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 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 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 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.