The jury is still out on joy

30th May 2008 at 01:00
At last there's a chance to have a real debate about the future of Scottish secondaries
At last there's a chance to have a real debate about the future of Scottish secondaries. The revelation that there will be no external exams before S4 has convinced me that those behind A Curriculum for Excellence genuinely want us to do just that. Hallelujah.

Those involved in The TESS "Hung Jury" (May 2) were a wee bit more circumspect than that. Some worried that without exams you cannot motivate teachers and students in secondary schools. Others made the assumption that serious learning could only take place in subject silos.

I understand where people who work in the real world of secondary schools are coming from. Secondary teachers are trained to teach subjects and are judged by exam results first and foremost. But why not turn this into an opportunity to make learning more motivating and more meaningful for students in the first three years of secondary? Primaries do this without exams. Secondaries are different, but they could be less different, at least in years 1-3.

To work out what might to be done, we need to go back to our principles for curriculum design. I think there is a danger we focus too much on breadth and not enough on depth in S1-3. I don't think we should be expecting every student to have every experience and attain every outcome at level 3.

I agree with those in the "hung jury" who worried that the proposals meant students would have to follow a common course to S4. They need a chance to start playing to their strengths and their interests well before then. My three most important principles are personalisation and choice, enjoyment and challenge, and relevance.

A secondary depute head recently was nettled by the suggestion that "primary teachers teach students and secondary teachers teach subjects". He pointed out that this was an implied criticism of secondary teachers. He believed we underestimated what these skilled specialists brought to young people and that the key question was when students "go deep", you need specialists.

A good point. But we could give pupils the chance to "go deep" in S1-3 without having them study subjects, but topics instead. Topics would be selected for their relevance to the real world that young people are growing up in (embedding Determined to Succeed, for example, rather than bolting it on) and for their ability to achieve transfer and progression of skills and knowledge. Topics could also allow students to study subjects in greater depth but in a "joined-up" way.

Many secondaries are experimenting with the idea of "rich tasks". Teaching topics was meat and drink to primary teachers until they felt restrained by 5-14. However, lessons good and bad learnt, the pendulum is swinging back in primaries.

"Joyning the Learning", a Learning Unlimited programme developed with Stirling and Renfrewshire councils is having more effect in primary classrooms than anything we have done, including assessment for learning. And the evaluation forms are the best we have had.

The question is: how can this approach can transfer into the mainstream secondary curriculum? All secondary teachers need to become generalists as well as specialists, capable of teaching cross-subject topics. Timetables must change to provide realistic time for in-depth collaborative learning. Say three-period days. Pupils should work most of the time in teams rather than classes and teachers should become team leaders.

I'll get a row from our team for saying this. Despite being an optimist, I have my doubts that secondaries can do "joy" on a regular basis, even without exams. But they can and should be doing a lot more joining.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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