Join a history of enlightened thinking

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

What do you say to people when you talk about the RSA? Do you mention a great lecture you’ve seen, a Fellow you’ve met or perhaps share an animate online? It’s easy when you’ve got an example but sometimes when you’re on the spot, it can be difficult to in articulate all the many aspects of the RSA’s work. It’s a multi-layered, multifaceted organisation that is governed from a huge house which can feel like a bit of a labyrinth -  so where do you begin?

RSA pamphlet: ' Welcome to the RSA the home of enlightened thinking since 1774'Here in Fellowship we’re pretty clued up on the benefits of joining the RSA’s 27,000 strong network; we can tell you about the Four Ways to Engage, all the House facilities and how our Regional Programme Managers can help you find like-minded people in your area. But, we also know that when you join an organisation it is important for your commitment to have meaning that goes beyond having a place to meet and free Wi-Fi. You need to have a clear idea about what those four letters – FRSA, represent. There are thousands of organisations out there to join and thousands of worthwhile charitable causes.

What makes us different?

elightened thinkingWhen you join the RSA you join a rich history of enlightened thinking. As the Changemakers handbook demonstrates, the RSA is here to facilitate people thinking differently about social challenges. Back in 1754 when the RSA was founded, the people of Britain were facing the dawn of the industrial revolution; a period that saw great technological advancements and equally, many unforeseen problems.

What is remarkable about the RSA and its Fellows is thaelightened thinkingt they began to find solutions to global problems long before buzz words like social justice and sustainability were on the national political agenda. In 1758, an RSA Fellow suggested providing an award to whomever could devise the best plan for the establishment of a charity house to shelter women whose poverty put them at risk of prostitution. Just under 20 years later, we offered an award for inventions that could reduce smoke emissions.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of having a social space to share ideas.

In 1852, the RSA organised the trial of the first public Water Closets but unfortunately, few people were inclined to use them and the campaign was deemed a failure.  The idea was temporarily laid to rest but then dug up many years later and, where would we be today without public lavatories?

Sometimes, planting an idea is enough.

This is how I prefer to explain the RSA’s significance to people who are interested in getting involved. By joining our network you are continuing the history of Fellowship: a group of people who are not only willing to think more broadly than the majority, but who have proven many times over that they have the tenacity to pursue their ideas and turn them into practical solutions for the public good.

Find out more about Fellowship

If you already a Fellow but know someone who would be a great addition to the Fellowship, why not nominate them?


 Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA

It’s time for teachers to take curriculum control!

August 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Innovation 

RSA and The Institute of Education launch a national pioneering movement in curriculum design.

On 15th July, the Benjamin Franklin room became a hive of vibrancy and enthusiasm for the new curriculum era. Forty of our pilot-school teachers arrived at the RSA ready to reflect on their progress and celebrate their graduation from Grand Curriculum Designs. There was laughter, incessant chatter and most of all pride in what they’ve accomplished as the champions of a new pioneering professional development programme and a movement to reclaim the curriculum.

In the first half of the event, teachers enjoyed the role of being students by presenting their final projects to the arriving national stakeholders. They shared and discussed the vision for their curriculum change, their journey, their evaluation criteria, and key learning they’ve obtained from the GCD programme.

The exhibit of their final works throughout the room and their reflections on this developmental process, gave our pioneers a sense of progress and confidence to embrace the freedoms they have!

Just a week after the national curriculum was announced, the National Launch of Grand Curriculum Designs presented a very timely debate about the current space that exists for schools and teachers to design their local curriculum.

National Launch of Grand Curriculum Designs presented a very timely debate about the current space that exists for schools and teachers to design their local curriculum

Chaired by the RSA CEO Matthew Taylor, our distinguished panelists -Liz Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT and Toby Greany, Professor of Leadership and Innovation, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education -  presented their views of the national curriculum and took the chance to reflect on the importance of our curriculum design programme.


