Bad times ahead for education in Wales

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After my recent post about ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ in Scotland, a number of Welsh teachers contacted me to make me aware of the new curriculum proposals for Wales. In 2015 the Donaldson report was published, setting out a series of recommendations for changing curriculum and assessment arrangements. These are currently in the process of being implemented by the Welsh government, enjoying cross-party support.

In the report, Professor Graham Donaldson seeks to expand the standard definition of ‘curriculum’. For instance, there is a significant section on pedagogy (teaching methods). The report claims that, “To be clear, the recommendations of this Review do not imply an emphasis on any particular teaching approaches: decisions about teaching and learning are very context and purpose specific, and are best taken by teachers themselves.” However, this wears pretty thin, pretty quickly. For instance, collaborative learning is mandated, with the report stating that, “Good teaching and learning encourages collaboration.” “Authentic contexts” are also important, giving a hint of the constructivist philosophy that underpins Donaldson’s approach.

To be fair, Donaldson accepts that direct teaching has a role. However, he seems a little confused about what direct teaching is, suggesting that it is a ‘caricature’ to think of it as involving a whole class (why?) and suggesting that direct teaching implies the ‘scaffolding’ of learning. Yet scaffolding is usually used to describe the kinds of hints and guidance that constructivist teachers employ in investigative and problem-solving contexts.

Some of the intent behind Donaldson’s statements about good teaching becomes clearer when read in conjunction with the proposed curriculum. For instance, Donaldson wants to get rid of conventional subjects, amalgamating them into ‘Areas of Learning’ such as ‘Health and Wellbeing*’, ‘Humanities’ and ‘Science and Technology’. The ‘Mathematics and Numeracy’ area, “…provides strong support for the development of wider skills, particularly critical thinking and problem solving, planning and organisation, and creativity and innovation.” There is a whole section on these wider skills and the curriculum is designed as a way to deliver them. Yet these skills are not ‘wider’; they are highly domain dependent. So attempts to develop them at a general, transferrable level are doomed to fail.

As ever, science is seen as a thing that people do rather than a body of knowledge. Students, “…learn to generate and test ideas, gather evidence, make observations, carry out practical investigations, and communicate with others.” This is a good example of the fallacy of assuming that they way that professional scientists do science is the best way to learn it.

Donaldson wants to add further complexity by mandating cross-curricular themes of literacy, numeracy and ‘digital competence’. He wants students to have lots of choice over activities and experiences, even though research suggests that the choices students make are not optimal for learning. To Donaldson, knowledge is interchangeable in the service of delivering wider skills: “…the spacing of the steps at three-yearly intervals allows for a measure of choice, for example in topics for research, within these intervals if the school sees that as appropriate.” It really doesn’t matter what bit of history you are messing about with as long as you learn to think critically.

If you are still unsure that the intent is to move decisively away from conventional subjects, then Donaldson offers a number of vignettes. Here is a description of a primary school curriculum sequence under his proposals:

“The study of a local river, for example, may be rooted in the Humanities Area of Learning and Experience. However, it opens up wide-ranging opportunities across other areas. It might connect with the Expressive arts Area of Learning and Experience through listening to music, such as Smetana’s Vltava, and composing music or creating visual interpretations or dance or dramatic performances to express the river’s journey from its source to the sea. It offers opportunities to use factual and creative language purposefully to create brochures or poems and to apply mathematical and scientific skills to observe and investigate natural phenomena and measure depth and speed. It enables children and young people to improve their health and well-being by appreciating the joy of fresh air and walking safely in the hills to seek the source of their local stream and using map skills to follow all or part of its journey.”

Very romantic.

In secondary school, he favours project-based learning:

“For example, a school could provide a Year 7 programme for a significant part of the school week that develops a wide range of skills through a themed approach, thereby aiding continuity with primary practice. This approach could involve a series of projects to cover the year, and use the thinking skills methodology of ‘plan, develop and reflect’ as the organising structure. Projects would cover all subjects, although specialist teaching could be provided for literacy, numeracy and areas such as modern foreign languages and PE. The projects could be based on a range of interesting topics that develop different skills and subject areas, for example on topics such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘innovation’. Teams of staff drawn from all subjects would design and deliver the curriculum, while timetabling based on multiple lessons would allow both the flexibility to create larger or smaller teaching groups as well as team teaching.”

This is the approach that failed so dramatically in a recent Education Endowment Foundation trial: Many of the project-based learning schools actually dropped out of the trial and in those schools that were left, project-based learning had a possible negative impact on some groups of students. So it either doesn’t work or it’s hard to do. Regardless, it is not a promising approach.

Alongside these curriculum changes, Donaldson proposes assessment changes. He wants to rely more on unreliable teacher assessment at the same time as making assessment far more complex and reducing the accountability of schools. This means that the negative effects of the new curriculum will take longer to spot. The first clear indications are likely to come from PISA data some way down the track.

My hope is that the Welsh government starts to pay attention to the effects of similar reforms in Scotland and has a rethink before this new curriculum can do too much harm.

*This is going to sound very dated, very quickly


7 thoughts on “Bad times ahead for education in Wales

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  3. This curriculum idea sounds like the way I was trained in the seventies. A cross-curricula approach where all lessons across all subjects were linked by a theme. Everyone gets very bored very quickly – initially students are excited, of course, and then this fades when lessons keep on and on being about the river or the Tudors etc and they never actually learn anything much about these things or get anywhere, except to draw pictures and get info off the internet (books in the 70s, of course, and the reason many primary schools have topic book boxes rather than sets of text books). I am intrigued by the idea that students will use ‘map skills’ to find the source of their river, however. Such skills need explicit teaching, usually in a classroom and then converting into practice on a walk – this takes timel (I spent a week walking as a group in the Lake District, during A level geography, learning to identify particular hills/lakes etc from the map and therefore work out where we were: not easy despite years of studying OS maps and bearings!).
    Topics such as sustainability and innovation are boring: they tend to lead to things like the history of transport (taught this to some year 9s in the 70s with dire results).
    Making brochures and pamphlets means that some students get no academic content at all: they spend their time drawing posters.
    But we know all this already! Why is Wales doing it again?

  4. Sara Lincoln says:

    I’m looking at this from a Creative Learning perspective. Was hoping to get a good alternative argument. But the only solid evidence expressed here is the EEF study of PBL.

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  6. Johnna Reeder says:

    I am an American teacher. I was working as a special needs support teacher in a Welsh school for disadvantaged primarily immigrant children (8 years old). I was appalled at what I saw. It was unstructured chaos. I did not know that this was by design until the recent Scottish revelation that this method does not work. I wrote observations every day as to how bad it was, and I took pictures of the centers. This method is simply not appropriate for 27 children in a small classroom. The teachers have not been trained in how to circulate between activity centers or how to design a constructivists curriculum that builds on skills and reinforces what was taught. What I witnessed is a travesty in Welsh education.

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