New steer from down under

Douglas Blane

Queensland has radically revamped its education system to be more relevant to today's pupils and tomorrow's world. Douglas Blane reports on the lessons

Running a rural education authority that has 25 inhabited islands and a longer coastline than France isn't easy. Modern technology makes a difference, of course, helping to defeat distance and reach remote pupils in Argyll and Bute, but technology is only part of the answer, says Carol Walker, the council's head of pre-school and primary education.

More fundamental is the creation of an open, innovative culture that embraces new ways of thinking about learning, teaching and management, she tells a headteachers' conference in Oban.

"We have made very good progress but we are still near the beginning of our journey. We won't produce masses of paper but we will provide a framework for teachers. It's about getting that balance right."

The theme is echoed by Gabrielle Matters speaking on New Basics, a radical educational initiative in Queensland. With 3 million people living in an area seven times the size of Britain, Australia's sunshine state knows about sparse populations and geographical challenge.

"It's hard to provide a steer from the centre," says the former New Basics director. "If you are too prescriptive, teachers say: 'Don't tell me what to do. I'm a professional.' If you don't give them enough, they say: 'Help us out here.' "

The problems faced by Queensland teachers have a familiar ring: behaviour a major concern; students disaffected with school routine, disengaged from learning and unchallenged by classroom tasks they regard as irrelevant; teachers fatigued by waves of reform. But Education Queensland's response was drastically different from anything yet tried in Scotland.

New Basics is a root and branch reform of education in Years 1 to 9, which was piloted, after a year of teacher planning, in 38 schools from 2001 and a further 21 from 2002. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment were individually and collectively built from the bottom up.

In contrast to the existing, and again very familiar, taxonomic approach of cataloguing skills, processes and knowledge outcomes - which Professor Matters says leads inevitably to a packed curriculum, deskilled teachers and demotivated pupils - New Basics adopted a "reconceptualist" strategy.

"We built the curriculum by asking what the world will be like and how students can be ideally prepared for future economies, cultures and societies," she says.

New Basics swept away the volume and complexity of existing curricular documents, replacing them with a single 41-page booklet. It is a radical and teacher-friendly piece of reform.

Although the same cannot be done in Argyll and Bute, there are valuable lessons in the pedagogy and assessment parts of the programme, says Linda Kirkwood, the headteacher of Oban High, and the co-operative learning and critical skills approaches adopted in some Scottish schools appear to share a lot of New Basics principles: open tasks, children working co-operatively, increased motivation and better learning of skills through real-world projects.

For New Basics, teachers were trained in 20 productive pedagogies, covering students interacting and conversing, using deep knowledge of a subject and making connections with the real world, with teachers setting high expectations, presenting knowledge as problematic and telling a story.

"Narrative is the teaching style that is most influential in improving achievement of under-achievers," says Professor Matters.

New Basics assessment is based on a collection of "rich tasks", multi-disciplinary projects with individual and co-operative components and clear connections to the real world. Students design and make a product, prepare a celebration, read and talk about stories, and explore the history and social aspects of a craft.

"What we found was that it was these rich tasks, rather than the repackaging of the curriculum, that really drove the reforms," says Professor Matters, "particularly through the process of moderation, in which teacher conversations about pedagogy and standards led to real change and cross-fertilisation of ideas.

"All over the world what teachers love most is to share experiences and ideas. So why don't they do more of it?

"Teachers are always busy but not always doing what they're best at. I have never seen teachers so emotionally involved - upset, even - and still coming back for more, as when working on moderation of rich tasks. They wanted so much to do the right thing.

"What that tells me is that it's not a matter of 'Is it too difficult?' or 'Are we too busy?' Teachers will do everything in their power to learn things they think are worthwhile. But if you give them something they think isn't worthwhile, they'll tell you to get stuffed.

"Teachers are very good bullshit detectors."

Our Education Service Learning Culture, Argyll and Bute Council, 2005

New Basics,

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Douglas Blane

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