If you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom?

April 8, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

In Dan Willingham’s superb book ‘why students don’t like school’, one of his provocative conclusions is that ‘the mind is not designed for thinking’. The problematic combination of effort, uncertainty and mental availability leads us to be, in John Hattie’s words, ‘highly selective about what we pay attention to’. Although Willingham is pragmatic and optimistic about solutions to this issue, his Realpolitik starting point is salutary and useful. If, to use Robert Coe’s definition, pupils are learning when they are ‘thinking hard’, their capacity to dislike and avoid learning things should hardly surprise us.

A similar analysis could easily be applied to the question of ‘why teachers don’t like research’. Of course there are structural, system-wide barriers to teachers’ engagement with research, and more could be done to incentivise the profession. However, this doesn’t wholly explain an overall teacher culture whose daily detritus, whether on staffroom walls, classroom desks or ‘to do’ lists, rarely lets the research light in. Time is an enemy of most good intentions, but I don’t think that if all teachers suddenly conjured, say, an extra hour a week to spend on professional learning, they would flock to the altar of research engagement.

With all this in mind, I went to my first researchED conference on Saturday. The beautiful baby of teacher blogger Tom Bennett, researchED is a thriving teacher-led movement. Frustrated by the wavering attempts of both Government and the Academy to connect teachers with research, and the variable quality of the stuff that cuts through, researchED’s curators are doing it for themselves through sell-out conferences and online conversations.

Although the researchED posse is a little dominated by the more traditional end of the teacher spectrum (and I don’t blame the organisers for this), the conference reminded me of Creative Partnerships at its best, when teachers and others engaged deeply with and in grounded research to inform the programmes they were designing.

I was there to discuss the findings and emerging recommendations from our Inquiry with BERA into research and teacher education, but really wanted to ‘learn from the converted’; to gain an understanding of why the teachers gathered on a Saturday in Birmingham were the exception rather than the rule, and whether this mattered. As I asked the teachers at my session: ‘why are you weird?’ One participant tweeted, ‘I feel like the lone nut’, then talked about his isolation as the only person in his secondary school who had heard of John Hattie. Another talked about the fear factor when her senior leadership team were promoting evidence-free interventions (yes, brain gym got another deserved kicking, although I tried to remind people that progressives and constructivists don’t have the monopoly on snake oil).

The BERA/RSA Inquiry’s interim report and follow-up conversations has convinced me that the development of all teachers’ ‘research literacy’ does matter, and made me increasingly optimistic that progress can be made. Research literacy (which does not require all teachers to be researchers) matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.

What are my grounds for optimism? When I left teaching fifteen years ago, we were just getting to grips with data, and how attainment data should inform classroom decisions. Now, this is a universally accepted attribute – in virtually every teacher’s job description. The depth of this cultural change struck me at a recent RSA Academies INSET day, when food technology teachers (perhaps not the usual data suspects) were having sophisticated data-led discussions. England is the most data-rich education system in the world. This gives us an incredible foundation to become both data-driven and research-rich during the next decade. Small nudges, whether from the passionate people who are researchED,  the Education Endowment Foundation, or  government rhetoric and requirements, for instance to demonstrate an evidence-informed approach to pupil premium spending, could combine to make a huge, rapid difference. We hope that our Inquiry’s country-specific recommendations and system-wide ‘design principles’ can also contribute when launched next month. I am also aiming to broker a productive partnership between researchED and BERA. A clever alignment could catalyse some common ambitions.

You can find links to an impressive multitude of blogs at #redb on twitter. Here are my thoughts from a fantastic day that might help maintain the researchED momentum.

1) People who can sound shrill and overconfident on twitter and blogs are much more prepared to engage critically with issues when face to face – yes, I mean me too. This means that, for all the social media and clever online engagement solutions emerging, the sometimes-visceral nature of events such as researchED matters deeply to the key task of creating a little more (if never total) long term consensus about schools and learning.

2) Progressive educators need to join the researchED fray. It would also be terrific to bring theory and research into practical learning and arts learning into the Research-Ed conversation.  As part of this process we need to read, and to some extent reclaim, elements of cognitive psychology to inform our thinking.

3) On the other side of a confusing fence, the teachers and researchers who are using cognitive psychology to justify and explore pedagogies should embrace some developmental and behavioural psychology too. Even within the range of cognitive outcomes they focus on, it’s still worth exploring, for example, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck, and some of the other theories summarised in our recent report into behavioural insights and education.

4) We need a common, cognitive bias-free commitment to nonsense-detection. Andrew Old should be as angry about Toby Young’s recent evidence-lacking Civitas pamphlet as Debra Kidd is. Together, we should be on commentators’ cases.  The Education Endowment Foundation or new Education Media Centre could take on a national rapid-reaction ‘health warning’ role whenever anyone plays fast and loose with evidence.

5) Compared to ‘official’ research conferences, researchED speakers are often prepared to ‘present before they are ready; the ‘mad idea’ of ‘mapping the complexity of concepts’ is a great example of this. Could ResearchED create a light touch, formative alternative to the classic ‘peer review’ process that stimulate an ongoing critical dialogue which aims for ‘just in time’ improvements to research efforts, rather than ‘just too late’ destruction?

From the promotion of girls’ education in the 19th Century to the more recent Start Right early years campaign, the RSA has a wonderful history of supporting important movements for change in education. The researchED phenomenon could be just as crucial, and we’re up for helping it sustain success in any way we can.