Some highlights from the panel discussion:

  • What drives teacher decision-making in the classroom is ultimately the assessment framework for English and Maths. Thus, we cannot achieve a cultural shift if there is a change in the curriculum but not in the accountability system. 
  • The national curriculum is only a small part of what a school does. What the national curriculum does is to state the WHAT and leaves the HOW to teachers. Government claims that they are giving more flexibility to teachers on HOW to teach.
  • The national curriculum won’t be implemented until September 2014, so the government is ‘releasing’ schools from current curriculum requirement – as to give them an year to create their own school curriculum. This makes it the right place and time for teachers to embrace their freedoms and leadership in owning their curriculum.
  • National curriculum is a moral authority and a useful starting point. The level of inspiration belongs to the school. The curriculum is seen as a body of knowledge and a praxis in which it is important to recognise the ongoing social process comprised of interactions, knowledge and milieu.
  • There is an issue in that schools are not fully aware what is possible and how they can innovate and use their freedoms. “GCD presents an opportunity for schools and teachers who want to engage in exploring their freedoms and innovative approaches.” (Toby Greany)
  • My favourite was Russell Hobby’s use of the Shawshank redemption as metaphor for education system: “… when you have been locked in a prison for long time, you don’t just let this person out in the streets, you put them in a safe place to scaffold their freedoms. For a long time, we’ve been told what to do, to the extend which if we don’t see it in a written document we don’t think it is important. What we can try to do through the NAHT, is to try to take the government at its word and put responsibility back in the profession – to use these freedoms and to fill the gap, and to  show that the profession is the voice of ambition, not the government. The profession needs to step up!


Essential questions which sprung from the discussion:

  • To what degree is Ofsted the body controlling the national curriculum and the way teaching is delivered? “The government is actually transferring powers to Ofsted rather than to schools.” (Russell Hobby)
  • What is a better framework to capture the whole range of attributes, not just hard knowledge, that we are looking to assess?
  • With our current methods, we have already reached 80% of students but need to try new methods to reach those missing 20% of children. Is it up to the teachers to use their freedoms and reach those 20 percent?
  • What is the legacy that teachers should leave and what is the extra mile that the government will take to assist students? (Alex Bedford)


The Case for Grand Curriculum Designs

Building on the RSA’s longstanding commitment to social progress, Grand Curriculum Designs seeks to guide and empower the curiosity, reflective inquiry and leadership in educators. The core of the programme embodies a process of inquiry, while it also provides content and structured guidance for educators who would like to actively contribute to the life of their students and to develop a progressive vision for their institutions.

Grand Curriculum Designs seeks to guide and empower the curiosity, inquiry and leadership in educators

We are not alone. There is a growing number of online toolkits and university courses that have an interest in teacher leadership and curriculum design. It’s great not to be alone, and we only hope to instill a sense of competition! It is the right time and the right place to foster a movement of cultural change within our educational institutions. We hope to be at the top of the wave, though we encourage more ideas, CPDs and social enterprises that are inspired to use this space to promote change!

We are not perfect… but we have learned a lot.

Having the honour to work with twenty-one pilot schools from across the UK has made us confident that we can inspire and empower many more! Their insights and constructive criticism helped us develop the right balance between content input and activity output…and now we are confident and ready for the national roll-out. We now hope that our curriculum pioneers will ride the wave and help us foster a national community of change!

How do we define success?

This is not just another professional development course! Through this programme, we aim to foster a reflective inquiry, living process and a proactive community. We will know if we’ve been successful when –

  • schools start to own their curriculum and internalise key principles
  • schools are able to foster and lead a sustainable culture of change and innovation
  • educators do not rely on prescriptive measures from either government or consulting/training bodies
  • the market competition for curriculum design increases

Our next steps are ambitious…

In the next year, the RSA and the IoE will actively plan, facilitate, reflect, evaluate and engage with schools in order to mobilise a movement and an ambition. We plan to work with schools that are ahead of the thinking curve, but also aim to find the ‘hidden gems’ – the ones that who don’t know how to use their freedoms.

