Learning lessons from the failure of Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”Posted: March 22, 2017
In 2011, I attended a presentation by Dylan Wiliam in Melbourne. As ever with Wiliam, it was a lively and provocative session that made me think. I distinctly remember the discussion of ‘Pareto Improvements’ which represent a great way of thinking about improving a school or education system.
At that time, Scotland had just rolled-out its ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Wiliam mentioned this in order to make a point that it wasn’t the curriculum that would deliver excellence but the quality of teaching and learning, something that could be enhanced by the use of formative assessment. A good teacher with a bad curriculum is likely to do better than a bad teacher with a good curriculum. So Scotland could name their new curriculum a ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ but excellence is not necessarily what they would get as a result.
I was convinced by this argument at the time. However, in the intervening six years I have changed my mind. Teaching is important but it is difficult to untangle from the curriculum. Some of the effects we attribute to teachers are actually effects of teacher+curriculum. If you don’t teach kids their multiplication tables then they won’t learn them, no matter how good a teacher you are. A good curriculum helps teachers and a bad curriculum really messes everything up.
Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was developed as a result of an inquiry set-up by the then Labour government in Scotland. The inquiry reported its findings in 2004. However, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) came to power in 2007 and it was up to the new government to oversee implementation. This represented something of a perfect storm. The SNP is effectively a single-issue political party dedicated to gaining Scotland’s independence from The United Kingdom. That’s what motivates their membership and their politicians. You can just imagine the new government’s relief at being presented an off-the-shelf solution for improving education, drawn-up by the experts. Who could reproach them for following expert advice? After all, we should leave politics out of education, right?
Unfortunately, the path of CfE has not been smooth. Its detractors are pulling their hair out while even its fans admit that it needs a bit of work. John Swinney, Scotland’s education minister, has brought in reforms that include the introduction of more assessment.
These reforms are the result of a review conducted by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and commissioned by the Scottish government. The OECD noted:
“Curriculum for Excellence represents an ambitious departure seeking to develop a coherent 3-18 curriculum around capacities and learning, rather than school subjects, with a different approach to assessment from that in place before. It is complex as it is organised around four capacities (covering 12 attributes and 24 capabilities across the four); five levels, from early to senior; seven principles, six entitlements, ten aims, and four contexts for learning; eight curriculum areas and three interdisciplinary areas; and several hundreds of Experiences and Outcomes.”
I think there are two linked aspects of this statement that are critical: the departure from a system based upon school subjects and the complexity of the system that replaced it.
No doubt, the calls for reform of CfE have been bolstered by the latest round of PISA results that show a decline in Scotland’s performance since 2009. The comparison with neighbouring England is illuminating:
So what has gone wrong?
Firstly, subject-areas exist for a reason. They represent well-connected bodies of knowledge and understanding; the kind of thing you might be able to draw on a (very big) concept map. They have an internal logic that I suspect matches the way that we construct schema in our long-term memories.
If you can work your way through the complexity of CfE (and take a look at these Key Links/Documents if you want to appreciate just how complex it has become) then you find that a focus on ‘learning’ actually means a focus on inquiry and investigation. For instance, the draft numeracy and mathematics benchmarks essentially force these teaching methods on teachers by defining them as outcomes. In student-friendly language, we read statements such as, “I have experimented with everyday items as units of measure to investigate and compare sizes and amounts in my environment, sharing my findings with others,” and, “I have investigated how whole numbers are constructed, can understand the importance of zero within the system and can use my knowledge to explain the link between a digit, its place and its value.” We read the statement, “I use practical materials and can ‘count on and back’ to help me understand addition and subtraction, recording my ideas and solutions in different ways.” This is constructivist maths involving the use of practical investigation and multiple strategies.
[As an aside, why didn’t anyone involved consider the absurdity of writing in student-friendly language, “I am developing a sense of size and amount by observing, exploring, using and communicating with others about things in the world around me”? A student working towards this benchmark can’t yet count so how is it remotely possible that he or she will understand this statement?]
You would think that if the experts were suggesting the adoption of a curriculum based upon inquiry learning and constructivist principles then inquiry learning and constructivism would be supported by the best available evidence. And yet they are not. The evidence actually stacks-up against these methods. So why do they make it into a curriculum? They are there because they fit the ideology of the educationalists involved; educationalists who would rather question the applicability of scientific evidence to education than question their own deeply held beliefs.
I am not sure whether the complexity of CfE is an unavoidable consequence of abandoning subject disciplines and embracing ephemeral inquiry and interdisciplinary principles or whether the complexity arises out of the need to give sufficient prominence to the menagerie of learning theories sponsored by different educationalists. In a sense it doesn’t really matter. We have seen a very similar pattern arise in Canada with the adoption of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics and in Queensland, Australia, with Productive Pedagogies. These reforms didn’t work because they can’t work and teachers end-up imploring the authorities to, “just tell me what to teach.”
It is the kind of mess you create if you take politics out of education and leave it to the experts.
Note: Back in 2011, Dylan Wiliam probably set-out a more nuanced view of the role of curriculum than I have given him credit for. At the time, I had not researched these areas as much as I have now and so I was only able to take on fairly simple messages.