What is and what can never be: the fruitless search for educational utopias

(with thanks to Led Zeppelin for the title of the article)

I have attended two conferences this month – the ECER conference in Porto, and most recently the BERA conference in London. A twin theme has emerged from both events: the desirability of reforming education (few seem to disagree) and the extreme difficulties in doing so. There is no shortage of utopian vision for change. The papers at BERA illustrate this powerfully; this week I have heard about initiatives to introduce baccalaureate style qualifications, based around student inquiry and with no exams. I have listened to speakers extolling the virtues of museum-based learning. I have heard about problem-based learning and project learning. And most recently, today, I sat through an inspiring keynote address by Sugata Mitra and David Leat, advocating a new vision for schooling – one without the formal, factory system school, and where young people drive their own learning through self-organising learning environments. There is clearly no shortage of utopian and visionary thinking about alternative forms of education.
Moreover, this is reflected to some extent in recent curricular policy in many countries. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence typifies national curricula in many countries that purport to place the learner at the heart of the educative process, and while there are contrary stories in some countries (notably England’s regression to a content-based, traditional curriculum*), the general trends seem to be towards curricular provision premised on the need to educate young people for the demands of the 21st century (see Sinnema & Aitken, 2013).

And yet such changes to the actual practices of schooling seem to be as far away as ever. Schools are said to be remain resistant to change, and patterns of schooling are in many ways unchanged from the system of 150 years ago. Paper after paper at BERA this week has documented tales of failure to enact the changes that everyone seems to want. In some cases, the finger of blame has been pointed at teachers, who are said to be barriers to change. In one study, teachers were positioned as being ignorant of the goals of the reform, and resistant to new practices – in short, the reason why the innovation in question was a failure.
My view is that such a diagnosis is flawed and simplistic. Teachers have often simply not had the opportunity to expand their educational thinking; and where they have, they are part of a system which inhibits reform, and often lack the agency to promote practices that they support. I offer here a number of reasons why well-intentioned reforms founder, and why what is will continue to trump what arguably should be, but under present circumstances will never be.

  1. Reform continues to be something that is done to teachers. In many of the innovations discussed at BERA, teachers have not been given the time or space to make sense of the big ideas driving the innovation. Consequently, there is often limited understanding of the core principles of innovation, and consequently little impetus from the most likely drivers of innovation to do the driving. In the case of the museum schools, this issue was exacerbated by the rapid turnover of staff – new teachers had even less understanding of the programme in question.
  2. Reform continues to be derailed by high-stakes accountability systems. There have been well-documented studies about cultures of performativity in schools – teaching to the test, a narrowing of the curriculum, and in some cases game playing and even dishonesty, as schools seek to maximise their performance. The research sessions at BERA often painted a stark picture of the teacher being caught between a rock and hard place, as desired practices prove impossible to enact in the face of pressures to perform. This is even the case in England’s academies, supposedly autonomous from the demands of prescriptive curricula, but still subject to the arbitrary demands of accountability practices.
  3. In turn, this traps teachers into cycles of short-term thinking, concerned not with the long-term effects of education on young people, but more about raising the school’s performance in the league table.

So what is the answer? One solution is to rethink the balance between different types of curriculum regulation. It is often said that input regulation stifles teacher creativity – that over-prescriptive content is the problem. I disagree. The real problem lies in output regulation, the use of evaluative attainment data to shape education through the measurement of outcomes. This is subject to many unintended consequences, and can act against innovation as teachers play safe. This is the message illustrated by much of the research unveiled at BERA – stories of teachers seeing the worth in innovation, particularly for students, but ultimately saying ‘it is the exam that matters’. This is not to say that we do not need curriculum guidance. I remain opposed to over-prescriptive specification of content. And I also dislike the output regulation that manipulates schools into certain types of performance. However, clear and focused curriculum policy is vital as a stimulus and guide to school-based curriculum-making. Such guidance should incorporate at least two features: 1] a clear statement of the purposes of education; and 2] transparent and clear specification of the processes by which schools and teachers engage with these in order that educative practices and the identification of appropriate content are fit for purpose. These conditions assume that there is a public interest, mandated by the state, to set out the core principles of education, but are also premised on the professional competence of teachers, and society’s trust in these professionals to do their job properly, free of micro-management by politicians.

Until we break free of the cycle described above, we will continue to see failure after failure in terms of innovation, and a watering down of the aspirations of policies like Curriculum for Excellence.

* Although arguably, many academies promote more student-centred approaches, for example the museum learning academy featured in the BERA paper.