Most education debate is superficial and piecemeal. Most policy interventions are just swings of a worn old pendulum: breadth vs. depth; exams vs. coursework; venerable content vs. relevant skills; and so on.
In this short piece, we present a more coherent, forward-looking ‘manifesto’ for school improvement. It contains a critique; a specific vision; a programme for change; and a political and social rationale. You are warmly invited to respond.
Every child deserves a good education, and to feel that they have had one. We think that means they should come out of school knowing how to read, write and do the maths they will all need; enjoying reading and the enrichment that reading gives them; confident with digital technology and understanding something about how it works and its pros and cons; inclined to think critically about what they see and hear; keen to discover and develop their talents and interests; positive, resourceful and imaginative in the face of difficulty and uncertainty; having commitment and pride in a job well done, whatever it may be; and able to engage knowledgeably and articulately with the unfolding political, economic, moral and ecological issues that affect them and their communities. We can and should argue about the details of such a specification, but these are the kinds of outcomes that all young people and their families have a right to expect, and schools have a responsibility to develop. Do you agree?
Our goal is to mobilise public opinion, and especially the voice of parents, families and school students themselves, so that politicians are galvanised into seriously considering deeper policy solutions. Teachers and school principals have to start enthusing parents and pupils about the possibilities of change. There is a welter of concern amongst parents about education. Some children take naturally to academic study and enjoy school. Some, whether they enjoy it or not, have the background, the support and the temperament to be ‘winners’ at the grades game. But many do not. Millions of parents see school making their children brittle, conservative and anxious in their attitudes to learning, and watch in dismay as their children’s adventurous, questing spirit shrivels up and dies, but they do not speak out because they cannot clearly see an alternative. They see it as a family problem rather than a systemic issue. So, reluctantly, many fall back on thinking that the best they can do is help their children ‘suck it up’ and just do as well as they can on the tests. We need to help parents find a coherent voice for their concerns, one that will have political force. When this clamour reaches a tipping point, the demand for schools that fit children for the real tests of life (and not just for a life of tests) will become irresistible. Do you agree?
Intellectualism. Some – we cannot be sure which – of today’s students will become plumbers, mechanics, care workers, singers, shepherds, chefs, upholsterers, jockeys, gardeners, hairdressers and cartoonists. Some will neither want nor need to go to university. All of them have just as much right to feel empowered by and grateful for their education as those who get good A levels and go on to become lawyers, lecturers, doctors or business leaders. Some do feel blessed by their schooling; but many do not. Some of them endure the daily experience of feeling inadequate, mediocre or merely bemused by the demands of the curriculum. They feel failures at an education that systematically ignores their interests and devalues their talents. In England particularly, Dance, Design Technology and Physical Education are institutionally less valued than French and History. Children who are not cut out to be scholarly should not be made to feel stupid. There is more complex thinking involved in being a good plumber than a humdrum teacher. Do you agree?
High stakes tests are designed and graded so that a substantial proportion of youngsters are condemned to ‘fail’ – through no fault of their own, no lack of effort, or no inadequate teaching. This is required by a system that is geared to esteem one slim set of academic outcomes above all others. If grades are seen purely as passports to good universities, one child’s four A*s at A level only have value because someone else’s son or daughter didn’t get them. This is unnecessary, unjust and pernicious. School should genuinely value all the kinds of outcomes illustrated in #1, not just one or two of them.
Even for high-achievers, the grades are not all that matters. Grades get them through some narrow gateways and open up valuable options; but once through those gateways, qualities of mind such as perseverance, self-control, curiosity, concentration and empathy matter more. For example, pleasure in reading is a powerful predictor of success in life. Yet the pressure to hit targets of reading ability has been shown to undermine children’s enjoyment of reading.
Being able to recall information on cue, solve pre-digested problems, and knock out short essays, are not amongst the most important life skills for the 21st century. Curiosity, determination and independent-mindedness matter more and should not be sacrificed on the altar of university entrance. Whatever their path in life, such attitudes and capabilities are the most valuable residues of a child’s school-days, and to neglect their cultivation, or worse, to implicitly encourage an attitude of passive, dependent, credulous literal-mindedness is unforgivable. Most schools pay lip-service to wider outcomes, claiming to help their students become ‘happy’, ‘confident’ or ‘equipped for the 21st century’, but in the day-to-day learning lives of students these goals are honoured in the breach rather than the observance, and no systematic attempt is made to ensure their cultivation. Fond hopes and fine words are inadequate. Do you agree?