Global Education: Do what we say, not what we did

March 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Blair photo cut

I’ve just spent two days at the Global Education and Skills Forum, billed as a ‘Davos for Education’, and organised with rigour and panache by the Varkey Gems Foundation. I participated on a hunch that the RSA might have something to contribute to this agenda.  If William Shipley and other founders came back to the RSA now, they’d be surprised by many things: the still-fantastic condition of our House; the global penetration of our RSA Animates; the price of our coffee. I think they would also be surprised by our lack of engagement around international development generally, and education in particular. The issues being faced by education systems (and the term ‘system’ is a euphemism in many states) around the world can put some of the UK issues we grapple with in their petty, parochial shade.

The recent Education for All Global Monitoring Report showed how, despite progress on access over the last decade, 100 million children of primary age are still not in school, and a further 150 million children leave primary school unable to read, write or count. The annual cost of this failure is estimated at £129bn. All six 2015 ‘Education for All’ goals will be missed. If trends continue, it will take until 2086 before universal primary education for girls becomes a reality. Our own Department for International Development last year published an excellent position paper, reaffirming the UK’s commitment to ‘providing global leadership on delivering value for money, developing new partnerships across the public–private spectrum, using new technology and building evidence on new approaches and aid modalities with partner governments.

Because of significant progress on goals around famine relief, malnourishment and broader health crises, the focus on global education goals is growing. The ‘poster children’ for the development world are now less likely to be starving children than pupils in very cramped classrooms, or being taught outside with minimal resources.  However, according to figures released by Gems, businesses and foundations donate approximately sixteen times more to health than to education. The new ‘business backs education’ campaign is calling for all businesses to increase the share of their CSR spend on education to 20%.

In a context which is both changing rapidly and hitting frustrating buffers, a total antipathy to the private sector is almost impossible to sustain. The demand for learning is such that private, ‘pay at the point of use’ options are an inevitable and, when of good quality, welcome part of the ecology. Without such input, the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ is more likely to be a demographic disaster of young people entering the labour market with very limited skills and motivations. At the moment, it’s a blurred and occasionally messy mix between pure private provision (high and low cost), NGO provision and support, and publicly funded and delivered schools. Different actors will inevitably be bumping into each other in the field, although any inefficiencies caused by duplicating effort may be offset by a curiously competitive climate. In many ways, global education in developing countries looks similar to England’s mixed economy of early year provision. As Bill Clinton’s speech highlighted.

 “It is projected that by 2050 that 86 percent of the world’s children will be living in what are now developing countries. There is no way that governments alone or international aid flows alone will be able to provide those children with the quality of education they need to be full participants in global society. This is especially relevant for women and girls.”

To maximise the impact of this mixed economy, it might be wise for governments to move further and faster to a commissioning function, minimising any delivery responsibilities. This would include the commissioning of high quality training and professional development, using the potential of blended learning (including MOOCs for teacher training), as well as being highly informed, evidence-based commissioners of ICT solutions that could improve outcomes whilst reducing costs. Government should also see themselves as ‘champions of parents’,  developing simple and strong accountability systems to empower parents about the quality of choices available, and speaking up for the interests of the most vulnerable families, those ‘high hanging fruit’ that the private sector may never reach out and up to. NGOs, especially the larger global actors, may need to change their attitudes and approaches to working with for-profits, who are sometimes portrayed by NGOs as maybe-necessary and hopefully-temporary evils.

Amidst the justified rush to get as many children in school and learning for as long as possible, it’s worth reflecting on the challenges that education systems such as England’s, with over 150 years’ experience of free universal education, have struggled to solve, and if anything are more entrenched than ever. Here is my cut of five perpetual problems for virtually every developed education system, regardless of PISA league table ranking.

1.       Low equity, high inequality   Despite occasional progress, universal education has largely reinforced rather than broken down existing     social inequalities

2.      An artificial divide between academic and vocational learning, and between school and work   All systems (yes Germany, you too) have struggled to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational education pathways. A rising ‘school leaving age’ may have   inadvertently created new firewalls between the worlds of school and work.

 3.       Low teacher agency and self-efficacy   The overwhelming policy dynamic, whether led by national governments, local authorities or other intermediaries, has cast teachers as victims rather than agents of change.

 4.       Increasing teenage disengagement   OECD data shows that teenagers, including the growing number of students who are ‘successful’ in terms of exam results, are increasingly disengaged from and motivated by the process of schooling.

 5.       Minimal arts provision   In every system across the world, arts and cultural learning appears to be at best permanently vulnerable to reductions in provision, and at worst marginalised from schools’ curricula and childrens’ lives.

If, as a country or state, you are struggling to build enough schools, ensure children learn anything when they are at school, prevent early drop-outs, especially amongst girls, or get teachers better trained or simply turning up to teach more regularly, these five issues may feel like peripheral luxuries. Yet it’s in building the foundations for a universal education system that cultures and norms are established. Developing countries have opportunities to shape new blended delivery structures for education: between private, public and voluntary provision; between teachers, parents pupils and other citizens; between online and face to face teaching and learning; and perhaps above all, between the worlds of school and work. This is less ‘creative destruction’, and more creative commissioning, mixing the most appropriate solutions which might lead to far more effective protection against the holes that we developed nations keep on digging, and far more scope for enabling teachers to lead education change processes.  It’s hard to predict the model which might replace what Ken Robinson famously termed our ‘industrial model’ of schooling, but it may well emerge from the developing world who are less burdened by the baggage of a hundred years of universal education.

