In the first part of this blog I said that I want consider the content of what a school might teach in a little more detail. And I asked, will subjects survive? If so, which ones? Will facts play a big role? Will programming be the bright shining saviour of the system?
And finally I posed the question: ‘What will be the great educational system that will allow all to flourish and none to fall?’
Let’s begin with the way students are forced to choose subjects to study at the moment. The new English Baccalaureate is a great example of an attempt to create a ‘level playing field’ for all students so that there is some sort of common ground between them. (For those that haven’t come across this, the ‘E-Bac’ is a ‘performance measure’ outlined by the Education Secretary as a way to rank schools. Students must achieve 5 C grades or better in English, Maths, Science, a foreign language and either Geography or History)]To not achieve the E-Bac is to fail. To achieve it is, well, fairly meaningless, except that your school gets to be pushed higher up a ranking table that really doesn’t account for the actual people you have in front of you in the classroom.
I hope there is no E-Bac by the time my kids get to secondary school. My wife is an RS (Religious Studies/Theology) teacher. She is an inspiring teacher and her students love the subject. But RS is not a part of the E-Bac. Neither is Art. In fact there are a lot of subject that you might call ‘vocational’ (that word gets a really bad press in education!) that don’t cut the mustard.
Students must be allowed to choose a combination of subjects that they care about, that they want to do, that they hope will inspire them.
Who are we to tell them what is right for them? Of course they need guidance. But there is a difference between leading a horse to water and tranquilizing it, getting it in a headlock and forcing a carafe of filtered water down its throat.
Perhaps the only exception I would make to this would be with Maths and English. As an English teacher I might be biased, but as someone who hated Maths with all their heart at school, even I can see that it offers skills that are absolutely essential. Between them, they offer access to all the other subjects. However, if there are students who really are not getting to grips with these subjects as they currently are, then surely it would be better to teach them a ‘functional’ version. If all students have to learn English and Maths, shouldn’t we teach them things they would benefit from knowing? How to write a letter or read a newspaper are more important than knowing what the key themes in Romeo and Juliet are in the long term. Just as being able to use Maths to work out your financial situation is more useful than knowing what Pi is to 8 decimal places.
In the question of which subjects survive, I both agree and disagree with Ken Robinson. I think that all subjects should survive and in fact be added to. At a time where there is talk of stream-lining the curriculum, I want more choice. I don’t want my kids to be carbon copies of their peers. I don’t want to be writing references for students who want to go to university and not be able to distinguish them from the 10 other references I’m writing because they have been forced down the same route of conformity.
Choice is everything.
Then we come to the dreaded idea of EXAMS.
Who really likes exams? Governments and statisticians.
Why do we need them? Because we like to pigeon-hole things and list them.
We also need them because the system doesn’t work.
I like the American idea of having to graduate each year; although this too is a system based on exams they are smaller and more tightly linked in with the learning done at school.
Now if that learning were better organised, more practical and more functional and more engaging this could work well. If instead of tests we use project-based learning followed by some sort of practical presentation this system would be vastly improved, and it would have genuine meaning to the teacher and student.
The next question is whether IT should be taught as a subject. The answer is, not in its current form; it’s a bit embarrassing. ECDL is taught across a lot of schools, teaching students, (through another series of exams) that teaches them how to use Microsoft products. This is not a helpful or productive exercise.
I like the idea of ‘Digital Literacy.’ It’s a term which I think summarises what is needed. I want my children to be digitally literate, not holding a certificate that tells them that they know how to use a program that has been used for homework since they were 5.
If done properly, Digital Literacy could be a very promising solution. Although it’s been a long time since Prensky came up with the phrase ‘digital native’ it’s still only half true.
They live on computers but they don’t understand them or the true value and dangers of the internet. They need educating in so many ways in this regard. A student’s skill level also varies enormously. I currently have two students of the same age, one didn’t know how to use the comment function on a Word document, or know that hitting ‘control F’ on the keyboard could help you find something on a web page (he had done the ECDL course by the way). The other student has created a 3D PRINTER.
This variation is wrong.
Whilst one student may not enjoy reading and writing as much as another we would not find it acceptable if one could not at least attempt the same tasks as the other.
We shouldn’t be shutting off options and therefore taking away choice.
Training is necessary. Freedom is essential.
Programming or facts?
The school curriculum should be about learning to learn and learning to find information. Facts are easy enough to find, once you learn how to find good information. Teachers have always been that source of good information, but the truth is that this knowledge is limited. The web facilitates access to the sum of all mans knowledge. So students no longer have to be capped by the knowledge of those around them or teaching them.
Programming is important because like it or not, more of our world and the world of our students/kids is going online. There isn’t much we can’t do online now and there isn’t much in fact, that it isn’t easier to do online. But, they need to understand this world. They need to be able to contribute to this world. They need to be able to analyse this world. Programming is a skill, learning facts is not.
I hope that skills are the future of the new curriculum. I don’t need my children to know all the capitals of EU countries, I do however, want them to have a range of skills that allows them to create and innovate within the world that they live in.
The raspberry pi initiative is a fantastic example of a project that could facilitate this idea of learning skills. Check out the link for more information.
My vision of my children’s school is all too familiar. It looks a lot like my school. The classroom looks a lot like mine. I suppose this is disappointing. But there are differences.
They still take a bag to school, but there are only two things in it; a computer and either their sports kit or an object that they find interesting.
As learning moves onto technological platforms, utilising the idea of the flipped classroom, a host of beautifully crafted apps, and social media and sharing, the real world experiences they have at school will become more important. Time away from technology will become vital. Time interacting with the physical world, imperative.
The teachers, many of whom are already teaching as I write this post will by necessity, have to change. They will enjoy their jobs more as a result of this change. They will set work that will engage their students in a more productive, useful and interesting way, as a result, reviewing this work should become less onerous. We will be able to give verbal feedback, even if this is pre-recorded when we’re marking work.
Students will be given time to think. To sit and think.
They will be given the opportunity to work in the mediums that they feel comfortable with.
They will progress through school at a pace that suits them and those that are monitoring their progress.
There’s a lot of pressure on schools to change. They must change. But the changes will probably be far more subtle than expected. Technology will infiltrate every classroom. The internet will become the fount of most student’s knowledge. Teachers will adopt a different role. Schools will have to adapt to the changing world. The curriculum needs to become more open and more free. Exams need to become unnecessary. Students need to be judged on the merit of their skills, intuition and merit.
These things are not revolutionary and won’t all happen at the same time, but they do need to happen and teachers, current and future need to drive this forward, even in the face of opposition.