Out of Our Comfort Zones
This Guest Blog is from Parveen Nawab, a Teach First participant who teaches in a secondary school in West London. Parveen is on a Summer placement with the RSA education team.
As a full-time teacher, I am absorbed in the day-to-day “groundwork” of education, but being at the RSA has really exposed me to the exciting innovations changing the face of education behind the scenes. If teachers are to achieve the high status in society that they enjoy in other countries, they need to engage fully with their communities, take advantage of new curriculum freedoms, and be recognised for doing so.
It’s the last day of my summer project at RSA Education and time to reflect on some of the projects I have been helping the team with. I have been particularly inspired by RSA’s Opening Minds initiative and their plans to pilot a CPD programme for a “golden generation of curriculum designers.” I am sure that this will appeal to my fellow Teach First participants. Conversations with my peers have revealed that the vast majority of us have had to create from scratch whole schemes of work and devise appropriate forms of assessment. This is because in many challenging schools resources are not readily available, are out-dated or not engaging for learners. So if there’s already so much content creation going on, a natural step is to give teachers the recognition for it that they duly deserve, and the skills and theoretical frameworks to make professional judgments.
One thing that makes the programme so appealing is its community-based approach. Unfortunately, many teachers do little to engage with the communities in which they work And this could be because engagement is perceived as risky. In my year of teaching so far, I’ve learnt that good teaching is about taking risks – moving from orthodox methods of interaction and delivery often perceived to be “safe bets” to entering untested domains. Being at the RSA has only affirmed my view that teachers participating in the localities they serve is critical to having an impact. In Opening Minds we shouldn’t just focus on pupils – teachers, equally, need think “outside the box”.
Another problem with the so-called “foolproof” approaches to teaching is that many of us are stubbornly nostalgic about “what worked in our day” – I’m only 24 but must also confess to exhibiting such symptoms at times. But if teachers are going to meet increasing demands for accountability for driving progress and producing results, we need to seriously consider the needs and demands of young people. As Sir Ken Robinson suggests in Changing Paradigms, the bombardment of technology means today’s youth unsurprisingly are experiential learners stimulated by the senses. Rather than suppressing it, we must effectively channel this energy by getting them involved in active, tangible experiences, in or out of the classroom.
One school, Little Ilford, in Manor Park, East London had the right idea for project-based learning that reflects “real” experiences one might encounter in a job as an adult. During my visit on a School Orientation Experience in Summer 2011, I joined Key Stage Three students in their “project” classes. The objective in these lessons was to work on one of nine projects in the year that required a range of knowledge and skills to be drawn from a multitude of disciplines. For instance, creating a holiday brochure involved not only the use of persuasive language, it also required appropriate knowledge of art and design, mathematics, history, geography and I.C.T. So although much of the content remains the same, the way it is presented to young people is profoundly different.
But how many teachers feel it is their responsibility to specify what is taught? Although school staff rooms are alive with incessant debate over this issue (with teachers’ un-PC subject-prejudices being openly expressed), how many are actively willing to take advantage of the freedoms granted to them by the new National Curriculum? At least in my experience, there are many educators out there who would be apprehensive about a shift from delivering prescribed curricula to having the autonomy to frame themselves. This is probably more common in secondary schools where content is subject-specific and lacks the interdisciplinary approach that primary schools practice. For policy changes to influence teacher creativity, and in order for pupil attainment to benefit from the trickle-down effect of this, teachers need to feel confident in their ability to assess children beyond their specialised subject and thus be able to shape an all-encompassing curriculum. Thus, as Louise Thomas articulates, it’s time to consider the content and rigour of teacher training.
Creating space for teacher input into what is taught could also have a positive impact on the value of teaching as a profession and how it is perceived by those outside education. In the eyes of many, teaching carries little prestige; teachers are all-too-familiar with the judgemental cynics who reduce their job to one that is characterised by regular holidays and unnecessary bureaucracy. In fact, many teachers are already practising some form of curriculum design – by deciding what to include and omit in pupils’ knowledge. But this needs to be more formalised in Initial Teacher Training – with the option to choose electives in a range of other disciplines – so that teachers are seen less as mere transmitters of knowledge or the social workers of their communities and more as agents in constructing knowledge.