The Universal Panacea: A New Currency of Educational Discourse

The Universal Panacea: The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime ·

Time for a new currency.....
Time for a new currency…..

 A New Currency of Educational Discourse

The opening theme for the Blog sync project is a real challenge.  In thinking of a concept that could be considered universal I started writing a list of all the faults in our system that I’d be hoping the panacea might resolve;¡ it was getting longer and longer and sounded terribly negative.  I stopped.  I don’t feel negative about our education system; in fact I’m pretty positive and optimistic about it. But, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be a whole lot better.  In truth, we need quite a few potions in the apothecary chest.  My overarching feeling is that we are currently held back from making big leaps forwards by a raft of disputes where views are polarised unnecessarily; all kinds of false dichotomies permeate through our discourse and too many people see issues as black or white.  For example, some might argue it is vitally important to know the facts of WWII: dates, battles, names of Generals.  Others argue that we have a greater need to develop the skill of studying historical sources in order to establish their provenance and evaluate them in a socio-economic context.  Dichotomy? No! None exists without the other; there is no dichotomy.  In fact many opposite poles or dichotomies are really just two sides of the same coin; different ways of looking at the same issue.   My Universal Panacea is, therefore, to replace Devalued Dichotomies with A New Currency of Wisdom and Balance (clever !!??) I know this could be regarded as a dud panacea but the beauty of blogging is that you can say what you like.

Here are some Heads and Tails in the coinage of the new currency:

Traditional & Progressive

Chalk and talk? I love a bit of it. A fat wedge of expert teacher exposition – lovely! Inspiring! BUT….not all of the time.  The power of collaborative learning, group work, co-construction, peer and self assessment, educational technology and individualised learning to deepen and broaden the learning experience are well understood; their stock is high.  This does not stand in opposition to the strength of the best of ‘traditional’ teaching.  They can easily be alloyed together as a coherent pedagogical approach…so let’s get on with it!

Knowledge & Skills

When my son recently produced his ‘fact file’ on the Nile.. he did it on his own, using a computer.  He learned the names of all countries the Nile passes through and that only 22% of it goes through Egypt. He gained knowledge.. but he used a raft of skills to obtain, select and present it.  Is it more important for him to know these facts or the skills that allowed him to find them? Later on I hope he learns about WWII, evolution, Newton’s Laws and The Tempest…. I think there is some knowledge he simply should have, regardless of how he gets it.  For me this debate is bankrupt; the bailiffs have been called… but it rages on.  Let’s move on and design learning that encompasses both.  Learning poems off by heart is fun and rewarding; does it have to be part of an exam? No.  Can you benefit from knowing some poems really well when trying to evaluate them… probably yes.  K&S are always intertwined; always.

Autonomy & Accountability

Schools should be held to account for their students’ education;  Heads and teachers should be accountable for the quality of their work. But the best way for them to succeed in delivering on that accountability is to have much more autonomy.  The current command and control culture that dominates our system is counterproductive; it shackles and inhibits us because we are continually trying to create something that has been designed and determined by someone else.  Autonomy to design the curriculum, to teach in ways that we choose using our professional judgement  and to create a school ethos that matches our local context – could take a lid off the system.   So let’s invest in autonomy as the route to a better system but then also be very demanding of schools and teachers and the decisions that they take.  Let schools and teachers off the leash to show what they can do, free from prescription.

Trust & Responsibility

This applies at classroom level and in the staffroom.  In running a school, teachers need to be trusted more to make good decisions about teaching, assessment and curriculum design.  They then need to assume responsibility for delivering.  We need more of both; not one or the other.  The same is true of students in the classroom. From an early age, the idea of students having responsibility for their learning is powerful… but then we need to trust them when they explore ideas in different ways and are allowed to take a few risks, including having a say about what they learn and how they learn it.

