The top three education priorities, in order


Yesterday morning, I arrived in Amsterdam. I was very pleased to find that my hotel room was ready. After a long flight, I had that swooshy jet-lag feeling.

After resting and catching up with an old friend for some apple pie, I headed to the offices of Academica Business College. Pim Pollen had invited me to speak at their Making Shift Happen conference held later today and so yesterday afternoon was a time to meet and go through the details of the conference.

I was reacquainted with Paul Kirschner and met Ben Wilbrink for the first time. I reconnected with Erik Meester who I had chatted to at researchED in London and I was introduced to Alex Koks, Michel Freriks and Margareth de Wit, the CEO of Academica Business College.

Later, other speakers arrived. I had met Daisy Christodoulou before, but not Katherine Birbalsingh or E D Hirsch Jr. There was much discussion of education and a lot to take in for a jet-lagged introvert like me, but it was a real honour to meet people I had known for so long through their work.

At one point, I was asked something like ‘what is the most important thing to get right in a school?’ With a clarity obtained only after the consumption of three cups of black coffee, I articulated something that I don’t think I’ve ever quite said before.

The point at which you start improving a school really depends on where you are. If behaviour is poor, classrooms are disorderly and students don’t follow instructions, then this is the priority. You can make quite a dramatic change just by improving the school climate. I know because I’ve been through such an experience.

Once behaviour is appropriate, the next priority is the curriculum. We need to be clear about what we want students to learn.

At dinner, it was interesting to chat about these two points with Daisy and Katherine. The absence of teacher decisions about behaviour and curriculum is not neutral. There is no egalitarian utopia that can be established by teachers relinquishing control. A curriculum that follows students’ interests is one shaped by the market and a classroom that is not under the control of the teacher is under the control of the forces of peer pressure or is the fiefdom of a class bully. Teacher authority is the least worst option.

Once behaviour and curriculum are right, we can begin to look at teaching methods. It’s not really viable to ask ‘what is the most effective way to teach’ until we know what we are trying to achieve.

However, I would add that in the real world, the division between curriculum and teaching methods is often an artificial one. Although theoretically possible, I know of few people advocating that children should systematically learn all the common grapheme-phoneme correspondences in written English, the role of the schwa and so on, but that they should do this through inquiry learning. The alternatives to systematic synthetic phonics tend to have a different emphasis altogether – a focus on meaning. Although letter-sound relationships are meant to be picked up implicitly, there is no appetite for assessing this learning. The curriculum is clearly different in practice.

I suppose one place where the division between curriculum and teaching methods makes sense is in the acquisition of the kind of declarative knowledge that proponents of a knowledge rich curriculum prioritise. A child could be explicitly taught about life in Ancient Rome or she could research it. Provided that she can do the latter successfully and not focus on form over content, I think both have a role in a living, breathing school. It might be the case that explicit instruction is more effective for learning the declarative knowledge, but we may have other objectives in mind such as varying the diet of the school day or practising a certain kind of writing.

To me, this illustrates the importance of the relationship between curriculum and teaching. The system of explicit teaching, with its gradual release of control from teacher and student, is always likely to be the most effective way to learn new stuff. But what if learning new stuff is not the priority today?

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2 thoughts on “The top three education priorities, in order

  1. You have a point–after all, if primary school teachers have much in the way of academic knowledge, it’s more by accident than design. And, I’m sorry to hear from a head of Science at an urban comp that some graduates from the UK’s newer universities would struggle to get a decent GCSE in their own subject; it would seem that whatever they’ve learned has had so little reinforcement that they’ve forgotten most of it. Almost certainly, few if any of their own teachers have valued knowledge for its own sake.

    However, we can appeal to these teachers’ sense of self-preservation. After this head of Science visited Michaela, he decided to create his own ‘knowledge books’ and to make these the focus of teaching and learning. At the same time, he instituted weekly tests–and of course the kids loved it, because what they had to learn was set out in black and white in their knowledge books. Contrary to what a lot of his progressively-minded SLT thought, pupil behaviour and engagement improved enormously. And as a side effect, some of the weaker teachers were getting a better grasp of their own subject. Win-win. It’s surprising how quickly you abandon attempts to teach kids to ‘think like scientists’ has when your classes no longer resemble one of the bottom scenarios on Terry Haydn’s 10-point scale of classroom climate.

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