Friday, 28 November 2008

House Committee on Children, Schools And Families

Many will have already seen reports of the evidence given to the Children, Schools And Families Committee of the House on the 17th November. Teresa Bergin, Professor David Hargreaves, Tim Oates And Mick Waters were all examined. The reporting has tended to focus on the views expressed on personalisation. These are interesting. For example David Hargreaves was asked about how he defines the term and responded;

'The current thing from the Department quotes the definition given in the Gilbert report on teaching well in 2020, of which I was a member: "It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging pupils-and their parents-as partners in learning." In my view, that is well-intentioned waffle. It is well intentioned, but it means nothing. In fact, many schools will say that that is what they do. There is no implication of action at all. '

This is unsurprising. In my view personalisation in education policy was an example of strategy flowing from marketing. Number 10 liked the word and it's associations and it was up to the civil servants, education quangos and schools to make something useful out of it. I thought David Miliband's definition at the the North of England Education Conference in January 2004 was the best of many attempts to make the idea coherent. But in the end the poverty of philosophy behind the idea overwhelmed it.
Much more interesting in my view is the discussion of thematic structures for learning.

"I know of no hard evidence that teaching thematically, as opposed to under subject labels, would produce better learning, although it might be attractive and engaging to some learners. On the other hand, there is hard evidence that project-based learning-I encourage you to make the distinction-can improve not only students' engagement, but their achievement"

Tim Oates;
"the work of groups such as the science education group at Leeds suggests that unique methodology and bodies of knowledge are intrinsic to subjects. If those are not taught systematically or covered, there will be problems in progression through the education system at all stages. "

So the witnesses described the tensions between project based and subject based learning. A number of very important issues were revealed. Without enormous care project based learning can allow some young people to miss key building blocks in particular subjects. Maths was highlighted as a subject where the understanding and knowledge is hierarchical - a child without a foundational element will never be able to grasp higher concepts.
The issue of rigour was also raised. The witnesses seemed to believe that lack of rigour is a weakness particular to project based approaches. I don't accept this.
I do agree with these very well informed witnesses that the quality assurance issue is key now that central government is beginning to step back from a highly directed approach.

"What has been happening in more recent times, and will continue to happen with the loosening up of the national curriculum, is that schools are quite properly trying out new ways in which to engage young people. In my judgment, the centre should be asking, "How can we identify what is really rigorous in what you are trying?" and feeding it back. Matters should be iterative between the centre and the schools. At the moment, we do not have that kind of partnership-we have schools sitting, expecting the centre to dictate to them which does not work. That is the whole point of personalisation. Customisation has to respond to the needs of the clients, but the role of the centre is to say, "Are you sure that you are doing it well?" Although I may be wrong, I am willing to bet that if you asked Ofsted what criteria it uses to judge whether project-based learning is good in schools, it does not have a research-based checklist by which to judge what they observe."

The question of spreading good practice arose from this discussion and it seemed generally accepted by the witnesses that there isn't any one education body with a clear remit for this task. The sharing of good practice by teachers themselves is something I think is much more complex than is generally understood. At one point Mr Chaytor (a committee member) remarks;

"I am amazed that the spirit of Wikipedia has not permeated the whole of the teaching profession, and that teachers in schools up and down the country are not posting up their best ideas."

Actually there are a very large number of websites where teachers share materials. The reason these sites are less useful than they might be is that contexts vary dramatically. One teachers excellent resources are useless for another in a very different school. Teachers own teaching styles vary as well so that resources that work very well for one teacher don't feel right for another. I think teachers rating each others resources is probably the best way to solve this problem. We don't need any more resource sharing websites but something like digg for teachers where they rate resources they find all over the web.

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