:

New Regional Improvement Collaboratives […] will provide teams of professionals who have the singular focus of helping teachers to improve their practice. These teams will include sector and curriculum area specialists as well as additional support for learning experts such as educational psychologists (p.23).

This regional approach will involve decentralising some Education Scotland resources to support improvement closer to schools. It will also involve local authorities sharing resource at a regional level to ensure an enhanced improvement capability (p30).

This ‘national vision or framework to support collaboration’ (p.21) is supported by reference to the much cited McKinsey and co. report (https://tinyurl.com/ycl7jsdr), which states:

As the school systems we studied have progressed on their improvement journey, they seem to have increasingly come to rely on a “mediating layer” that acts between the centre and the schools. This mediating layer sustains improvement by providing three things of importance to the system: targeted hands-on support to schools, a buffer between the school and the centre, and a channel to share and integrate improvements across schools. (p. 6)

Readers of this blog will know that I have long argued for the development of a strong meso-level for supporting curriculum development (as opposed to meso-level structures that focus on audit and documentation; e.g. see https://tinyurl.com/y9eadhvy). I therefore very much welcome the general direction signalled by this review. Nevertheless, we should be aware of a number of potentially problematic issues as we take forward the recommendations of the review.

First, handing responsibility to teachers (both within the new Collaboratives and in schools) also means enhancing teachers’ agency (see https://tinyurl.com/y9vcccf4). This requires more than just rhetoric about autonomy. It requires establishing professional trust and developing contexts where teachers can exercise professional judgments, free from risk, and supported by access to cognitive, relational and material resources. A key issue here relates to the focus of the Collaboratives. Will they focus primarily on audit or on support? If they simply become beefed up local authorities focusing mainly on auditing performance against KPIs, rather than hands on leadership of curriculum development, then the new structures will not achieve their purpose.

Second, we need to take a nuanced look at how insights from other systems work in Scotland. International cherry-picking of other people’s policy is now a well-established international phenomenon. The governance review makes reference to how we might learn from other systems, for example: ‘countries such as Finland and Canada display strong overall performance and, equally important, show that a disadvantaged socioeconomic background does not necessarily result in poor performance at school’ (p.15). The important insight here is that we should be looking beyond copying the structures of these countries, and instead seek to emulate the processes that lead to improvement – in the case of Finland this includes a lack of inspections (which reduces the risk of performativity in the system), clear processes for sense-making in relation to changed policy, and leadership for reform/innovation. It can be argued that Finland’s social practices of curriculum-making shape its success as a system, as much as the ways in which its policies are framed.

Third, eyebrows will have been raised at the continued, and enhanced, role of Education Scotland in leading the development of the curriculum. The separation of the inspection and development functions of Education Scotland was widely predicted, and the fact that this has not happened will create some challenges for the system as it adapts to the new structures. I know, from my numerous conversations with teachers, that many will question putting the organisation responsible for the current state of affairs in CfE in charge of remedying its perceived ills. Of course views about the success (or otherwise) of CfE to date are contested, but regardless of where on stands on this question, it is clear that Education Scotland will face considerable challenges as it provides leadership within the new structures. A number of issues will need to be addressed, if the new structures are to be successful in the stated aim of developing improved practices across Scotland’s schools.

There is a need, in my view, to develop expertise – capacity – in curriculum development. We should be mindful of the observation by Lawrence Stenhouse (40 years ago) that there can be no curriculum development without teacher development – and that such insights apply to organisations leading curriculum development nationally/regionally as much as they apply to schools. We need to develop alternative methodologies for curriculum development. The evolution of CfE has been shaped to a large extent by the predominance of inspection/audit methodologies for curriculum development (in schools, in local authorities, and within Education Scotland). Such methodologies tend to focus on the evaluation of outputs, rather than considering the quality of inputs and processes; and I reiterate here that the success of Finland has been in a large part due to its focus on the latter. Linked to this is the issue of research literacy. A notable feature of organisations such as the SLO curriculum development agency in the Netherlands, or Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that their personnel are research literate: they engage with educational research in a way that often seems absent in Scotland; and in many cases they undertake their own research, for example through doctoral study. Engagement with research is essential if we are to break beyond the bounds of what is habitual and familiar, and to explore alternative repertoires for educational practice. Finally, we need a culture, in our new governance structures, that is focused on future improvement, rather than one that is wedded to maintaining the sacred cows presented by past structures, methods and guidance. As my colleague Walter Humes has pointed out in TESS this week, changing structures is, on its own, insufficient; we also need to address the cultures that frame educational practice in Scotland.

 

A Research Strategy for Scottish Education: a cautious welcome for a long overdue initiative

Here is a reblog of my post on the new Scottish Council of Deans of Education blog – http://www.scde.ac.uk/2017/05/15/a-research-strategy-for-scottish-education-a-cautious-welcome-for-a-long-overdue-initiative/

On 2 May, we saw the long awaited publication of ‘A Research Strategy for Scottish Education’ (see  http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0051/00512276.pdf). This is a welcome step forward in enhancing the capacity of Scotland’s educational community – researchers, policymakers and practitioners – and to draw more effectively on research when formulating policy and developing practice. The publication of this document follows a long period where policy has been made and implemented with little apparent cognisance of the value of educational research, and following strong criticism by academics and learned societies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh of the apparent lack of independent research in Scottish education. Most recent, was the recommendation from the OECD that the Government should ‘Strengthen evaluation and research, including independent knowledge creation.’  (https://www.oecd.org/edu/school/improving-schools-in-scotland.htm).

