Ideas are not nearly enough

27th March 2009 at 00:00

Lindsay Paterson's lecture "Curricular Change in Scottish schools", in which he questioned the "fashionable orthodoxy" on which A Curriculum for Excellence is based (TESS, March 6) is the most thought-provoking piece on the subject I've read for a while.

Professor Paterson accurately identifies the beliefs that underpin CfE. These are the importance of students' self-belief; students' need to enjoy learning or see that it has a useful purpose; the harmful effects of students being obsessed with performance; the importance of learning how to learn; the benefits of students monitoring their own learning, and the value of inter-disciplinary projects.

He points out that these ideas are "not without force" and "valid to some extent" and that's why they are so popular. But he suggests they are "not nearly enough", given what research tells us about why people learn, when they find learning tough. And intrinsic motivation is much more complex than is allowed in the fashionable orthodoxy.

Given the work we do with teachers on motivation, I couldn't agree more. I also agree that teachers need to be experts and wise guides, as well as facilitators of student autonomy. But I worry when he says there needs to be a central role for direct teaching, which he defines as "teaching by telling or what we might call lecturing". Direct teaching is an important part, but expert teachers give more attention to questioning, feedback and explanations than to telling or lecturing.

Where I take issue with Professor Paterson is over his concern that CfE plays down the importance of subject expertise of the teacher and the role disciplines play in learning.

First, at least on paper, it does not. Building the Curriculum 3 was clear that subjects will be an essential feature, especially in secondary school, because they "provide an important and familiar structure for knowledge, offering a context for specialists to inspire, stretch and motivate". It pointed out that young people's learning will become increasingly specialised, with "subjects being the principal means of structuring and delivering the outcomes".

Second, although I agree that you can't learn thinking skills in the abstract, I remain to be convinced that you can only learn to think in the context of a discipline or that disciplines have to be grasped first, before you can do inter-disciplinary work. The real world is more joined up than that and we need to pay more attention to different ways which include practical, creative and emotional thinking, as well as analytical thinking.

But, for me, the most important part of the lecture went unreported. Here Professor Paterson posed an unresolved and crucial question for the future of Scottish education. Namely, how we as educators reconcile two duties. On the one hand, the duty to educate "important elites without whom the disciplines and the highest standards of accomplishment will perish". And, on the other hand, the duty to "extend some understanding of all the disciplines and some inkling of these highest standards to everyone".

Some might characterise Professor Paterson himself as an elitist. But anyone familiar with his work knows he is not. He has been a strong defender of the Scottish comprehensive school system, pointing out rightly that it has helped many more women and people from working class backgrounds get to university over the years.

So, in my view, the dictionary definition of "academic" ("scholarly: to do with learning, abstract; theoretical; not of practical relevance") does not do justice to Professor Paterson or his argument.

The acid test will be the extent to which CfE can democratise excellence without dumbing it down. But it will also be the extent to which it changes young people's minds about how they achieve excellence.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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