And the dark forces gather…………….


The Scotsman’s front page today warns that:

“Just three months away from being taught in thousands of classrooms, the Curriculum for Excellence is desperately underfunded and at risk of being lost in a haze of vagueness and ignorance, according to teachers. And, although it has been four years in the making, both parents and teaching staff say they are in the dark about how children’s experience of the classroom will change.”

I explored such a reactionary scenario nearly two years ago. If we don’t grab the opportunity presented by A Curriculum for Excellence – warts and all – then Alan McCarthy’s ironic exposition of secondary school practice might continue to be the predominant model of education for the foreseeable future.

  1. Knowledge is scarce
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms)
  3. Knowledge is best learnt in disconnected little pieces (lessons)
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert i.e. a teacher
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study)
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher)
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees)

19 thoughts on “And the dark forces gather…………….

  1. Unfortunately, Don, there are too many teachers for whom Alan’s irony will fall on deaf ears – they just won’t see what is wrong with his list.

    Adequate funding for CfE is, of course, important, but even more critical is the mindset of those who are supposed to implement this attempt to bring Scottish education into the 21st century. If teachers are unable to recognise the opportunity being handed to them to take back the control they have lost over the past 2 or 3 decades, then they will have only themselves to blame when their current condition of impotence in the face of the bean counters continues.

    As for the Scotsman, anyone who takes anything they write on education seriously really needs to get out more.

  2. When I read it I thought of posting a reply, but it would have taken all morning to make it the diplomatic thing my mentors would expect 😉 It was really the “experience of the classroom” phrase that made me see the chink in the journo’s understanding of what these changes mean, ie in the longer term we’d see less prominence given to the classroom and to ‘teaching’. The most important skills these days just can’t be taught, but they can be learnt. Interesting concept that’s discussed throughout the Nesta papers, esp this one:

  3. I’m in an awkward position on this one.

    I too wouldn’t normally give a second thought to something written in the Scotsman. However, I recently expressed an opinion on my blog which was somewhat similar to the theme of the Scotsman piece! And now that this piece is being lampooned on here, so also is my own opinion.

    I didn’t like the tone of the Scotsman article, but I suppose I have to agree with the sentiment, given I had already expressed it myself!

    From my own perspective, I am excited at the prospect of Curriculum for Excellence and I do recognise the opportunity I am being presented through this curriculum reform. However, I look (and listen) around other teachers I encounter and I am surprised at the general confusion and lack of momentum.

    Is this the teaching profession’s fault, or of the organisations implementing the reform, or the bodies who stand between the two? Does fault matter? If we want it to work and teachers aren’t grasping it, should we be looking to resolve the disconnect rather than apportion blame?

    I express my observations of confusion not as a detraction of CfE, but as a supporter of it. I want it to succeed and I look around me and doubt whether it will do so to the extent intended and desired.

    So, I prepare myself for the onslaught!!

    Duck (:

  4. I think your views are shared by many, Ferghal, but wonder if it’s not just an expectation for things similar to what we’ve had before: lots of guidelines, lists of things students should achieve by this year or that, exemplars and ‘good practice’. For me, CfE was at its best when it was really just a curriculum of eight words, and the guidelines have had to draw a tight balance between being useful without being too detailed, and thus appearing prescriptive.

    Where I tend to agree with you and the journalist is that effort is required to change teaching approaches, planning goals and the use of technology to achieve the goals of CfE is a no-brainer. All of this requires continued, rather than new sums of, teachers learning with each other, be it through coaching and mentoring, blog posts, reading, conferences or workshops (the last two, I’d say, being the least effective means of creating long-term change).

    People assume new things require extra. Could this not be a case of new things replacing some of the old things we know don’t work, the main costs being reflection and thinking?