In achieving these vital outcomes, pedagogy – the way that teachers teach –counts for more than curriculum – the subject matter of their lessons. Of course, acquiring knowledge matters, but attitudes such as scepticism, perseverance or a love of reading cannot be taught directly. Learning about running does not (by itself) make you faster. Learning about curiosity does not make you more inquisitive. These attitudes are habits of mind that, in a conducive environment, develop and strengthen gradually over time. Teachers can create that culture – the ‘nutrient medium for dispositional growth’ – through the activities they design, the informal comments they make, the freedoms and responsibilities they offer, the decisions they make about how to lay out the furniture and what to display on the walls, and crucially through the attitudes towards learning they themselves exemplify, especially in the face of unexpected difficulties.
There are clear design principles for a classroom that steer students either towards compliant, uncritical, extrinsically-motivated attitudes towards learning; or towards adventurous, critical, proactive attitudes. However, many teachers and school principals are not as conscious and deliberate as they could be about ensuring that their schools and classrooms continually and ubiquitously nurture the latter rather than the former. Some think that teaching style is – provided discipline and achievement are good – an essentially private matter. And some still think – erroneously – that attention to learning skills and attitudes detracts from the development of knowledge and the attainment of good grades. Outstanding schools need to pay constant attention to the ‘minute particulars’ (as William Blake called them) of teaching method and style. Do you agree?
Though teaching methods are critical for the development of these vital habits of mind, the subjects being studied matter too. You cannot learn to learn in the abstract. You have to learn how to learn in the context of learning something. In the midst of a knowledge explosion, however, it is very hard to choose the tiny fraction of all that knowledge that is genuinely useful. The question “What knowledge is likely to matter in the lives that most school students are likely to lead (in the mid to late 21st century)?” needs to be of urgent, widespread concern. In his recent book Future Wise, Harvard Professor David Perkins writes: “What’s conventionally taught may not develop the kinds of citizens, workers and family and community members we want and need. The basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, even if strongly developed, aren’t enough. The familiar disciplines…sitting in their silos…taught to all comers for purely academic understanding aren’t enough.” It is unacceptable to soldier on with the Tudors, simultaneous equations and the sub-plots in Othello simply because they have been in the curriculum for a long time, or because to grapple with the dizzying array of alternatives makes our brains hurt.
Put simply, there are three kinds of justification for making all young people learn something. First, it – the something – is clearly useful and relevant to the civic, economic and family lives that most people are going to lead. Second, it isn’t obviously useful in its own right, but it makes a good ‘exercise machine’ for developing some general purpose skills and habits of mind that are really useful (and which wouldn’t reliably be developed by studying things in the first category). And third: neither of the above, but the subject is such a precious cornerstone of our cultural life and heritage that everyone just ought to know about it. People will fight like cats and dogs about what specifically fits into each of these categories, but at least we will be having the right kind of debate. Do you agree?
The vital residues of education – useful, portable habits of mind as well as really useful knowledge – need to be documented and demonstrated. School-leavers should be able to evidence their ingenuity or resilience to prospective employers. Conventional tests do not provide this information. It is perfectly possible to do well on many examinations by being a compliant and conservative learner, and to do badly despite being creative and resourceful. Nor do simple check-lists suffice. It would be absurd to send young people out of school labelled and graded in terms of their qualities of mind. Yet there are robust and rigorous ways being developed – often making smart use of digital technology – that do now enable youngsters to evidence their growing capacity and appetite for learning. Parents and employers need to understand what these are, and why they should learn to trust them.
Of course, evidencing the development of dispositions such as curiosity or determination is not as straightforward as marking a maths test. But many existing forms of assessment (e.g. in English or Art) already involve informed judgement on the part of the assessor, and we know there is considerable variation even between expert markers. And yes, some teachers could make unreliable or ‘generous’ judgments about children’s learning dispositions. But demanding ever more draconian kinds of accountability from teachers is not the right way to respond. If we restrict the valued outcomes of education only to those whose evaluations have the appearance of being ‘teacher-proofed’, the cure is worse than the disease – especially if it makes teachers cautious and defensive, and encourages them to teach to the test or game the system. The only solution is to invest in teachers’ ability to know their students at a deeper level, to understand that good grades and lively minds can – but too often don’t – go hand in hand, and to know what kinds of evidence of their growth will be valid and reliable. Targeted and sophisticated professional development for teachers is a vital ingredient of the development of 21st century education. Do you agree?
