‘Ditch subjects’ and get pupils’ hands dirty

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Thinktank shares radical ideas to improve Scottish education

Schools should no longer divide lessons by subjects but deliver learning through project-based work concentrating on just two or three curricular areas, and they should even ask children to do the cleaning, according to the director of an influential left-wing thinktank.

Children should arrive at school in boiler suits “as if they are expecting to get dirty”, and the enjoyment of learning should not be marginal but “at the heart of the experience”, said Robin McAlpine, chief executive of Common Weal.

Pupils should also clean their own schools, help cook the lunches and be “partners in making school work”, with testing taking place only “at the very end of school – if at all”, he added.

According to Common Weal, one of the curricular areas should be “How does it work?”, exploring a broad range of subjects from mobile phones to volcanoes. Schools should teach children how to learn and be curious, and to be adaptive, innovative and self-confident, but leave specialisation to universities, colleges and employers, Mr McAlpine said.

“This changes the role of the teacher,” he explained. “Teaching becomes less about imparting information and more about coaching the child.”

Mr McAlpine’s comments follow the launch this month by Common Weal of its Book of Ideas, detailing 101 policy proposals the thinktank says can challenge the notion that in Scotland “we don’t have the power to change things”.

The book was not a manifesto but “a pool of ideas from which political parties can fish when they produce their own manifestos” ahead of the Scottish election next year, Mr McAlpine said.

The ‘sweep of history’

The book calls for school to no longer be structured “along the fairly arbitrary lines of this subject or that subject”; for education to be “reorientated” so the emphasis is on the positive, happy development of pupils; and for conflict resolution and empathy education to become a core part of the curriculum to reduce violence and increase tolerance.

Common Weal also suggests that a national childcare service be introduced by 2021 to replace the current “fragmented, for-profit childcare system”. Vacant retail units on high streets could be used “to create bright, attractive childcare centres right in the heart of our towns”, it says.

The book states: “We should be creating a school system not structured along the fairly arbitrary lines of this subject or that subject. Pupils should learn in mixed groups through project work which cuts across many subjects. In this process, pupils should learn how to draw learning out of their experience.

“The attributes we should hope for are curiosity, creativity, empathy and understanding.

“Being exposed to big ideas, to the sweep of history, to art and literature, to how technologies or plants or our bodies work, how food is grown and cooked, how our society functions – these forms of knowledge will produce children who can be happy and interested in their own lives and the world. From there, they can do anything they want.”

However, one parents’ organisation questioned whether children’s time in school would be best spent wielding mops and brooms. Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: “I’m sure some parents would debate whether it’s their kids’ job to go and clean the school. And, of course, they would be doing someone out of a job if they did, so I’m not altogether sure that’s where we want to go.

“However, there is no doubt that the sense of ownership that kids have of their school is important.”

Meanwhile, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, objected to the ease with which subject specialisms could be dismissed. “Subjects are the distillation of centuries of investigation, debate, argument and refinement – in short, of the curiosity and imagination that the proposal invokes,” he said.

“Far from being arbitrary, it is precisely these interacting subjects, not their denial, that are the means [through which] we have evolved to understand each other and the world.”

Ideas revolution

Discrete subject areas should be abandoned in favour of project work.

Schools should teach children how to learn and to be curious.

Specialisation should be left to universities, colleges and employers.

Testing should be done only at the end of school, if at all.

Steps should be made to “reorientate education” in order to emphasise pupils’ positive, happy development.

Students should learn conflict resolution and empathy.

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