Learning from the learning school

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Self-evaluation by students may be on course to become an integral part of the inspection process, says John MacBeath.

THE most imaginative and ground-breaking initiative in school evaluation in a lifetime". These words from one of Her Majesty's chief inspectors are no off-the-cuff rhetoric but a sober assessment of an idea, a venture, an adventure, that describes itself as the Learning School.

It is a Scottish initiative, born and nurtured in Britain's northernmost secondary school but global in its reach and impact. It is the brainchild of Stewart Hay, assistant head in Anderson High in Shetland, building on the success of a previously inspired curriculum project known as the Global Classroom.

This is the recipe for the Learning School. Take a group of young people from eight countries. Give them a year out of school to get an education. Provide some intensive training in observation and evaluation then send them off on a world tour of schools, observing in classrooms, shadowing pupils, conducting interviews and adminis-tering questionnaires.

Prepare teachers in the schools to get some challenging feedback from them. Help the team to observe astutely, to record faithfully, to feed back sensitively.Keep them in touch through the net with the Anderson home base and with university researchers in Japan and Cambridge.

Ensure the receiving schools have host families willing to accommodate someone for four weeks or so, even if there is no common language. Entrust co-ordinators (older students) to blend a disparate collection of individuals into a working group, listening and learning from one another, arguing their corner, compromising and synergising. Grow their confidence to report their findings to critical audiences at universities, government departments and international conferences. Encourage them to write a book and find a major publishing house to print it.

Shaken and stirred is what these young people write about their experience in the recently published book Self-evaluation in the Global Classroom (TESS, January 3). Theirs was an emotional roller-coaster ride from Shetland to Korea, via Hong Kong, Japan, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Sweden and Germany.

But that is only part of the story. What they observed and recorded in classrooms is a powerful narrative about learning and its relationship to teaching. Much of their insight is owed to their status as students, talking to their peers and to the repertoire of tools which helped them to dig beneath the surface life of classrooms that so often presents itself to school inspectors.

They can see things unencumbered by habits of seeing. They can know things for the first time without prior knowing. They are also afforded the luxury of time. No 30-minute observation and a summative judgment at the end, but extended visits to classrooms, shadowing a class or a pupil over a week with follow-up interviews to probe the high and low points of learning, reminding us what a school can look and feel like from a pupil perspective. Teachers who bravely volunteered to do their own spot checks found that their estimates of pupils' engagement and interest often rendered wildly differing judgments of the same event.

Spot checks often identified consensual high water marks. When a teacher's and a class's judgments did positively coincide it was an indicator of something vital taking place. These small-scale miracles opened up big questions. What is it that engages pupils and sparks their imagination? When does a classroom episode come alive? How much of it is down to the teacher and how much rests with the pupils or peer group themselves?

These questions and the classroom dialogue they provoke lie at the heart of self-evaluation. Self-evaluation remains a topical issue internationally and Scotland can justly claim to be a world leader in the field. The Learning School initiative, however, takes How Good Is Our School? a step change forward. It moves the student from periphery to centre stage.

Archie McGlynn (HMCI at the time), impressed by what he had heard from the Learning School students during a presentation at the then Scottish Office headquarters in Edinburgh's Victoria Quay, immediately composed a memo to colleagues advocating that students be part of an inspection team.

A paradigm shift too far perhaps? But, as he confidently asserts, its time will come.

John MacBeath is Professor of Education at Cambridge University.

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