In a previous article, I suggested that there were good reasons for thinking that the Scottish Government's emphasis on head teacher leadership as the answer to the problem of school improvement was unlikely to do anything to bring about the radical changes which are now needed for secondary education. If your school is assessed as failing (that is, your school has worse examination results than the neighbouring school in a wealthy area) there must be some one (but clearly not the government) who is to blame. Neglecting for a moment the definition of 'failing', how can we go about allocating blame for this apparent state of affairs?
An interviewer is talking to an old woman about her belief that the earth is flat and asks her what is holding it up. 'Why,' she replies, 'it's on the back of a big turtle'. 'But what holds up the turtle?' replies the interviewer. 'It's turtles all the way down' says the old woman.
Having not got much of a purchase on the problem by enrolling head teachers as 'leaders', the government follows the same intellectual route as the old lady and, with a similar evidential base, decides that every one shall be a leader. Thus teachers become 'leaders of learning', students become 'leaders of their own learning' and so as not to miss anyone, parents become 'leaders of home learning'. The only thing left is to designate household pets as, 'leaders of wellbeing'.
While it is clearly the case that many factors influence student learning (including the skill of teachers, individual student dispositions and parental support), this rhetoric of leadership does nothing to explain or facilitate actual learning by students (or teachers for that matter). Framing the issue of school performance by examination results and 'leadership' is to neglect the systemic problems inherent in secondary schools and only leads to a 'blame game' in which the various participants take refuge in the assumption that some else is to blame.
I recently assisted a local school by acting as a temporary teacher of physics. There was a young man in the S3 class who clearly did not understand the material we were considering. Having settled the rest of the class, I sat down with him to see if there was some way I could help. 'Why did you choose physics?' I asked, hoping to get some insight into his concerns. 'I didn't choose it,' he replied, 'I've not the slightest interest in physics but it was the only option left in the column'. So not much opportunity there for me to be a leader of learning and even less chance for him to become a leader of his own learning. This issue of forced choices is not uncommon in schools short of resources and staffing, but it inevitably leads to students who are alienated from learning.
There is a story of a young man being interviewed for a place to study physics at Cambridge. After a few questions about his background, the chairman of the interview panel asks the young man, 'What is electricity?' Somewhat flustered by this turn of events the young man replies, 'I'm sorry, I did know but I've forgotten'. The chairman turns to the other members of panel and says, 'Gentlemen, the only man to know what electricity is and he's forgotten'. The chairman is making a rather unsympathetic joke at the expense of the young man whose secondary experience has made him believe there is a single right answer to every question. 'What is electricity?', is the kind of speculative question which might be asked by a curious child in primary school, but one which is somehow bypassed in science classes in secondary school.
In my previous article (13 May
), I also drew attention to the increasing trend for students to see their secondary school experience in instrumental terms. The entire schooling process (and it is indeed a process) is directed at getting the student through the examination. As a junior physics teacher myself, I have been as guilty as any in coaching for the exam. 'Be sure you revise resistors in series and parallel. It always comes up.' I might have added (but didn't) that this is a piece of information which you will remember for the examination and then forget for the rest of your life unless you go on to study physics at college or university.
In a similar way, I would teach Newton's laws of motion which include the equation force = mass x acceleration. In my entire teaching career, I have had only one student who objected: 'In maths the teacher says you can't multiply apples by lemons, so how can you multiply mass by acceleration – they're different things'. This youngster was curious having identifying a connection between areas of his knowledge and encountering a contradiction. Seeing such connections is an important aspect of creativity and is often a way of embedding learning so that it does not fade rapidly with time.
Is it just a coincidence that the technique of Pointillism in oil painting, developed by Seurat in the mid 1880s, is similar to the mosaic method of colour photography pioneered by Joly in the early 1890s? Although not commercially possible at the time, this colour process was realised by Dufay's Dioptichrome plates and marketed as Dufaycolour, a process used for a number of British films in the late 1930s. And do history lessons consider the contribution to daily living provided by the widespread domestic use of electricity? Again, we make a connection.
The recent film, The Current War
, tells the story of the battle between Edison (the inventor) and Tesla (the real genius). Should the supply to homes be direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)? We can make a link here to resistors in series as it is the energy loss in low voltage DC transmission which gives the advantage to the AC transmission used universally today. There are many other examples which can be explored, each providing opportunities for joint working between subjects. But then there are the usual timetable difficulties, the objection that it is 'not in the syllabus', and the common, 'I'm too busy preparing my students for the exam to do this'.
Many years ago, when I was Rector of Bankhead Academy in Aberdeen, a new secondary school was proposed for a rapidly expanding housing development in a nearby area. I suggested to the director of education that this was the opportunity to think about a new approach to secondary education. In outline, perhaps we could have a secondary school for S1 and S2 with specialist hubs attached to the local primaries for S3 upwards. The hubs would have close links with the FE college and the local universities. The secondary school would be the hub for sports and leisure activities. The director, who was by no means resistant to new ideas, said that he did not think any such proposals where worth considering further. 'What will I say to the parents who ask whether their child will be disadvantaged by such a novel approach?' was his answer to my suggestions.
As Donald Schon says in The Fear of Innovation
, it is precisely this fear of the new which will always get in the way of radical reform. I'm not saying that my proposals were good ones, simply that I was not able to open a debate about the issue. Contrast this with the approach of a senior manager with the Sony Corporation. 'We do not do market research,' he said, 'because we know what is possible and the public do not. Of course, we attend to the existing market, but our aim is to be ahead of our competitors by creating new markets based on our innovative products'.
Our problem is that the only thing most parents know about schools is the system they experienced themselves and they are suspicious of new forms of schooling for two main reasons. Those who benefitted from the present system (usually, but not always the better off) want to secure the same benefits for their children. Those who did not succeed feel disenfranchised from the debate. The voice of the upper-middle classes, being very loud and very clear, is often mistaken for the voice of the people and presents a real challenge to anyone advocating radical change. But in many ways we do know what is possible, even if many of the public do not. The government has often told schools to learn lessons from business – it is unfortunate that we cannot learn from Sony's approach.
The difficulty is that, in spite of the best efforts of teachers to care for their students, they are constrained by subject silos and compelled to structure lessons within 'one size fits all' time slots that have no relation to the individual requirements of the matter in hand and with students who often see little relevance of the subjects they have 'chosen' to their own concerns. In the past, the curriculum was often presented as the three Rs, these being Reading, wRiting and aRithmatic. But now the entire edifice of our present senior secondary school system is based on the new three Rs:
for an examination which tests mainly memory. Regurgitate
on a day and in a time allocation not of your choosing. Regress
by forgetting much of which you have temporarily remembered, often within a matter of months after the examination. There are two main hurdles for students. Not everyone is good at remembering and not everyone is good at the kind of fast presentation required for an examination. It's not surprising that there are many books to help students to 'improve your memory' and the advice of teachers: 'Be sure you answer every question. If you are stuck on a question go on to the next because in the time allowed you cannot lose out on gaining the (often easier) marks at the start of each question'.
Is there a way to make secondary schools less stressful but still ensure progression in learning, not just for those who are looking for academic careers but for the general population who will now have to learn throughout their lifespan to deal with the increasing speed of change in society? I make some suggestions in my next article.