This much I know/have recently learnt about…developing curriculum and assessment

I have been a teacher of English for 24 years, a Headteacher for 9 years and one of the Headteachers’ Roundtable for a matter of weeks, and, at the age of 48, this much I know/have recently learnt about developing curriculum and assessment.

The English Baccalaureate Certificate proposals have driven me to be centrally involved in the Headteachers’ Roundtable initiative; the experience has been both inspiring and dispiriting. It has been inspiring to play a part in something which may help improve the educational futures of our country’s children; it has been dispiriting to realise first-hand how politics trumps what’s right for students every time. http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/nov/28/ebc-opposition-movement-english-baccalaureate

Sir Mike Tomlinson is an expert on curriculum change. I was lucky enough to meet with him for a few hours during the half-term holiday. He’s quite clear where you begin with curriculum change – what you want students to know and understand and the skills you want the students to develop. Then you design the curriculum so that it correlates with the outcomes for students you have identified, and finally you decide upon the appropriate mode of assessment so that you can know how far the students have developed the knowledge, understanding and skills you identified at the outset.

Sir Mike Tomlinson’s words were the clearest common sense you can imagine, so why has the DfE begun a consultation on the KS4 curriculum with, essentially, the assessment procedures? If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. And how can we begin to shape the KS4 curriculum if we do not know what the new KS3 curriculum looks like?

Make the content of the curriculum more challenging if you want to raise standards; the blanket imposition of three-hour terminal examinations doesn’t raise standards, it just places huge emphasis upon memory skills.

This debate about the curriculum and assessment is complex. I cannot disagree with Liz Truss’ statements about calculators in primary schools. There are some fundamental skills in mathematics which have been undermined by technology; the rudimentary mathematical skills and the times tables need no technological support. However, calculators are not dictionaries, so what on earth is the point of banning dictionaries, scientific calculators and periodic tables in examinations in secondary schools?

The world of nudge politics is a dangerous place. It’s like the opposite of the Lorenz (Butterfly) Effect. Instead of the butterfly flapping its wings and then huge events happen sometime after, the DfE makes major announcements which result in changes in practice in schools at all levels. If the EBC proposals go through, and the main accountability measure is the school’s EBC figure, then the future of all non-EBC subjects is imperilled; it is disingenuous of anyone to deny that claim. I try to lead a values-driven school, but come March 2013 the only subjects allowed to offer after school revision sessions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are English and mathematics – a butterfly wing-flap policy response to the current main accountability measure for secondary schools. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/nov/02/arts-leaders-concerns-ebacc-schools)

How does the (Extended) Project Qualification find a place in EBC world? This year twenty-four of our Year 9s gained 22 A* grades and 2 A grades in the Project Qualification; their work was some of the best I have ever seen.

The American entrepreneur Bob Compton poses us challenges about the future of education in the West (http://www.2mm.typepad.com/). I share his belief that we need a challenging curriculum if we are going to compete with the BRIC countries; for instance, recently I was disheartened to learn, as Bob Compton would have been, that Chi Squared analysis no longer features in A level mathematics and is now taught at undergraduate level. However, Compton also understands that we have to enrich our curriculum with explicit opportunities for students to develop their creative skills. His presentation, The 21st Century Curriculum is provocative (uk—21st-century-curriculum). What we have to learn from Bob Compton is that we cannot look backwards, the clear direction of the EBC proposals. As Ian McNeilly said in yesterday’s TES, It’s fantastic that Mr Gove has acknowledged that English as a subject needs to move into a different century. Unfortunately for all concerned, he has chosen the 19th rather than the 21st.

The Knowledge vs. Creativity dichotomy is a false one – they feed each other. As Einstein so famously said, Imagination is more important than knowledge. It’s a matter of balance.

The history of our understanding of the structure of the atom is a perfect example of why our scientific knowledge depends upon our imagination. I learnt this recently when I was supporting in a Physics lesson. All we have is a certain amount of evidence, accumulated over 2,400 years since Democritus first named the atom (from the Greek atomos, which means uncuttable or indivisible), and we have imagined a theory of the structure of the atom which fits with the evidence of atomic structure as it exists now. We don’t actually know for certain how an atom is structured.

The Chinese want what we have. Zhejiang is a wealthy Chinese province south of Shanghai with a problem: its rote-learning centred education system does not cultivate students who can think creatively. It means that the boardrooms of the rich western companies based in Zhejiang are devoid of Chinese nationals. After extensive R&D across Europe the Zhejiang Provincial government chose to forge links with secondary schools in a district of Denmark and our very own York. On Thursday I signed a five year memorandum of cooperation with Mr Jin Yurong, the Principal ofJiaxing No.4 Middle School (http://www.jx4hs.cn/2009/default.aspx) to develop a range of links which goes beyond student exchanges to pedagogic professional development. Their web-site proudly proclaims that they, Pay special attention to research related to educational policy-making, reform, and innovation. In 2005, our school’s teachers published more than 80 papers, including three provincial level topics and two city level topics. And they have chosen UK schools as a source of inspiration for their future developments.

Our Chinese visitors found two features of our schools in York especially striking: firstly, that our children were evidently very happy – understandable that they should note that, considering the high levels of teenage suicide in China; secondly, that our children asked questions – to ask questions of teachers in a Chinese school would be to undermine the authority of the teacher.

If the Chinese want what we have in our schools why are we heading towards an assessment system which will inevitably see us begin to replicate the pedagogic practices in their schools? Our creative instincts are what have kept us at the forefront of innovation as a nation for many centuries – we would be utterly foolish to threaten them with poorly designed DfE policy.

We develop explicitly Guy Claxton’s Big 8 aptitudes in our students throughout Key Stage 3: Courage, Curiosity, Discipline, Experimentation, Exploration, Imagination, Sociability and Thoughtfulness. This week I was discussing with Sam, one of our Year 7 boys, his quilt work in Textiles and I asked him what he had learnt most from the project. He answered, with a rueful grin, Discipline, just never give up! When I asked Mr Littlewood if I had to stitch round the green sections on my patchwork and he said I did, I just had to get on with it.

As Sam says, we must never give up. In a week when it would have been very easy to let my first-hand experience of political cynicism cultivate that inner-germ of cynicism in me – an inner-germ which I think we all have – I was reminded of Billy Bragg’s reflections on cynicism: the biggest enemy of making the world a better place is actually not capitalism or conservatism, but our own cynicism. It’s always good to hear a bit of Billy when the imperative for educational reform is political ideology, not our children’s futures…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9_l25WQZn0

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
This entry was posted in General educational issues. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to This much I know/have recently learnt about…developing curriculum and assessment

  1. behrfacts says:

    Excellent post and glad that you have Mike Tomlinson on board with Headteacher’s Roundtable. Huge amount of respect for him.

  2. Marius Frank says:

    Thank you, John. It is so interesting to learn about your links with China. At a time when ASDAN’s personal development qualifications will not count in England, we are seeing significant growth in China, for all the reasons you have given. We look forward to supporting the work of the Heads’ Round Table as much as we possibly can. Best wishes, Marius Frank CEO ASDAN Education

  3. Pingback: The Key Stage 4 Curriculum | Mr Lock's Weblog

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