Let's re-energise 'living learning'

18th February 2011 at 00:00

Curriculum for Excellence is becoming a problem. Its capacities are turning into slogans. The outcomes and experiences are sinking into the ugly "Es and Os", shovelled, parcelled and dismembered into what we had before.

Education has not embraced the responsibility and professionalism of Building the Curriculum. The audit constrains us to six-point specifications of yesterday. Seven-point implementation constrains thinking. Imposed commentary finishes us off.

We hear little of de-cluttering now. We just cannot shed prescription and elaborated procedure. Pinning something down does not let it grow.

The pursuit of excellence has become a mythic quest. Journey to Excellence has it that: "Excellence describes the furthest end of the quality spectrum. When we think of excellence, we think of an outstanding aspect, a model of its kind - the very best there is."

But excellence is an idealisation. Excellence in these terms takes us on a hiding to nothing. Unrealisable, it stokes fear. Need we head in this direction?

I have known staff engage with the most challenging children, and gain their respect and engagement. Walk into the room and nothing leaps out as "excellent". But get to know those pupils and staff and you will find they have excelled themselves in what they have achieved. That is the difference.

The incoming framework embodies a more profound inner kernel. Its core is the living of learning. This switches on children and staff. Once children find purpose in their activities, they come to live through them (experiences), then readily seek knowledge or skills to enhance them (outcomes). In doing so, they grow as a person (capacities).

The essence of a child forms in learning through living and being. Therein lies the purpose of formative assessment, not disembodied next steps "feeding back to the teacher the same marbles that the teacher gave out to the class", as Edward Rothman put it.

Let us create a culture to get the best out of people - not a futile striving for the "very best there is", but a humane endeavour to bring out "the very best in us". We should be "for excelling", not "for excellence".

Such capacity-building needs to join evaluation as a single process, not be tagged on afterwards. It should apply in fair weather and stormy, halcyon calm and normal bluster. All schools go through all such states, which is why a "snapshot" audit is so inappropriate.

Pupils, staff and institutional learning should be the basis for a staged developmental review. What aspects of richer, experiential learning are we seeking to enable? How are we doing this? How are we getting on? What is helping, or hindering? For this we need a conversation, not a monologue, or a diatribe.

Shovel-it-in has had its day. That was the rationale for the shift to capacities, outcomes and experiences, not screeds of "I can" statements cross-matching to 5-14 attainment targets, as is now occurring. We must not wrap the new concepts in the practices of the old.

The merger of HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland offers a new prospect. Suppose the new merged agency became the Scottish Network of School Learning Engagement or the Educational Enhancement Agency? Suppose its ethos shifted from "support and challenge" to "engagement and understanding"? Words form social reality; a name change is essential.

Stifling, pervasive micromanagement must end. As funding cutbacks beckon, drastically cutting specifications and judgmentalism will release substantial resources now allocated to pointless audit and induced stress- related absence. Living Learning is a plausible, affirming and energising prospect.

Niall MacKinnon is a headteacher in the Highlands.

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