This neglect of research has not always been the case. For example, Brown and Munn (1985) identified five main features of the 1982 Development Programme for secondary third and fourth year curriculum and assessment, including a research programme to support and inform development. It is good, therefore, to see a re-emergence of higher profile for research in policymaking and practice, and it is to the credit of the Scottish Government that they have not only acted quickly to remedy this situation, but have also actively involved the academic community, through focus groups, in developing the new strategy.

Specifically, I welcome the following in the new strategy.

  • Recognition of the importance of research to the education system in Scotland.
  • Recognition that practitioners need to engage with relevant research findings, and that there need to be accessible channels and mechanisms to achieve this.
  • Recognition of the importance of practitioners as enquirers/researchers into their own professional practices and settings – and that this is a collaborative professional imperative.
  • Recognition of the importance of collaboration across education stakeholders/sectors, for example bringing together academics and teachers.
  • An affirmation of the importance of independent research – particularly to offer challenge to the system. This is a welcome counter-balance to an oft-heard assertion that inspections provide research evidence about educational contexts – as has been well-documented, inspections, while having a place in modern education systems, are heavily associated with performativity and, as such, their reliability and validity is open to question. Welcome the formation of a Scottish academic reference group
  • A recognition that data literacy – as a wider attempt to build practitioner research capacity and infrastructure – is crucial, as all data are subject to interpretation. The suggestion of funding for sabbaticals and master’s/PhD level study for practitioners seems sensible.
  • The commitment to develop capacity in the academic research community for quantitative/secondary data analysis. This is currently under-developed and much needed.
  • Provision for funding, including a reference to compensating for the likely reduction or withdrawal of EU funding. The strategy makes reference to ‘Provision for self-directed research by academia and other nongovernmental institutions. This implies funding, either by non-specific grants or endowments. This could be provided through existing mechanisms (e.g. Scottish Funding Council, Research Councils) or by challenge funds whereby organisations are encouraged to bid for grants within broad parameters.’ (p8).
  • An interesting reference to promoting research into non-standard educational approaches. More detail would be helpful here.

While there is much to welcome here, the document rings one of two alarm bells for me. These are largely issues relating to language and tone, but will need careful attention as the strategy is developed into workable procedures and practices. First, the strategy appears, in places, to conflate of data and research – and also appears to reduce data to statistical data. Research is more than data; generation of data is only part of the research process, which also requires attention to analysis and interpretation, as well as ethical considerations.

Second, the language of ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ is a little worrying, given the high profile of critique of these notions in recent years. Such language frames approaches which potentially neglect the importance of context. I am perhaps being pedantic here, as to be fair, the strategy also uses more nuanced language. For example, it states, ‘translating international lessons into the Scottish context and developing new Scottish research evidence’ (p4) and:

What has been shown to work in the past may no longer be true now or in the future. In addition, we need evidence from Scotland to understand if lessons from other countries are genuinely applicable in the Scottish education system where organisational assumptions may differ greatly. (p9).

Such nuance, which implies a cognitive resources (Hammersley, 2002) approach to research, sits uneasily with the harder ‘what works’ discourses and their more scientistic assumptions about the generalisation of research, which have been associated in the recent past with the development of ‘must-do’ techniques, rather than professional judgement and interpretation of research resources (e.g. as was evident in many schools with the roll of out of Assessment is for Learning (AifL) in Scotland, and in particular the uncritical implementation of what have come to be known as AifL techniques).

Third, the strategy seems too closely aligned to current policy, which is taken as given. The Government would benefit from engaging more explicitly with current research discourses around impact, and especially the ways in which pathways to impact might be created. This in turn would allow the benefits of research for policy and practice to be more fully exploited, potentially leading to significant shifts in policy and practice. The ESRC toolkit on research impact is a useful resource in this matter (see http://www.esrc.ac.uk/research/impact-toolkit/). The toolkit makes reference to different ways in which research might have impact:

  • Instrumental: influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour
  • Conceptual: contributing to the understanding of policy issues, reframing debates
  • Capacity building: through technical and personal skill development. The implication here is that research agendas might be driven by current policy imperatives, rather than informing them.

While many of the sentiments evident in the research strategy align with these impacts discourses, the overall message feels somewhat muted in the face of an apparent desire to see research unequivocally support current policy, rather than informing future policy development.

Despite these quibbles, I remain optimistic that the new Research Strategy is an important development with many positive implications for policy and practice in Scotland, and for the development of future productive and symbiotic relationships between researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in Scottish education. I look forward to seeing it unfold.

References

Brown, S. & Munn, P. (eds.)(1985). The changing face of education 14 to 16 : curriculum and assessment. Windsor: NFER-Nelson.

