The Education-for-Education’s-Sake Curriculum

The most esoteric of curricula, the most elusive and probably the hardest to define. Education for Education’s sake is a strange notion in a sharply pragmatic world. Imagine learning something just because you can… Imagine teaching something because you are interested in it…

This is the curriculum that (I think) drives most teachers. It is the idea that Education itself has its own value – it is worth something all by itself. Set against other curricula, it defies the notion that education has a purpose other than just becoming more educated – it’s not for work, or for standards, it’s not to prove anything or to achieve a goal – it just is. Education for its own sake.

For teachers this curriculum is highly motivating. Teachers released to teach what really interests them fly. PE specialists teach their children to dance, run, compete; musicians teach their pupils to play, hear and compose; artists teach their children to appreciate the aesthetic, whilst RE teachers teach students of the ascetic.

Blended with the other 3 curricula that I am writing about, these highly motivated teachers will enable students to make great academic progress, be prepared for their next stage of life and cover all the necessary objectives required by local and national bodies.

Myself I feel I grew up with a curriculum that majored on Education for Education’s Sake. There were no SATs in the 1970s, yet despite no standards agenda many of peers did really well at school. There were no web designers or mobile phone engineers back then either, yet, despite this lack of specific vocational preparation I have friends who have become both. There was no National Curriculum either – no coverage agenda.

Each teacher was different too. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but I learned something from each of them. Was this because they were allowed to teach with an emphasis on what interested them? I’m not sure. And I’ve tried to be clear in my previous posts that none of these curricula can exist in isolation.

But I think there is a danger in some schools that we try to clone a particular teaching style, or even a particular teacher. A strength of our education system is not merely the autonomy of each school, but also the autonomy of each teacher – each teacher’s strengths can make a big difference to a student’s prospects – if we clone teaching than we deny students a richness and a breadth that we might otherwise have had.

Education does exist for its own sake. This curriculum is important to blend in with the others that I am writing about.

The Preparation Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the second: preparation.

Preparation for the next stage; or for the work place. This is the preparation curriculum. Back in 1870, the first Education Act was driven through by industrialists who were fed up of the Church having all the action in the education business. They said they wanted to prepare children for the workplace, although some would argue that they wanted a share of the growing national pot of money assigned to education. What has changed?

In Early Years, teachers prepare children more formal school by teaching the children phonics and the beginnings of maths. In Key Stage One children are taught to read securely to prepare them to use reading across the curriculum in key Stage Two and to do increasing amounts of work without support. Each stage has its own challenges and the Preparation Curriculum has the task of providing the knowledge and skills to meet these challenges.

The Preparation Curriculum is sometimes at odds with the Standards Curriculum that I wrote about yesterday. For example, when children are boosted to perform at their absolute best In Key Stage 2 SATs and perhaps score a slightly higher mark in reading than they regularly work at, it can be misleading for the Year 7 teacher who then takes on that child in September. Similarly, the current National Curriculum level descriptors at level 2 are often accompanied by the phrase “with support”, yet during the assessment period for Year 2 children Level 2 assessments are accorded the same amount of support as level 3 assessments (and of course, there is no “with support” phrase with any Level 3 descriptors).

This means that schools that are doing their utmost to enable their students to achieve the best standards possible are not always preparing them for the next stage.

Of course, the ultimate preparation is for the ‘workplace’. The Preparation Curriculum would advocate practical and vocational lessons that give students the knowledge and skills for jobs in the real world. In DT, use this glue gun – you might be a carpenter. In Computing, learn this html – you might be a web designer. In science learn about Darwin – you might be a biologist. Some of these jobs will exist in the future, some of them won’t. The challenge of the Preparation Curriculum is to have the right lessons that will prepare children for the workplace.

An advantage of being mindful of the Preparation Curriculum is that it can mitigate against the gaming that I mentioned in the last post: if you are desperate to prepare your students for the next stage of their education or life, that you won’t let them cheat at tests. However, the Preparation Curriculum is predicated on knowing what the future holds and so it is limited by our prescient ability and the stability of our society.

 

The Standards Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the first: standards.

