Ditch targets and tables in favour of first principles

21st September 2007 at 01:00
If you want to make a teacher feel uneasy, just utter the word "target". Instantly, he or she will start fretting about Faisal, age 11, for whom a level 3 in his Sats would be a great result, or 16-year-old Beth, who has turned herself around this year but may only get a D at GCSE. Government targets are not helping these children or their teachers.

Crude targets tend to narrow the curriculum by focusing on specific, easily measurable outcomes. They don't take account of some of the most important aspects of education. Perhaps we can now replace them with something better?

Gordon Brown has promised to radically cut the number of targets set by Whitehall. Instead, local councils will set their own performance objectives and be held answerable to their communities. Let us imagine these local objectives can be much broader, more interesting and more intellectually challenging than those cooked up by the old guard.

How about focusing on evidence- informed principles about teaching and learning, and working with the profession to develop expert judgment on how these principles should be interpreted to meet the needs and circumstances of learners? This would be far more beneficial to children, far more interesting for teachers and make a much stronger contribution to a lasting improvement of standards.

The Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) has developed 10 evidence informed principles of effective teaching and learning that have emerged from the work of practitioners and researchers across the UK. The 10 principles say effective teaching and learning should: (1) equip learners for life, in its broadest sense; (2) engage with valued forms of knowledge; (3) recognise the importance of prior experience and learning; (4) require the teacher to "scaffold" learning (support pupils as they move forward); (5) make assessment congruent with learning; (6) promote the active engagement of the learner; (7) foster both individual and social processes and outcomes; (8) recognise the significance of informal learning; (9) depend on teacher learning; and (10) demand consistent policy frameworks, with support for teaching and learning as their main focus.

The principles are interlinked and complementary. They acknowledge the importance both of knowledge the big ideas, facts and narratives of individual subjects and the process of learning. They recognise the connection between what happens in school and in children's lives outside.

The principles demand consistency. Assessment and learning need to be aligned. Assessment should not dictate what pupils learn but should help them progress and measure their attainments.

The principles hold central and local governments and school leaders responsible for promoting learning. If effective teaching and learning are schools' core functions, (and what else could they be?), they should be at the heart of policy. And policy should not chop and change every year or two.

Crucially, the principles highlight the relationship between teachers' professional development and the development of the children they teach. This has been one of our projects' most consistent findings. Teachers need to keep updating their subject knowledge, their understanding of how children learn and their teaching skills and governments and schools should be accountable for ensuring that they do.

These principles have been formulated with great care, and have prompted so much interest among schools and policymakers that this term we are sending a poster, DVD and teachers' guide to every UK school.

Ministers say they want more innovation, but TLRP researchers have found teachers' willingness to experiment has been inhibited by a climate of targets and league tables. Evidence-informed principles would give them the support and encouragement they need to help Faisal and Beth become successful lifelong learners.

* www.tlrp.org

Andrew Pollard is director of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme and professor of education at the Institute of Education, London University

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