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A smarter way to teach

New technology and new schools can help to transform the nature of the curriculum, says Linda Boyes

THE Scottish Council Foundation believes that transforming school-age educa-tion is a critically important part of creating a nation better equipped to face the future. There is no shortage of "blue skies" analysis at one end of the spectrum; or ideas for incremental reform of the curriculum, conditions in the teaching profession or school infrastructure at the other end. But there appears to be a "hollow middle", with rather fewer "symbolic actions" in evidence, which together might inform a medium-term agenda for systemic change while at the same time being recognisable to those who teach and learn in today's schools.

Education in Scotland, particularly secondary schooling, scores higher on uniformity than pluralism. This is largely a result of preparation for external examinations which, despite reforms over the past 20 years, continue to reinforce a subject-based approach to the curriculum and to place heavy reliance on assessing recall of content. This poses an inherent difficulty in balancing individually tailored approaches with a standardised curriculum.

In our submission to the national debate on education, the foundation's learning network proposed introducing a 5-14 system of schooling aligned to the current curriculum but providing a clear focus for reform. This in effect would end compulsory education at an earlier age, with young people then moving into a different structure which would have more diverse opportunities not restricted by age and stage. In some places all-through schools from 5-14 might achieve this. Elsewhere, a middle school structure could evolve.

An alternative proposition for the 14-plus age group was also put forward: the concept of "active learning accounts" which could be used to give every individual an absolute entitlement of up to four years' education free of charge, two years to be taken immediately and the remainder at a time of the learner's choosing.

The active learning account could fund other kinds of experiences: participation in arts and sports, outdoor education and community volunteering, for example. This approach could help to bring into the mainstream exactly the kind of activities young people say they value and which schools now struggle to support on the periphery of the curriculum.

We believe this approach could secure a greater integration of initial schooling into the fabric of lifelong learning. The concept of "blended learning", developing a more personalised educational experience alongside greater uses of technology, could then be introduced.

Findings from national reports suggest that ICT remains on the periphery of the education system and is not truly integrated into the curriculum. It is being used to accommodate the traditional structure of classes and classrooms, subject teachers and group learning as an alternative medium of delivery to "chalk and talk", by producing existing materials in an online format. In some instances, computers are treated as a subject of study on their own rather than viewing the web as a new source of information and an influence on learning environments in its own right.

Buildings used to deliver educational activities can benefit from technology to create "spaces for learning", offering flexible, adaptable and more participative environments. Through the introduction of the Scottish Executive's new community schools programme, and co-location with other services such as health, family learning and leisure, there is recognition that education cannot address all the barriers to young people's learning alone.

There is also an emerging belief that schools for the future should serve as a centre for the local community. Projects such as School Works, co-ordinated by the Do Tank and the Design Council, demonstrate that smarter design and use of school buildings can raise achievement and support a culture of lifelong learning. More recently, the Executive has announced a package of funds to update Scotland's school buildings focusing on architecture, design and sustainability.

ne promising approach is Cooltown @school, a partnership between the computer company Hewlett- Packard and the Vancouver School District in British Columbia. It is built on a holistic vision and Vancouver has paved the way by redesigning its curriculum and developing new models of teaching. These blend individual, collaborative and group instruction. A fully integrated ICT support structure across Scotland could ease the burden of administration, allow collaboration to take place regardless of location, blur current boundaries between the public and private sectors and between professions.

The rationale for standardised hours of learning is likely to become even less clear. This all implies new models of delivery which will affect funding and governance. But we believe Scotland needs to look forward with confidence rather than making it an act of faith that our education system will manage to meet the needs of current and future citizens. Although capacity to innovate and diversify within the mainstream curriculum has been held in check, important examples of innovation have been achieved.

There is a need to develop the most promising of these to influence education strategy rather than remaining at the edge.

In this way, technology can play an enabling role in promoting learning, as distinct from serving incremental improvements in the current education system.

Linda Boyes is a policy and research manager with the Scottish Council Foundation. This is an extract adapted from its report, "hi-tech and personal", published last week in association with Schlumberger. The full report is available on

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