  5. The dark forces that teachers are wary of are those mentioned by Brian Boyd yesterday at the Tapestry Partnership conference, namely the SQA, HMIe and employers. He indicated that these forces are undergoing change as well, but until their agents are explicit in their endorsement of the change in the locus of power, teachers will be hesitant to risk professional opprobium.

  6. Dorothy

    Can you clarify who you mean by employers?

    I was at the Tapestry event today and hope to write something about it tomorrow.


  7. I agree with you Ewan over the benefits of the new curriculum and methods through which it can come about – an alteration of our areas for development in a way which reflects the spirit of the new curriculum. However, I do doubt how many teachers in Scotland have been converted to this way of thinking.

    I also agree that much of the confusion and lack of momentum is due to an expectation of guidelines, lists and examplars. However, have teachers been given sufficient reason to expect otherwise? There seems to be an underlying expectation that teachers will jump from the years of 5-14 & Arrangements Documents straight into CfE style learning approaches. Teachers are just people. Change is difficult. Big change is very difficult and requires support if the change is to be achieved.

    I also think Dorothy has a point, has everyone surrounding the teacher been convinced yet? Do they know where they’re going? Teachers have had their fingers burnt in the past by SQA, HMIe and management – will they therefore very quickly embrace a new curriculum when they’re unsure where all these groups are?

    I just think that this will not be easy for teachers, and where possible they should be helped, understood and not chastised for having doubts.

    PS – Am I the only ‘whiteboard-face’ practitioner commenting here? What do other practicing teachers think of this?

  8. Ferghal

    I agree with what you and Dorothy are saying and a great deal of the blame – yes sometimes we do need to use this word – for the dependency culture we have created in secondary education lies at the door of others. For me, who has lived through the genesis and implementation of Standard Grade, 5-14, and Higher Still, it’s been the implementation strategy which has been based upon multitudes of working groups, masses of materials, centralised control and the dreaded “cascade model” which has “deskilled” the profession to the point that we now wait expectantly at the side of the pool flapping our hands and waiting to be fed.

    As a manager I need to take my fair share of the “blame” but as I’ve been finding out over the last three years it will take a lot more than rhetoric from someone in my position before the profession really believe that they have the kind of freedom to create alternative models of practice more suited to the needs of our children.

  9. Warning – long comment after a long Saturday with a nine month old follows: 😉

    “It’ll take a lot more than rhetoric” – you’re right, of course, but this takes us back to a chicken and egg scenario. These seem like huge changes, but over the past three years at least I’ve seen teachers change their style bit by bit, probably to the point that the changes are so nuanced, over such a period of time as to not notice until we look back, in retrospect. Few of us have videos of our teaching in the past, and now, so it’s hard to appreciate these changes.

    We (teachers at the whiteboard face, managers, those of us who garner great practice and try to share it wider) desperately need to take on that innovative attitude that says: “just do it”, fail faster and more frequently to find the best way forward. Discussion of potential techniques and sharing ideas on our blogs is one simple way of accelerating this, without everyone having to fail for themselves first – we can learn from others’ successes and failures.

    In the end, though, I think CfE will succeed on four main factors:
    1. Every teacher being equipped with time and energy to maintain up-to-date understandings and reflection on what is working in practical and theoretical terms in learning. This allows us to take fewer real risks, while completely changing the ‘old school’ way of teaching and learning that’s just so incompatible with CfE. Technology, and learning how to use it effectively, makes this even more possible.
    2. Every teacher seeing sharing their own experiences as a core part of their CPD.
    3. Parents being involved in their part of the jigsaw – parental understanding of how learning in general is changing (and why) helps them/us get more engaged with our children’s learning in particular.
    4. Learners understanding better how they learn, why they are learning and being given ample opportunity to make the connections between the hugely varied exposure to different areas of learning with which they have been blessed in the Scottish system. AifL and critical skills have helped with this, where it’s truly been applied across the board, but needs more application and not just lip service to the parts which we like.

