Evidence must be teaching's touchstone

10th September 2010 at 01:00

In his TESS article, "Our structures are not fit for purpose" (July 30), Keir Bloomer called for an evidence-based approach to the governance of Scottish education via a "full review of the current arrangements and possible options for change".

He was tapping into the general feeling that quangos are not the most useful mechanism for delivering good governance and that more responsive mechanisms are needed. It reminded us that those who contribute to making policy and those charged with ensuring its implementation must do so in ways which empower those who have to deliver at classroom level.

Keir's idea of a think-tank may not be to everyone's liking, but time was when there were national standing committees to give advice. As a young principal teacher of English in the late 1970s, I was a member of the Scottish Central Committee on English, itself part of a larger structure of committees looking at all subjects in the curriculum, as well as primary education and special educational needs.

The membership of these committees comprised many of the kinds of people Keir might want to see in his think-tank: teachers, heads, advisers, academics, parents, representatives from industry and, of course, HMI (as it was then titled). They believed that, provided they consulted the profession, they could be radical, innovative and groundbreaking - and often were.

So, think-tank or central committee? Whatever we call it, what is vital is that the body represents the voices which need to be heard, including pupils', and that policy is based on evidence, not ideology. This may seem reasonable to most TESS readers, but there are two key problems: what is the nature of the evidence in an educational context and, if the evidence conflicts with our prejudices, which takes precedence?

People are called to give "evidence" to parliamentary inquiries but some, if not all, of such evidence may be observations which, despite the experience of the individual, may not have a firm evidence base. For decades, HMIE gave the impression that its "evidence", based on inspections (based, in turn, on its own criteria), trumped the evidence of academic researchers - about the allegedly positive virtues of setting in S1-2, for example.

Often, too, the status of the organisation giving evidence is assumed to lend more weight, whether or not any attempt has been made to survey members' views.

The issue of evidence is crucial to the debate on Curriculum for Excellence. Pedagogy is at the heart of the new curriculum, more so than content of courses or exam formats. But pedagogy itself has come under fire. It has been labelled "trendy" and it has been argued that all we need to raise achievement is to have highly-qualified subject specialists, teaching in the traditional, didactic manner.

This elitist idea ignores the strong body of evidence which underpins Assessment is for Learning. Learning takes place when there is dialogue in the classroom which promotes understanding, when peer and self-assessment are the mainstays of the lessons and when assessment is ongoing, enabling learners to "perform their understanding".

Add to this the emerging evidence to support active learning in the early years and we have a powerful pedagogy on which to base CfE. Pedagogy, allied to high-quality CPD, may well be the key to Curriculum for Excellence - and evidence needs to be the touchstone for what teachers do in their classrooms.

Brian Boyd is emeritus professor of education at Strathclyde University and a member of the ministerial review group which produced Curriculum for Excellence.

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