Don't snuff out the embers

11th June 2004 at 01:00
The drive to raise standards of teaching and learning threatens to extinguish the creative spark, writes Kathryn Ecclestone

Millions of pounds of public money are being spent on identifying "best practice" in post-16 teaching and disseminating it through the Department for Education and Skills' post-16 standards unit. Meanwhile, millions more are being poured into the inspections which produce the "evidence" about good practice, and yet more millions are going into college development projects run by the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Some pound;12 million will be spent on research projects to address various aspects of post-16 teaching and learning in the Economic and Social Science Research Council's pound;27m Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), which ends in 2008.

With all this attention, it's no wonder that the Government has high expectations that the post-16 sector can make significant improvements.

But despite a commitment to this goal, there is a profound tension at its heart: without a clear theory or vision of learning - and therefore of teaching - the jargon of "delivering best practice" and "identifying what works" not only does damage to the English language but also deadens our thinking about the qualities, skills and achievements of good teachers.

It reduces good teaching to mundane, everyday techniques that we could all identify without these millions of pounds and mountains of research evidence. Also, by joining teaching and learning in one apparently simple phrase, it also assumes that good teaching leads to learning.

Without a sound theory of the complex factors that affect the quality of teaching and learning, policy-makers rely mainly on evidence and ideas from inspections. So much so that teaching, learning and achievement, better inspection grades and evidence of best practice become one and the same thing.

From this narrow perspective, policy-makers and other agencies working to the same agenda can increase the number of high inspection grades in colleges, and government can say that standards of post-16 teaching and learning are rising.

While coaching students to perform to assessment criteria to get good grades appears to raise achievement, it also produces conformity, low-risk strategies and compliance with the criteria. If a top-down, conforming model comes to dominate the thinking of consultants, researchers and inspectors, energy and creativity become problematic.

These risks were highlighted by Sir Ken Robinson, chair of a government inquiry into creativity, education and the economy. In an inspiring speech to the DfES post-16 teaching and learning conference last year, he warned that once "standards" become "standardisation", creativity in learning goes out of the window.

Yet it is common to hear college staff talk about their "grade one", "grade 5" or their "failing" colleagues. In a compliance model of best practice, such labels are likely to produce the same depressing effects on motivation and learning as does labelling school pupils with national curriculum test levels.

Sir Ken argued that categories, standardisation and grades all extinguish individual creativity - and sometimes permanently. When eight-year-olds lower their aspirations by resigning themselves to being a "level zero" in national tests, the warning bells should be deafening us in the post-compulsory system.

The irony here is that researchers, consultants, inspectors and policy-makers working to improve the quality of teaching and learning often strive to be creative in their own learning.

Building trust, dialogue and relationships, and identifying and solving problems collaboratively is central to the day-to-day learning that goes on in the DfES unit's pilot projects, the TLRP's research projects, the action research projects sponsored by the LSDA and the professional development courses run by universities. Very rarely does creative learning come from top-down dissemination of "evidence".

Roadshows, conferences and glossy files of subject materials often have good ideas for improving practice, but they depend on a belief that transmitting convincing evidence will win hearts and minds. This is expensive, and those on the receiving end do not help to create the evidence or define the problems.

There is already a great deal of evidence from schools which suggests that guidance soon becomes the practice to which teachers believe they must conform. Further support for creativity and engagement with research comes from the projects in the TLRP which offer a rich picture of teaching, learning and assessment in FE colleges and workplaces.

Such projects show how local expectations and the cultures of colleges, workplaces and their communities, the demands of an official syllabus, the way a course is designed, students' and teachers' previous experiences, and the dynamics of relationships and personalities all combine in subtle and complex ways which affect the quality of teaching.

What works in one class can be a disaster in another. Implementing a policy initiative at local level can support the best intentions of teachers and managers in some organisations, but could do great damage in others.

The ways researchers help teachers and trainers to change their practice are as important as the findings from projects. Indeed, improving teaching and learning often depends on getting inside organisational and professional cultures and working with them at local level.

