Facts get in the way of deeper learning

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Too much emphasis on literacy and numeracy prevents pupils from becoming fully-rounded learners, claims Keir Bloomer

One of the architects of A Curriculum for Excellence fears "successful learning" is muscling out the other three capacities, threatening the chances of fundamental change in the classroom.

"I fear an opportunity has been missed," Keir Bloomer said, having examined the recently-published experiences and outcomes. He is concerned that, for all the rhetoric about a break from prescriptive guidelines, remembering facts still holds sway over deeper learning.

The former Clackmannanshire Council chief executive told a Tapestry Partnership conference in Glasgow last week that the other three capacities ("confident individuals", "responsible citizens" and "effective contributors") were being "largely ignored" and at risk of being "downgraded".

He highlighted the Level 2 literacy outcomes, where the focus was "fairly unremittingly" on things successful learners should be able to do, such as organising notes and identifying the main ideas in a text. The Level 4 numeracy outcomes, with their emphasis on solving problems and accurate calculations, read like a "set of examples of what one might look for in the priming of successful learners".

Mr Bloomer, who was a member of the group which wrote ACfE, still believes Scotland can become the first country to make "the breakthrough to genuine transformative practice", but that the published outcomes do not provide the springboard they should. A "more interesting and transformative set of outcomes would be built on confident individuals", as well as the other two capacities.

The mechanics of traditional curricular mainstays should be less prominent in educational policy, he insists. "Frankly, I despair when I hear politicians banging on about literacy and numeracy," he said. "I am not for a second decrying the importance of literacy and numeracy, but as an educational agenda for the 21st century, it's a trifle unambitious. We have to be in the business of cultivating higher-order skills."

Meanwhile, one of the world's most influential educational gurus told the same gathering that "educated guessing" should be part of every school course.

Children had to be encouraged to "go beyond the information given", said Jerome Bruner, a pioneer of cognitive development and champion of pre- school learning. "I don't care one damn what you teach - it's possible in everything you teach," said the psychology professor, who once headed a scientific advisory board for former United States President John F Kennedy. "Educated guessing is one of the most important things human beings do."

Professor Bruner, 94, brought the house down after a delegate asked how to cut through the bureaucracy stifling his attempts to liberate learning. He said he would need HMIE's views on that one, and asked if anyone from the inspectorate would join him on stage.

A game Mary Ritchie got up, to delighted applause, and told him: "We think the solution is to work together."

There was more noisy acclaim for Professor Bruner's retort: "Working together means a capacity for listening."

Bloomer's taxonomy

Two sets of outcomes where Keir Bloomer sees plenty for "successful learners" to get their heads around - but less scope for responsible citizens, confident individuals and effective contributors.

Literacy outcomes - Level 2

I can -

Select texts which I enjoy and find interesting

Identify the purpose, main ideas and supporting detail in a text

Make and organise notes

Select ideas and relevant information

Respond to literal, inferential, evaluative and other types of questions

Distinguish fact from opinion

Numeracy outcomes - Level 4

I can -

Choose an appropriate level of accuracy for calculations

Solve problems in unfamiliar context

Choose appropriate kinds of fractions and percentages

Use proportion to solve problems

Manage credit and debt and lead a responsible lifestyle

Calculate net income.

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