Accumulating Credit for Learning

One of the conclusions I’ve gradually come to over the years is that in order to facilitate real change in any system it’s necessary to change the landscape.  It’s come to me slowly and for all that I believe that focusing upon cultural change is still fundamentally the correct route to improvement – I’ve also come to recognise that we just tinker at the edges if we are asking teachers to change their practice within a system where the fundamental features remain static. 

So when it comes to a Curriculum for Excellence I fear that little will change unless we shift some of the key building blocks upon which our practice is based, e.g. how we give credit for learning; how we organise learning, and how we deliver learning. 

My thinking on this has been influenced by a recent trip to New Zealand where I encountered their qualifications system. Much like our Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) their system is based upon levels and associated credits for learning.  However, there are two important features of their system, which appear to have an advantage of our Scottish version.  Firstly, their levels and credits equate exactly with university entrance requirements, whereas SCQF has to be translated into UCAS points; and secondly, they differentiate outcome by a simple system of Pass, Merit and Excellence in any unit of study. A New Zealand student needs 80 credits to gain a National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) at any level.  That certificate can be endorsed with “Merit” if 50 of these points are achieved with “Merit” and likewise for the student who gains 50 points or more with “Excellence”.

It was while this was fresh in my mind that I recently visited Jewel and Esk College of Further Education with a group of our secondary Headteachers and senior staff. In something of a damascene moment I began to see how we might begin to change the landscape for organising and delivering learning in our schools and the example has been under our nose for a number of years now – you don’t even have to go to the other side of the world!

One of the understandable strategic elements of the Curriculum for Excellence implementation process has been to try to keep the qualifications issue separate from the curriculum development – as it was feared that the focus of secondary teachers would always swing to what was going to be tested and ignore some of the more fundamental questions about the experiences and outcomes of the courses they taught.  However, with hindsight this may have been a mistake as it denies the reality of secondary education and its links to access to employment and further and higher education. 

The other lesson to be learned from our New Zealand cousins and, more pertinently, from our colleagues in further and higher education – is how to trust internal assessment.  I’ve written before how colleges in Scotland can give credit for learning up to Higher National Diploma (which is a couple of notches beyond Advanced Higher level) without having to rely upon any form of external assessment) – while schools continue to have to rely heavily upon external assessment – at levels of learning significantly below HND.

So how might we use this knowledge to create a framework within which our schools can innovate, develop practice and improve the outcomes for learners? Perhaps we could create a common assessment and accreditation that could overlay the curricular model being developed in our schools?

Imagine a scenario where each relevant unit of work taught in S1 – S3 carried a credit for numeracy, literacy, health and well-being – and skills for work, i.e. all those experiences and outcomes that are the responsibility of all teachers. By creating a matrix of learning experiences learners could, through moderated internal assessment, which builds upon formative assessment strategies, be awarded credits at a range of levels of learning with outcome being recognised through Pass, Merit and Excellence. As these credits are accumulated the learner could achieve a local Certificate of Achievement that could be endorsed with Merit or Excellence. By the end of S3 a learner will have undertaken a broad education and will also have a record of their achievements in these crucial building blocks for learning.

Such a system would provide teachers with a clear framework; yet enable them to create innovative and challenging learning contexts where these outcomes can be achieved. Some schools may create units of study which fill identified gaps in provision, which may not sit clearly with a single subject domain.

Finally, such a system would enable students to become familiar with the likely curricular structure and national accreditation model, which they will encounter, in the senior phase of learning and beyond school in further and higher education.

5 thoughts on “Accumulating Credit for Learning

  1. I’m not sure about this, Don. I agree absolutely that “…in order to facilitate real change in any system it’s necessary to change the landscape.” Shifting the culture is the bedrock of real and sustainable change.

    It is because of this that I can’t agree with you about the need to “…keep the qualifications issue separate from the curriculum development…” Doesn’t the route you suggest simply consolidate the ‘industrial age’ notion that education, and particularly secondary education, is primarily about employment thereafter? That would be to strengthen the very culture that ACfE is trying to change, in my humble opinion.

    Two things, in addition:

    First, I’m not sure that the originators of ACfE wanted to keep qualifications and curriculum separate as such – rather, they wanted the curricular development to lead the qualifications development (which might even turn the history of the past couple of hundred years or more of formal education and bring about some change the nature of university education, although that, I am sure, was never an explicit aim of the initiative). To do it the other way around would be to have the tail continue to wag the dog.

    Secondly, there is, of course, a big debate to be had (one, indeed, that has been going on since formal education and schooling were invented, probably) around the right balance between ‘education for education’s sake’ and ‘education for employability’. I have no truck with either extreme, but I do think we desperately need to shift the balance away from the latter to the former. That is where the real cultural change would happen.

    The model you suggest could be a very good one, but only if it is built around the real, and broad, needs of the full range of students in schools, and not around the narrow requirements for university entrance. I’m sure, by they way, that this is not what you are suggesting, but I could see the definite possibility that such a model would be subverted to the needs of the academic elite yet again.

  2. Just realized, in re-reading, that I have worded the second paragraph badly – it can be read to mean the precise opposite of what I meant.

    I meant that I disagree with your particular take (as I read it) on the issues of the separation of qualification and curriculum, where you seem to be arguing that they should not be as separate as ACfE seems to want it. My argument is that this separation is necessary and ‘a good thing’.

  3. John

    Good to hear from you

    I certainly don’t intend to perpetuate the industrial model. Far from it. When one considers how students at further and higher education are allowed to create their own courses by selecting units and modules – and contrast that with the assembly line, linear model of school certificated courses then I hope you can begin to see what I’m driving at.

    I’m also worried that we fail to provide “value” in the early years of secondary schooling – and by value I mean what parents and children themselves value. By recognising this and creating a system which builds upon formative and internal assessment and which gives credit for learning I believe we can meet the needs of learners and society. I would also argue that the system I’m proposing would provide a framework for significant innovation by schools and teachers – as opposed to the traditional lock-down model of curricular guidance.

    My real fear is that we fail to recognise this and the one-off chance we have to change our educational system is lost in a backlash from reactionary forces.

    How about a pint sometime soon?


  4. Hi Don

    An interesting post, what I am taking from it(and I may be totally wrong!) is something akin to a conceptualisation of an ‘S3 profile’ or an ‘achievement profile’ which has been internally assessed and moderated, but that will have currency beyond school.

    I think this is the direction that we need to go in, in order to allow our education system to be truly inclusive. Any such system/profile would also have to be sufficiently flexible as to allow the young person scope and space for the articulation of the skills and attributes developed while engaging in experiences that currently exist outwith the current curriculum (I’m thinking here of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, John Muir Award, ASDAN, ‘informal’ learning etc etc).

    This is a huge (and exciting) task. Currently I don’t think that anywhere in the world (including NZ) has really been able to capture this in a form that is both usable and managable, as well as being sufficiently motivating for the youngster to ‘own’.

    The moderation issue itself will involve a huge sea change in practice and attitudes, as well as a great deal of professional learning, to allow it to work effectively. I hope that we, as educators, are brave enough to try and crack it!

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