Challenge & Support 

We talk a lot about being supportive; parents are expected to be supportive (oh how quickly we rush to damn a  ‘pushy parent’); colleagues are meant to be supportive and students are meant to be supportive.  But what about challenge? We’re not good at it.  If we want to run great schools AND have everyone’s support, we need to embrace challenge – from parents, students and from each other.  In a group, someone needs to be the challenger and we should welcome the views of parents who are pushing us to educate their children better still.  We need to support parents to contribute to the learning process, and challenge them more when they don’t.  School-to-school support also needs to be school-to-school challenge…

Breadth & Depth

Why choose when you can have both? Our curriculum needs depth – with students learning how differential calculus can be derived from first principles at A level – ; at the same time there is no benefit to society or to an individual to create structures with arbitrary hierarchies of subjects that consign whole areas of study into ghettos of arts and crafts or manual skills.  We need to think more about a curriculum as providing opportunities rather than being a set of compulsory components and make sure we don’t pigeon-hole people prematurely by imposing limits to their aspirations. A great feature of our curriculum up to KS4 is its breadth… let’s cherish that and create a framework that values and celebrates learning in many forms, remembering that we don’t need or want everyone to have the same education… we just want everyone to have an excellent education.

Inclusion & Excellence

This coin is the rare silver dollar.  Currently, children are systematically under-challenged from day one in too many classrooms…and, simultaneously, too many children drift along the bottom barely able to engage.  If a student can benefit from doing 5 A Levels and 14 GCSEs as well as DofE,  playing in the orchestra and running the debating society – then why shouldn’t that be on offer?  Is it acceptable to say that it isn’t on offer because other students have greater issues and we need to make sure their needs are catered for.  If a student is ready for calculus or Eliot, should they wait back while we get some students onto the same page? On the flip-side is it fair that the top sets get the best teachers or that some students are consigned to a learn in a sink group with limited cultural capital for 20 hours a week? The solutions lie in recognising that both inclusion and excellence are not mutually exclusive; educational achievement is not a zero sum game and redistributive principles don’t apply. However, it suggests that more flexible and diverse provision might be needed both within schools to tackle the issue.  Homogeneity isn’t the answer.

Academic & Vocational

Learning takes so many forms and we don’t do ourselves any favours by saying that studying a story about some boys on an island is more important than knowing how engines work or how to compose a fugue.  Academic study of Literature, Languages, History and Maths should be open to all but that should not mean that Engineering and Art are less relevant.  In life, that isn’t true so why impose these silos onto our education system?

Home & School

Learning happens continuously, starting in the home.  The age-old castle-moat-drawbridge metaphor still applies to a lot of our practices.  From birth, every person begins their learning journey and those first few years have an enormous impact on all the learning that follows.  Once school starts, the family context continues to shape all our students’ development as learners.  Why then are we so squeamish about getting in there?  Our lessons really matter but we’re missing a trick if we fail to recognise that they are just a small small part of our students’ lives…  Education is the joint responsibility of families and schools… let’s start having that conversation explicitly.  At the same, we need to plan learning around the fact that our students increasingly learn on the go… they need us to push them along and provide feedback but the walls of our classroom boxes are breaking down.

Teacher & Student

This isn’t really a dichotomy; the traditional roles of teacher and student will not disappear.. but the lines need to blur.  This coin is a specially minted at my school – we have whole slices of the curriculum that students teach independently; we’re exploring co-construction where students and teachers collaborate in planning their learning. But the currency could spread and of course all teachers are learners too; professional learners.  The most exciting learning that I see happens when students have learned something independently… building on a first installment paid in by teacher to deliver a mighty profit by themselves…

I’m not sure if the currency metaphor holds together… the piggy bank is rather full. But there you go…penny for your thoughts……

...Heads AND Tails
…Heads AND Tails

This is part of the Blogsync intiative.

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  1. Afraid I don’t have a list of natural features to send you like Adam, but just to say this is a great post and the blogsync initiative looks good as well. The Guardian has Occam’s Razor group of bloggers thought they don’t sync like you but might like to especially as Athene Donald often posts on education issues. I am still working on my own blogs as I don’t have the same command of the English language as you and other bloggers. Perhaps should be part of the new English secondary curriculum when it comes out, but sadly we know it won’t be.


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