Cutting loose from the dogma

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Brian Boyd and Kevin Logan argue that teachers must learn to think for themselves.

Is it too optimistic to claim that in Scotland there now seems to be a resurgence of interest in learning and teaching in schools? For a decade or more we have had a cult of managerialism (audits, plans, systems, performance indicators, quality pointers, and the rest) derived from a business-led movement towards "efficiency" as a way of making school better. Now, as some of the gurus of that movement, notably Charles Handy (The Empty Raincoat, 1995) seem to be recanting, people have re-emerged as the key players in the process, and the focus is shifting to questions of how children learn, the role of the teacher and even the notion of the "learning school".

Evidence for this shift is not difficult to find. In recent months the General Teaching Council has mounted a national conference on learning and teaching at which Professor Sally Brown of Stirling University argued for an increased focus on the classroom if we want to make schools better. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum has published a draft document entitled Teaching for Effective Learning which looks at theory, research and practice and seeks to inform the debate in schools. And Highland Council has over the past two years pioneered a staff development course for teachers across the sectors entitled "Effective learning and teaching from a thinking skills perspective". All of this activity takes place against the backdrop of a national debate on education which is beginning to look like an attack on the comprehensive school.

New Labour is looking, according to Professor Michael Barber, one of its advisers, at new forms of selection, while David Blunkett has recently sought to distance the party from mixed-ability teaching. The New Right continues to promote private education and a return to grammar schools. Closer to home, it has been argued that in mathematics mixed-ability teaching is the primary cause of falling standards as revealed by the Assessment of Achievement Programme If we are to avoid the arid, polemical Black Paper-style debate of the 1960s and 1970s, it is important that discussion is informed and measured. Commonsense, atheoretical assumptions about "ability" and "intelligence" need to be challenged, as do the nature of subjects and the methodologies which have become associated with them. Styles of learning and teaching have changed in response to the challenge of comprehensive schooling and mixed ability classes, and not necessarily always for the better, but the comprehensive ideal remains worthy of debate.

Offering all young people the permanent availability of success as learners without the labelling effect of junior or senior secondary remains at the heart of the comprehensive school. Expectations have been shown as having a key role in raising or lowering achievement, and the labelling on which our educational system seems so fixated, often reduced to a single letter, and with a specious sense of progression (A,B,C . . .), may be a powerful demotivator. Perhaps one way of raising the level of the debate is to create a climate where the teacher as a reflective professional is seen as having an important contribution to make. This might involve more time for teachers to engage with educational research (and to submit it to a rigorous critique); to discuss learning and teaching as it affects their pupils; and, more radically, to re-engage with theory.

If we were to go to our GP and discover that they had qualified 25 years ago, that they had not kept up to date with medical research and had no training in new procedures, we might change our doctor. And yet for many teachers, there has been little incentive to do these things, or indeed, to think. Thus while successive generations of students learn of Piaget, engage with the theories of Vygotsky and are challenged by Bloom, Bruner and the rest, teachers in schools are only asked to consider the "how to?" questions.

In 1991, a group of teachers working in Highland schools came together through their interest in "thinking skills" and philosophical enquiry. Out of that common interest there grew a feeling that a staff development course for teachers might help spread the ideas of Scottish educators (such as Nisbet and Entwhistle on metacognition) and of international writers on thinking skills (such as De Bono, Lipman and Feuerstein). More importantly, there would have to be an emphasis on effective learning and teaching, on the Scottish educational tradition and on the issues which were later encapsulated in the phrase "an ethos of achievement" (Report on the Education of Able Pupils, HMI 1993).

The course was written in 1993-94 by staff from the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University and Highland Council and emerged as eight units covering theories of learning and teaching, thinking skills, the nature of subjects, values in education and, as a starting point, the Scottish educational tradition. While there was an unapologetic attempt to engage with these "big ideas", the context for the course was the present curriculum. The 5-14 guidelines abound in references to "thinking" and the importance of strategies and contexts for developing thinking skills in pupils. The first aim of 5-14 mathematics notably is to enable pupils to engage with the nature and purpose of maths. And yet, up and down the country, teachers are weighed down by a curriculum which as they see it they have to get through. There seems, to many of them, little time for thought.

Vygotsky has argued that "the thinking child is the social child" and thinking skills as a movement, while not a panacea, challenges teachers to thinking about learning, to reject outmoded notions of "ability" and "intelligence" and to look at the "affective domain": the hard edge to an "ethos of achievement" which is predicated on the assumption that all children can learn successfully.

Similarly, the Highland CouncilStrathclyde University course, now in its second year, had a mode of delivery where groups of staff from across the curriculum, met once per month to discuss a briefing paper (with associated reading). This was supported by three seminars throughout the year, and there was a course text. Those seeking accreditation for the equivalent of a double module submitted two substantial pieces of work (essay, portfolio or small-scale research), while others did the course out of a sense of professional development.

The process of developing the Highland experience into a full certificate in learning and teaching, validated through the Strathclyde University's education faculty, is under way. A national one-day conference will take place on May 28 as part of the Quality in Education summer series of conferences. All of this is in the belief that teachers must be once again at the heart of the educational process. They must reassert their professionalism and, as reflective professionals, take a leading role in the educational debate if the ideologues are not to triumph.

This year sees the 10th anniversary of the 10-14 report which argued for autonomy within guidelines for teachers. It also reminded us that the classroom crackles with subliminal signals. An informed and reflective profession will consider the facts and the theories and must, if the interests of the learners are to be served, avoid dogma in the pursuit of effective learning and teaching.

Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University. Kevin Logan is assistant principal teacher of mathematics, Millburn Academy, Inverness. They will address a QIE conference on effective learning and teaching on May 28.

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