Excellence or time to change partners?

'Strictly Come Dancing' holds a lesson for those heading Scotland's curriculum review, says Ian Smith

don't watch a lot of television, but the latter stages of Strictly Come Dancing before Christmas had me hooked. It was great entertainment for anyone like me who loves to dance. Sad person that I am, however, I couldn't just enjoy the show and take my work hat off. I had to ask what lessons the show had for education.

My first thought was: are schools not losing out here? Two of the finalists were men. More than five million votes were cast on the last evening of the show. The participants in the final stages, all very successful in their own fields, reported on how the experience had changed their lives and boosted their self-confidence and their self-belief - one of the key pillars of our curriculum review.

Where does that review stand on equal parity for all intelligences in secondary schools? The current hierarchy of subjects in secondary schools has maths and English firmly at the top, dance among the "maybes" near the bottom, and personal and social development nowhere. After our curriculum review, will that remain the same or will we genuinely have a curriculum which values and develops all intelligences?

Those involved in the review might want to visit Belfast. A new curriculum is being developed there which started from a blank sheet of paper with the learner at the centre.

After their curriculum is in place, maths teachers there will still be teaching maths, but they will have to justify what and how they teach, with reference to statements which are not miles away from our own "successful learners", "responsible citizens", "confident individuals" and "effective contributors". Is that how it will work in Scotland?

For me, Strictly Come Dancing was first and foremost a wonderful demonstration of the importance of effort and technique in learning. The three finalists, Zoe Ball, Darren Gough and Colin Jackson, performed brilliantly on the night, but the thing that impressed most was how they had improved throughout the series. All three, who had never danced seriously before, wanted to learn to be all they could be as dancers, and they believed that they could succeed. But they also very badly wanted to win, to be the best.

The judges were part of the entertainment. They played the good-cop, bad-cop routine. They were ludicrously over the top in the way they handed out their plaudits (or "stars") and the audience cheered. They were also vicious at times in the way they handed out criticism (or "wishes") and the studio audience booed.

For the most part, Zoe, Darren and Colin reacted very differently to the criticism. As mastery learners, they did not have an unrealistic view of how they were performing; they accepted criticism and saw it as a means to improvement.

The clips filmed in the dance studio during the weeks of practice, which demonstrated how hard all the participants worked and how they dealt with failure and frustrations, were such an important part of the series. These also demonstrated the part that good instruction and coaching had played in the whole process.

In the end, however, it was clear even to my untutored eye that Colin Jackson and Zoe Ball were better performers on the night than Darren Gough.

Their natural ability was greater than his. They had more of the right "smarts" than him; they were more agile. Their bodies were simply better built for dancing than his. The judges agreed and put Zoe first, Colin second and Darren third.

The public were not having it, though. Darren Gough won. Viewers voted for improvement, not absolute performance and not excellence. The progress all three had made was phenomenal, but Gough outperformed the others on this score.

Some organisations are all about excellence. When you get on a plane, you are not interested in how hard the air traffic controllers are trying that day; you just want them to be good - no mistakes here, please. Schools are not the same kind of organisation.

The framers of A Curriculum for Excellence obviously wanted schools to be places which help all young people to be all they can be, and they articulated that better than we have ever done before.

To achieve that, schools must be places where mistakes are good, where to be wrong, to be stuck, to struggle to learn and to understand is commonplace. They must be allowed to focus more on improvement and less on absolute levels of performance.

Perhaps the name isn't that important, but the remit of the review certainly is. Schools must be enabled to play to the strengths of all pupils. For Scotland's curriculum review to have any real effect on the hierarchy of subjects in secondary schools, it needs to look not only at what is taught and how it is taught, but also at what is examined. In the dance between examinations and the curriculum, there is no doubt who plays the lead.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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