We plan to work with schools that are ahead of the thinking curve, but also aim to find the ‘hidden gems’ – the ones that who don’t know how to use their freedoms.

The programme will be expanding nationally in up to six regions in England during 2013-14, co-led by a small number of selected schools across England, most of which will be Teaching Schools –  Stourport High School in Worcestershire, Ashton-on-Mersey School in Cheshire, Fairlawn Primary in Lewisham and Park High School in Harrow, and up to two additional lead schools will be selected.


How to enrol in our November programme:

The programme will be run in London at the Institute of Education, by the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL) from November 2013. Any school in England can participate in the programme.

To register an interest in enrolling in the programme, contact


Plamena Pehlivanova is an RSA Education Associate and programme developer at UCL.

You can follow her @Plamennap and at

Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

Our ten and eleven year olds are hurting, but could they be working?

October 3, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

My middle child has just entered the purgatory of Year 6. Despite the school’s best efforts to maintain a creative breadth, it’s a tough year to avoid the perils of narrowing and shallowing energies onto a small group of level 3-4 borderline pupils, and a small subset of tricky literacy and numeracy concepts and skills. The looming grammar, punctuation and spelling tests (all of which are already embedded within SATs) will probably worsen this situation, despite the hugely significant yet little-publicised 4% national rise in English and Maths SATs results this year. (I am not sure why or how this happened. Better teaching? The long term benefit of the literacy and numeracy strategies? Even greater fear of the consequences of under- performance? Not grade inflation, surely? However it happened, well done to all those Year 7s and their Primary teachers out there.)

Even if the effort is bringing returns, as these pre-adolescents prepare for a world that isn’t only about ‘accessing the secondary curriculum’, it feels like primary schools are increasingly resigned to surrendering their values and broader aspirations when year 6 kicks in. I have spent parts of the last few weeks talking to Primary heads about various issues. I presented to NAHT’s primary committee about our proposed Grand Curriculum Designs programme, which will launch in January. I have also talked to headteachers in Suffolk about creating new Solutions Groups to explore family engagement and transition issues.

Through our work in Suffolk, we are developing a framework for an entitlement to work-related learning from 5-16 – but are starting with primary schools. By the age of 11, what kinds of work-related learning should young people be exposed and entitled to? This is not about helping young people to decide their career route – in fact it may helpfully do the opposite, shaking up young people’s aspirations so they no longer know what they want to do, as they finally understand how many options are out there. The current attempts by both parties, outlined in Matthew’s blog yesterday, to revive the status of technical and vocational education (the latest in over a century of similar efforts) needs to start younger, changing the attitudes of children and their parents before views about futures become entrenched.

Over the autumn, we will be working with employers and educators in Suffolk to create a new framework. We want to develop a ‘guarantee’ in Suffolk which involves learning about, through and in work. This isn’t about making our 11 year olds employable – although I personally wouldn’t have a problem with 10 or 11 year olds doing a few hours of paid work per week. It’s about helping young people arrive at the cusp of adolescence with a greater sense of both realism and excitement about the pathway they will make for themselves – getting under the bonnet of the working world they walk, scooter and cycle by daily.

Despite some good initiatives (for instance through Hackney Inspire and Bristol’s  My Future, My Choice), and some terrific attempts within schools (including Bosmere First School’s careers fair for 5-9 year olds), there is some reticence to think through how our primary pupils should engage with the world of work. The previous government’s curriculum review, whilst relatively expansive, was silent on this issue, as was the Cambridge Primary Review. Unsurprisingly, the new national curriculum review has no time for distractions such as these.

The reluctance may be related to a fear of seeing education, and especially primary education, through the reductive lens of ‘education for employment’. It also threads back to a historical guilt about the idea of young children working, whether in our own industrial age or in current times across the developing world. Images of chimney sweeps and trainer-stitchers may have coloured judgements and exaggerated our discomfort about children’s relationship with the workplace.

