TESS Article 12: Giving Up Control

I was chatting recently with a former colleague about “A Curriculum for Excellence“. He has responsibility for developing learning and teaching at his school and was telling me that they are going to give every pupil comprehensive course support materials for each of their certificated subjects – once the course has been completed. The teachers didn’t want to put it out before they taught the course as they wanted to “remain in control”. For me it was a timely reminder about how much work is still to be done in terms of changing our approach to learning.

In the past week I’ve come across three personal examples of how the delivery of learning is changing – firstly, my brother is taking a work related course at St Andrew’s University – he will be following the entire course on-line; secondly, I’ve just started a on-line course to improve my French; and thirdly, I was speaking to the one of my son’s friends who just got a an “A” in one of his Highers and had to teach himself two of the units, which had not been covered by the teacher, by accessing materials available on the web. If these examples seem anecdotal and hardly scientific then I plead guilty but perhaps it is their very ubiquity which lends them weight in supporting a growing realisation that “we” can no longer remain in control of the learning process.

The common arguments against such a phenomenon are that “children can’t learn by themselves” and “You can’t transfer university type learning to a school environment”. However, to accept such statements is to accept the status quo where the learning process is essentially controlled and governed by the teacher – especially in terms of the content, rate of progress and depth of content.

If we are going to change the way in which we work then perhaps we need to destabilise the status quo thereby freeing teachers to adopt different roles and engage learners in learning as opposed to absorbing information?

Keeping this in mind I wonder if David Eaglesham, the General Secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, perhaps provides the catalyst when he said he doubted whether A Curriculum for Excellence could live up to its aims without the provision of curricular resources.

I agree that there is a need to provide resources but I wouldn’t provide them in the form that they have come in the past. My alternative approach would be to create a virtual learning environment for every certificated course provided by the SQA. These course materials could be accessed by students at a place and time of their choosing – I’d like to think GLOW could play an important role here. The key point here is that the materials are for the student – not the teacher.

Over the course of the last year I’ve spoken to senior students from many schools and without exception they all said they would have welcomed the chance to access their entire course on-line. That’s not to say that they didn’t want a teacher but that they wanted their teacher to work in a different way.

So what would be the outcome of such a step – surely it will replace one form of spoon-feeding with another? Well not if we prepare for such a change in a gradual, well managed and progressive manner – the teacher would take on much more of a tutor’s role where students have to use their tutor to expand and deepen their knowledge. In so many ways this ties in with what Jerome Bruner spoke about recently at the Tapestry Conference in Glasgow when he said that educational systems were “too easily routinised” (sic) and that there were too few opportunities for students to “share hypotheses”, “reflect upon alternatives ” or “reflect upon controversy”.

Bruner wants teachers to seek out “inter-subjectivity” (I think I prefer this term to inter-disciplinary) by contextualising their subject within the wider world – but how often do teachers manage to do this in the pressure to get through the content of a course?

Such a shift in the model of certificated course delivery would also influence the type of learner that a young person would need to be before commencing such courses. The requirement for children to be ready to operate as independent, metacognitively aware, and technically able learners will in it’s own way provide further impetus for the radical changes that are required in the first three years of secondary education.

Sharing expertise

We had two requests today for members of our team to provide training for other authorities. This is very flattering and we would very much like to help our colleagues. The “however” is our capacity – or should that read lack of capacity to free our staff to help other authorities. In common with other authorities we feel we need to focus our attention on our own business, i.e. our own schools. We’re more than happy for people to come and visit but there is a limit to the number of times an individual can leave their main duties behind.

I raised this point this afternoon with our inter-authority consortium – Midlothian, East Lothian and Scottish Borders – where we are exploring various areas where we can work in partnership with our neighbours.

The question is how do we release the undoubted knowledge residing in local authorities without it having a negative impact upon their core business? Technology? Payment? LTS acting as brokers? Setting up a company?

Virtual Advisory Service

We have been exploring the development of a Virtual Advisory service with LTS. LTS are responding to requests from teachers and local authorities for some sort of personnel resource to replicate the subject advisory service of old. Subject advisers were traditionally employed to develop their subject in local authority schools. This model had much to commend and many outstanding Scottish educators have been subject advisers who have had a significant impact upon their curricular area.

There are two models being considered:

The first model tries to aligne itself with the traditional model of subject expert.  In this form the teacher would post a question on a website and await a response from a subject expert employed by LTS.  In due course the advice would be dispensed and the teacher would have their answer. For example a teacher might have particular query about how to teach an aspect of maths to P6 pupils.

The second model builds upon the practice which is emerging through the Exc-el experience. Here a group of teachers are asked to keep a blog and focus on a subject area – both at primary and secondary level. In the first instance this would create a community of learners who could share their practice and support each other. The ‘subject expert’ adopts a very different role from the first model in that they do not attempt to dispense advice but point people towards those who are tackling the same problem. The ‘expert’ asks questions, points toward resources, identifies emerging practice. In some ways this does pick up on one of the strengths of the old subject adviser system who often helped to develop very strong and successful networks of professionals dedicated to developing their subject.

So which model do I prefer – well that’s probably fairly obvious given my less than impartial description of the two. But If we take Craig Stebbing’s work as an example of what can be done in a subject liike maths – which is not known for creative approaches towards teaching and learning (apologies all maths teachers) – then I think we gain an insight on the future. 

My key point is that we don’t want to create a dependency culture where people’s problems will be ‘sorted’ by someone who  supposedly knows more than they do.  In some ways this just reaffirms the traditional approach we sometimes see in the classroom where learners all too often adopt an essentially passive role.

What do you think? – is there a need for subject expertise to be presented in the form of the first model? Should we try to develop the second model? Or are there combinations of the two models we might consider?