Whether anything will ever change any education system’s approach to arts learning is another matter, but that’s for another blog, and a possible RSA project.  For the moment, I’ll give the last word to my favourite speaker from the event, Mary Joy Pigozzi from Educate a Child:

Ultimately, it is a country’s citizens that own its education system’.

Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA. Follow him @joehallg

Are we failing to fully understand failure?

March 18, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

Wow.  What fortnight it has been!

The press coverage from our most recent publication about using behavioural insight in the classroom, Everyone Starts with an A, has been exciting, interesting, and somewhat exhausting.

We have been featured in the Telegraph, the Times, the TES, the Daily Mail, GovToday, and others.  Jonathan appeared on BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, and Louise and Nathalie did various radio interviews over the past few days, including Drive Time, Radio 5 Live, and Voice of Russia.  And Jonathan has been engaging in lively twitter conversations on the topic.  This is all in addition to the very welcome reception we got in Germany early last week, with articles in Die Welt, Die Sueddeutscher Allgemeine, and on the front page of Der Spiegel (with over 3,600 Facebook likes).

We have received many supportive comments from people who see the merit in trying out the approaches suggested in the report.  It’s also fair to say, though, that not all of the comments have been positive and in fact many of them are from critics who seem to think that use of these approaches only serve to molly-coddle our pupils and fail to set them up for the harsh realities of the adult world.

But to think that these recommendations molly-coddle our youth is to misunderstand them or the science behind them. It seems that the people commenting like this are commenting on what they know from the newspaper articles, not from our report itself.  So, in an attempt to clear up the confusion, let’s review the two most contentious recommendations from the report: everyone starts with an A, and give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’. 


Everyone starts with an A.

Yes, yes, I know, we chose this as our title, so of course people will ask about it! But “Everyone starts with an A” is a lot catchier than the full explanation of “try giving your students an A at the beginning of the year, so that instead of working up to it they have to work hard to avoid losing it, because a well-known insight from behavioural science is that we tend to be ‘loss averse’ and thus are more motivated to avoid giving something up than we are to try to gain it”. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it. When months have been invested into a project such as this, it is not surprising that we want our ideas to broadcast and shared widely.  So we did pick one of the most provocative recommendations from the paper in our title, in the hopes of generating interest in the report.  And generate interest it did. But the flip side of picking a provocative title is that understandably all of the nuances and background behind it get lost throughout the chain. With each additional press release or article, the message gets somewhat warped, and “everyone starts with an A” can turn into “give students something they don’t have to work for” (for the record, that is NOT what we are suggesting!).

One misconception from critics is that this makes the A meaningless.  Perhaps the first thing to say here is that, in our approach, just because you start out with an A doesn’t mean that you keep it. So at the end of the term (project, year, etc) it will not be the case that the entire class has achieved an A (but wouldn’t that be great?); some students will get an A and others won’t.  The criteria for maintaining the A and how readily it is lost will be up to the teacher.  So the A is no less meaningless or meaningful than it is in a traditional method of assessment. The key here is simply reframing the starting point so that instead of starting from the bottom, the pupils are starting from the top.

This reframing serves two purposes.

First, it is likely to improve effort levels.  We know from behavioural science that people feel the pain of a loss more so than the pleasure of a similar gain. Decades of research by Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who is speaking in London tonight) and many others in the field support this. And this concept has been tested in the classroom by Levitt et al, who offered students a reward if they improved on a test. For some students, they were told: take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll get the reward.  For others, they were told: here’s the reward (given upfront), take the test, we’ll grade it, if you’ve improved then you’ll keep the reward but if you haven’t improved then we’ll take it back. It’s worth repeating that both groups had the same  basic set-up of “be rewarded for showing improvement” and the only difference was whether the reward was given after the fact or before (with the threat of losing it). The researchers found that the second group performed better on the test, illustrating that this type of reframing may influence pupils effort levels.

Second, when a pupil starts out with an A, this plants a seed in their mind that they too are capable of achieving this grade.  It is not reserved for the “brainy” or other select few; with the right effort, persistence, and support they too have the potential to keep this grade.  Shifting pupils’ expectations can influence their own performance in meaningful ways.

Critics have also claimed that if you start with an A, the only way is down.  This is responded to in more detail in this previous blog post, but the quick reply to this is that throughout the year a pupil’s grade might rise and fall in either approach – whether you start from the bottom or the top – and the point of our method is to change the starting point.  (An even quicker reply is in this blog post, possibly the shortest ever on the RSA website).


Give a ‘not yet’ grade instead of a ‘fail’.

This is NOT, as some people have interpreted it, about “banning negative words”.  This approach is about communicating the setback in such a way as to focus on the process of learning rather than on personal traits. As explained by Jonathan in this previous post,  “Failure will always be an important part of any learning process, but there is a huge difference between communicating failure in a way that signifies you are failing because you are not good enough, and failing because what you have done is not yet good enough.”

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck explains that the way we think about intelligence, ability, and performance sits along a spectrum between two very different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  A fixed mindset is the belief that ability is a relatively unchangeable trait; in contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that ability can be improved with practice and persistence, just like a muscle can be strengthened through lifting weights.  Dweck’s research shows that a fixed mindset student will be proud when they get an answer correct, but when they come up against a set-back, they lose motivation because to them it signifies that they have reached the capacity of their (fixed) ability. Growth mindset students also feel proud when they do well, but they attribute it not to a personal trait but instead to the steps that they took to get there.  When growth mindset students encounter a setback, they are more likely to stay resilient and motivated, because they understand that with more practice and support they can improve next time. Our suggestion to give a “not yet” grade instead of a “fail” is one way in which a growth mindset can be encouraged in the classroom.

