The case against karaoke
Caroline St John-Brooks finds a must-read for those coping with change
You might think that teachers are too overwhelmed by tick-boxes, coursework and other printed matter to have time to read tomes about educational change. But this one is a must even if you only read the quotes from other teachers.
Try this, in the chapter on standards and outcomes: "It's unbelievable. It's overwhelming is what it is. You look at this policy binderI and you think, 'I will never ever possibly be able to understand this, let alone implement it'." Or: "I don't want to take on any more initiatives. There's just too much going on right now. I've let some things go that we had taken as initiatives."
Both these teachers were in a research sample chosen for their commitment to change, having coped with it effectively, but were not super-individuals. They may be Canadian, but their experience is relevant to British teachers (apart from one of the changes they're grappling with - the integrated curriculum, whereas the trend here, courtesy of Kenneth Baker, has been to revert to old free-standing subjects).
Andy Hargreaves and his colleagues have assembled some telling interviews, and this book, based on the experience and reflections of 29 teachers who successfully integrated new approaches into their teaching, has the texture of real life. Hargreaves will be returning to these shores in January to take up a professorship at the University of Nottingham, after a stint as co-director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the University of Toronto.
Here he identifies a cluster of imperatives which are driving reform in many Anglo-Saxon countries (including Canada and the UK). The features of this "new educational orthodoxy" include: high standards of learning which all students are expected to achieve; centralised curricula; indicators which demonstrate whether the desired outcomes have been achieved; assessments tightly tied to the prescribed curriculum; and accountability focused on the school.
The book doesn't knock this orthodoxy - the authors believe it embodies principles which should improve standards of learning for many pupils, particularly the emphasis on identifiable outcomes. But they point up some real problems, particularly in relation to the curriculum. The new orthodoxy, they suggest, represents a "karaoke curriculum" - in the literal Japanese meaning of "empty box". What is the curriculum which should fill this box, so hedged about with assessments and accountability? The two big risks, they suggest, are the "hurried" curriculum, where children are pushed to cover more and more factual territory, whether or not they've absorbed it and made it their own, and the "clinical" curriculum, which over-emphasises skills and knowledge at the expense of moral and emotional learning and social experience.
Educational change entails a great deal of emotional effort as well as intellectual work, an aspect which is often ignored. Watching the 29 practitioners in action convinces the authors that "standards and outcomes should not be so numerous and detailed that they squeeze out time and discretion for teachers to develop emotional understanding with their students".
As the authors point out: "If change creates difficulties for these teachers or for the relationships that are at the heart of their work, it is likely that these difficulties will be even greater for teachers who are less open to or enthusiastic about the changes described here." This realistic attitude means that the advice in the concluding chapter has the ring of practical good sense.