The DfES, QCA and the National Strategies have got plans for changes to teaching and learning. Is this news? We have learned to live with change.

A good question is whether the current flurry of activity is any more significant than previous episodes? Before addressing that it is worth stating the pattern of the last 20 years, which has been increasing centralised control of most things related to the classroom. The epitome of this has been the National Strategies, which have moved from subject frameworks to prescription of teaching methods, especially in core subjects.

This prescription has been accompanied by the mantra of ‘driving up standards’, which is a curious idea, as if learning is something that can be directly manipulated, and as if learning is something you do to someone. Education is not the only public service getting this treatment – nearly all public services have targets.

Hindsight will tell us whether this is more than a blip. We could interpret the current changes as part of a periodic pendulum swing. From centralised control to teacher/school autonomy and then back. But we might be forgiven for interpreting current activity as a turning point. It appears that it is recognised that prescription has achieved most of the benefits that it can, and there are serious debates about the targets agenda. It would be hard to claim that the reform tidal wave has not had positive effects, making schools more sensitive to the quality of planning and teaching going on and we can hope that some of the worst practices have disappeared. However the downside is fairly evident and you will probably recognise it in your school:

  • harassed, frustrated and burnt out teachers
  • suspicion of national initiatives
  • pupil disaffection
  • teaching constrained by assessment regimes.

There has been a freeing up evident in large and small ways. The Primary Curriculum has had some of the chains removed (via Excellence and Enjoyment) with the foregrounding of creativity. The Networked Learning Community programme has legitimised a more profound approach to leadership and professional learning as well promoting classroom innovation. Ofsted has a new inspection framework and offers a lighter touch and more self-evaluation.

Ongoing reviews

There are at least three review processes going on at present. This might suggest that there is widespread recognition of flaws in the system. The reviews are:

  • QCA Curriculum Review – there are parallel review and reform processes in Northern Ireland (furthest ahead), Wales and Scotland.
  • The Gilbert Review (see p1) which explores how teaching and learning is likely to be in 2020.
  • The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training (England and Wales).

Starting with QCA, consultation conferences are headlining messages about a curriculum that:

  • is modern and world class;
  • inspires and challenges students;
  • prepares them for exciting challenges.

Although the Gilbert Review rehearses the theme of personalised learning there are a couple of catching features for us. One is the notion of no ‘stuck’ pupils, as this gives new life to the forgotten realm of diagnostic assessment. Could we shift assessment practice from measuring pupils to asking what they are stuck on and why – and therefore how we might ‘unstick’ them.

The second little diamond is the proposition of developing a national culture for improving learning, which is slightly different from improving teaching.

The Nuffield Review also has a good bash at the signs of malaise in the curriculum:

  • disengagement of a large minority of young people
  • decline in the uptake of key subjects – such as physics, maths and languages
  • perceived irrelevance of subjects to young people
  • the fault line between 14-19 education and higher and further education
  • poor levels of literacy and numeracy
  • prevailing culture which is not especially sympathetic to education.

This is all familiar stuff – you could add your own examples. There are a range of causes offered, not least the artificial divide between academic and vocational education. Whilst finding government response lacking in a number of respects, the point is made that in places practice is outstripping policy and schools and colleges are wresting back the initiative from government in curriculum design. Moreover there is an acknowledgement that changing the content of the curriculum is pointless without a changed pedagogy.

There are few schools in the country that do not have teaching and learning featured somewhere in their development plans. But it is a tough nut to crack. If you strip away the surface layer of ICT and modern design, then classrooms and teaching are recognisable as their 19th-century counterparts –  a lot of teacher talk, a lot of ‘bookwork’, staccato question and answers sessions. We have nibbled round the edges of this model and there are notable examples of schools which have achieved an alternative.

New approaches

What would a different approach to learning look like? We can offer two sets of principles that might guide this vision. The first is from the Nuffield Review:

  • cooperative learning, emphasising group goals, peer mentoring, and cooperative tasks
  • valuing practical and experiential learning, including experience outside formal education 
  • finding a place for the learner’s personal and social experience in the process of learning
  • using information retrieval methods of modern technology to enable independent learning
  • stressing the importance of evidence based discussion
  • making available individual learning support.

The second is from the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) a major research programme with large projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which are framed in terms of ‘Effective teaching and learning’:

  1. Equips learners for life in its broadest sense.
  2. Engages with valued forms of knowledge.
  3. Recognises the importance of prior experience and learning.
  4. Requires the teacher to scaffold learning.
  5. Needs assessment to be congruent with learning.
  6. Promotes the active engagement of the learner.
  7. Fosters both individual and social processes.
  8. Recognises the importance of informal learning.
  9. Depends on teacher learning.
  10. Demands consistent policy frameworks with support for teaching and learning as their primary focus.

It is important to dwell on just two of these that may be less obvious than others. Principle 2 ‘Engages with valued forms of knowledge’ makes the point that learning needs to use the big ideas and key processes of subjects so that students understand the deep meaning of subjects.

Principle 7 ‘fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes’ stresses the mutual construction of knowledge which requires relationships and communication between individuals and highlights the importance of ‘student voice’.

We have been struck recently by a growing number of schools that have been arriving at a similar mix of initiatives in their quest for positive change. The first part of the mix is assessment for learning, particularly peer and self assessment (and teacher questions). The second is thinking skills in some form, with much emphasis on challenge, open tasks and talking about thinking. The third part is either classroom talk or cooperative learning, which in different ways attend to issues of communication and dialogue, as does a certain style of teacher questioning in AfL. We might call it a ‘magic mix’. One could interpret this intersection in a number of ways but it perhaps points to the importance of communication, expectation and relationships in classrooms.

On this basis, enquiry looks like a very powerful framework through which to bring coherence to a more meaningful approach to teaching and learning. All the principles outlined above, and the magic mix, map readily onto an enquiry approach and such an approach should a very important role for subjects, as tools through which to understand and act upon the world.

Teacher learning

However, enquiry does not stop with pupils. More than any other TLRP principle we would stress the importance of teacher learning. There are number of versions of famous quote that basically says that without teacher development you don’t get curriculum development.

Teachers need to learn to transform learning environments. This is not going to conferences or courses for the latest ideas and guru message, it is sustained opportunities to hear new ideas, plan to make changes in teaching, research and reflect on the outcomes, talk deeply with colleagues about the outcomes and the implications, connect with more ideas and other research. This needs consistent support from school leaders, who need to listen to and accommodate what is learned. This can be represented as action research, enquiry or research and development (R&D).

We would conclude that if this is to be a turning point then students, teachers, schools, parents, communities, local authorities, universities and other interested parties have to take the opportunity to create more appropriate learning environments. It will be important that practice goes beyond policy and is allowed and encouraged to do so.

The danger is that there is swing of the pendulum and prescription and control will return. It is important that viable alternative pedagogies are developed which can be models for widespread innovation.