Hammersley, M. (2002). Educational Research, Policymaking and Practice. London: PCP

The civic consequences of discipline and control in schooling

While out for a run on our local hills recently, two separate, and apparently unconnected occurrences got me thinking about how education should – and can – make a difference to people’s lives; and how it often doesn’t, or least does not in ways that are constructive. The first occurrence was a story – one that shocked me – told to my running partner earlier by one of her undergraduate students. The story was about school uniform practices in a high school in England, where female students are subject to specific gendered rules regarding uniform (e.g. no coloured bras), and enforcement procedures that left me astounded. In this school, female students are routinely stopped by teachers (including male staff), and asked to pull back blazers and jumpers to show that the bra is not coloured. There are rules about tight trousers for girls (incidentally, girls are not permitted to have pockets on their trousers, unlike boys). To enforce these rules, female students are subjected to the Ten Pence test. Here they are required to insert a coin down the waistband of their trousers; if it does not fall down the leg and land on the floor, the trousers are deemed to be too tight.

Quite apart from the obvious question as to how senior staff at this this school have the time to devise such procedures, the whole issue raises some profoundly troubling issues. First, the gendered nature of such practices is disturbing, although I suspect widely prevalent in schools in the UK. Linked to this are potential issues of voyeurism – [male] staff waiting to observe publicly whether a bra is coloured or a coin falls through a pair of trousers – which runs the risk of fetishising school uniform and objectifying its [female] wearers (also see https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/uniform-disapproval-back-to-school-back-to-sexualising-girls-9716476.html). Secondly, I wonder whether some schools have little sense of their educative mission, if this is what consumes them, becoming instead primarily places to discipline young people into accepting subordinate and passive places in society.

The second occurrence relates to a bag of dog excrement. As my running partner was telling me about the above, we spotted a dog poo bag close to the track – an increasingly common sight in the hills. This was full, and had been neatly tied off, then dumped on the hillside. I have no problem with people using these bags to collect their dogs’ excrement, and indeed dog waste is a major problem in many public areas. However, there are a number of issues to unpack here. First, the offending item was on an open hillside, around 2 miles from the nearest road; so why bother? Secondly, someone had clearly gone to the trouble of picking up their dog’s waste and bagging it; so presumably someone who cared about the issue – or alternatively someone deeply socialised into the notion that all dog poo needs to be bagged, regardless of context. Third, the bag had been unceremoniously slung off the track into the grass; so presumably also someone who did not understand the relative bio-degradability of dog poo and plastic, or someone who had not been similarly socialised by a rule about taking the bags back to a place of disposal. I speculate here, but the problem is sufficiently ubiquitous – hanging the bags in trees seems to be the other option for disposal – that one wonders why people can be so rule-bound that they do not question whether the rule is actually appropriate in any given situation, and also why they seem unable to take the longer term responsibility for disposal.

As I suggested in the opening paragraph, these are unconnected occurrences: the first is about control and discipline in schools, and the second about a distorted sense of civic responsibility. Nevertheless, education has effects, and I would argue that the latter is perhaps influenced by a tendency for schooling to discipline and control rather than educate. The dog poo bag seems to be a metaphor for a commonplace rule-bound and unreflexive way of living, and this takes us back to the first story, which is fundamentally about the school as a medium for a narrow socialisation of young people, rather than as a genuinely educative space. We see, in the UK at least, the continued emphasis on old-fashioned school uniforms, including fancy blazers (replete with coloured braid) that would seem more at home in an Enid Blyton novel than in a modern learning environment. This continued focus on how one looks and conforms (as opposed to how one is taught to think critically) seems to me to be the antithesis of education (for a critique of school uniforms, see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/formal-school-uniform-and-school-ethos/). It combines with a modern focus in school on often purposeless activity, where what one learns and why one learns it have come to be less important than how one learns, and the skills that one develops from the process. As Jenny Reeves has recently written in a powerful article in Scottish Educational Review, we have thrown out ‘the baby of educational purpose along with the bathwater of curricular content’.

I am not arguing here for a return to traditional notions of subject-driven schooling, as exemplified by some current developments in England. I am, however, suggesting that schools need to become more focused on educating young people to be critical and reflexive adults, and this does require a knowledge-rich (as opposed to subject-driven) and balanced curriculum, with its roots in the big question of what education is for. Gert Biesta’s work on the purposes of education is entirely relevant here. Biesta has argued for an appropriate balance between three overlapping and sometimes competing functions of education: 1] qualification (development of skills and knowledge, not the piece of paper that accredits the process); 2] socialisation (into our present societies); and 3] subjectification (the growth of each person into the unique individual that they can become given the right nurturing). Such a view of education is about enabling individuals to become tolerant members of society, whilst developing the faculties required for critical engagement with that society, potentially leading to challenge of structural inequality and social change. The anecdotes that started this blog post suggest that we are a long way from this balanced view of schooling as education.