The National Curriculum for September 2014 has provoked a lot of debate since its inception by the current government. What should be in it? What shouldn’t? How should geography be taught? Why change ICT to computing? And so on…

While this debate is purposeful, I believe the new Curriculum has and will have only a marginal impact on what is actually taught in schools. A far more significant impact is that of the Standards Curriculum. This is the curriculum to do with the standards that students reach in various subjects: in reading, writing and maths at the age of 11; in GCSE subjects at the age of 16; in ‘A’ level subjects at the age of 18.

It is the teach-to-the-test curriculum. The curriculum that grates on most teachers. We didn’t come into teaching for this, we say. And yet year after year, we prepare our children for the tests. We cram, we boost, we plan intervention groups. We ensure that our students perform at their absolute best in their assessments.

And with ever greater accountability structures for schools, the tests that drive the standards curriculum become less about what a student can do and more about what a school can get their student to do. There is the temptation, some would argue the tendency, to ‘game the system’ – to take steps that make the school look the best in tests, irrespective of the performance of their students. Some call this cheating.

No one would argue that raising standards for students is an important goal – all schools need a curriculum that does this. But a curriculum that only focuses on standards in tests is a frightening prospect. The question to be asked is how reliable are the standards? Have the students just crammed something for a test only to forget it the next week? Will that teaching stay with them for life? A standards curriculum relies on the performance of its students: if that performance has been over-supported by the school, then students may come out with grades that they cannot sustain and therefore don’t prepare them for the next stage.

However a curriculum that doesn’t focus on standards is also frightening. Imagine a primary school where the teaching of reading didn’t matter. Imagine a secondary school where academic ability was laughed at. We test students for a reason and that is reason is that academic standards are important. Students who are better readers and better mathematicians have more opportunities for themselves and more opportunities to make society a better place.

For me, the Standards Curriculum is the most important of the 4 curricula that make up a broad curriculum within a school. But the other 3 curricula are important too and need to be blended with standards to suit the needs of the school. The New National Curriculum is a useful starting point for standards, but in reality schools will be looking for what is in the tests that will be coming out from 2015 – these will be the driver for the Standards curriculum in the future, not the National Curriculum itself. Imagine the Year 4 teacher in 2016 looking at how to teach her class – will she mainly look at the National Curriculum or the tests she will have to administer at the end of the year? I suspect the latter.

I’m aiming to look at the Preparation Curriculum in my next post.

The 4 Curricula

What I like about the new UK Curriculum (the one that becomes statutory in September 2014) is that it’s a bottom line. It isn’t an aspirational curriculum like the old one used to be – it just provides the basics for what schools should cover. I think this is important, because it is the role of schools to encourage the aspirations of their pupils, rather than national government. How can a national government in a multi-cultural society encourage the aspirations of every student, given the huge range of backgrounds and expectations that exist? Schools are much better placed for this job, and within each school, each teacher using their amazing skills to educate their students.

I think the broad curriculum that a student is taught at each school is made up of 4 separate curricula:

  1. The Standards Curriculum
  2. The Preparation Curriculum
  3. The Education for Education’s Sake Curriculum
  4. The Coverage Curriculum

I would like to spend the next few posts exploring these curricula and unpicking my claim that schools with more autonomy are better for students than schools with less autonomy

School Visits and Avoiding Risk

I wrote on Wednesday some thoughts about taking children to London. On the general principle of taking children on visits, I’m asking: do we do it enough?

I had been amused a couple of weeks earlier by a good friend of mine who told me of a school visit that would probably make the papers these days. Some 25 years ago, his rather eccentric history teacher took his group to London, told the students when to meet him and proceeded to spend the rest of the day in the pub. Meanwhile, my friend wandered round London with a couple of others (including now-education minister Matthew Hancock) for the day, having a great time and learning loads. In fact my friend described it as being a formative – even inspiring – experience, but one that his mother was not best pleased about when she found out how the teacher had ‘managed’ the visit.

