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.

SCN 0-01a

 

·         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.

SCN 1-02a

 

 

●      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.

SCN 3-13c

●      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.

SCN 1-07a

●     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

 

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Some commentary on History, progression and the Social Studies benchmarks

The following is a guest post from Dr Joe Smith, University of Stirling, on the assessment of History using the new benchmarks.

Curriculum for Excellence is presently being equipped with ‘benchmarks’ to clarify what a child at each ‘level’ might be expected to know and do.  In terms of history, this means that Education Scotland have addressed the messy question of progression in historical understanding.  This blog posts explores some of the problems with the proposals. (NB. Some of the arguments here are similar to those I raised in The Curriculum Journal 2016)

….

There exist several models for progression in history education, but all are based on the uncontroversial premise that ‘getting better’ means something other than ‘knowing more’.  There is, after all, a literally infinite amount that one might know about the past and so to say that, ‘I know more history than you’ is to say that ‘I know a tiny bit more about a tiny sliver of the past than you do’.  There is not a totality of historical knowledge against which our knowledge can be cross-checked and this awkward fact means that we can’t assess children based on how much they know, because we, all of us, know very little.

Instead, progression in history refers not to a more complete understanding of the past, but a more sophisticated one.  For example, Shemilt (1983) produced one of the first workable models about how progression in history might be conceived. He argued that children moved through levels of understanding through which the complexity of the past was slowly realised:

  • Level One – There is a story of the past which can be learned. Things happened because they happened.
  • Level Two – There is a single simple story of the past which is easy to learn. Evidence which doesn’t fit this story is wrong. The past could never have been other than how it is.
  • Level Three – There is an appreciation that accounts of the past necessarily differ.
    Level Four – There is a recognition that there is no single story about the past and the nature of the narrative depends on the questions one asks.

Shemilt’s is by no means a perfect model, but it demonstrates how measuring progression requires an assessment of how children are thinking about the past. If teachers must measure children, then they must assess the sophistication of the child’s thinking as revealed through their written and spoken responses. They cannot and must not, simply put a tick or cross against what the child knows (or is perceived not to know).

The approach to progression seen in the new CfE benchmarks contains none of this sophistication.  The benchmarks are problematic in at least four ways.

  • They are, in many cases, so vague that they are devoid of meaning
  • They assess ‘knowledge’ that is pointless
  • They are startlingly undemanding
  • They ask children to behave in a way which is fundamentally unhistorical

In the following paragraphs I deal with each issue in turn, drawing upon examples from the benchmarks.

Vague and Meaningless

The second level benchmark says that a child,

‘Researches a historical event using both primary and secondary sources of evidence.’

This is nothing more or less than a description of the discipline of history. It is possible to achieve this ‘benchmark’ at every level from lower primary to university dissertation. What, specifically, does a child have to do to say that they have met this?  How independent do they have to be? What are they meant to produce at the end of this? How even can you assess the process of researching something? Historians research so that they can produce an account of the past – we assess the quality of an account informed by research, not the act of research itself.

Pointless Knowledge

Recognises the difference between primary and secondary sources of evidence.

The concept of ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ is not inherent in a source: whether a piece of evidence can properly be called ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ depends entirely of the questions that are being asked of it.  A school textbook is a primary source is a secondary source about the events is describes, but a primary source to an historian of education. In any case, it’s not even a useful distinction to be able to make. Being able to label ‘X’ as a primary source is of no practical to children. In fact, it encourages formulaic thinking along the lines of ‘X is a good source because it is primary’ which is actively unhelpful to the child’s development of historical understanding.

Undemanding

At the second level, a child of eleven and a half…

Describes and discusses at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.

I am pretty certain that my five year old child could meet this benchmark, yet this is the benchmark for a child on the verge of secondary school.  Apart from anything else, this kind of ‘spot the difference’ activity is not particularly historical because it is devoid of explanation: i.e. ‘I put clothes in the washing machine, they use a mangle’ is not really historical thinking.  Whereas,

‘Before the electrification of homes people needed to do their washing on a mangle. This took a lot of time.   Since electrification, we have washing machines which means that we spend less time washing clothes’

contains elements of causation and change.

