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.
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.
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…
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
The annual Opening Minds Conference was held at the RSA yesterday. Yet again the event was a sell out, and most of the team spent a lot of time standing or sitting on the floor to listen to the presentations.
Despite the warm day in the packed Great Room, delegates listened and responded to a range of speakers including Michael Gernon, principal of the RSA Academy, Mick Waters, Director of Curriculum at QCA and Paul Hammond, Deputy Head at Oasis Academy.
The conference was themed around assessment and brought together some different perspectives on what is always described as a ‘thorny issue’. How do you assess the Opening Minds competencies and demonstrate progression? How do you measure progress in creativity or relationship skills? What are the links with the QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills?
True to the nature of Opening Minds itself, the conference did not try and dictate the answers to these questions to delegates, but provided a starting point by sharing what some schools were trying out for themselves.
This sort of issue is where the new RSA online platform for schools using Opening Minds (due to launch this year) will be useful. It will provide a space into which schools can upload their ideas and their practice around assessment or any other issues and share them with other schools.
We think that it is unlikely that any one person or organisation will come up with the answers to some of the really difficult questions in education and what is right for one school or one community is rarely right for them all. We think Opening Minds represents the RSA at its best, helping inspiring practitioners to share ideas and collaborate with one another to find their own answers.
And it’s only partly because the Welsh rugby team is so much more successful than my native Ireland’s.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all used devolution to make significant changes to their curricula. The potentially far reaching impacts were brought home to me when I attended a meeting of the Nuffield Review of 14-19‘s Core Group last Friday – a fascinating event from which I learned a huge amount, and certainly much more than I contributed (sorry!).
In particular, a really informative presentation by Richard Daugherty on developments in the Welsh education system since devolution touched on the increasingly popular Welsh Baccalaureate (WBQ). This and subsequent conversations highlighted the importance of a distinction between subject and qualifications led systems (as it seems will still largely be pursued in England even taking Diplomas into account), and the idea of an truly encompassing programme of study which the WBQ comes closer to.
From an RSA Opening Minds standpoint, such a coherent programme could ensure a broader curriculum for all even after Key Stage 3. Students could specialise in science, but not completely lose humanities or the arts. Crucially, however, such a programme of study could enable schools to carry forward something like the Opening Minds framework beyond Key Stage 3, where it normally stops when students pick their GCSE’s.
It’s early days, but devolution seems to mean that these are exciting times for young people going to school in Wales.