There are other ways of fostering in pupils a growth mindset, too, beyond this ‘not yet’ approach.  For example the way that teachers and parents give feedback can have affect mindsets.  Praising for ability or intelligence (“Great! You’re so clever!”) fosters a fixed mindset, whereas praising for the process (“Great! You really focussed while working on that problem set!”) helps to build a growth mindset.  Additionally, teaching students about the brain and how connections are made while we are learning serves to both explain that indeed we can continue to learn and improve throughout our lives, and also highlights the universality of learning and thus might especially help those pupils who self-identify as being part of a group around which there are certain stigmas or pre-conceptions (based e.g. on gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status).

In a recent email to us in response to the report, one reader, the head of psychology in a large college, wrote in with a wonderful quote which I think sums up the spirit of this chapter:  “My experience over many years has lead me to a mantra which I bore my students with, ‘there is no such thing as brainy, there is just hard worky’.”


Free download available

Hopefully these two explanations will go some way towards clarifying these two particularly attention-grabbing recommendations.  We encourage people to read the report here and to download the accompanying poster.

I don’t want to leave the impression that all the responses to the report or the recommendations therein have been critical. We have received many, many kind comments and supportive emails; thank you to those who have written in. The report has been described as “brave”, “hopeful”, and “insightful” and many recognise that the behavioural science underpinning these recommendations has a lot to offer to educational policy and practice.

Revealed! Secrets of school collaboration

March 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Last week I attended an excellent Westminster Education Forum Seminar on school-to-school improvement partnerships, which managed to squeeze 17 speakers into a single morning.  In the same spirit of brevity I am sharing my top tips from the morning in tweet-sized chunks.  They are:

Collaborations don’t have to do everything – be clear about their purpose – this from David Crossley, Executive Director of Whole Education (an organisation that has its roots in the RSA).  It is all too easy to see partnership or collaboration as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end.  Within RSA Academies one of our four strategic priorities is, “to improve teaching and learning through purposeful partnership”.  As schools within the Family work increasingly collaboratively we will need to ensure that the focus on improving teaching and learning remains central.

Professor Merryn Hutchings from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education had directed the evaluation of the City Challenge programme in London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country.  A key message from that review was that Weaker schools benefit from a single partnership; stronger schools benefit from multiple partnerships.  This too is very relevant for the RSA Family of Academies, which includes both highly performing schools and those in need of support.  Schools within the Family should have the opportunity to benefit from all aspects of the relationship with other schools and with the RSA.  Nevertheless, there is a growing understanding that the focus of this is likely to be different for a struggling school which is looking principally for school improvement support, than for a good or outstanding school with more capacity to engage in a wider range of developmental activities.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL, argued that Partnership works best when it is based on a relationship of equals.  RSA Academies certainly would not disagree with this as a principle.  Indeed our school improvement model explicitly recognises that “all schools, irrespective of Ofsted category, have both strengths and areas for development and will therefore be both offering and receiving support and advice from other schools.”

There are, however, aspects of the current Academies set-up nationally that mitigate against this equal partnership in practice, most notably that multi-academy trusts (MATs) are required to have a single accounting officer with ultimate responsibility for key issues across all schools in the group.  This probably isn’t a problem where a strongly performing school partners a weaker school, and where the head of the stronger school will take on this role.  Nor is it an issue for medium to large MATs, which can afford to take on a Chief Executive.  But, as Anne Jackson, Director of System Reform at DFE pointed out, for all the publicity around the big Academy chains, a typical Academy chains now comprises 4 or 5 schools.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, DFE are keen to encourage more of these small chains, particularly in the primary sector.  Schools coming together to form a MAT as equals will either need to choose one of the Headteachers as the accounting officer, and therefore the person with ultimate responsibility for the group, or commit resource to creating a new post of Chief Executive.  In many cases neither option will be attractive, and this may be one reason why the significant financial incentives to primary schools to form academy chains have so far had a limited effect.

Howard Lay, Executive Principal of the Samuel Ward Academy began his slot by talking very positively about the RSA’s work in Suffolk which resulted in the No School an Island report.  His analysis of the last few years, in Suffolk and nationally, was that Schools have been on a journey from dependence to independence, and are now moving to the next stage: interdependence.  This chimed very closely with the feedback I am getting from conversations with schools and local authorities about the possibility of new schools joining the RSA Family.  The first tranche of Academy convertors generally did so alone, and in the early years the new independence (as well as the financial incentives) was a big part of the attraction of Academy status.  More recently there has been a change in tack, with some of the schools that originally converted independently now looking to form partnerships and allegiances with other schools, and those that are considering Academy status for the first time more interested in converting in partnership with other schools.  The RSA’s Academies Commission stressed that in an increasingly academised system it would be particularly important for schools to be connected to one another to accelerate school improvement.  Mr Lay’s upbeat analysis, which reflected the mood of the morning , is that more and more schools are looking to offer and receive school improvement support from other schools, and school interdependence is becoming an increasing feature of our education system.

Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies, a charitable company that currently works with four schools in the West Midlands.  Follow me @Ali_Critchley

Vulnerability is not a weakness

March 12, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters 

In her brilliant TED talk ‘Listening to shame’ Brené Brown claims that ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’.  While we might think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously, Brené argues against this myth stating that vulnerability is all about pure courage, emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.