Researchers in the TLRP try to involve participants in projects - for instance, policy-makers and a wider audience of teachers in exploring practice and policy, and in connecting these to the culture of their own students, courses and institutions. In that way, teachers and managers can generate their own solutions to local problems which affect the quality of teaching and learning.

One idea being trialled in the TLRP is collaborative, problem-solving seminars between policy-makers, civil servants, practitioners and researchers. But political pressure for rapid results in meeting targets for improvement makes problem-solving and creativity at political and local levels slow and expensive. It also makes it hard for policy-makers to consider research evidence when it contradicts political goals or when it shows that policy has negative effects.

Despite these barriers, if we want commitment rather than mere compliance, then a creative approach to improving teaching and learning depends on acknowledging these tensions and working collaboratively and openly to address them.

Sir Ken told last year's DfES conference that humans are driven by a fundamental need to be creative, to find solutions to problems they care about, and to resist "standardisation". Since so many researchers, consultants, inspectors and policy-makers have the privilege to indulge these creative drives in their own working lives, we would do well to encourage this principle further afield.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Exeter and an associate director in the ESRC's teaching and learning programmesee www.tlrp.org. The website offers listings of projects and regular newsletters about post-compulsory education

A SHORT GUIDE TO CURRENT RESEARCH AND POLICY INITIATIVES

Post-16 and further education

Transforming learning cultures in further education (2001-5); contact Professor Phil Hodkinson, email: p.m.hodkinson@leeds.ac.uk

* Using research to enhance professionalism in further education (2001-2006); contact Mark Goodrham; email: markgoodrham@hotmail.com

* Learning in community-based further education (2003-5); contact Professor Jim Gallacher; email: jwga@gcal.ac.uk

* Literacies for learning in further education (2003-6); contact Professor Roz Ivanic; email: r.ivanic@lancs.ac.uk

Policy, learning and inclusion in the learning and skills system (2003-6); contact Professor Frank Coffield; email: f.j.coffield@ncl.ac.uk

Higher education

The effectiveness of problem-based learning in promoting evidence-based practice (2000-3); contact Mark Newman, email: m.newman@nw.mdx.ac.uk)

* Enhancing teaching-learning environments in undergraduate courses (2001-4); contact Professor Dai Hounsell, email: dai.hounsell@ed.ac.uk)

* Social and organisational mediation of university learning (2004-7); contact Professor John Brennan; email: j.i.brennan@open.ac.uk)

* Disabled students' learning in higher education (2004-7); contact Professor Mary Fuller; email: mfuller@glos.ac.uk)

* Learning to perform: instrumentalists and instrumental teachers (2004-7); contact Dr Janet Mills; email jmills@rcm.ac.uk) Workplace learning

Improving incentives to learning in the workplace (2000-3); contact Professor Helen Rainbird, email: helen.rainbird@northampton.ac.uk

* Learning as work: teaching and learning in contemporary organisations (2003-7); contact Dr Alan Felstead; email: alan.felstead@le.ac.uk

* Understanding the system: techno-mathematical literacies in the workplace (2003-7); contact Professor Celia Hoyles; email: c.hoyles@ioe.ac.uk

* Enhancing Skills for Life: adult basic skills and workplace learning (2003-7; contact Professor Alison Wolf; email: a.wolf@ioe.ac.uk

Continuing professional development LESS THAN Learning during the first three years of post-graduate employment (2001-4); contact Professor Michael Eraut; email: m.eraut@sussex.ac.uk

* Competence-based learning in the early professional development of teachers(2003-7); contact Professor Jim McNally; email: j.g.mcnally@stir.ac.uk

* Vicarious learning and teaching of clinical reasoning skills (2004-6); contact Dr Richard Cox; email: richc@cogs.sussex.ac.uk

* Learning in and for inter-agency working (2004-7; contact Professor Harry Daniels; email: h.r.j.daniels@bham.ac.uk

Lifelong learning

Learning lives: learning, identity and agency in the life course (2003-7; contact Professor Gert Biesta; email: g.biesta@ex.ac.uk

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