    This, for me, comes from one simple research fact: the most heavy weighting on improving education attainment and engagement is on the skill of the teacher. The way forward is not for that teacher to be dependent on intellectual or practical handouts, but to be independent and confident in finding their way forward, through the robustness of their understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

    Having that confidence in our own abilities, with the understanding from our leaders that we will make mistakes (perhaps more frequently than before), is key. I hope that soon, most of us look back at the way we were teaching five, ten, 15 years ago, and see how far we and our students have come. But we might still need those video cameras to record class to see it!

  10. I think this post by John C is relevant here:
    Are our LAs going to let us make mistakes?

    I love the idea of:
    Every teacher being equipped with time and energy to maintain up-to-date understandings and reflection on what is working in practical and theoretical terms in learning
    can we afford that? I certainly do not feel I’ve go the time to keep up-to-date and reflect at the moment.

  11. I’m coming to this discussion without having read The Scotsman article. I feel that, generally, the principles of ‘A Curriculum for Excellence’ have been accepted by teachers. All, I’d imagine, have been through INSET (and some of their 35-hours per year CPD) looking at, for example: ‘implementing’ ACfE (bit of a ‘stab in the dark’); showing how they already ‘do’ ACfE (so don’t worry, we’re already ‘there’ – HMiE will be pleased); and draft outcomes and experiences (where’s the ‘meat on the bones’?).

    I think that these are exciting times for 3-18 education. There has been little clear focus recently on the ‘purpose of education’, which has opened up seemingly limitless claims from government and ‘quangos’, and commerce (including educational suppliers). In this respect, ACfE fits the age.

    All teachers are now expected (and sometimes encouraged) to reflect, which is great; you can see how some teachers are transforming their practice via their blogs. However, some seem concerned that this may be leading to our administrators and managers requiring us to re-register, say every five years and that the process of reflection (possibly through more formal means that a blog) is preparation for collating our evidence portfolios.

    Ewan is right that the most important skills today (for many, though not all) cannot be taught. Teachers are aware of this. However, with uncertainty and change now the only constant (on the macro and the micro-level), and with a working week and CPD commitment which doesn’t offer much opportunity for a ‘reflection/action research – (shared) strategy/resource – implementation’ loop, I think that many will take the safe route and buy ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions, which will claim to be ACfE compliant.

    I remember Don writing about the teaching profession eventually being entirely made up of Masters-level graduates and students. This appeals to me (of course it would!). It gives professionals the space to explore their practice and to better understand the forces acting upon the system. Critical reflection by an entire profession would be interesting (potentially debilitating, of course). It might be worth considering that it may not collective cynicism to ACfE, but individuals, who know their teaching and learning environment as well as anyone else, just don’t yet see how the project will benefit them or their students.

  12. Were it me, I’d be refining the idea of having the teaching profession made up of Masters or PhDs, given that the letters after your name are, frankly, increasingly devalued with an academic inflation. It also reinforces the message that qualifications qualify you as being any good at what you do. That doesn’t stand up today, less so than it ever has.

    What matters, of course, is that ongoing reflection is undertaken. The number of PhDs I know who haven’t moved their thinking on to new areas (the PhD by its very definition narrowing them down to a niche) would make for a fairly narrow-minded, slow-moving profession. Ongoing reflection doesn’t necessarily come in the package of a PhD, Master or, dare I say, a SQH. They all have the potential to be blips of progression unless we value, equally, the skills that cannot be taught, but which can be learnt.

  13. Don, Brian Boyd said that employers saythat they want ceative, outward-facing employees, but their job application forms still focus narrowly on academic attainment and consider previous experience valuable only if it is within their own area.