CfE and PISA: ‘holding our nerve’

The publication this week of the triennial PISA results has produced the usual phenomenon of the PISA shock in various countries. In the UK, England has maintained its position relative to other countries, and this is a source of disappointment to a government that staked its reputation on improving its performance. In Wales, indifferent performance and a disappointing set of results in science are a source for concern, but the political message is, in the words of one headteacher, to ‘hold our nerve’ and see through the current curricular reforms. In Scotland, a dip in performance relative to England is more difficult to stomach, and has raised inevitable questions about whether the decline is due to Curriculum for Excellence. According to Professor Lindsay Paterson, a long-time critic of CfE, the decline in Scotland’s relative and absolute performance on PISA is ‘shocking’ (see http://www.itv.com/news/border/2016-12-06/education-professor-calls-scotland-figures-shocking/). Professor Paterson states that the pupils tested in the current PISA round have been entirely educated under CfE, suggesting that CfE is the problem.

I have some sympathy with some of his well-known criticisms of CfE. I have consistently been on record as supporting the broad general direction represented by the curriculum – local flexibility, student-centred approaches and teacher autonomy – but would agree with him in his critique of the lack of attention to knowledge within CfE. To my mind, a progressive curriculum should not preclude, as stated by John Dewey, the learning of ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’; it should not mean that teachers should neglect issues of knowledge. I too regularly hear educators telling me that ‘we do not need to teach knowledge anymore because pupils can google what they need to know’, and that ‘education is all about skills now’. In my view, a curriculum should be knowledge-rich, and this entails teachers posing the right questions in their curriculum design about what knowledge is of most worth.

Nevertheless, I would disagree with the notion that CfE is to blame for the decline in PISA scores experienced in Scotland. This seems to be a simplistic explanation, which ignores the complexity of educational reform and of the multi-layered terrain of education in Scotland. Instead I would point to what the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher stated on BBC news on 6 December 2016 – that Scotland needs to move from an intended curriculum to an implemented curriculum. While I have warned for some years that the problem with CfE is not CfE per se, despite its weaknesses in the area of knowledge (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/17866) and tensions within its structure (see http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03054980903518951), I would argue that the original vision for the curriculum was sound, with its basis in a set of clear purposes – attributes and capabilities – to be developed by education. Indeed, CfE sought to provide in Scotland exactly the sort of rich educational experience that is evident in highly performing education systems such as Singapore and Finland, and is typical in many ways of curriculum policy in many such countries.

Instead, the problems lies in its enactment – its translation from policy to practice, as clearly indicated by the OECD in its 2015 review of CfE. There are various issues here, all of which add to a highly complex enactment of policy to practice. They include:

  • The specification of curricular content as detailed learning outcomes, which have encouraged audit approaches and strategic compliance with CfE, rather than full engagement with its principles. The new benchmarks offer more of the same, and will require a great deal of care in their implementation if we are to avoid a continuation of such approaches.
  • A lack of clarity in CfE guidance about processes for curriculum development (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/22518) and the sheer volume of CfE documentation; the latter issue has contributed to a lack of clarity amongst schools and teachers, especially as the key messages have often been obscured, and in some cases changed over time. Again, the OECD identified this issue in their call for a simplified narrative.
  • The persistence of accountability mechanisms that have acted counter to the spirit of CfE, often encouraging performativity in schools (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/20761) and its accompanying bureaucracy.
  • A teaching workforce that, while highly dedicated and technically skilled,  has often struggled to make sense of a new and different curriculum, in the absence of sustained programmes to engage them with its principles and develop theories of knowledge that are consonant with this approach. I continue to meet teachers who admit to being baffled by CfE. A further, and related issue is cultural; implicit teacher philosophies about education do not always sit easily with CfE, and the lack of adequate spaces for sense-making does not allow this issue to be readily addressed.
  • A paucity of craft knowledge around curriculum development across the system – what Michael Apple has described as a ‘lost art’.

The net result has been an incomplete (at best) enactment of CfE, and a tendency to address new curricular problems through existing practices and assumptions. This was evident in our research in 2011 and 2012 (e.g. http://hdl.handle.net/1893/11356), and I have seen little evidence since, in my extensive work with teachers, that the situation has improved. Thus the issue with declining scores in PISA is, in my opinion, likely to be due to a failure to enact CfE adequately, rather than being a problem with CfE as a curricular approach.

So how do we address this? A good starting point is the OECD review, which provides legitimation for a revision of CfE in its call to be bold. In all of this we need to remember that the curriculum should not be set in stone as a sabre tooth curriculum (see http://users.ugent.be/~mvalcke/OWK_1415/toetsing/thesabertoothcurriculumshor.pdf); instead it should be subject to regular review, and such a process should not be framed as a climb-down or u-turn by policy makers, but simply a part of the normal process of updating the curriculum to adapt to changing societal needs. This means a rationalisation of existing documentation, in my view, to provide the simplified narrative called for by the OECD. It requires the establishment of a strengthened middle – a mid-system leadership stratum that provides support and facilitation for curriculum development, using tried and tested methods of teacher/curriculum development such as collaborative professional enquiry (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/24179). Above all, we should ‘hold our nerve’ with CfE, and enact it fully in the spirit of its original aspirations (avoiding the political temptation to ape the testing regimes so familiar in England). The CfE model is much admired around the world – but we need to make it a reality in our schools.