Unhistorical

Contributes two or more points to the discussion (in any form) as to why people and events from the past were important.

The qualities of important or unimportant (or more properly significance) are not inherent in a particular historical topic, but imputed by the person talking about the topic. The phrasing of this benchmark presupposes that Event or Person X was ‘important’ and expects children to say why that is the case.  The idea that we get to decide for children which actors in the past were and were not significant, is deeply troubling. Instead, the expectation should be that children can disagree about why an event is significant (or even whether it was significant at all) rather than assuming it is important and asking them to tell us why. A better benchmark would be something like ‘Can choose a historical event and say why they think it should be remembered’.

So where has the problem come from?

The fundamental unsuitability of these benchmarks stems from the fact that they are based on the Experiences and Outcomes document which was, itself, wholly unfit for purpose.  I have written about their shortcomings at length (Smith, 2016), but the basic problem is that they were never intended to be used as the basis of a progression model. The Es and Os address two incompatible functions – prescribing content and defining procedural knowledge.  When these two functions are translated into ‘benchmarks’, curious things start to happen. For example, the ‘E and O’ SOC 2-04a reads, ‘I can compare and contrast a society in the past with my own and contribute to a discussion of the similarities and differences’.  This is a worthwhile activity for children to undertake – it asks children to appreciate change and continuity over historical time. However, when it is uncritically turned into a ‘benchmark’, a worthwhile activity loses its value; as eleven year olds are asked to ‘Describe and discuss at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.’

Another example is SOC 2-06a which reads, ‘I can discuss why people and events from a particular time in the past were important.’ In this phrasing, discussion is the thing that the child does – the child is writing or talking discursively. However, in the benchmarks the active verb ‘to discuss’ morphs into the passive noun ‘a discussion’ to which the child now contributes.  In the process, any semblance of historical thinking is lost.

So what is to be done?

The great pity here is that there already exists a document which might be used as the basis for more effective benchmarking – the 2015 Significant Aspects of Learning (SALs) document.  Up until very recently, advice from Education Scotland was for teachers to defer to the SALs in planning the learning of their classes, not to the Es and Os.  The 2015 SALs are predicated on an assumption that historical understanding is conceptual understanding; it is not a matter of knowing more.

  • understanding the place, history, heritage and culture of Scotland and appreciating local and national heritage within the world
  • developing an understanding of the world by learning about how people live today and in the past
  • becoming aware of change, cause and effect, sequence and chronology
  • locating, exploring and linking periods, people, events and features in time and place

By using the SALs it is much easier to conceive progression. For example, we have a well-established model for assessing progression in children’s understanding of causation which derives ultimately from Shemilt.

  1. It was always going to happen, hence we cannot explain causation
  2. It was caused by one thing
  3. It was caused by many things
  4. It was caused by many things and we can categorise and prioritise these things
  5. It was caused by many factors which were interlinked and interdependent.

Everyone involved in education in Scotland wants its system to remain among the best in the world, but this means having a clear idea of what ‘the best’ looks like.  Progression models are always simplifications of cognitive development, but they are underpinned by a disciplinary understanding of what ‘more sophisticated thinking looks like’. If we reduce progression to a series of performative tasks, then teachers will inevitable teach to these tasks.  Instead we should be empowering teachers by demonstrating our aspirations for our children and trusting teacher’s professionalism to deliver on it.

The endless quest for the Holy Grail of educational specification: Scotland’s new assessment benchmarks

Teachers in Scotland are presently witnessing the phased publication of a series of draft assessment benchmarks. These are linked to the call in last year’s OECD review of Scottish education to simplify the narrative of the curriculum in response to OECD recommendations. The first benchmarks, for literacy and numeracy, were published in August 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/zjtogmb). They have subsequently been followed by draft benchmarks in a range of subjects such as Science (see https://tinyurl.com/zaj4s93), Expressive Arts and Social Studies, with more to follow for each curriculum area by the end of the year. Each set of benchmarks comprises around 50 pages of text, with groups of Experiences and Outcomes (Es & Os) listed alongside sets of benchmarks related to the applicable outcomes. If early drafts are any indication, we can expect to see around 4000 benchmarks covering the whole curriculum. The example below, from the draft Third Level Social Studies benchmarks, provides a flavour of this new approach.

