It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that our education system isn't quite up to snuff. And at that point virtually all agreement ceases. There are those on which we might loosely term the "right" of the divide who point to PISA scores, claim that we're in the middle of a crisis and suggest that a return to traditional values is the way forward. Oh, and Free Schools are good too.
Then there are the proponents of the "left" who think that the current emphasis of schools does not fit us for a future in which compliance will no longer be rewarded.
Maybe at the heart of this debate is a fundamental disagreement about the curriculum and pedagogy. Should education be about getting students to know more facts or should it be about encouraging them to solve problems? Knowledge or skills?
I am, by instinct, a constructivist; that is, one who believes that students should construct their own meaning and discover new knowledge by doing. This slots in neatly with the PLTS agenda.
The more traditional approach is termed "direct instruction", often misrepresented as some sort of Gradgrindian, didactic, teacher-led talking from the front, but is in fact the essence of the modern three (or four) part lesson where the teacher decides the objectives and success criteria; models how tasks should be completed; provides feedback and finally reviews the learning objective.
Now the bad news for constructivists is that direct instruction is shown by researchers to be the most effective strategy for transmitting knowledge and has the biggest effect on students' grades. So where does that leave discovery learning, problem solving and inquiry based teaching? Are they simply surplus to requirements?
Well, that's what the "right" would have us believe: students collaborating in teams is messy, time consuming and ineffective. And maybe that's true. But it boils down to what you think the point of education is. Is it to ensure that students take exams that test how good they are at regurgitating knowledge, following instructions and passing exams? Or is it to produce learners who can solve problems; think creatively and compete in a world where white collar jobs can be cheaply outsourced elsewhere?
Because if you believe in what Ian Gilbert calls The Great Educational Lie (do well at school and you'll get a good job) then passing exams is fine. But if you believe that "to succeed in business you need to break the rules" then we have a responsibility to teach content in a way that also teaches skills, dispositions and competencies needed to make our children indispensible in an uncertain future.
As usual the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground. Both sides have a point and the best approach lies in making sure we are teaching students knowledge and skills and that they leave school with a fistful of qualifications as well as being prepared for a brave new world in which following instructions won't count for much.
No one, or at least no one I'd take seriously, advocates content free lessons or claims that knowledge is not worth having. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham says that students don't like school because teachers are always trying to make them think and that the human brain just isn't that good at thinking. In fact it's wired to help us avoid having to think: almost everything we do is a product of stuff we hold in long-term memory, which allows to literally act without thinking. If you accept this then it's entirely reasonable that in order to perform any kind of skill efficiently (driving, writing essays, solving quadratic equations etc) we need to know how to do it deep down in our souls.
As an English teacher I rock at writing essays because I write so many of the damn things and have an expert knowledge of how to do it well. Knowledge and skills are inseparable. You can't have one without the other.
So how to square this circle? One idea is to use SOLO taxonomy to design learning experiences which focus on acquiring knowledge and then the skill of applying this new knowledge in new and interesting ways.
As learning progresses it becomes more complex. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) is a way to classify learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students' work in terms of how interesting it is rather than whether it's right or wrong.
To begin with we will have a few unconnected pieces of knowledge which we can apply to a task, but as our understanding grows we become able to relate this knowledge to the whole and then to see how this information could be used to connect with other seemingly unrelated ideas.
It's daft to simply ask students to tell us what we've already told them. Much better if they tell us how they could apply what they've learnt. They should be able to do this if we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn and make sure teaching and assessment match these outcomes. Outcome statements need to use verbs (apply, explain, evaluate etc.) which describe the activities that students need to undertake in order to meet the intended outcome. In this system learning is constructed by what the students do, not what us teachers do. The SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into the intended learning outcomes and to create assessment criteria which are based not so much on what students know as on how skilled they are in applying that knowledge.
Confused? Here's a handy introductory lesson that can be successfully used with almost any group using Solo Taxonomy based on the X Factor!
• David Didau has been teaching for 12 years and is currently Head of English at Priory Community School in Weston-super-Mare. He keeps his own counsel on his Learningspy blog and you can follow him on Twitter @LearningSpy
Read David's blog on the case for teaching texting here.
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Since the Education Act 2011, schools have been required to offer career guidance to their students. Some of this responsibility has inevitably landed at the door of teachers, but their exact role remains a bone of contention.
My colleagues and I at the University of Derby have just published a paper for Teach First exploring this question. What became clear was that teachers shouldn’t be expected to be careers guidance professionals. Instead, it’s about a partnership. Career guidance professionals bring expertise in theory and knowledge of the labour market and links with employers to the table, while teachers bring pedagogic knowledge and have sustained relationships with their students. Other key stakeholders – such as employers and post-secondary learning providers – are also important. Together all of these different people help young people to explore the opportunities open to them and make purposeful steps towards their future.
There are six main roles teachers can play. The first two are based on the relationships they build with students. Teachers have had careers of their own. They have made decisions about whether to go to university, what subjects to study and what jobs to do. Their experiences are useful for young people. These things need to be presented carefully, as what worked for the teacher may not work for the students, but teachers should be having career conversations.
Teachers also have a well-developed pastoral duty. As trusted adults, young people approach them with concerns and dilemmas, many of which relate to future aspirations. Working through these issues with young people in ways that keep their options open is important. Career is a context for many life decisions and teachers need to be able to offer some solutions when it is important (including referring young people to professionals and other specialists).
The next two roles are more focused on teaching. Teachers can link their subjects to the world of work. For example, highlighting how a particular scientific process is used in research or industry can increase the perceived relevance of curriculum. Similarly, a discussion of the job of publishers in English literature can enhance the understanding of the text. This is also an ideal place to involve employers and working people by inviting them to talk about how they use the knowledge and skills that are covered in the curriculum.
Teachers can also apply their pedagogic skills to the delivery of career learning. It’s a distinct area with its own knowledge base, but career education can be enriched through connections with curricular and cross-curricular themes such as writing and communication skills.
The final roles relate to who heads up this area in school. Other countries have developed a middle leadership post – the career leader – who has responsibility for spearheading this area of education in school. They may have management responsibility for careers professionals or work closely with the PSHE team, and a willingness to represent the school externally with employers and post-secondary learning providers. This is a post that requires training and reward. When established properly, it’s a position that could lead to senior leadership, offering valuable whole-school experience and a chance to develop contacts beyond the school building.
Finally, senior leaders must make sure that careers work in schools is effective. Ultimately they will be held to account under the statutory duty and our research suggests that they are critical in setting the agenda so this area flourishes. At present there is little training to develop world-class careers provision.
The six roles discussed here provide a framework for teachers to think about. This area should be seen as an integral part of teaching, something that is exciting and helps unlock students’ potential. If the job of the careers leader and the careers responsibilities of school senior leaders can be better established, this should help teachers develop in their own jobs.
Tristram Hooley is professor of career education at the University of Derby.