Computing Science in the BGE

I have been recently told by Computing teachers that the new benchmarks for the subject are problematic in certain respects; leaving aside the question of whether this highly specified approach is appropriate, there are issues with coherence. The following post, by Greg Michaelson, Prof of Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University explores this issue, and is part of a wider series of commentaries on the new benchmarks.

The whole world is now utterly dependent on computing based technologies for all aspects of social and economic organisation. As computer use burgeons year on year, so does the shortage of skilled computer professionals competent to build and maintain the resilient and sustainable systems we have come to take for granted.

Thus, it is both baffling and dispiriting that Scottish Computing education seems to have been in a near permanent state of crisis these last few years, most markedly in secondary schools. The numbers of schools offering Computing has fallen, Computing teaching posts lie vacant, the numbers of students taking SQA qualifications in Computing is declining, and Computing teacher training places remain unfilled as graduates can command better salaries elsewhere.

The roots of this malaise are complex and well rehearsed, in a tiresome multi-dimensional cycle of blame involving government, local authorities, higher education  and employers. Nonetheless, there has been broad agreement across the sector that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Computing has not met the needs of any stakeholders, most markedly Scotland’s school children. In particular, it is characterised by an inadequate separation between broad ICT skills, which are essential for all citizens, and Computer Science, an academic discipline in its own right, concerned with all aspects of computation, with programming at its heart.

Thus, I think that the draft revision to the Computing Science BGE Experiences and Outcomes (Es and Os) is to be welcomed. Its authors have clearly listened to the critics of the status quo, in particular taking seriously the forceful and detailed proposals of an independent team of leading Scottish academics and practitioners.

First of all, the Es and Os have been separated into three well characterised significant aspects of learning (SALs): “Understanding the world through computational thinking”, “Understanding and analysing computing technology”, and “Designing, building and testing computing solutions”. It is particularly pleasing that Computational Thinking (CT) is fore grounded in its own SAL, as the key problem solving approach. It is also pleasing that the underpinning technologies, both hardware and software, have equal weight to CT and programming. This emphasis on computing leading to mechanical, repeatable, predictable procedures is, I think, central to understanding programming which is usually practiced at levels far abstracted from the underlying silicon.

Secondly, the SALS are well sequenced. Each starts at the Early stage with practical activity grounded in the students’ own experiences. These are used to draw out increasingly structured, differentiated and abstracted concerns as the SALs progress.

 Thirdly, the SALs are strongly complementary, especially in the core stream leading to programming competences. Their formulation offers sustained opportunities for integrative  learning activities throughout all stages, linking exploring a problem in the abstract to tease out possible solutions, to their practical realisations in some concrete programming notation, on a concrete platform.

The SALS are well served by the accompanying Benchmarks: Technologies document, which provides considerable concrete guidance for evidence based assessment of competences. It also fleshes out the more general nature of the Es and Os. In particular, the synergies across SALs are well laid out.

However, the devil is in the detail. My main concern is that CT is a new and ill defined discipline, remaining different things to different people. For example, the early stages follow Papert’s pedagogy of structured bricolage in a microworld, where the later stages draw on contemporary characterisations of CT as iterative activities of decomposition, pattern identification, abstraction and algorithm construction.

I think that it is vital to enunciate an explicit pedagogy of CT, as a well defined discipline that all Computing Science teachers can deploy consistently. Scotland is lucky to enjoy considerable research into and application of CT and I hope that this can be integrated in elaborating a unitary approach, backed by systematic support and exemplification material.

My second concern is that, while there is a strong emphasis on procedural and computational aspects of problem solving, little consideration is given to informational aspects. I think that teasing out the information structures that underlie problem domains is an essential component of CT. Indeed, exploring the information relevant to solving a problem offers excellent opportunities for pre-algorithmic CT, which may be easily based in motivational everyday activities.

Here, I can’t help feeling that an integrative cross-curricula opportunity has been lost. The separate Digital Literacy area focuses on information and problem solving in its “Using digital products and services in a variety of contexts to achieve a purposeful outcome” SAL, in particular at stage two. Indeed, the whole of this SAL would not be out of place in the Computing Science area.

Thirdly, I think that there are pedagogical and practical problems in moving from a block-based language at the first stage to a technical language at the second. This is a transition where students could easily come adrift and will need careful finessing.

Blocks based languages, like Scratch or Snap!, are programmed by assembling graphical elements representing entities and operations to solve problems, typically in a simple microworld of moving and interacting avatars. They are an excellent starting point for exploring basic concepts of sequence and repetition. However, they tend to offer impoverished general programming constructs and are unsuitable for constructing new microworlds, the ultimate goal of programming.

In contrast, technical languages are textually based. Choices are often constrained subsets of industrial languages, like Python or Java, which enable steady scaling up to full strength programming. However, getting the same effects as those achieved easily in blocks based languages requires considerable skill in programming to configure components from code libraries.

Fourthly, there is no recognition that the activities of constructing web pages and databases at stages three and four also require CT based problem solving and programming, so another integrative opportunity may be lost.

Finally, there is considerable overlap between stage four and the National 5 curricula. No doubt this will be revisited once the new BGE beds in, but it certainly is worth considering soon.