People, past events and societies  

I can use my knowledge of a historical period to interpret the evidence and present an informed view.             SOC 3-01a

I can make links between my current and previous studies, and show my understanding of how people and events have contributed to the development of the Scottish nation.

SOC 3-02a

 

I can explain why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here in the past and discuss the impact they have had on the life and culture of Scotland.                     SOC 3-03a

 

I can explain the similarities and differences between the lifestyles, values and attitudes of people in the past by comparing Scotland with a society in Europe or elsewhere.

SOC 3-04a

 

I can describe the factors contributing to a major social, political or economic change in the past and can assess the impact on people’s lives.

SOC 3-05a

I can discuss the motives of those involved in a significant turning point in the past and assess the consequences it had then and since.            SOC 3-06a

Through researching, I can identify possible causes of a past conflict and report on the impact it has had on the lives of people at that time.      SOC 3-06b

 

·       Evaluates a range of primary and secondary sources of evidence, to present valid conclusions about a historical period.

·       Draws on previous work to provide a detail explanation of how people and events have contributed to the development of the Scottish nation.

·       Provides reasons why a group of people from beyond Scotland settled here.

·       Describes the impacts immigrants have had on life and culture of Scotland.

·       Provides an account with some explanation as to how and why society has developed in different ways comparing Scotland to another society in Europe or elsewhere.

·        Describes factors which contributed to a major social, economic or social change in the past.

·       Draws reasoned conclusions about the impact on people’s lives of a major social economic or social change in the past.

·       Draws reasoned conclusions about the motives of those involved in a significant turning point or event in history.

·       Provides a justifies view of the impact of this significant historical event.

·       Identifies possible causes of past conflict, using research methods.

·       Presents in any appropriate form on the impact of people at that time.

It is immediately clear that the benchmarks add a new layer to the existing specification of Curriculum for Excellence. This is difficult to reconcile with the stated desire to simplify the narrative of the curriculum. It is thus hardly surprising that the benchmarks have been met with considerable scepticism by teachers on social media, and this week saw the publication of a thoughtful and considered, yet highly critical response from a group of STEM Learned Societies (see https://t.co/B3mDnglL9B). So what exactly is happening here, when a call to simplify the curriculum is met with a further spiral of specification (Wolf, 1995)? And what is wrong with this approach in any case?

Attempts to specify curriculum and assessment in detailed ways are not new. It is around hundred years since Bobbitt published his taxonomy of educational objectives. More recently in the United Kingdom, we have seen the emergence of the competency-based model that has underpinned vocational qualifications such as those produced by NCVQ in England and Scotvec in Scotland. Related to this has been the genesis and subsequent development of national curricula: from 1988, England’s National Curriculum set out attainment targets, expressed as lists of detailed outcomes, arrayed into hierarchical levels. Subsequent worldwide curriculum developments (for example, Scotland’s 5-14 curriculum, New Zealand’s 1993 Curriculum Framework, CfE in Scotland) have exhibited similar thinking. This approach has an instinctive appeal to those concerned with measuring attainment and tracking a school’s effectiveness. It provides a superficially neat way of categorising and measuring learning. The approach also attracted some support (especially in its early days) from some educationists. For example, Nash has talked of enabling learners “to have a sense of direction through planned and well-defined learning targets which are in turn based on defined criteria in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding”( Nash, in  Burke, 1995, p.162). Gilbert Jessup, the architect of the GNVQ competency-based model, stated that “statements of competence set clear goals for education and training programmes” and that “explicit standards of performance …… bring a rigour to assessment which has seldom been present in workplace assessment in the past” (Jessup, p.39). Jessup saw little difference between the competency-based model for vocational education and the emerging models of outcomes-based national curriculum, predicting that the National Curriculum would “result in more individual and small group project work, and less class teaching” (Jessup, 1991, p.78). Subsequent experience has of course demonstrated quite the opposite effect.

