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.