These learning opportunities will be especially important for pupils who live in communities where far fewer people are working regularly, or are in insecure, unskilled jobs.  But such exposure is crucial for all. I want my own children to know that you don’t have to leave for work in a suit or cycling shorts; that starting your own enterprise is tough but not that scary; that it’s not only their dad’s job that sounds weird, boring and difficult to explain to your mates. If my eleven year old could be offered useful work experience for one afternoon a week in one of our local shops, I would take that over any improvement in her understanding of subjunctives.

Teachers as curriculum designers; we want to know your thoughts

July 20, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Another day, another divisive education headline. Whilst there is much to question within current education policy, there are also potentially new areas of opportunity opening up. The policy context of greater school autonomy, and emerging clarity about the future of the National Curriculum from 2014 (and the space to develop a ‘whole curriculum’ outside the National Curriculum), could be a key moment of opportunity for teachers and localities to reclaim the curriculum agenda.

As highlighted in the recent research of RSA Education colleague, Louise Thomas, the role of teachers is already changing to incorporate greater responsibility for curriculum development. However, as Louise outlines, there are significant challenges in ensuring that teachers are provided with enough support in overall curriculum development, in addition to the current focus on teachers’ subject knowledge.

The paper also proposes a particular focus on promoting the skills required to develop competency-based curricula in schools – especially where it relates to the needs of the local community – addressing the need for students to acquire, not just knowledge, but also the skills to apply it within the framework of their wider learning, future employment, and life.

In the context of these developments and challenges, the RSA Education Team is exploring ideas for creating a national professional development programme, which will aim to foster a new generation of curriculum designers, ready to make the most of the emerging opportunities. As such, it will add to the professional capacity of the teaching workforce as a whole and the capacity of schools to operate as autonomous, collaborative organisations. The programme will blend the learning and principles from two RSA programmes (RSA Opening Minds and the Area-Based Curriculum), as well as from curriculum design programmes globally, to create a high quality professional development offer that improves educational opportunities and outcomes for pupils.

That’s the idea but what do you think? Are there models out there that you think we should incorporate? What is the key to successful CPD? What are likely to be the key concerns for teachers and schools? Over to you…

Resilience: often necessary, occasionally evil

May 11, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Yesterday, straight from an energising discussion with our Projects team about future RSA approaches to public services issues, I rushed to deal with something more current and tangible. My twelve year daughter has a long term health condition, which means regular appointments and occasional bouts of hospitalisation. After twelve years navigating a Victorian monolith, we now have the airy complexity of  a brand new PFI building. We’ve gone straight from Dickens to Huxley.

My daughter has always been intense and feisty – most people who spend a few hours with her need to come up for air at some point – but in her regular interactions with medical people and places, this is amplified. And adolescence is now adding to the mix. Yesterday, she refused to answer questions that weren’t using the correct medical terms on the piece of paper in front of the physiotherapist. She asked irritating questions, gave cryptic answers, and her body language was moody, sullen and horizontally sprawled – she looked like she was on our sofa watching something excruciatingly boring on TV.

Like any parent would, I often plead for her to be more polite to a group of people that definitely want her to be as well as possible. At the same time, I know that her assertive games are a form of resilience – a way of coping with loss, setbacks and change, and steeling herself for future battles and disappointments. She is an expert patient now, and her attitude in some ways ensures that the system treats her as such.

I remember Maria Balshaw, now Director of Manchester City Galleries, arguing that ‘arsiness’ was a key attribute of creativity, so should possibly be taught in schools. I doubt if this idea will catch on, but we do need to accept the need to develop qualities in our young people that aren’t always pleasant. Whether it’s the liberal perspective on social and emotional learning, or the more traditional approach through character education, both emphasise qualities and attitudes that, in essence, make children easier for us adults to deal with. Just be nice. Even our Opening Minds framework, which includes ‘coping with change’ as a key aspect of the ‘managing situations’ competency, might not be quite ready to develop and assess approaches which elicit and celebrate the nasty.