I’m sure many of us of a certain generation can remember teachers of that ilk: risk takers who liked to explode things, leave students unsupervised and drink heavily during the day. We may look back with a misty-eyed view of ‘that didn’t do me any harm‘ and wish for a return of the days when ‘risk assessment’ meant arriving somewhere and saying “oh, that’ll be alright.”

And I’m sure many of us in schools have attempted to plan a visit, only to become mired in unrealistic amounts of process and paperwork. Unfortunately a few, much-publicised fatalities on school visits have pushed many schools into reducing risk to zero and not taking children on visits at all.

These approaches do not benefit our children. Neither dangerous visits with absent teachers, nor risk-averse schools with absent visits will give children the inspiration, understanding and experience of the world that will really benefit them in future life.

I’ve tried to get round this by using the risk assessment process as the visit planning process also. Previously, the risk assessment was something you had to *do* after the visit was organised, not it’s just something that you plan for as you plan the trip, just as you would any other lesson. So alongside the hope for learning, you make a note of any likely risks and write down any necessary interventions to make to help students avoid the risks. This has helped me simplify the processes to a single one, saving time and also (I think) making a better visit.

Maybe it doesn’t sound quite as fun as spending the whole day in the pub, whilst the students wander around London, but it makes for a safer visit, keeping the inspiration for the students and keeping down the paperwork for the teacher.

Raising Standards with Technology

On Monday, when I wrote about Chromebooks being the ideal device for the UK classroom, I was hinting at wider issue about technology spending in education: wastage.

We waste a lot of money in UK schools on technology.

The EEF teacher toolkit is quite clear: spend your money on training teachers to give effective feedback. That is the best way to raise standards in your school.

You should purchase technology if it supports teachers giving effective feedback. If it doesn’t, don’t buy it. If you have any spare money left over, then maybe, you can spend some money on technology.

Raising Standards with technology is easy:

  • dont spend too much of your money on it;
  • don’t be distracted by it;
  • don’t waste time with it;

We have great resources in our schools – they are called teachers – if they are helped significantly by technology then buy it for them, but don’t make technology a barrier to their teaching.

Taking children to That London

Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace

Looking through the Gates of Buckingham Palace

I love my home city: Birmingham.

But I love London too, and whenever I go there, I can’t help feeling just a little parochial. It’s a great privilege to be able to take children to London and something that I’ve enjoyed doing over many years. Back when the O2 Arena was known as the Millenium Dome, I brought children down to experience what all the fuss was about.

London is so amazing, that you don’t even have to go into anything. A tube pass is all you need and you can spend the day boggled by Buckingham Palace, awed by the Houses of Parliament and stunned by the Tower of London.

I brought 6 children to BETT this year and aside from the ideas they’’ll be taking back to school council for future technology spending, they really enjoyed the whole travelling to and being in London.

Some of the group had not been on a train before (Birmingham is a very spread out city by English standards: the car and the bus reign supreme), but by the time we had finished the day we had travelled on ten trains.

Some of the groups had not seen a Palace Guardsmen in real life before, nor Big Ben, nor walked down the Mall. We did all those things as well as our visit to the technology show known as BETT.

I would love to take a whole class to London every year, but finances and time do not allow. Wouldn’t it be great though if every child had that opportunity, so they could find out all about their capital city, see the building in real life that they only normally see on Doctor Who and walk the same streets of those who make the decisions that shape their lives.

Yet many children in Birmingham never even travel to Birmingham City Centre, let alone London – is this an issue schools should address?

Here’s one for the small teachmeet

I had a few small pangs of regret when I missed Teachmeet BETT this year. It was the teachmeet at BETT a few years ago which inspired me to run a  teachmeet in Birmingham, and I know other have been likewise inspired.

Friday’s event was surely a great feat of organisation, and credit must go to all the organisers, volunteers and sponsors who helped out.

However I am getting increasingly wary of events. There are 13 teachers in my school and only one, aside from myself, is connected in any way with teachers from other schools. The question I come back to is how can I inspire my teachers to find their own great CPD, their own networks and maintain their own learning journey? My teachers are FAB. They do an amazing job in their classrooms. Yet they have been to huge conferences and been wowed by amazing speakers and I have even foisted a teachmeet upon them, yet they still won’t engage in these events of their own accord.

