'Teachers find themselves in a master-servant relationship – teaching follows the test'

When curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are all aligned it can be destructive, writes Kevin Stannard

Kevin Stannard

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Cambridge Assessment has unveiled A Cambridge Approach to Improving Education. The focus is on educational systems, using international case-studies to identify the large number of interacting factors at work in influencing national outcomes. There are some interesting insights in the document, although it tends to wear its learning rather heavily on the difference between "complicated" and "complex".

Complex systems are, well, complex, and initiatives focused on just one factor rarely produce the hoped-for outcomes. Granted. Yet it is possible to invest in good faith in initiatives to address egregious concerns without believing that they will change the world. The straw man approach risks belittling the efforts of those operating below cabinet level.

Concepts that can easily be grasped in the demotic really don’t need to be wrapped in academical garb. Much is made of a diagram of the "cycle of planned failure" – the gist being that if a problem is not fully analysed, the solution will be based on only partial information, and will therefore only partly address the problem, possibly creating unforeseen new issues. An instinctive understanding of the truth of this is surely not limited to those who attended the Third International Conference of Learning at Work, in Milan no less, in 1994.

The big message is that systems are optimal when all the factors are "aligned"; another word used often in the report is "coherence". Effective school systems are not everywhere exactly the same, but all are seen to be characterised by alignment and coherence between, inter alia, curriculum content, pedagogy, assessment and learning resources.

The report has interesting things to say about the various factors contributing to success. But the organising concept of coherence raises unanswered questions about what happens when key components map perfectly on to each other, and whether being in sync always and everywhere leads to felicitous outcomes.

'Exams exert too much power'

Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment can conceivably be aligned in a destructive way. The old Marxist concept of "overdetermination" might have been useful in exploring the extent to which examinations in some school systems exert too strong a power over what and how things are taught. In England, these components are aligned, to be sure, but in a master-servant relationship. Teaching follows the test. The report makes clear that the single most important factor is what goes on in individual classrooms, but it has little to say about how to deal with the downside when examinations exercise remote control of curriculum and pedagogy.

Alignment is also achievable, but surely undesirable, wherever the different components of the system are concentrated in a few hands, in what comes to constitute an oligopoly. When examinations, learning resources and para-educational support are bundled together by one or a few providers, alignment has unfortunate consequences.

Most of us would willingly sign up to an approach that underlines the interconnectedness of things, though it is doubtful whether this illuminating insight emanates exclusively from a single geographical light source. Unlike pork pies or prosecco, A Cambridge Approach cannot claim "Protected Designation of Origin" status.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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Kevin Stannard

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