Time to give up control

15th August 2008 at 01:00

I was chatting recently to a former colleague about A Curriculum for Excellence. He was telling me that his secondary is to give every pupil comprehensive course support materials for each of their certificated subjects - once the course has been completed. The teachers didn't want to put it out before they taught the course as they wanted to "remain in control". For me, it was a timely reminder of how much work is still to be done in terms of changing our approach to learning.

In the past week, I've come across three personal examples of how the delivery of learning is changing. First, my brother is taking a work- related course online at St Andrew's University. Second, I've started an online course to improve my French. Third, I was speaking to one of my son's friends who got an A in one of his Highers and had to teach himself two of the units, which had not been covered by the teacher, by accessing materials available on the web.

If these examples seem anecdotal and hardly scientific, I plead guilty, but it is their ubiquity which lends them weight in supporting a realisation that "we" can no longer remain in control of the learning process.

The common arguments are that "children can't learn by themselves" and "you can't transfer university-type learning to a school environment". To accept such statements is to accept the status quo,where the learning process is essentially controlled and governed by the teacher - especially in terms of content, rate of progress and depth of content.

To change the way we work, we need to destabilise the status quo and free teachers to adopt different roles and engage learners in learning as opposed to absorbing information. Keeping this in mind, I wonder if David Eaglesham, the general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, provided the catalyst when he said he doubted whether ACfE could live up to its aims without the provision of curricular resources.

There is a need to provide resources, but not in the present form. I would create a virtual learning environment for every certificated course. These materials could be accessed by students at a place and time of their choosing - GLOW could play an important role here. The point is that the materials are for the student - not the teacher.

During the last year, I've spoken to senior students from many schools: without exception, they all said they would have welcomed the chance to access their entire course online. That's not to say they did not want a teacher: they simply wanted their teacher to work in a different way.

So what would be the outcome of such a step - surely it will replace one form of spoon-feeding with another? Not if we prepare for such a change in a gradual, well-managed and progressive manner, where the teacher would take on more of a tutor's role while students would use them to expand and deepen their knowledge.

In many ways, this ties in with what Jerome Bruner spoke about recently at the Tapestry Conference in Glasgow when he said education systems were "too easily routinised" (sic) and that there were too few opportunities for students to "share hypotheses", "reflect upon alternatives" or "reflect upon controversy". He wants teachers to seek out "inter- subjectivity" (I prefer this term to inter-disciplinary) by contextualising their subject within the wider world. But how often do teachers manage to do this in the pressure to get through the content of a course?

My changes require that a young person be ready to operate as an independent, metacognitively-aware, and technically able learner. Such a requirement would provide further impetus for the radical changes to the curriculum which are necessary in the first three years of secondary education.

Don Ledingham, is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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