The principled practices of education

The Herald has recently being featuring a series of articles from various people on the purposes of schooling. The first of these, reproduced previously on this blog, is by Gert Biesta, who has a huge international reputation for his work in this field. It has also been gratifying to hear other voices on the subject. The recent article by Autumn Macaulay (5th May – see held a particular resonance for me, because of my long relationship with the Highland Council. Autumn, along with her then Headteacher Moira Leslie and Highland Development Officer Kevin Logan amongst others, was a key voice in Highland’s development of a distinctive learning and teaching philosophy, framed around four principles – engagement, participation, dialogue and thinking. These were first mooted as underlying principles for formative assessment, as Highland teachers wrestled with the complexities of the Assessment is for Learning policy. They underpinned a successful Future Teaching and Learning (FLaT) project in 2009, and have subsequently informed the development of the Highland strategy for Curriculum for Excellence, becoming the central feature of the Council’s new Learning, Teaching and Assessment policy. I reproduce Autumn’s article below, and accompany it here with some reflections on the place of these principles in the enactment of education policy.

It is fair to say that Assessment for Learning (and I refer here to the Black and Wiliam initiative more broadly, rather than Scotland’s AifL programme) was characterised by a debate over the relative importance of principles and techniques. This debate raged in Highland during the period of AifL implementation between 2003 and 2009. Some argued that teachers would not understand principles, and that what was needed is a simple set of techniques for formative assessment – to be applied by all. Others argued for a principles-led approach, where teachers would select techniques from a bank of resources according to whether they were fit for purpose. AfL more broadly stimulated and reflected these debates – the early publications tended to focus on the techniques (although to be fair, the Black Box publications were also explicit about learning theory). Later publications tended to highlight the importance of principles – for example, Paul Black (2011 – see suggested that there is ‘a need to consider the purposes of assessment within the broader framework of a theory of pedagogy’.

Of course this is not a simple either/or argument, as school practices reflect a range of approaches along a continuum of practice. However, AfL has attracted some criticism for its tendency to reduce formative assessment to a series of narrow techniques, most notably the ubiquitous practice of sharing learning intentions by writing them on the board, and traffic lighting. These techniques have often being used uncritically, with little consideration of their purposes and effects. I would argue that the Highland principles were useful in that they were framed in an effort to avoid such narrowness in practice. According to the Highland thinking, a formative assessment practice becomes worthwhile if it affords student engagement, participation and thinking, which in turn stimulates deep thinking. Additionally, the application of such practices would develop teachers as reflective, thinking individuals. Did it work? Well, that is an empirical question. The following article by Autumn Macaulay might be presented as evidence to address this question – I leave it to you to judge for yourself.

What are schools for?
Autumn Macaulay
I am writing in response to Gert Biesta’s Agenda article “What are schools for?” (April 8)
I think that all schools are different. What each one is for will depend greatly on the community of which it is a part of and on the personal circumstances and needs of each individual child. However, what each school does have in common is the vital role of positively promoting learning as an important, exciting and on-going part of life’s journey. Schools should inspire its young people and staff to be lifelong learners, engaging in and enjoying the challenges and rewards we face on the personal journey that learning takes us on, knowing we will be better for it. Schools should be encouraging young people to take greater responsibility for their own learning so they are equipped not only with knowledge but more importantly the skills they need to continue their learning journey out of school and beyond their school years into a increasingly unknown future.
An average primary school child spends approximately 14% of their year in school, does learning stop for the other 86% of the time? Do we accept that school is part of the education journey and not the whole?
It takes a whole village to raise a child – African Proverb
I believe education starts at home and in the community with schools providing skills, knowledge and opportunities that extend and enhance the experiences the young people access out of school. For this reason it is important that any school curriculum is uniquely designed with the needs of the young people and the community at its heart. In Highland, our Learning Policy acknowledges that many of the values and needs of our local communities will be shared across the region and quite possibly, nationally and internationally. However, there will be a difference in emphasis and content, reflecting local circumstances, resulting in a more relevant curriculum.
In order to support our young people to take greater responsibility for their own learning, we have to firstly ensure that they are emotionally ready to learn. It is crucial that we support our young people to become emotionally literate. If they are feeling unhappy, insecure or troubled in any way we cannot expect them to be effective learners. Equipping young people with the skills they need to be able to recognise and manage their own feelings and the feelings of those around them is an essential skill which will ensure they are much better prepared socially and emotionally to learn and to continue learning in the future.

The Highland Learning Policy highlights 4 key principles which aim to encourage young people to take greater responsibility for their own learning – Engagement, Participation, Dialogue and Thinking.

  • Engagement: Motivating young people by providing a clear purpose for engaging in their learning, nurturing self-motivation, challenging, praising and rewarding along the way.
  • Participating: Young people participating in the learning process by taking an active role in decision-making and choices about their learning, contributing to planning, conducting self and peer-assessment, leading when possible and confident enough to ask for help.
  • Dialogue: Young people discussing where they are in their learning, how they have been and can be successful and what their next steps in the learning process are. They need the opportunity to question, answer, suggest, support and challenge ideas in a secure and respectful classroom environment which embraces this, allowing the children to feel confident and comfortable to make and learn from mistakes.
  • Thinking: Young people should be given the chance to develop critical and creative thinking skills. Questioning and investigating the truth about themselves and the world around them as well as imagining, expressing and exploring possibilities without limits to ambition.

As teachers and life-long learners we can act as role models by using effective questioning in the classroom, by making thinking explicit and by taking time to reflect on, evaluate and improve our own practice. Through carefully planned and thought-out classroom practice these principles will ultimately encourage young people to take greater responsibility for their own learning, to become resilient, resourceful and reflective people who can face the challenges of the future. The Curriculum for Excellence provides an opportunity to create Confident Individuals, Effective Contributors, Responsible Citizens and Successful Learners but at the end of the day, it is a curriculum outlining suggested outcomes and experiences. It is the mind-set, methodology and motivation within each school that will help make it a reality.
I want young people to be happy, to respect each other and to try their best and to be given a chance to shine in and celebrate their own areas of strength without being slaves to external criteria. They need to focus on the joy and process of learning and to celebrate the effort involved not the end result.

I am Principal Teacher at Raigmore Primary School in Inverness where I have been teaching for almost 9 years after joining the school as a probationer. I love my job!