Teaching reform requires a framework

19th January 2007 at 00:00
Probably the biggest mistake of the 5-14 development programme, in its rush to define curriculum and assessment, was neglect of teaching and learning.

Current reform needs to avoid this pitfall. Education is a three-legged stool and pedagogy, as much as curriculum and assessment, needs clear thinking and development. Changing assessment practice to ensure it promotes learning and citizenship goals requires concomitant reforms of teaching and learning processes. We need a general framework within which to research and think through these issues. But where is this to be found?

After initial neglect of teaching, national curriculum developments in England led to increasing centrist intervention in methodology. Pacific Rim practices were quarried to develop "whole-class interactive teaching" and national literacy and numeracy strategies. Similar ideas eventually found their way to Scotland.

But these won't do for A Curriculum for Excellence. While they offer positive features, their defects are becoming apparent through the resurgence of broader ideas of literacy and numeracy and associated pre-5-14 teaching principles.

Moreover, interdisciplinary studies will only flourish through an approach that can deliver without compromising subject study. And the many recent initiatives, such as collaborative groupwork, active thinking skills, and individual learning plans, have to be incorporated, without succumbing to the delusion that they are panaceas.

Modern pedagogy has to address three issues: the organisation of teaching; teaching strategies and roles; and how to promote depth of subject study and inter-disciplinary teaching. Before 5-14, home-grown answers were emerging to these questions. Updated, they can provide a sound foundation for a pedagogy for excellence.

Firstly, Scotland had a consistent official policy on organising learning from 1946 until the advent of 5-14. The principle of "a judicious and flexible balance of class, group and individual teaching" was reiterated in every major report for 40 years. While England, post-Plowden, took a path characterised by the disparagement of class teaching in favour of group and individual learning, Scotland remained cautious.

Organisational fashion needs to return to the "judicious and flexible balance" principle. The aims and practicalities of learning are such that we need all three forms of teaching, and teacher autonomy to judge how best to use them.

Secondly, there is the matter of teaching strategies. The "four modes of teaching" concept, brainchild of Professor Arnold Morrison of Stirling University, found its way into Scottish policy in the 1980s. But the neglect of pedagogy in 5-14 led to mixed fortunes. Yet the four modes have vital strengths - they are simple, balanced, flexible, open and powerful.

Thirdly, there is no better bet for handling the projected blend of subject and interdisciplinary thematic work than the Scottish "Storyline" approach.

This has become increasingly influential in America and Europe. Why is it still neglected here?

Storyline, and other Scottish developments in thematic teaching, looked set to overturn the superficiality of earlier project work until it was cut short in 1987 by the pedagogically myopic 5-14 programme.

In a globalised context, international pressures are inevitable and much can be learned from others. But comparative educational study recognises context is crucial.

We have home-grown ideas and principles, among the best in the world. It's time to exploit properly their rich potential.

Don Skinner is academic co-ordinator for education courses at the Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University

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