I heard Grayson Perry, Turner Prize winning artist and ‘transvestite potter’ talking at the Women of the World festival where he also talked a lot about vulnerability.  His lecture Men!  Sit down for your rights proposed a Bill of Rights for Men, which included the Right to be Vulnerable, and the Right to be Uncertain.  Grayson thinks that the ‘Right to be Vulnerable’ would be a part of giving men a new model for masculinity at a time when the current constructs of manliness feel dated.

Following her own ‘vulnerability hangover’ (but let’s face it we all have them) Brené observed that in fact vulnerability is actually essential to whole hearted living and so I was uplifted to read a blog from an English teacher, ’5 things that scared me’.  An honest portrayal of a challenging week at work where the lesson learnt was ‘always do what scares you, only when out of your comfort zone will we truly learn and become our best selves’.

I think this is a really important idea.  Embracing our vulnerabilities comes down to asking ourselves to think differently and in turn this requires empathy to allow others to be open.  Being out of your comfort zone is difficult and many of us might identify with Brené’s epiphany:  that whilst being frustrated at not being able to get her work out to the world, she realised a part of her was engineering to stay small, to stay under the radar.

However if the implications of showing our vulnerability are innovation, creativity and change then we need to make it a more socially acceptable behaviour, in our working relationships, personal relationships and our friendships.

And how might you embrace vulnerability in adolescence? It strikes me that this is a time when most of us feel particularly awkward, out of place and unsure of ourselves.  Do schools have a role in addressing vulnerability head on?  Can you allow space for vulnerability?  How can you do this safely and appropriately?  Is it just about taking chances, leaps of faith?

Joe Hallgarten and Selina Nwulu with RSA Fellow Barbara Hearn are working on a project called Rethinking Adolescence.  They are starting from the idea that adolescence is an under-utilised asset, that this time is valuable and not just a phase in life to get through.  There is a perception that young people are ‘citizens in waiting’ and that adolescence is a time of ‘vulnerability of personality’ (Verhellen, 2000) because changes are so rapid.  It is a chapter when we experiment, push boundaries and start forming the kind of person that we want to be (or perhaps don’t want to be) so if we had the scope to express our vulnerability more, what might this lead to?  And not just for adolescents.  Vulnerability is often the grist for artists’ creativity so there is every reason to think that this would generate everyday innovation and change if vulnerability was allowed to flow.

As a last point I thought I’d share a personal story to illustrate the title of this blog in a small way.  I’ve started to play the ukulele.  I’ve got carried away with the idea of me playing the ukulele.  I’ve talked about it a lot.  I’m also not very good it but my basic ability to strum out a tune found me announcing to my parents one evening that I was going to give them a rendition of Maggie May.

Having verbally committed to the performance I found myself on the sofa, ukulele in hand with an expectant but somewhat uncomfortable looking audience.   I realise my enthusiasm has set the expectation bar high and I can’t remember the last time we all sat round for a jolly sing song.  The Von Trapps we are not.  In that moment a gulf of awkwardness sprang up.  There was nothing for it but to plunge in vulnerable and exposed.  Strumming then singing, tentative sound filled the room.

I still wasn’t very good but I was out there, a chorus in and committed when out of nowhere my dad started singing.  Finding something of Rod the Mod we belted out ‘Oh Maggie I couldn’t have tried anymore’ and a rather beautiful thing happened.   We looked at each other, smiled and in that brief moment something changed.   There wasn’t a vulnerability hangover in sight.

Mindsets, biases and the implausible importance of plants: Classroom tools to unlock pupil motivation

March 12, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

We’re delighted to announce that the Social Brain and Education teams’ newest report was launched yesterday in Berlin. The paper, supported by Vodafone Foundation Germany, explores the application of behavioural insight in the classroom to improve learning, and is the first in the RSA’s history to be published in both English and a foreign language.

VFG launch

(L-R) Sebastian Gallander, Louise Bamfield, Nathalie Spencer, Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt

The report builds on recent research from behavioural science and our evolving understanding of human nature to explore how effort, motivation, learning enjoyment, and performance might be influenced in ways not often traditionally recognised. To support our research, we consulted experts in education policy and practice specialising in motivation, ran a survey of over 750 educators in England, and conducted focus groups with teachers in Germany to co-develop a set of tools and techniques which we encourage teachers to trial in their own classrooms.

The concepts covered in the report, summarised here in an earlier blog post or below in this video clip, were very well received by the German audience. Mrs Ingrid Baumgartner-Schmitt, a school principal, offered a practitioner’s perspective on the value of the recommendations provided in the report. She explained the need for teachers to be given the space and time to trial various approaches and develop their understanding of the complex processes involved in learning and motivation.



With this report we hope to start a conversation, one that will be continued by practitioners. German speakers are encouraged to visit the www.lehrerdialog.net website, developed by the Vodafone Foundation Germany, to share their experiences of trialling out the tools and to exchange ideas about other potential tips and techniques.

If you don’t want to wrestle with the German version available here, you won’t have to wait long, as the English version will be published on the RSA website this Friday (March 14th). Mark the calendar and revisit the website for a free download!

Schools with Soul: defeating the data daleks

March 11, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This blog is by David Kerr, Citizenship Foundation and University of Bristol, and one of the co-authors our  RSA Investigate-Ed report on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of young people in the UK, published today.

The RSA Investigate-Ed series provides structured spaces for policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders to diagnose problems and generate solutions to key educational issues. The series strapline ‘inspiring debate, influencing policy, informing practice’ captures the essence.