I think that these limitations are again reflected in the Benchmarks: Technologies document, in particular an overemphasis on procedural and structural aspects of CT at the expense of information. I find it sad that the sole data type to be explored by stage four is the number, which will lead to a repetition of dreary old problem solving based around arithmetic and counting.

Aspects of the Benchmarks: Technologies document seem problematic as a basis for assessment. While benchmarks for the core CT/programming competences have a strong emphasis on seeking evidence for the understanding of concepts, the other competences depend far too much on rote learning of “facts” about computing. Furthermore, the web and database benchmarks are extremely vague, defined simply as building something, without having spelled out what might constitute evidence for competence from the crucial design, usability or performance perspectives.

Nonetheless, despite all my carping, I think that the new Computing Science BGE is a substantial improvement on CfE mark one, and that this refreshing reboot deserves to flourish.

 

Some commentary on the new CfE Science benchmarks

The following is a guest post from Dr Laura Colucci-Gray, University of Aberdeen. It is somewhat longer than the usual blog post, but has been posted here in full because of the nuanced way it explores the new Science benchmarks.

The newly released assessment benchmarks – as they are presented in the draft consultation document –  aim to clearly set out what learners ‘need to know and be able to do’, moving from Early to First through Fourth Level. Quoting from the draft document, the benchmarks should be used to ‘monitor progress towards achievement’ and “to provide guidance, in a single, key resource to support teachers’ professional judgement”. In line with the expectations of developing successfully learners, one of the hallmarks of the Curriculum for Excellence, students’ learning is presented here as some kind of advancement, a striding forward, towards a clear goal.

I must recognize that such statements make an impact on me, as a reader, for their neatness and apparent simplicity. Three aspects appear to be of greatest importance:

  1. Specified outcomes, or benchmarks, which operate as a proxy for the learning process;
  2. Progression, implying the existence of a gradient or spectrum along which learning gains can be evidenced;
  3. Teachers’ professional judgement, perhaps the most human and possibly less predictable aspect of all, but which is firmly situated at the end of the learning process, after both outcomes (1) and progression (2) have been clearly and truly specified.

I wish to take a closer look at the validity and feasibility of such a plan, its potentially contested relationships with the overall aims of the Scottish Curriculum, and the implications this may have for science education.

The Scottish Curriculum as it was first analysed in the lucid work of Priestley and Hume (2010) is fundamentally a hybrid model, seeking to combine socio-political and economic drivers[1]. In many respects, it seems to wish to combine earlier attempts, by making the science curriculum more relevant for students, seeking to engage them as ‘active contributors’ – while developing their basic literacy and skills of scientifically informed citizens. Yet, the design and guidelines for implementation have already generated concerns and criticism from science education researchers in Scotland. Bryce and Day (2013) argued for further clarity, alluding to the inevitable risks of the hybrid condition producing confoundment of purposes and professional confusion[2]. A hybrid condition brings in itself a form of dualism: which way to turn? Towards critical competencies one way, or towards skills and knowledge for work another way? It is hard not to recognize that a curriculum built around the design of ‘learning experiences’ which are supposed to lead towards specified ‘outcomes’ contains an in-built direction of travel relentlessly moving from the variability of people’s experience to the singularity of results, from diversity to sameness and from openness to closure. So, let’s take a closer look at what happens during such progression, and what might be the expected ‘learning gains, when the learning outcomes are turned into benchmarks.

Progression as simplification

I noted that in the letter signed by the learned societies, a concern was being expressed about the level of detail at which the outcomes – for particular subjects – were being described. One of such subjects is the Planet Earth. As newly formed human beings, we join the biodiversity and the web of interdependences amongst living and non-living things on the Planet. Such concept is first captured in the benchmarks for the Early level science, as follows:

I have observed living things in the environment over time and am becoming aware of how they depend on each other.

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·         Explores and sorts objects as living, non-living or once living.

·         Describes characteristics of livings things and how they depend on each other, for example young dependent on parents.

 

 

 

Relationships of dependence are foregrounded to refer to a broader set of caring, feeding, exchanging actions, within supportive or unsupportive relationships. Then when we reach level 1, the language almost suddenly changes, becoming directive and specific, moving from ‘explores and describes’ to ‘explain and uses’.

 

I can explore examples of food chains and show an appreciation of how animals and plants depend on each other for food.

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●      Explains that the sun is the main source of energy.

●      Explains that energy can be taken in by green plants to provide the major source of food for all living things.

●      Uses the terms ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ correctly.

●      Uses vocabulary correctly including ‘predator’, ‘hunter’, ‘prey’ and ‘hunted’.

●      Uses and constructs a simple food chain showing energy flow.

 

This learning outcome at Level 1 is supposed to be clear and simple, building progressively from the previous one at early level. In this passage, we note that the emphasis on the broader set of relational dependencies and interdependencies of the early level has been reduced to the more recognisable concept of ‘food chain’, whereby relationships are instrumental to materials exchanges and living organisms are given the stultified roles of producers and consumers. What is more, an additional layer of meaning is supposedly being provided by the introduction of the ecological concepts, as a means to extend on the production and consumption model. So, in the second bullet point before last, producers and consumers are now turning into prey and predators. Not only, the prey-predator model applies to a very specific category of beings, the carnivore animals, but in the effort to simplify content, scientific ideas are being distorted to suit a particular view of the world. Mechanistic models of the biosphere – exemplified by the consumption chain – seem to be preferred, although these ideas have been long overtaken by modern biology. Current thinking favours metaphors such as the web, the tree, the hand along with relational models of symbiosis, mutualism and cooperation.

