Radical changes in classroom practice using a well-tried US system could raise standards, argues Colin Weatherley
BACK IN 1992, Gilboa-Conesville school in New York State was an archetypal "failing school" - bottom of the examination league tables, with widespread truancy, drug-taking and vandalism.
Staff and community morale were at rock-bottom, and English teacher Peter Fox had become so disillusioned that he was contemplating early retirement.
But by chance Peter was offered a week's training in a teaching programme called Education By Design (EBD). When he returned to school he was, in his own words, "a new man again" and with the support of the school principal he began to make radical changes to his classroom practice.
Peter's efforts were so successful that several of his colleagues decided to undertake EBD training the following year. Within four years most of the teaching staff had followed suit, and the school had regained the confidence and active support of the local community.
By 1997 student achievement and behaviour had improved so dramatically that Gilboa was selected by the prestigious Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development to feature in its video programme The Brain and Learning, as an outstanding example of the application of brain-based principles of learning to improve classroom teaching and whole-school management.
In April last year, Peter and his wife Jane gave a highly successful seminar in Edinburgh which prompted numerous requests for EBD training to be initiated in Scotland.
Edinburgh education department responded by collaborating with CBI Scotland and Clydesdale Bank, whose sponsorship has enabled a team of EBD trainers to be brought over from New York to run two training workshops, from February 17-19 and 22-24.
The same organisations are co-hosting a seminar on February 21 which will address the whole issue of preparing young people for life and work in "the knowledge society".
Titled "The Business of Education", it will feature contributions from Children and Education Minister Sam Galbraith, Andrew Cubie (chair of the recent inquiry into student finance), Lesley James of the Royal Society of Arts, and Bruce Bonney, leader of EBD training in New York.
The CBI Scotland is particularly interested in EBD because it is the product of a highly effective educationbusiness partnership in New Hampshire. It was originally called the "Critical Skills Program" because of its emphasis on helping all students to develop effective life and work skils through the mainstream curriculum.
The partnership started in 1981, largely through the efforts of high school teacher Peter Eppig, who persuaded members of New Hampshire's education and business communities to set up a "corporate council for critical skills" which identified three key questions:
What skills are vitally important for students to have by the time they leave school in order to be successful in their lives?
What skills are currently lacking in the workforce that impede individual and organisational success?
What would a classroom be like that gave conscious and purposeful attention to the development of these skills?
The council then sponsored a group of teachers to develop a comprehensive teaching programme which addressed these questions in a highly innovative and practical way.
Critical skills soon proved extremely popular, and began to spread rapidly throughout New Hampshire and into the neighbouring states of Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. From the early 1990s recent discoveries about the brain and learning were incorporated into the programme and in 1996, in recognition of its widening scope, it was retitled "Education by Design".
The in-service presenter Chris Dickinson has recently described EBD as "by some way the most impressive and comprehensive teaching programme that I have seen. In my view, proper investment in EBD training would be a highly effective way of promoting long-term improvements to learning and teaching."
But now for a note of caution. Popular and effective though Education by Design has proved to be in the north-eastern United States, it is certainly not a quick-fix solution to the problem of raising standards in schools.
Learning to teach the complete programme involves intensive training workshops interspersed with in-school peer coaching over several years. And most of the training is provided by practising classroom teachers - as the EBD motto puts it, "Teachers teaching teachers".
Therefore if Scottish schools and businesses also wish to benefit from using EBD, sufficient numbers of teachers will need to be trained to the highest level to enable the country to become self-sufficient in terms of training by, say, 2005.
The cost of such a training programme would undoubtedly be substantial but the evidence strongly suggests that the benefits to Scottish education would be even more so.
Colin Weatherley is an educational consultant currently working on the EBD project. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org