The first Investigate-Ed is titled Schools with Soul: A new approach to Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education (SMSC). It focuses on the ugly duckling of education policy terms SMSC – spiritual, moral, social and cultural education – a phrase that hardly trips off the tongue or gives a clear sense of what it is about.  Indeed, as one of the co-authors of the investigation I freely admit in my brief biog that I have ‘always found it challenging to grasp what SMSC means in practice’: I’m sure I’m not alone.

So why has the RSA chosen to focus the first Investigate-Ed on SMSC? What is the key problem with SMSC and what are the suggested solutions? The answer lies in a conversation I had with an experienced teacher in school last week. He was bemoaning the fact that, as he put it, the ‘data Daleks and management geeks’ have increasingly taken over schools and are slowly suffocating the essence or purpose of what schools and education are about. They are replacing concern for students as individuals who require careful nurturing, with a fixation with data that processes them as numbers to be driven across grade boundaries and collectively up league tables. The Investigate-Ed report into SMSC confirms that there is more than an element of truth in my colleague’s concerns.

Schools with Soul highlights how the broader educational context in and beyond the UK is rapidly bringing SMSC up the agenda as a key education issue.

  • SMSC has been a policy imperative in the UK since 1944 and remains part of the Ofsted inspection framework for schools
  • Our competitor countries are increasingly turning to new learning approaches that promote SMSC competencies to enable their young people to live and work with confidence in a global context
  • Many academies and new free schools strongly emphasise SMSC qualities through their ethos and values
  • The new 2014 National Curriculum is reduced to a core canon of knowledge that gives more freedom to schools to decide how they should approach it.

Based on an analysis of a sample of Section 5 Ofsted reports, in-depth discussions with staff and pupils in a number of schools with excellent SMSC provision and outcomes and an underpinning historical analysis of SMSC in the UK, including current policy, Schools with Soul comes up with a series of outcomes that demand careful reading, reflection and considered action by all those who work in and are concerned about schools and education in the UK.

Above all, it concludes that the time has come to reflect anew on the ugly duckling of SMSC and to see it in a new light. That new light is the need to rediscover the purpose of schools and education – ‘the soul’ – which has been buried (or as my colleague put it ‘suffocated’) by the short-term orthodoxy of data goals – exam results, school performance league tables and the like. Unless we reclaim that purpose or ‘soul’ quickly then we will fall behind our competitors and put our young people at a disadvantage globally.

Schools with Soul backs up this conclusion with facts and figures, as well as practical tools and recommendations, to make the new approach to SMSC a reality in UK schools. These include:

  • A mapping exercise outlining how schools can practically break down and conceptualise SMSC provision in their daily practices through the school culture, curriculum and links with the community
  •  A set of design principles for prioritising SMSC going forward based around clarifying and engaging, planning and delivering and evaluating and measuring
  • Key findings and recommendations concerning SMSC across the UK including a call for the year 2015-16 to be designated a ‘year of reflection’ including on the purpose of schooling and also for Ofsted to be more consistent in its definition and inspection of SMSC.

As a result, the ugly duckling of education policy terms – SMSC – may turn out to be a beautiful swan in disguise all along. I shall certainly be drawing the outcomes of the first RSA Investigate-Ed to the attention of the experienced teacher I spoke with last week so that he and his colleagues, including the ‘data Daleks and management geeks’, can debate their approaches to SMSC and reflect on the actions that need to be taken to ensure that their school is a school with soul. Let’s hope it encourages further debate and reflection in schools across the UK.

Read the report and school case studies at www.thersa.org/smsc, and follow debates on twitter using #smsc and #schoolswithsoul


How to compete with the ‘Second Machine Age’? Build an army of human robots

March 4, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This blog is by Amelia Peterson FRSA, one of the authors of RSA’s report on the future of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, which is being published next week.

In a speech to mark National Apprenticeship week, Michael Gove yesterday asserted that to survive in business young people need “not just impressive academic qualifications but attractive personal qualities”. He listed eight or so desirable qualities, including being “responsive and respectful towards others, resourceful under pressure, tenacious and self motivating”. This list is not so far from that featured in the Roy Anderson report last month, or that has previously been produced by the CBI. Clearly, Gove realises he cannot ignore calls from our captains of industry for long.

If we want those outcomes, we have to design for them. The structures, environments and cultures of our schools need to be reshaped to promote the social and personal development of all young people, not treat them as dots in a system, acquiring points and qualifications.

In other systems and schools around the world, this transformation is already underway. At the end of his speech, Gove lists the components with which his government is creating “a long-term plan for all children”. Among them are “changes inspired by what’s happening in the nations with the highest-performing educational institutions” and “changes to make the curriculum more modern”. For anyone who follows education developments internationally, the combination of these statements is confusing. Around the world, leading education jurisdictions are indeed making their national curricula more ‘modern’, but their end products look rather different from what is coming in England in September of this year.

English-speaking jurisdictions like Australia, New Zealand, and Scotland – and even Gove favourites like Singapore – have all re-oriented their curricula in recent years to focus more on the competencies that young people need to thrive in an increasingly complex world. These countries recognize that as inter- and intra- personal skills become ever more vital for success and stability, their development cannot be left to a mish-mash of extra-curricular activities.

Gove would do well to look to British Columbia, the highest performing English-speaking jurisdiction in PISA, which achieves scores close to the Singapores of this world but with a multicultural, socioeconomically diverse population. In B.C., it is taken for granted that education in an intensely personal and emotional process; everyone speaks the language of personalisation and whole children development, and the curriculum is in the process of being comprehensively redesigned to focus on three core competencies labelled thinking, communication, and personal and social.