Within the education profession there is widespread recognition of these concerns, and an increasing number of pioneering schools around the world have developed effective cultures of learning that achieve both aims: students get the best grades of which they are capable, and at the same time they grow in their confidence, capability and appetite for designing and managing their own learning. Yet the rate at which these beacons of 21st century education are proliferating is still too slow. There are several factors that contribute to this slow rate of growth. Some people still believe that the two aims must necessarily conflict: that attention to developing the qualities of mind must distract (and therefore detract) from the mastery of subject matter. Some are still sceptical about the possibility or desirability of this kind of development in schools. (They may adhere to the idea that intelligence and ‘personality’ are largely the products of genetics, and therefore beyond the power of teachers to influence.) Some see teaching style itself as largely driven by unalterable traits of personality: ‘teachers are born, not made’. Some school leaders see the kudos of their school as dependent only on academic grades, Ofsted ratings (and, perhaps, sporting trophies), and are therefore loath to embrace wholeheartedly a wider set of outcomes. Some still cling (consciously or unconsciously) to the belief that a traditional (grammar) school is the epitome of good education, and that it is just an unfortunate fact of nature that very large numbers of children are simply not equipped with the brain power, the temperament or the family support to benefit from it. These doubts and misconceptions need to be tackled, so that the necessary changes to practice can spread like wildfire. Do you agree?
Politicians, in particular, are (with a few exceptions) condemned by the short-term, cyclical and tribal nature of most democracies to resist doing what needs to be done to bring about the necessary changes. Their views on education are largely uninformed by anything other than their own school experience, naive intuitions, the entrenched views of powerful media barons, a love of simplistic statistics, and the constantly looming fear of losing the next general election. All of this conspires to make ministers of education, especially, allergic to anything that is subtle, long-term, or easily ridiculed by a cynical editor or journalist. Many senior politicians (ex-lawyers and journalists, often) have also cultivated a debating style that inclines them to rebut sensible questioning with cheap debating points rather than a thoughtful exploration of complex issues. Where research ought to drive policy, instead evidence is cherry-picked and ‘weaponised’, becoming merely a rhetorical stick with which to beat any argument which they find uncongenial or inconvenient.
There is also a deep resistance by politicians to questioning the fundamental purpose of education; they prefer to talk as if school improvement were a merely technical matter, rather than an indelibly moral one. Thus the driving obsession with improving grades, tests and college or university entrance (especially for young people from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds) goes unexamined. The quality of public debate about education has to be deepened and improved, if desperately needed changes are to stand a chance of scaling up. Do you agree?
A peaceful world
Our world seems to be becoming more turbulent. Mass migrations create stressful uncertainties in migrants, their families and descendants, and often destabilise the traditional communities in which they are seeking to make new homes. Without roots in land, family and tradition, it can be hard to feel valued and significant. But feeling unsettled, anxious and aimless – sometimes even dispossessed or humiliated – can breed a strong desire for certainty, clarity, dignity and purpose that makes people vulnerable to the bogus quick-fix appeal of fundamentalism. Education has to help people strengthen their dispositions to tolerate uncertainty, to think carefully about complex issues, to critique what they hear, and to disagree gracefully. To neglect this poses a threat to the stability and safety of their communities and societies.
Schools that adhere to a traditional curriculum and cultivate an obsession with ‘right answers’, however, may inadvertently make matters worse. A Right/Wrong culture can feed what psychologists call a ‘need for closure’ that makes complexity and uncertainty feel more intolerable, not less. Such teaching methods and school cultures risk encouraging intolerance of other views which are seen as simply ‘Wrong’ – or worse, ‘Bad’. In addition, an inflexibly traditional curriculum and factually-based assessment may fail to engage some students – perhaps those who need it most – sufficiently strongly to make them willing to expend the mental energy that would stretch their minds. (To be willing to exercise, you have to want to get fitter.)
There is research that underpins these concerns, but they are obviously open to debate. What is beyond question, we think, is that these sorts of concerns are absolutely the right kinds of concerns and conversations to be having. Getting education right matters for the well-being and fulfilment of millions of individual children and young people; but it is also a larger matter – not just of economy and employment – but of the future of our world. Do you agree?
Guy Claxton is a cognitive scientist with a long-standing interest in education. He has made both practical and academic contributions to education through a series of books that include; What’s the Point of School?, Building Learning Power, Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning, and (with Bill Lucas) New Kinds of Smart and Educating Ruby. His latest book, The Learning Power Approach: Teaching Learners to Teach Themselves, with a foreword by Carol Dweck, is published in the UK and the US in November 2017. His Building Learning Power approach has been influential in schools in Ireland, Poland, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and Chile, as well as across the UK