Progression as determinism

Another example is from Fourth level science where at the level of the generic skills, to develop scientifically literate citizens, we find:

  • Demonstrates understanding of the impact of science on society.
  • Discusses the moral and ethical implications of some scientific developments.

Later, in the more specific outcomes, we cannot fail to notice a certain determinism in fact-finding related for example to agricultural production:

  • Uses information about essential plant nutrients to design a fertiliser;
  • States possible impacts of the use of fertilisers, for example, eutrophication and algal blooms.

The use of fertilisers is controversial; eutrophication and algal blooms are not simply the effects of fertilisers in the water but the consequences of mass food production for commercial purposes. At no point such contestation is hinted at or even supposed. While we cannot make assumptions without hearing directly from the authors of the document, it is the language of the specific outcomes which is of concern here. Words are used carefully to delineate factual knowledge but shy away from any critical appraisal of the surrounding cultural and social context.

Progression as Anthropocentrism

As science develops within a cultural, historical and social context, the language of its expression carries connotations about the ways in which human societies – at different point in history – have looked at the bio-physical world. As was mentioned earlier, in relation to the history of curriculum innovation in science education, also the teaching of science needs to be framed within the cultural and value narratives of the time.

The extract below – from Third Level Science – is focussing on viruses and microbes. We recognise almost immediately the underlying violent frame – carried by words such as ‘defence, barriers and the breaching of barriers’. A particularly westernised view of the world, which locates human beings – and their bodies – in direct and adversarial contrast with the living world upon which they depend is forcefully transferred through the power structures of the curriculum.

I have explored how the body defends itself against disease and can describe how vaccines can provide protection.

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●      Explains how microbes, for example, bacteria and viruses, can cause disease and infection.

●      Describes the barriers to infection as a first line of defence, for example, skin, mucus and stomach acids.

●      States how the immune system protects the body against disease if the first line of defence is breached, for example, white blood cells and production of antibodies.

●      Explores and explains how vaccinations can protect individuals and populations from disease.

Arguably, one might suggest that the factual phrasing of learning outcomes precludes the possibility to disclose alternative cultural frameworks. Here I refer to the heritage of pupils holding alternative views of the living world, such as the more animistic or religious views. As we know from many years of research in science education, learning progression in science comes from the opportunity to navigate alternative understandings and to recognise how scientific concepts are defined through ongoing dialogue, within a community of researchers and learners. Science education pedagogies should thus focus more on the elicitation of such alternative understandings, as opposed to the fast delivery of the ‘right answer’. That said, looking at the next example from First level:

 

By investigating forces on toys and other objects, I can predict the effect on the shape or motion of objects.

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●     Uses vocabulary to describe forces, for example, pushing, pulling, stretching, squashing and twisting.

●     Demonstrates understanding of how a force can make an object change speed, direction or shape.

●     Investigates balanced forces and can explain that if a push and pull are equal then there is no change in movement.

●     Investigates how shape is linked to motion and stability.

 

… the benchmark document is strict and ‘forceful’ in the prescription of how children are supposed to talk in physics, even at the basic level of describing the motion of objects in front of them. The words that are being used are also forceful in themselves – pushing; squashing… – not dissimilar from the metaphors of power highlighted above. And finally, forces – second bullet point above – can make an object change shape… forces are being anthropomorphised, extracted from the wider, bio- physical system of interactions and interdependencies… if another view of the world was adopted, one which would focus on a variety of experiences and alternative value-frameworks, one which would let students to play and explore, through bodies, hearts and minds, we would might have been able to see other words coming through in relation to forces: supporting, coming together, balancing or attracting…

 

So, returning to three key aspects emphasised by the document, I would like to share some of the concerns which have now emerged.

 

1&2. Turning outcomes into benchmarks and using benchmarks as proxy for learning; By setting out the learning process as a movement from experiences to outcomes and from outcomes to benchmarks, I observed progressive reduction, narrowing of linguistic frames and selective use of value-frameworks. As opposed to the meaning of progressive as reformist or broad-minded, like the CfE wished to be known to the world, I see stultification and closure to dialogue. Institutionalised reductionism is built-in within a machine for knowledge delivery. The progression is perceived more like an inexorable and unavoidable rush, forward-tracking learning to inevitable conclusions.