So what can we in England hold on to? How can we find space in our system to justify the time and resources that we so desperately need to commit to supporting young people’s social and personal development? We have a sentence, at the start of our )old and new) National Curriculum. It reads:

 Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based, and which:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

This isn’t much, and the second sentence in particular is too broad and vague to carry much weight. However, the lines do achieve some traction in our National Ofsted framework, where inspectors have to make a judgment as to the extent to which schools are promoting the “spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development” of their pupils. When you dig down into that phrase, it gets to the heart of what schools have always been about – and to the heart of what will really equip people to thrive in what Gove himself yesterday dubbed the “second machine age”.

Because of this, the RSA has spent the last few months investigating how schools and society could better support the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of all children. The report – following an international and historical literature review; a systematic review of Ofsted data; a series of case studies of schools; and convenings of an expert group – will be published next week.

This investigation is needed more than ever to counteract the seductive but simplistic idea that ‘SMSC’ and character development are all about behaviour. The prioritisation of behaviour in Ofsted measures has made it a key focus for schools, and Gove did nothing to remedy that yesterday when he stated the “The first step to ensuring students have … character virtues is enforcing effective discipline and behaviour policies in all our schools”.

Aligning discipline with the development of good character wipes out in a stroke fifty years of progress in research, taking us back to the ideas of behaviourists who saw correct action as the result of repeated enforcement and reinforcement. Behaviourism is now largely defunct in the field of psychology. In its place, thanks to the work of generations of Nobel Prize winners like Daniel Kahneman, is a much more complex picture of what determines our actions: how we are effected by our environment; how we develop and act on biases; and the interaction of emotion and cognition in influencing our choices.

In a connected world, where young people are faced constantly with examples of adult duplicity and contradictory behaviour, we cannot expect our schools to be enclosed islands that can set and manage behaviour according to their own rules. It is important that young people have the opportunity to develop a vocabulary and the reasoning skills to reflect on their own and others behaviour; to make sense of choices; and to develop a positive identity and strong moral self (one of the most significant factors in determining moral behaviour).

We also have to think about what personal qualities pupils are learning from the way schools are currently set up. Rather than self-responsibility and care for others, the dominant forces in our system teach children to use fear as a means of control; to focus on the end rather than the means; and that what is expected of you is based on your prior performance. Ours is not a system that really believes in self-management or the capacity for change.

Unlike Singapore, we cannot ordain a new focus on Character from the centre, but we can learn something from them – that character is worth prioritising, and that it takes real commitment from both the centre and schools, that translates into careful thought, time and resources.

We already benefit from a richer conception of character in this country held in the concepts of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. But the phrase has also been a stumbling block in that some of the terms are too opaque and seem too far from the ‘everyday’ business of schools. As we will detail in the report next week, schools need real time to think about what these terms means for their context and their pupils. For our new curriculum to approach something ‘modern’ schools must be given serious space to integrate and see through its guiding principles.

Amelia Peterson is a researcher at the Innovation Unit.

Thinking beyond the classroom

Some good news for a Friday morning: Despite our Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the Pupil Design Awards pilot falling just short of target (we had £8,000+ pledged), our Academies have agreed to support this pilot project using their own resources, meaning we are able to go ahead! We have begun working with teachers to transform three RSA Student Design Award briefs, and work with pupils will begin in April.

Mollie Courtenay, who was shortlisted for the RSA Student Design Awards in 2013, is one of our alumni who is keen to get involved. Mollie studied graphic design at Kingston University and graduated with a first in 2013. She has recently taken the new position of Junior Designer in the Design Council Challenges team who use design to tackle big social issues, working on a variety of projects including the Knee High Design Challenge. Here she reflects on her own experience of the RSA Student Design Awards, and why introducing social design thinking into schools will inspire pupils to think beyond the classroom…

EXIF_IMGMollie carrying out testing and reseach for her RSA Student Design Award ‘Social Insurance’ shortlisted entry

“Yes Miss! I believe introducing the RSA Pupil Design Awards to schools would offer a practical method of inspiring pupils to think beyond the classroom. How incredible would it be if young people began to build and use their skills and imagination to tackle real social issues?

My personal reflection of school, is that it could often make me feel like one of many others; year by year I was in the same class, in the same uniform, answering the same exam questions. Even when it came to Design and Technology, the end product was always prescribed; each of us designing perfume packaging or a place mat.

The Pupil Design Award project briefs would offer an opportunity for pupils to embark on an individual journey, to create a project that provides unique insight, and to design an innovative solution to a challenging question. There is no single correct answer with these briefs, which is often why they exist and why they are so exciting.

I took on a RSA Student Design Awards brief at University, as I was motivated by the realness of the issue I was designing for (encouraging safer driving among young drivers). At one point I remember I had covered a whole wall in my flat with my research. When my flatmate got home, he looked at me as if to say- ‘er, are you alright..?’ I was great – I had found something that I was interested in, and discovered the issue I wanted to solve through design.

I am currently working on a project that focuses on the development of children in their early years, up to the age of five. When working in this environment you can’t think about design in a way that produces shiny, perfect and one off things.

One of the most important factors when designing for society is to really understand the issue or problem you are trying to solve, whilst building empathy for people and situations you are working with. It is unlikely that this can be done without spending time with people where they are. This means getting out and about, learning from many sources, observing, monitoring, questioning, recording and interpreting. Having an agenda and going out to fulfill it.

