Why students should know their own strength

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Focus on mental muscles not exam results, academics urge

AS the new education ministers measure their offices for carpets and stretch their feet beneath their desks, two academics have a message for them: don't get too comfortable.

Education professors Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas want ministers to change the way schools teach, entirely.

They insist there is a false dichotomy in education - one that requires politicians and teachers alike to rethink how they view the whole system.

"The world either wants to put you in the traditionalist box or the progressive box," Professor Lucas said. "You're seen as someone who cares about academic knowledge and success, or you're someone who cares about something else."

He and Professor Claxton, both of whom work at the University of Winchester, have outlined their vision for education in a new book, Educating Ruby. The title is a nod to the famous Willy Russell comedy Educating Rita. The academics' heroine, Ruby, explores the challenges faced by students in 2015.

"Ruby either fails at the academic game and doesn't get her clutch of A*s," Professor Lucas said, "or she will get her shiny A*s and go to a Russell Group university. But in her first year she has imposter syndrome, because no one's really taught her to think for herself."

This is what the academics want to rectify. In the Educating Ruby vision of education, children would emerge from school with skill in "the seven Cs": confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.

"Far more than grades, it's character traits that determine how well you do in life," Professor Claxton said. "Grades give you the key to get through some gateways. But how well you function once you've got through that gateway depends much more on your grit, confidence and collaboration.

"Pedagogy trumps curriculum. If you really want a 21st-century education, that's the only way to get it."

Muscle memory

Professor Claxton suggests that, instead of thinking of the brain as a bucket, teachers should view it as a muscle: "As a teacher, you need to think, `That child didn't do well in that task. Which of their learning capacities can we strengthen?', rather than, `They didn't do very well in that. They can't be very bright.' "

New lessons would be designed with the twin aims of teaching about a topic and strengthening pupils' characters. Children studying the Tudors might look at period clothes and houses, but they would also be asked to imagine the experience of being a serf in Tudor times. "You'd be developing an understanding of what it was like to live in a very cold, draughty house, with a short lifespan," Professor Lucas said.

There would also be a change in the way that teachers relate to parents. "Teachers feel they have to report on a certain kind of progress to parents," Professor Lucas said. "But what I want to say about Ruby as a person is actually more important than whether Ruby is going to get four As or five As.

"There's a lost art in that gentler, more subtle conversation about progress towards the person you could be."

This conversation, he believes, should come naturally to teachers. "There are two reasons people become teachers," he said. "They're passionate about their subject, and they want to help kids become the people they want to be."

But he also claims that the pressures of Ofsted and school league tables can get in the way. "Too many people are fearful of what happens if they miss a bit of data and Ofsted downgrades them a category," Professor Lucas said.

The academics also think that ministers are too focused on rearranging the window dressing of education. Instead, they should reconsider what the shop actually sells.

"Politicians love rearranging the furniture," Professor Claxton said. "They invent new types of schools. They change exams. But what needs to be done is to change the nature of how people teach, and that takes longer.

"For many teachers, it's perfectly possible - it's a little bit of a mind shift for some people in education. That's all."

Click here to read Sir Ken Robinson's views on changing the system


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