Fight to the death? Not interested

8th October 2010 at 01:00

I want to give a report from the front line on Curriculum for Excellence. It is necessarily preliminary, since I have only had my new S1 modern studies class for a relatively short time.

On my first morning after the summer holiday, I listened askance at breakfast as Education Secretary Mike Russell assured the radio audience that secondary teachers were "excited" to get started on teaching their new courses. It was almost enough to make me choke on my porridge! Excited was not one of the first words that had come to my mind.

Before I flesh out how it has gone so far, let me assure you I have no agenda to push or axe to grind. Listening to and reading the comments prior to the secondary launch left the impression that most of Scottish education had polarised into two hostile camps: the zealots who saw the changes as revolutionary and the defenders of the ancien regime, manfully attempting to stop the collapse of western civilisation. My guess is that most teachers have little sympathy for either of these positions.

Have I discarded my old course, ritually torching it, and slaved to produce a new, all-singing, all-dancing course that will reach the parts the old course could not reach, in an attempt to prepare these young citizens for our brave new world? I have not. In fact, horror of horrors, I am basically teaching the same course I have taught for the past few years.

No mesmerising inter-disciplinary course? No cool new approach enlisting celebrity culture in order to appeal to my S1 pupils and demonstrate how relevant and in tune the course and I are to the needs of the children? Once again, I have to disappoint. I am old-fashioned enough still to believe, not that there is no place for inter-disciplinary courses, but that subjects still have a crucial role and that content really does matter.

No axe to grind? Do I sound reactionary, stuck in the same old narrow ways from which CfE was meant to liberate Scottish education? Let me share with you just how progressive, or at any rate less conservative, I have become.

I have embraced formative assessment. This is my one big change. Like most teachers, I have used formative assessment for some time. However, this is the first time - after assiduously reading those riveting documents, Building the Curriculum - I have set out to really integrate formative assessment into my course and teaching.

So how has this apparently mundane change enhanced the quality of the children's learning experience? I now believe that, in the past, I was too slavishly chained to the end-of-unit test. The test was sovereign. Come hell or high water, the content had to be delivered before the test and sometimes it crowded out other important objectives. In short, the end-of- topic test too often dictated the pace and determined learning.

I still intend to use my end-of-unit test; and still believe that it performs an important role. However, I have no doubt that our old system was too narrow and restrictive to prepare young people adequately. One of the consequences of formative testing is that I am not covering as much content: I simply don't have enough time. Nevertheless, what I have lost on content coverage I believe has been more than compensated for by a better learning experience. I am persuaded that the quality of the learning experience does matter, not just for its own sake, but because it leads to better learning.

Although I have not changed the activities I use, I am now formally assessing the pupils' listening, thinking, debating, research, verbal presentational and writing skills. The very act of slowing down to assess and share with them my and their own assessment of their work has had a number of benefits. I am more aware of their subject understanding and the skills they have acquired than I was before. Since I have moved away from the end-of-topic test as the only valid measure of success, I believe there are more opportunities for the pupils to improve their learning as we progress through the topic.

My fear that I would be swamped by assessment has not materialised. I have not attempted formally to assess every pupil at every activity. Rather, I have concentrated on building a profile that has given me a more rounded view of each pupil.

It is very early days and any peremptory judgment would be silly. I am acutely aware that what I have reported is not revolutionary, unique or in any way exceptional. Like many colleagues, I am still concerned about a number of issues. Will I be able to report the better understanding I have of each child's progress succinctly and meaningfully to parents? Will what the pupils are learning prepare them for the external exams in later years? Will CfE energise some of our more disaffected pupils? Ultimately, will it do more to prepare young people to lead more fulfilled and successful lives?

We still have a very long way to go before it will be possible to evaluate the success of our latest educational initiative. All I can report at this embryonic stage is that, at the front line, most teachers do not seem to be engaged in revolutionary change. Rather, they appear to be pragmatically working to preserve the best of the old, while innovating in an attempt to give pupils a broader, richer educational experience.

David Halliday teaches in Eyemouth High.

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