Giving pupils an opportunity to take responsibility for their own project is a fantastic way of encouraging individuality and creativity. Unlike some school subjects, these design projects allow for mistakes; and that’s where the really interesting learning happens. It’s so important to continually look back and challenge your own thinking and not rely on your own assumptions.

I am super excited for the launch of this project and hope that schools can see the value in adding it to their existing curriculum.”

If, like Mollie, you want to get involved in the Pupil Design Awards, there are plenty of ways to do so!

  • Become a mentor or judge   We are looking for a handful of designers to help mentor the pupils through the briefs. 
  • Donate a prize  This could be an industry placement or some design-related goodies – we’re open to suggestions! 
  • Help take the project UK-wide    We are already looking for other schools and especially sponsors to take this project beyond our Academies.

If you would like to get involved, or receive project updates, please get in touch – hilary.chittenden@rsa.org.uk

Beyond the school gate

January 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Fellowship 

As Chief Executive of RSA Academies I travel regularly to the West Midlands to work with our four RSA Academies, in Coventry (Whitley Academy), Redditch (Arrow Vale RSA Academy and Ipsley CE RSA Academy) and Tipton (RSA Academy).  Yesterday I ventured even further north, to speak at the Academies Conference in Manchester.

In a programme that included some essential but somewhat dry topics such as governance structures and admissions arrangements, I was delighted (and not a little relieved!) to have been asked to talk about an area that lies at the heart of RSA Academies’ work: preparing students for life beyond the school gate.  The talk was a timely one, with yet another survey published this week showing that the vast majority of young people don’t feel they received enough information about post-secondary education and careers.  If there is a crumb of comfort to be found in the survey, it is that UK students are not alone – the survey found a consistent pattern across Europe, with the possible exception of Germany.

So, what are we doing in the RSA Family to ensure that young people in our schools are informed about and prepared for the world beyond the school gate?

Well, firstly we’re recognising that Universities and employers are looking for more than just good qualifications, and so we’re helping our pupils to develop a range of skills and competences.  One essential component is the development of leadership skills.  Our annual student leadership conference at the RSA in London are a high point of the school year, and the students themselves are setting the agenda for the year’s work, which has included a series of student voice podcasts, and a student led peer review of the schools in the Family.  Students at Whitley Academy recently participated in a debating competition, and this clip of the winning entry shows just how far they have come.  Our next step is to increase the number of opportunities for younger children by introducing a Family-wide year 8 leadership programme, which will be targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who may be lacking in confidence, to develop their skills in this area.

We are also developing a strong partnership with Warwick University, building on their existing widening participation programmes, to increase the number of applicants from lower income families or those who would be the first in their family to go on to higher education. The programme has been informed by children themselves, including those at Ipsley CE RSA Academy.  These pupils convinced the partnership of the need to start working with children when they’re young, and so it will give children from Year 7 upwards the opportunity to meet lecturers and students from different faculties, and to visit Warwick, giving them the confidence to believe that a University education really is for people like them.

And we continue to benefit from the generosity of our Fellows and Royal Designers for Industry who give their time and expertise in various ways to bring new experiences to our students.  The RSA Academy in Tipton have just had their first student provisionally accepted into Oxbridge following coaching and support from Bill Good FRSA who was on hand to support students at a Post 16 evening before the winter break.  Other recent examples include a project with Ben Kelly who has encouraged students from Arrow Vale RSA Academy to think differently about the school’s entrance hall.  The students successfully pitched to the Governors for funding to realise their designs with Ben coming back to school in the coming months to support the conclusion.

For 2014/15 we want to make it even easier to enable Fellows to connect with our Academies, by developing a menu of things that they might offer e.g. a work-place visit, a careers talk, to be a mentor for a sixth form student.  If you have ideas about how this might work, or would like to make an offer, please do let me know.

Older Posts »

  • About Education Matters

    RSA Education seeks to realise the potential of all learners. This aim drives our Education project interests, which are focused on: curriculum innovation, and the promotion of democracy and social justice in education. Our various projects and interventions reflect these agendas.
  • Subscribe to Education Matters blog

    Enter your email address to receive email updates:

    Subscribe to Education Matters blog via RSS

  • Education Matters bloggers

    Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education. He was Director of Programmes for Creativity, Culture and Education from 2009 to 2011. Joe worked as a consultant to London 2012, and as an advisor for the Department for Education’s Innovation Unit and the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Joe is a founding trustee for The Ministry of Stories, a children’s creative writing centre in Hackney. Follow @joehallg

    Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of Education. Louise was previously a senior research fellow at the Fabian Society, a senior policy adviser at the Child Poverty Unit and head of education at Barnardo's. She is currently governor of a primary school and a children's centre in Croydon, and has a PhD in the Philosophy of Education from Cambridge University.

    Selina Nwulu is Research Assistant and works across several projects in the Education team. Selina has previously worked for a number of non-profit organisations, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She is also a writer and is studying for an M.Sc. in Education, Power and Social Change. Follow @SelinaNwulu

    Alison Critchley is Executive Director of RSA Academies. Having started her career in the Department for Education, she then moved to local government, working in education and children’s services in four London boroughs. Alison is skilled in school place planning and admissions, including work to enlarge existing schools and establish new schools and Academies.

    Georgina Chatfield is Communications and Business Officer of RSA Academies. Previously Programme Manager of Citizen Power Peterborough and Senior Developer Arts and Society at the RSA, Georgina has worked for the Arts Council and with creative industries for many years and is excited to be learning about the world of education. Follow @georginachat

  • Tags