Dispatches from the very frontline of CfE
Week by week, does your newspaper challenge you and really get you thinking? I think The TESS passes this test with flying colours, and your report last week about the research on the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence at Monifieth High was a prime example. It certainly got me thinking, and I lead the school.
Entirely acceptably within the norms of journalism, you used a single paragraph within the very detailed report from Stirling University to continue an important debate that has been running in the newspaper on pedagogy. This topic has been served by some outstanding articles in recent weeks (for example, Don Skinner's "Let the Four Modes Lead our Way Forward", November 26).
What your report did not give, however, was a full account of the research on CfE implementation at Monifieth, undertaken by Stirling University. This is one of the first studies of CfE implementation within a single school and is therefore highly significant. Along with 20-plus other schools, Monifieth High is part of the Scottish Government's early adopters excellence group. The fact that we are a year further down the line than most schools means that real lessons can be learnt.
The conclusions drawn by Dr Eric Easton and Dr Mark Priestley, the report's authors, are therefore relevant for schools throughout Scotland. The question they ask is: what will really help us all as we move forward? The study identifies at least five key features of successful implementation:
1. Strong facilitative leadership, providing a clear vision and adequate space for dialogue. The report talks in detail about the senior management team being confident and having a clear view of CfE. We "kick-started" change, but then "trusted and empowered" teachers to plan and deliver.
2. Professional dialogue. Researchers were highly impressed with the fact that "it is now socially acceptable to have discussions about learning and teaching in the staffroom". Most of our CPD is in-house, with teachers learning from colleagues. Not infrequently, after a twilight CPD session has finished at 5pm, I've found colleagues talking about pedagogy in the car park.
3. Critical acceptance of CfE. There has been a growing culture of innovation in our school for a decade or more, and this has undoubtedly helped our approach to CfE. Researchers found that staff have internalised CfE's aims, values and rationale, and are "confident" and "empowered". They go on to say: "A number of teachers remarked that the much-criticised vagueness of the outcomes and experiences were an advantage in planning cross-curricular work; the vagueness gave them permission to be expansive and flexible in their planning and pedagogy."
4. Management for creativity. I oversaw the 2003 Creativity in Education report and chaired the subsequent Scottish Executive task group on creativity, so you would expect me to believe that it is fundamental to CfE. The Stirling report emphasises how important it is that teachers should have their creativity "unleashed", and "valued by management, colleagues and pupils".
5. Networking. As we move towards more autonomy for schools, I believe one of the most pressing questions facing Scottish education strategists is how we develop the whole school system into a true learning system, where each part interacts with and learns from the others. Interestingly, the Stirling researchers stress the importance of school networks. They say: "It is our view that Monifieth could take the lead in developing similar support networks in Scotland." Many innovative schools, including ourselves, already do this.
Your report goes further than the research evidence, I am afraid. The Stirling University researchers do not say that "cross-curricular working . could be putting less able pupils at a disadvantage because of the inherently more hands-off nature of the teaching involved".
For a start, there is no automatic link between any one learning and teaching style, and cross-curricular working. Indeed, for inter- disciplinary learning and for subject-specific learning alike, we must have a wide range of pedagogies. What the Stirling report actually says is: "The impact of new pedagogies, including cross-curricular working on the educationally disadvantaged, requires substantial research effort." We agree.
But what do our young people say about our implementation of CfE? The research is fairly brief but it has fascinating things to say about:
- Breadth. Inter-disciplinary learning is certainly popular and motivational among our young people, who told researchers that they liked the breadth of perspective it gives. They saw the links clearly and appreciated being able to refer back to "previous lessons taken in other subjects" which they drew on in order "to help them in the immediate lesson".
- Depth. "Most participants agreed that they learnt more effectively when they worked across subjects." This helped them learn "more and better because the same ideas keep coming up in different lessons and in different settings and teachers can go over things in a different way."
- Inclusion. Pupils were clear that different teachers use different teaching styles. "They recognised that they sometimes learn better from one teacher than another, so it is better to have a range of teachers for each topic."
The final point takes me back to the stimulus that your report gave me for writing this article. Does the Stirling University research on Monifieth say - as your headline suggested - that a "New hands-off approach hinders less able"? No, it does not.
But should we be constantly asking if the approaches we are selecting for particular units of work within Curriculum for Excellence are benefiting all our pupils? Absolutely. And this excellent study from Stirling University provides useful ideas for schools and our benchmark for the future.
Richard Coton is head of Monifieth High.