My reasoning now is that these CPD events have always been too big: I need to engage my staff in smaller groups, maybe even 1:1 relationships, for them to really move on with their own CPD.

Aside from my own staff, I am concerned with who speaks at teachmeets. When an event is massive, you have to have really good speakers – and there were some brilliant speakers at this year’s teachmeet BETT. But there must also be a place for teachers to develop their public speaking in smaller groups – and a small teachmeet is perfect for this. A teachmeet is away from the school-enforced CPD demands and devoid of any performance management overtones and so is a brilliant way for people to learn about presenting their ideas and sharing their best practice.

It’s short notice, but I’m still hoping to help someone run a teachmeet in Birmingham on National Teachmeet Day on 6th Feb – if anyone wants to get a few folk together at their school in the 2nd city, let me know and I’ll lend a hand.

Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom

On Thursday at BETT, I spoke on the Google stand with the slightly contentiously titled talk, Chromebooks: the ideal device for the UK classroom.

Now I have to be clear: I think there is no ideal device for a classroom. In fact, I think the ideal classroom has multiple different devices: a mixed economy, or a device-agnostic approach as some like to call it.

Having said that, I believe the UK classroom is in a peculiar situation at the moment, and it’s a situation which lends itself to Chromebooks. Let me explain below, but first here are my slides:

The situation is this:

1. We live in austerity times. Less money has been paid into the education sector in recent years and while this may not have affected school budgets directly, it has affected central services. Schools find it harder now than ever to find speech therapists, social support, education psychologists, behaviour support, specialist subject support, and so on. This means that schools have to make a choice: invest in external support, or maintain internal staffing levels.

2. Not many people know it, but we have a growing bank of great research for what really works. The EEF teacher toolkit has listed some great research for the interventions that really make a difference in schools. What surprises me is that so few teachers know about it or pay much attention to it – at #tmBETT14 recently, when Oliver Quinlan spoke about it, I saw several tweets from people who hadn’t heard of it before. A second surprise is that digital technology is so far down the list – the consequence of this is that you’re far better off investing your resources in training your teachers to give effective feedback than your are investing in technology.

3. We have lots of change, so let’s keep what we can the same. Curricula are changing. Assessment regimes are changing. Teacher standards and performance management have changed. Entire schooling structures are changing with free schools and academy chains. This means we should keep what we can the same – why invest in radically different technology, when our teachers have already had so much change to deal with?

So summing this up: we don’t have much money; spending what we have on technology is probably a waste; changing things puts additional stress on to our teachers.

This is where Chromebooks come in

  • they are cheap. At under £200 each, a class set costs £6000 and support costs are less than £600 a year. The money you save on such a cheap solution can go into funding the interventions that actually make a difference.

  • teachers don’t have to learn anything to use them. Since Chromebooks just do the web – and everyone knows how to use that – learning to use them is not a huge CPD piece.

I have a load of other reasons for why Chromebooks are an amazing device for school but right there were my main two: they are cheap and they are easy. That means all staff in school can spend their time getting on with their main business, which is educating our children.

Save time on data and spend it on teaching

I really believe that efficient data analysis that takes the minimum amount of time helps everyone.

It always depresses me when the calculator comes out for working out averages on a set of data.

Yet there is such a focus on getting the data right, that sometimes double-checking it all can take over. Yes, the system might be inefficient, but it works and gets the right answers… Our children deserve better than that. The skilled teachers in our schools are there for doing skilled teaching: they shouldn’t be wasting their time on inefficient processes.

And here is where I make my admission: I use inefficient processes. I am comfortable with spreadsheets, so I use them – I do all my number crunching and contextual analysis in spreadsheets. Yet I have a super-powerful management information system in school. I know that it could do all the number crunching I need and more. But I’m not comfortable with it. One day, I will grow up. I just know it. And on that day, I will understand databases and be able to use them to make data work even better for my in school.

But for now I’ll have to be content with my countifs and my vlookups.

I’m speaking at #WeTweetEd at BETT this Thursday. Come along and contribute to the discussion on using data as best as we possibly can.