Scottish Learning Festival - Strengthen bonds of learning

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
One R, rather than the 3Rs, dominated discussion at this year's education show, as Elizabeth Buie and Neil Munro report

"Relationships" were key to building successful schools, several of the speakers agreed at last week's Scottish Learning Festival.

Effective collaboration between teachers was what A Curriculum for Excellence was all about, said Richard Teese, the Australian academic who was the rapporteur for the review of Scottish schools published last year by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Charles Leadbeater, an authority on innovation and creativity, said his work with schools in England showed that the most successful were those which concentrated on building relationships. "Personalised learning" was the key to involving young people, teachers and parents in learning together, he said.

Martyn Rouse, director of the inclusive practice project at Aberdeen University, called on schools to focus on 3Rs in dealing with pupils - "relationships, respect and recognition".

Frank Crawford of HMIE delivered a similar message, urging schools to make connections, acknowledging that "no one is the font of all knowledge". He emphasised that the development of thinking pupils was central to success, and his mantra was: "If you don't think, you don't learn; and if you don't learn, you don't meet your potential."

Professor Teese, who is based in Melbourne University, said that, before thinking about the content of the curriculum, Scotland should be strengthening relationships within its schools through the medium of the curriculum - "strengthening the bonds of learning". He added: "You can test a curriculum in terms of the quality of the relationships it supports or fails to support."

A Curriculum for Excellence held the promise of overcoming both the isolation of the learner in a school and the isolation of the teacher - which often accompanied low expectations and achievement, said Professor Teese.

A typically isolated teacher locked him or herself in the classroom to avoid discussing fears and frustrations; isolated learners were too ashamed to ask a question in class, lest they revealed their ignorance.

Teachers had to be prepared to take risks and local authorities had to be prepared to support them in this and to share the risk agenda.

Professor Rouse also called on teachers to share their expertise, which was what happened in schools that were "inclusive and high-achieving". This should also involve recognition of the learning pupils bring to schools with them. He recalled one boy, from his time as a teacher, who was hopeless at arithmetic but, using the same skills, was brilliant at darts.

Mr Leadbetter said curriculum reform should be based on capability not content. He had found it "a relief" to read A Curriculum for Excellence, compared to the "constipated discussion about the curriculum we are having in England".

Professors Teese and Rouse and Mr Leadbetter argued that the greatest beneficiaries of curricular reform were the most disadvantaged young people in society - but if reform failed, they had the most to lose.

Innovation was likely to happen in schools at the margins, rather than in the most academically successful, said Mr Leadbetter. He added that "young people should be regarded as the great untapped resource of the learning system".

Teachers were also a learning resource, Professor Teese emphasised. Having read the Glasgow University evaluation of teachers' responses to the plans for the new curriculum (TESS, September 19), he said teachers needed to be given exemplary models of how the curriculum could be delivered, but there should be enough flexibility to avoid the trap of prescription from the centre.

The role of formative assessment should grow, and there should be a balanced approach to examination, he recommended. Change to curricular courses should be made for pedagogical reasons, rather than epistemological ones.

Again echoing the findings of the Glasgow University report, Professor Teese called for extensive continuing professional development to support the curriculum changes.

He also urged universities to become more fully involved in the development of ACfE, and to place less reliance on selection by students' marks.

Marvellous schools

Frank Crawford said A Curriculum for Excellence fitted perfectly with HMIE's guide A Journey to Excellence. Portraying inspection in a notably more liberal light than many headteachers proclaim it to be, he said schools should now be asking themselves "how good can we be?", not just "how good is our school?"

"Different parts of a school can be at different stages of their journey - and that's OK, because we're all fellow travellers", he said.

Mr Crawford added: "This is not about schools being in meltdown. Our challenge is about how we take schools that are good and make them marvellous."

Schools should "spray themselves with thinking" and find time to develop thinking. "It also means deciding what to put in the bin that doesn't contribute to thinking and therefore doesn't aid learning."

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