(I am reminded at this point of the popular film Cassandra Crossing, with Sophia Loren, back in the Seventies… has anybody seen it? The train carrying a sick spy with a contagious illness is made to rush blindly towards an old, crumbling bridge, while Sophia Loren is attending to the illness-stricken passengers, kept in the back carriage, in the desperate attempt to prove the authorities they can recover from the bug…)

 

  1. Teachers’ professional judgement. Within the simplified picture of the benchmarks document we are then expected to find the voices or judgement of the teachers, who are instrumental in the certification of learning. Yet within a scenario of progressive reduction, what are the teachers expected to do? Is there any room for them to exert their professional judgement? When all they are asked to do is to lead the pupils towards specific ‘benchmarks’ which are simplified and stripped of any personal signification, what is the teacher’s role meant to be? I am perplexed. Are the teachers like the passionate and professionally trained Sophia Loren who is working her socks off at the back of the train to treat the ill passengers… or more like the old-fashioned tram-controllers, stamping the tickets of the people who come on board? Neither metaphor seems to satisfy here…

 

So where to next? Addressing the trajectory….

Science, like all other subjects, is a body of knowledge which has been accumulated over time but which has also progressively changed over time. Behind science as a set of disciplinary knowledge there are people – the scientists – as well as policy-makers, citizens and tax-payers, including the merchants and the merchandise. Indeed, since the last energy transition from coal to oil, we have witnessed an explosion of knowledge thanks to the power of technology and computing machines. Consequently, science has changed dramatically from being the craft of a single individual to the interconnected activities of interdisciplinary teams operating within an extended web of public and private funding. Such transformations have two important implications. As science is increasingly emmeshed with political and economic agendas, the public is called to interrogate the allocation of funding and the ethical dimension of new ventures. New terms such as post-normal science, citizen science and even DIY science, are pointing to hybrid forms of knowledge sharing and knowledge forming calling for inclusion of different voices, participation, democratisation of science and critical appraisal.  Secondly, if the participation of the public is harnessed, evoked or even feared, education is called upon the task of preparing citizens for ethical, public dialogue, moving from knowledge to complex dialogical competencies which are linguistic, social, imaginative and creative.

In this open-ended and contested scenario, which progresses through debate and radical uncertainties arising from the new frontiers of science, the teacher has a key role in terms of preparing young people to interrogate the knowledge we need and to elaborate own models of living.  I find some notable parallels with the comments produced by Dr. Joe Smith in the earlier blog about history, saying that “progression in history refers not to a more complete understanding of the past (of which most of us know very little), but a more sophisticated one”.  Clearly this business of complexification is tricky for science education. It is well known that in terms of language, scientific terms – like food chain or food webs – are specific, retaining the root of everyday language but encompassing a singular and precise meaning, defined by the discipline.  So, we can see how the preoccupation with specification arises and how it can be justified and legitimised. However, we can recognise that we are amidst a contradiction here. If on the one hand, a simpler set of benchmarks carries the hopes of freeing teachers from the task of sifting out exuberant content; on the other hand, the specified nature of the content demands a critical interrogation of the selections that have been made, recovering the motives, purposes and value-frameworks that accompany any form of knowledge.

What hopes and what possibilities?

Research in science education has repeatedly pointed to the problems of resisting naïve views and perceptions of science held by both teachers and students at different levels of education. Learning and teaching science is equated to a protocol, which through the right sequence of steps, will lead to the right answer. Much has been contributed by science education researchers in terms of pedagogies to address such problems. My own research conducted with colleagues in International contexts, has shown that Scottish teachers are interested in innovation, often taking risks in the implementation of creative pedagogies in science. However, leadership ethos in the school is not supportive of such attempts, and students are preoccupied with attainment and performance, thus contributing to a progressive reinforcement of a transmissive pedagogy and old-fashioned beliefs (Gray et al., 2016[3]).

An important element of innovation and hope in the newly published set of benchmarks however lies with the emphasis on play as a form of scientific inquiry and discovery. Recent understandings of cognition as an embodied process point to play as the first and fundamental process of sense-making. The engagement with spaces, objects and materials can be paralleled to what happens during a scientific investigation and for this reason, it can provide the first point of access for young children into science. Most importantly however it is a process which sustains the development of analogical and metaphorical language supporting increasing levels of conceptual thinking and abstraction. For this reason, I would like to see more emphasis on play and imaginative play throughout the curriculum and into the draft benchmark document. I would like to see further opportunities for students at third and fourth level to be sensitised to alternative value-frameworks and to grapple with the ambiguities and the uncertainties which characterise a genuine scientific investigation!

Similarly, I wish to see teachers as animators of playful interactions. Students and teachers of science can come together as a team of inquirers and interpreters of the ways in which science and technology shape our actions in society. The science laboratory is the wider world and the classroom can afford a space of possibilities, in which we are all actors… in an unfolding play.

(This contribution for the blog has benefitted from the ongoing conversations with colleagues in the School of Education at Aberdeen, Dr. Kirsten Darling and Dr. Donald Gray and from the long-standing affiliation with the Interdisciplinary Research Institute on Sustainability, based at Turin University, www.iris.unito.it)

References

[1] Priestley, M. & Humes, W. (2010) The Development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: amnesia and déjà vu, Oxford Review of Education 36 (3): 345-361.

[2] Day, S. and Bryce, T. (2013). Curriculum for Excellence science: vision or confusion? Scottish Educational Review, Vol. 45 , No. 1, 2013, p. 53 – 67.

[3] https://www.esera.org/media/eBook%202015/eBook_Part_8_links.pdf