This links to an emerging idea for a broader RSA project:  can we harness new insights into the teenage brain and other research to ask how can schools and society relish rather than fear the teenage years? What kinds of behaviour change do we need to promote, in both teenagers and the adults and institutions which deal with them, to ensure a happy, productive adolescence?


Great Teachers: shedding some doubt on the issue

May 3, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

I am not sure if it would count as flipped learning but, unable to be at Monday’s RSA/ Teach First event, I did the gig in reverse.

First, I looked at the outcomes from our post-event coffee-house discussion organised by RSA Fellows.  Drawing on the RSA’s caffeinated origins in 18th century London (but facilitated using a very 21st Century  technology of participation method), it was a chance for Fellows and Teach First Ambassadors to discuss one of the key questions raised by the event: how can we best judge what makes a successful school?



I then read the twitter feed, which, like many event hashtags contained too much regurgitation and too little critical analysis. Finally I listened to the recording from the event. I was encouraged by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s ‘plea for pragmatism’, that a great school needs a diversity of approaches from good teachers, where all are free to use ‘initiative, imagination and common sense.’ Teach First Ambassador  Ndidi Okezi was especially inspiring and thought provoking, challenging all of us to commit to changing young lives.

Moving swiftly from regurgitation to analysis, here are a few reflections:

-          It’s not just about those with Qualified Teacher Status. What is the best configuration of adults that can make the biggest difference to young people’s learning and development?  Does the orthodox ‘80% of budget on teacher salaries’ school finance model constrain broader thinking about schools as 21st Century enlightenment organisations and the mix of skills, knowledge and attributes that a school community needs to educate young people? Tuesday’s education select committee report proposed that ‘greater effort is needed to identify which additional personal qualities make candidates well-suited to teaching’, praising Teach First’s core competencies (which are usefully congruent with RSA Opening Minds’ competence framework for pupils).

-          Good teachers should be able to adopt, adapt and innovate practices. The Cambridge Primary Review talked powerfully about what makes teaching a ‘profession’ – that teachers  should be able to justify their pedagogical approaches with clear reference to evidence. Although the government was right to make the Teachers’ Standards shorter and clearer, what’s missing is any concept of ‘evidence-based practice-making’  encouraging teachers to understand and use evidence, and to innovate robustly to add to the evidence base. My colleague Louise Thomas’ pamphlet on teachers and curriculum development pointed to some cultural barriers to innovation that those agencies which influence teacher development (in particular OFSTED) should take seriously.

-          All four speakers seemed very certain of their opinions. Without using the dreaded ‘further research is needed’ phrase, it’s worth bringing in some doubt – that there might well be issues around teacher quality and pedagogy that we just don’t know enough about yet. For instance, the teaching of ICT and computer science, or more generally how we teach the most disengaged, vulnerable young people effectively. How should emerging research about the adolescent brain inform our thinking about what makes a good teacher of teenagers? To use Geoff Mulgan’s typology, as the amount of ‘stable’ knowledge declines in proportion to ‘in flux’ and ‘inherently novel’ knowledge, what does this mean for learning and teaching?

-          If fewer people want to be teachers, does this matter? The number of applications to teacher training has fallen by nearly 15% this year, despite the economic downturn.  A smaller pool of applicants tends to reduce quality, but it may be that a tougher performance management regime is weeding out the ambivalent and uncommitted before they even apply. Then again, when I signed up for my PGCE during the 1990s recession, I was both ambivalent and uncommitted (and heartbroken, but that’s not a story for this or any other blog).  And I think I did just about more good than harm during my five years in the classroom. Do any ex-pupils out there want to confirm or deny?

Do miracles only happen in Finland?

