If you look at the PISA tables, the answer would be ‘yes’. Second biggest fall. If you read the headlines in the Daily Mail, yes. If you listen to the rhetoric of opposition governments, yes.
For some reason, instead of uniting behind the country’s youth and teachers, we have chosen to kick them around like a football. For 30 years, we have experimented system wide with polemic policies based on ‘being different to what the previous administration was doing’. I’d love to say dogma, but rather – whim.
And we know what we are talking about, stuff that is proven not to matter to the learning lives of children; academisation, free schools, performance related pay, autonomy, performance management, examination formats, Ofsted changes of focus, curriculum change, modes of discipline….
But where things really matter, we can’t get agreement; balance between surface and deep learning, how to challenge children’s expectations of themselves, designed processes that promote teachers working together on moving learning forward.
We have some of the finest teachers in the world, you just have to look at the copying of the international school model. And they are voting with their feet and in vast numbers.
School’s are already dynamic places. Anyone with an ounce of gumption would see instantly the sparks that fly when our young learners focus on the core matter in hand, learning. We don’t need more structural change imposed from outside.
And because we have invested in learning for so long, they start ahead and start early. Why then do so many get turned off so quickly? Learning the type of compliance that gives an outward nod to authority, but inward acknowledgement that there isn’t much here for me. Why are our nation’s 10 and 11 years old put through a farcical judgement process that does so little to stretch and challenge them individually and collectively when they should be seeking wider, just to provide a set of league tables to judge their teachers and their schools?
And why is judgement so necessary to some are deemed to be lower and others higher? Surely what we want is shared progression?
It has been argued that a natural human element in vast areas of England is to compete. We have sharp elbows, are ready for the bigger stage. This is the energy on which the London Challenge was formed, brilliantly replicated elsewhere. It got us so far.
We know we have some brilliant teachers. And here I mean truly world class. Passionate, researched, evaluative and personable. Our young learners are pretty damn sharp as well.
Why then have we designed a system that is so mediocre at nurturing their talents? One where teachers are trained so badly that the two biggest things that make a difference are ritually ignored. One in which a ‘copy me’ mentality is ingrained from day one (mentoring with a impoverished effect size) as they are first departmentalised and then focused on behaviour management and compliance policies.
How teachers teach is so varied and a reflection of their upbringing that it does not matter. How they work together does. When they pull together around specific learning outcomes the collective vitality can be harnessed. The research is unequivocal.
Yet when god passed down those 10 commandments from heaven to Moses, it seemed to create a model. Ministers seem to think it was their job to copy. It’s not. And when head teachers think it is their job to transform their schools from above, it’s not. And when teaching assistants think it’s their job to get learners quickly to the answer, it’s not.
The worst of it all is that system wide improvement is so easy. Focus on the things most likely to cause the type of change we want to see. There in lies the problem. We can’t agree.
If you believe knowledge is the answer then the solution is quite different to those who believe more discipline is key. So it depends which perspective you come from; better buildings, 21st century skills, solving obesity, Olympic legacy, independent learning, thinking and critical skills, technology, STEM or more arts. The innate problem is one of choice, too much choice.
We are a relatively rich country thanks to past opportunism and exploitation. We live off the fat of the lands. Our focus has waned. The joint competitive elements that galvanised an empire and rallied in world wars has diminished. Individual greed has overtaken collective interest. Searched distractions and more recently instant gratifications abound. Distraction is so easy, a mere swipe away. Yet we are not fulfilled, seemingly more anxious than ever.
More than ever we need to repurpose education. To promote cooperation of the highest order. To challenge and disrupt expectations of all our learners. To understand that identity reaches beyond intelligence. That the smartest machine is the human being and stop trying to dumb it down.
The research is out there. The best education systems work collectively. But when you are dealing with smarts, that collective efficacy has to be brilliantly designed. It needs time. Time for teachers to contemplate and begin to examine their underlying beliefs. Time to focus on what matters most in the sequencing of efforts. Time to evaluate what they are already getting right,and there is a lot to celebrate). Time to be reflexive on their current models. Time to abandon that that does not accelerate learning (whatever they define that learning to be). Time to examine their impact and collectively resolve to scale up what does work.
And more than anything they need to realise that the teacher’s job, more than delivering knowledge is to challenge expectations of the learners they serve. Both collectively and individually. By opening vistas, by travelling mentally and physically. Take learners to struggle and beyond. Show them the huge human pleasure to be found in learning.
It’s time to stop the distractions and fire the engines of learning. It’s not too late but we are falling behind, and faster than we think.
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