    Ewan, do you think the increasing specialism of people with PhDs Masters etc could be made more valuable if there was a structured way of linking them to each other? I know this can and is more likely to happen through blogging communities, but it is still serendipitous. However, I can’t myself conceive of a way that is more joined up that doesn’t immediately become restrictive rather than creative 🙁

    David, some teachers are very anxious about how they will acquire the skills to implement ACE. I have an experienced colleague who has taught only the National Curriculum in England and 5-14, or 3-18, in Scotland. She is, from my observations, a “good teacher”. She is reflective and engages effectively with pupils, colleagues and parents. But she is extremely anxious about being cast afloat on the sea of DIY lessons and planning with only the stars to guide her, when she’s used to GPS and regular advice from the shipping forecast!

  14. Ewan,
    Where do you get the time to do all this writing with a nine month old?

  15. I go away for a weekend and miss a great discussion – typical!

    As an aside, almost, I was slightly worried by Ewan’s reference to the ‘devaluation’ of degree qualifications – I disagree that this is a real issue. The proliferation of degrees only matters, I would contend, in an education system and in an economy that sees education as a race to the line, as a ‘winner takes all and to hell with the rest’ process. This is what Chris Whitehead and his ilk happily call ‘separating the sheep from the goats’.

    Now, I know very well that this is not the kind of education system that Ewan would wish to see, but I wonder if by promoting, perfectly rightly, the benefits of education or learning in the round, as he does, but promoting it as somehow more rewarding or fruitful than a degree course, he himself is devaluing the notion of a degree qualification? I don’t agree with the elitist press, for instance, that more people with degrees means the devaluation of those degrees – it depends on what you think degree courses are for.

    I like to compare the original concept of the ‘democratic intellect’ for instance, even with its mythical status, to the ‘theological college’ kind of education that was delivered by Oxbridge in the days when Scotland had four (briefly five) universities to England’s one. Education, whether achieved through formal means or informal means, should be about enabling everyone – everyone! – to achieve what they are capable of, to stretch themselves to the limit of their capabilities, and occasionally beyond.

    The Scottish way saw the degree course as flexible, broad-based and intellectually stimulating – and you just happened also to get a degree at the end. Of course, the other kinds of learning that Ewan describes are every bit as valid, but I, for one, would not push their validity at the expense of degree qualifications. Even today, whether a degree is specialized or broad-based really doesn’t matter, I would contend – the process of learning required to attain the degree is valuable in any case.

    It also, by the way, runs the risk of falling into the trap of that awful anti-intellectualism that too often besets Scottish education, best typified by those in the late 90s who argued against any credit being given for MEds, or similar, to those who would be pursuing the Chartered Teacher qualification – they did not want the qualification to be ‘too theoretical’, by which they meant ‘at all theoretical’ really.

    As i say, I know Ewan will not disagree much, if at all, with my basic points about education and about learning – I just think we have to be careful not to set up false antagonisms in order to promote one kind of learning over another.

  16. No antagonisms intended 🙂 I’m not for one kind of learning over another either. What I mean by devalued in this case is not in terms of the inherent value of getting a degree, whose value remains, but the relative value when there is an expectation that to be a ‘good teacher’ one has to get a MSc or PhD to show it.

    The “Doctoral Profession” is a phrase coined by Stephen Heppell, yet he is also of the opinion that, actually, as more and more people get, say, an MSc where an BA would have done before, or a PhD where an MA Hons would have sufficed, we devalue the MA Hons because the choice of PhDs is there.

    There is a danger in following this course of debate that we end up appearing to be “anti-intellectual”, since its logical conclusion is that we would have to be PhDed up to the eyeballs with no or little practical application – not something anyone would like.

    So, like a good diet, everything is needed in balance. Back to my original point: we need teachers who reflect on their practice. I think they call it action research, but that has never really caught on in academia either 😉

  17. Just got me thinking again about logical paths to success, as young people perceive them. I wonder if having more staff in school with the prefix Dr or Prof would make children feel that there was more chance of success by following the trad academic route, or if the effect would be the pole opposite! 🙂

    I wrote a post the other day about the balance between luck and traditional paths of enlightenment. Don’t know if it fits this discussion, though:

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