April 23, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Like most people working in the area of Education, I find myself constantly reminded of the shining beacon of success that is the Finnish education model. So I was eager to attend a recent conference by the Finnish Institute and the Embassy of Finland which claimed to explain “the Finish Miracle”.

An even mix of Finnish and English educationalists presented their views on the key features of the Finnish system compared to the English, exploring the measures that have led to success and why. It was an extremely enlightening day that I won’t attempt to summarise in full. The key observation that I took is that when searching for the differences between the Finnish system and our own, we need to look beyond specific measures to an underlying cultural ethos towards education.

Whilst it has been widely noted that the Finns have seen positive results from measures such as children starting school at age seven and no national inspection of schools or league tables, the event’s first speaker, Professor Auli Toom from the University of Helsinki, attributed Finland’s success to their educational approach. She highlighted the fact that Finnish culture regards education as a source of hope for a better society and life. This requires the same educational opportunities for every child, hence a completely comprehensive system. At the forefront of this are excellent quality teachers, who are trained to at least Masters Level, with only ten per cent of those that apply being accepted onto the teacher training program. Although teachers are not paid especially highly, prestige and status attracts the best candidates into the profession, who are then given the freedom and trust they deserve.

Next Professor Andrew Pollard, from the Institute of Education, stood up to give a markedly different story from the English perspective. Whilst he acknowledged that there are good and even excellent aspects of our education system, he queried why it is that we settle for one that is, overall, mediocre. Like Professor Toom, his answer referred to an entrenched cultural approach to teaching and learning, one that he regarded as characterised by a history of reform followed by compromise. He cited instances, including the English Civil War, the 1870 Education Act and the 1944 Education Act, as key milestones in our history where we fought for equality. However, our gains were quickly followed by some form of retreat. According to Professor Pollard, this lack of commitment to equality has resulted in an inconsistent education system, where some schools improve at the expense of others that flounder. It remains to be seen whether the National Curriculum Review will be another instance to add to his list, as it allows more freedom for teachers and schools to define the curriculum on the one hand, but places greater emphasis on core knowledge on the other.

Although Professor Pollard’s view is slightly pessimistic I do think we can learn a lot from Finland in terms of equality in education. What lies at the heart of their ethos is an understanding that schooling provides an opportunity for all children to gain not just knowledge but ways of thinking and the broader skills to contribute to an effective and inclusive society. Perhaps we are stuck in the past, with our traditional concepts of achievement that only allow a minority to succeed. But instead of looking back we need to join the Finns in looking forward and ensure that we prepare every child for life in an ever changing world and trust the people who know best, teachers, to get them there.

How do we promote innovation whilst assuring high standards in education?

October 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

This is an age old question in education and one which we are tackling with Opening Minds. As you probably know Opening Minds is now being used by over 200 secondary schools in England. As an approach it promotes innovative and integrated ways of thinking about education and the curriculum. Teachers design and develop a curriculum for their own schools based on a competence framework.

This competency led teaching approach offers students a more holistic and coherent way of learning which allows them to make connections and apply knowledge across different subject areas as well as develop the skills they need as 21st century citizens.

Teachers associate Opening Minds with a range of positive benefits including an improvement in academic and independent learning, general and subject specific skills, confidence, behaviour, enjoyment, attendance and relationships.

The past year has been one of rapid change for Opening Minds – much of it triggered by the independent review of Opening Minds activity. The report identified a wide range of good, imaginative and innovative practice in schools that was valued by both teachers and students. However, like any new and creative initiative there had been a wide variation of approaches between schools. A key recommendation to the RSA was that to further strengthen practice in schools a method of quality assurance could be introduced in order to assure quality and strengthen the support available to schools.

In light of this on Friday the RSA announced that seven schools have been designated as RSA Opening Minds Training Schools. All of the schools have been assessed as being ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and, following a rigorous application and visitation process have been designated as leading practitioners of Opening Minds.

