Sunday, 18 September 2016

A new system?

Something I wrote a while ago which has resided on my hard drive ever since. I'm not fully convinced by my own argument. Not least the failure to properly cater for scientific knowledge/coding etc. Still - I think there is an idea hiding in here which is far better than what is being served up currently.

As a teacher, I feel I’m faced with ever less resilient students. And I know why. We all know why. Since it was decreed that no student must ever fail anything increasingly teachers are placed under intolerable pressure to ensure that learners pass. Real skills go out the window, replaced by exam technique and remembering arbitrary facts that will leave heads 5 minutes after the exam.

Coursework and vocational courses are ruined by the fact that all students must achieve the maximum possible outcome and all enjoyment or risk is sucked out of these courses as learners submit multiple drafts and teachers desperately over mark and hope to get away with a forgiving coursework sample. Teachers are ‘in competition’ with other teachers, institutions ‘in competition’ with other schools. We don’t really care about anything, other than grades. Not really. If they aren’t good, then we lose our jobs. Sometimes, in between the cramming and the drilling we have time to care a bit, but not much and not really.

Learners are bullied into submission, threatened and told their coursework or exam grades matter more than life itself. Some cotton on to this being a con and do as little as possible, knowing the teachers will have to make up for the deficit and others become dangerously fearful and obsessive. Few retain a healthy perspective and for all the pressure and tensions, I’m deeply sceptical that we are producing better learners.

My solution is simple. Every school teaches a spectrum of subjects. Each pupil receives a grades at the end of the school year consisting of numeracy and literacy, creativity and general knowledge - that grade is formulated by assessment by teachers throughout the school and moderated by a series of online assessments that can be taken at any point within the final 18 months of school. The assessment is deliberately not drawn from the content of syllabus in order to prevent ‘teaching to the test’ - for example, assessing literacy by asking students to comment on stimulus material from a historical period which is NOT part of the history syllabus or solve a novel scientific problem via a range of clues and calculations.

We continue to teach subjects and skills in such a way that fosters interests in discrete disciplines - each teacher is responsible for creating an interesting and stimulating range of assessment and content but shares equal responsibility with their peers for that child’s cognitive development. Teachers are working towards common assessment criteria (broadly speaking numeracy/literacy) and can truly share good practice rather than a few tips which are often next to useless, given the differing demands of exams and exam boards. We abandon the notion that high grades in 10 subjects tell us anything other than a pushy parent or a child dedicated to learning the hoops through which to jump. Instead, we create schools which have simple common goals.

Foster the child’s potential to think, teach them to express themselves and give them freedom to do so. Provoke them, feed them things they want to write about, shape their mind with exciting lessons and let them respond. Stop telling them exactly how to do it and let them work it out. As long as they are thinking and trying, praise them. Stop telling them useless things about Assessment object 1 or 2 and actually engage with the coherence of their work. Stop filling their heads with KEY WORDS and actually just let them choose the right words. Let them make mistakes for god’s sake! Let them learn from them.  

I think this way, we could take pressure off both teachers and learners. When I’ve taught post-16, I know I can’t rely on my learners having any particular knowledge. I simply want them to be able to think, have some self confidence and to express themselves with a bit of fluency. Instead, I get too many students who are fearful, can’t write and don’t want to think in case it’s wrong. I then spend a long time, teaching them a new set of rules for writing yet another series of essays that have nothing to do with anything they’ll ever have to do in their working lives.

I'd love them to have had the chance to really have explored and researched something in genuine depth. To have developed a passion or created a project. To have something to say other than "We did 'Of Mice and Men' *shrug*"

To be fair, it’s not the content of specifications that’s the problem generally. It’s obviously good children understand Hitler, global warming, some good books and how a lightbulb works. It’s just the testing of that. The fact that these things have to be reduced to pithy paragraphs or diagrams of a certain form. It destroys them as knowledge, reduces them to a post it note or something the learner hates and fears. Many of them don’t learn these things anyway. Not meaningfully. Not deeply. Not with any depth of understanding or likely recall in later life. That’s the things with facts. They go. Pop! You’ve forgotten….

If we actually taught skills instead, and I mean, really taught skills, then maybe we’d have deeper learning. Logic isn’t easily forgotten, language isn’t easily forgotten. For too long, we’ve ignored a key fact about the modern world. Knowledge isn’t power any more. Knowledge is cheap. Being able to do something with it is what matters, being able to manipulate it, shape it, interpret it and process it is absolutely paramount.

Make education vibrant. Ask students questions that matter - link humanities to media, link the news to science, link maths to answering why unemployment is rife or whether immigration is a strain or a boon for the economy. Teach RE in an English class, discuss philosophy after watching Life of Pi, talk about dead rockstars and do some personal and social education, design a new football stadium on AutoCad. This isn’t dumbing down. It’s breathing life…

For too many of my learners, education is separate from life. They don’t see a connection between the things they think, feel and experience and what they do in classes day to day preparing them for outdated tests written and assessed on the whole by people with little connection to many of their lives. While we continue to rely on the current system, that will forever be the case and perhaps if teachers had a simpler job - Teach children to express themselves confidently and have the tools to solve problems for themselves, then everyone involved in education, most of all learners, might have a much, much happier time and the key standards which every Government trumpets time and again, might actually rise.

In short, it’s time exam boards and qualifications bodies stopped strangling education and teachers stopped strangling student’s abilities to learn. Stop measuring facts and measure skills instead.

I believe passionately in state education and that every child deserves the very best possible. If teachers can’t teach without long winded assessment criteria and get children to think then they aren’t teachers. I don’t think that’s the problem though. I think it’s the fact that our leaders are often bureaucrats with little interest in the content of classes or learning (other than grades) and we teachers spend hours, months and years coaching children in skills which don’t translate to adult life, whilst being ‘performance managed’ to better waste both our time and our learners.

Change is needed. Change must be radical.

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