The big picture is coming into focus

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Given the resources Scotland can take a lead in weaving the threads of learning, says Brian Boyd

If you were working in a Scottish school at the present time you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in Scotland was in possession of the "big picture". Indeed, you might find yourself out at courses or conferences within a relatively short period of time on better behaviour, better learning; assessment is for learning; thinking skills; citizenship; or enterprise education. Add to this list inclusion, early intervention and - before we have even considered 5-14, Standard grade or National Qualifications - we are in double figures. Factor in additional support needs and literacy and numeracy and we have reached overload.

However, the most frustrating aspect of this phenomenon is that many of these initiatives are based on a relatively small number of key principles.

What is lacking is any overview, any road map or any real attempt to weave the various strands into a tapestry of learning.

The time is right to look at some of the key ideas that should underpin what we do in Scotland, from pre-school to adult education. Reuven Feuerstein, speaking at a Tapestry conference in Glasgow in January, challenged the audience to consider the findings of his work which began with survivors of the Holocaust immediately after the Second World War.

His key message was that no child is incapable of learning successfully, nor is any adult, and there should be no blame attached to any learner because they have been unable to grasp a concept at a specific time.

Therefore, any idea of "intelligence" which suggests that it is fixed, predictable and determined by the genes, is untenable. "The chromosome does not have the last word" was Feuerstein's most challenging claim.

Howard Gardner, speaking in 2003 at another Tapestry conference, was similarly scathing about IQ as a concept and the damage it has done to people's life chances throughout the generations. He sees his eight intelligences as "entry points" into the learning process. All learners can be helped to reach understanding if we can find the correct entry point.

Carla Hannaford, at the same conference, reminded us that the body and the brain are inextricably linked. She led 1,000 primary school pupils in a series of brain gym exercises. Following on from that, Nigel Osborne demonstrated the huge potential music has to unlock the creativity inside every human being.

So where does this leave our Scottish initiatives? Clearly, we are on the right lines. All we need to do is to identify the unifying principles.

First, we need to recast the policy on discipline; it should be "Better Learning, Better Behaviour". Just as Alan McLean in his recent book The Motivated School has warned against woolly thinking on self-esteem and motivation, Feuerstein also reminded us that we need to start with the "cognitive" and the "affective" will develop.

In other words, the more our interventions with learners are successful in helping them to "learn how to learn" (metacognition), the more they will become motivated and positive about not just learning but about their interaction with other people.

Second, we need to tease out the key principles which will ensure that young people are thoughtful learners, creative, entrepreneurial and collaborative, with the values that will help them to make a positive contribution to society. These include learning how to learn, building on brain-based learning, thinking skills strategies and specific techniques such as mind mapping; self and peer assessment, based on clear understanding of the goals of the learning task and the criteria for success; collaborative learning, including working in teams, sharing insights and recognising the contributions of others.

Third, we need to look critically at practices that are based on myth or on commonsense views of human development. Setting by prior attainment is not simply morally dubious, it is based on the mistaken assumption that any single test of prior learning can be predictive of future success. If intelligence or the ability to learn is fluid, flexible and "plastic", to use Feuerstein's term, then anything that places a limitation on what they can achieve is highly questionable.

The challenge is to find the best interventions for the learners, not to segregate those who appear to have learning difficulties, and whose behaviour may be challenging as a result, in a bottom set. We only have to look at the number of people who "failed" at school but who go on later to succeed. We would not need Learndirect Scotland or even the Open University, if it were.

If we start from these principles, other things become clearer. The role of ICT must be assessed on the basis of the contribution it makes to the learning to learn process. Cultural co-ordinators, health co-ordinators, behaviour co-ordinators, classroom assistants, discipline tsars, and so on, need to ask themselves how their contributions assist in the process of helping all young people become effective learners. In the same way, "alternative curricula" or alternatives to exclusion, or even vocational initiatives, cannot result in any young person being excluded from learning; quite the reverse.

There is a strong argument that if eight Standard grades (a purely arbitrary number anyway, devised by timetablers to raise schools' position in the league tables) are too much for some pupils, then the time freed should be focused on supporting their learning in creative and structured ways.

Similarly, if early intervention programmes in some parts of the country appear to be raising attainment generally but actually widening the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children, we need to review the ways in which we are intervening in their learning. It may be that the best way to improve literacy and numeracy is not through standard language and number schemes.

We have an opportunity to look at the basic principles that should underpin the curriculum in the light of the knowledge we now have about learning, backed by a well-resourced and well-planned programme of continuing professional development across the whole of Scotland. There are no quick fixes in education and we need a five-year or even a 10-year plan - and not "within existing resources".

Tony Buzan, a regular visitor to Scotland and adviser to Tapestry, often says that Scotland is one of only a handful of countries in the world at the present time which is aware of the importance of teaching young people to learn how to learn, not simply to learn what to learn. Let's hope we can live up to his claim.

Brian Boyd is reader in education at Strathclyde University.

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