The schools are:

Capital City Academy, Brent

Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School, Liverpool

Kingsbridge Community College, Devon

Oasis Academy, Enfield

The RSA Academy, Tipton

St John’s College, Marlborough

Whitley Abbey Business and Enterprise College, Coventry

The accreditation system will be light-touch and developmental in nature and will be supported by continuing professional development for practitioners. Accreditation will be led by Opening Minds schools for Opening Minds schools. It will also enable teacher-to-teacher and school-to-school support to be properly resourced and organised. This will provide a catalyst for further development, creativity and innovation as every time Opening Minds schools come together it results in the generation of new ideas.

By introducing accreditation we are not looking to provide one single vision or template of the Opening Minds curriculum. We recognise the need to take account of a school’s context and we want to maintain the creativity and innovation that has been at the heart of the initiative. Accreditation is a means of supporting this journey, providing assurance that rigour and quality are at the heart of what Opening Minds offers to young people.

The importance of judgement

February 12, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

My leg is somewhat like the chair I sit in: they are both constituted by atomic particles; they both occupy space-time; they are both to the East of Ireland. How interesting are these similarities? Not very.

Yesterday I wrote about the generalisation of the model of human decision-making operative in neo-classical economics to too many other areas of life, so that the vast majority of human behaviour is understood in terms of self-interested rational agency. We have lived, as Adam Curtis has pointed out, with the yoke of this generalised individualistic model for about thirty years now.

But I also made the point that because we can’t cope with too much complexity, we are wont to indulge in such generalising for the sake of preserving a sense of effective agency – a sense of being able to get a handle on things and change them, rather than being baffled and alienated by their labyrinthine intricacies.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was fascinated by the webs of interrelated language-games that are similar in interesting ways, yet subtly different. For example, ascribing pain to myself is like ascribing pain to somebody else, but it is not identical – when I ascribe pain to myself I can’t really be mistaken, wheras I can about ascribing a pain to you.

If we try to understand ascribing a pain first-personally on the model of third-person ascription, we get strange phrases like ‘I know I’m in pain’, which implies that I could ‘not know I’m in pain’, and that is obviously a little absurd. Similarly, if we try to think of ascribing pain to somebody else on the model of ascribing it to ourselves, we come to the conclusion that we can never know if anybody else is in pain, because we can never feel someone else’s pain. And that is patently absurd also.

Wittgenstein thought that if we carefully unpicked similarities that had been taken by philosophers to be identities, or similarities that weren’t pertinent or interesting, we could get out of the mental cramps that philosohpy seems to engender: statements like ‘I can never know if another person is in pain’ would be exposed as the absurdities we take them to be. And then we could all get on with other, more interesting, stuff.

Wittgenstein never drew up a normative model of how we should live as he hated the idea of prescriptive philosophy. But if we can draw a lesson from his attack on crude conflations of similarities, and subtle unpackings of differences, it would be something along the lines of encouraging polymathism – something I suggested in yesterday’s post was a good thing. Except given modernity, I don’t think polymathism is the right word – the world is too complex for knowledge of everything. Rather, we need to encourage something like the practice of judgement – poly-skilledness, to coin an ugly phrase.

So much of our lives are bound up with imitating and seeing similarities between things (think of learning all the different uses of the word ‘game’ for example), that there is always a danger of conflation and reduction. But by the same token, seeing similarities between things (discerning and imitating common patterns) is absolutely central to human learning and behaviour.

The point about ‘poly-skilledness’ is this: if we want to avoid the rock of too much complexity and the hard place of conflation and reduction, we somehow need to make a bigger space in our culture for the careful practice of judgement. We need to encourage individuals who can see the similarities between things and draw out general principles, in order to stave off the debilitating effect of too much complexity. But we also need those individuals to be able to see the subtle differences between things, to hesitate over conflating similarites as identities. And the way to encourage individuals like that, in this modern complex world, is to train them in core transferrable competencies, and in how to apply those competencies to different subject areas. And that is pretty much what the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum seeks to do.

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