So what are the problems associated with this approach? I list some of well-documented issues here, focusing on generic critique of the model, rather than on a detailed analysis of specific benchmarks/subjects. Further posts on this blog will look at some of the subject areas such as social studies and science, offering a more finely focused critique of particular sets of outcomes.

  • The approach is complex, jargon-ridden and lends itself to bureaucracy. This criticism was levelled at the NCVQ model by Hyland who said that the model was “labyrinthine” in complexity and entirely “esoteric,” and as a consequence of all these factors, the model has proven to be unwieldy and difficult to access for both students and assessors (Hyland, 1994, p.13). Such issues have certainly been evident in Scotland in the creeping development of time-consuming, bureaucratic processes, and the subsequent exhortations for schools to reduce bureaucracy.
  • Specification of learning in this way has been shown to narrow learning, reducing the focus of lessons to what has to be assessed. Critics of this approach such as Hyland (1994) and Kelly (2004) were quick to point out that far from encouraging learner autonomy and flexibility in learning, the model inhibits it because of the prescriptive nature of many of the outcomes. Recent research in New Zealand (Ormond, 2016) indicates that specification of assessment standards has seriously narrowed the scope of the curriculum. Ormond provides an example of the Vietnam War, where some teachers omitted to teach the role of the USA in the war, while still meeting the requirements of the assessment standard.
  • Where assessment standards/benchmarks are too specific, they reduce teacher autonomy by filling lessons with assessment tasks and associated teaching to the test. Teaching thus becomes assessment-driven. In turn, this places great pressure on both teachers and students to perform – to meet the demands of the test. Performativity has been well-documented in the research. Its effects include stress on students and teachers, pressure to fabricate school image and manipulate statistics, and even downright cheating (see Priestley, Biesta & Robinson, 2015, chapter 5)
  • Focusing on ticking off benchmarks encourages an instrumental approach to curriculum development. Our research in Scotland documented instances of strategic compliance – box-ticking – with the Es & Os (e.g. see Priestley & Minty, 2013). There is a tendency to only visit an area of learning until enough evidence has been gathered that it has been covered, then to move onto to another required area. This is not an educational approach designed to build deep understanding or construct cross-curricular links. Instead it atomises learning.
  • There are philosophical arguments about whether it is ethical in a modern democracy to define in detail what young people should become. The assessment benchmarks can be framed as narrow behaviourist statements of performance, which mould people to behave in particular ways – as such, they can be seen as being more about training (at best) and indoctrination (at worst), rather than as educational (see Kelly, 2004).

The above objections to the specification of tightly specified assessment criteria suggest that it is extremely unwise for Scotland to take Curriculum for Excellence in this direction, which moves the practical curriculum yet further from the aspirational goals set out in early documentation. It is clear that such specification has political appeal, offering the (arguably spurious) opportunity to track achievement; moreover, it can be framed as a response to those teachers who have long decried the Es & Os for being too vague. Nevertheless, this spiral of specification is dangerous, and Scotland would do well to learn from prior history of curriculum reform. A salutary example lies in the GNVQ model: initially this was specified as Units, Elements and Performance criteria; later specification added range statements and evidence indicators, as curriculum designers engaged in a Holy Grail quest to achieve total clarity. The result was anything but clear; instead teachers experienced all of the issues outlined above, as courses became increasingly complex, bureaucratic and difficult to teach.

References

Burke, J. (ed.) (1995). Outcomes, Learning and the Curriculum: Implications for NVQs, GNVQs and other qualifications. London: Falmer Press.

Hyland, T. (1994). Competence, Education and NVQs: Dissenting Perspectives. London: Cassell.

Kelly, A.V. (2004). The Curriculum: theory and practice, 5th edition. London: Sage.

Jessup, G. (1991). Outcomes: NVQs and the Emerging Model of Education and Training. London: Falmer Press.

Ormond, B.M. (2016, in press). Curriculum decisions – the challenges of teacher autonomy over knowledge selection for history. Journal of Curriculum Studies. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2016.1149225).

Priestley, M., Biesta, G. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Priestley, M. & Minty, S. (2013). Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but. . .’. Scottish Educational Review, 45 (1), 39-52.

Wolf, A. (1995). Competence-Based Assessment. Buckingham: Open University Press.