Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fifteen observations about 'innovation' and the standards agenda

A bit of a rant, but I'm really worked up about this at the moment. Comments very welcome!

There are lots of articles and activity over at NESTA about the need to encourage risk-taking in the public sector, particularly education, if we’re going to have an education system that produces the kinds of ‘creative citizens’ that are needed in the 21st century knowledge economy. Leaving aside some of the problems with the idea that we really are in a knowledge society (or at least, whether anyone other than ‘knowledge and policy entrepreneurs’ and the bloggers really are) here are some thoughts in relation to this:

1. Schools, colleges and universities (particularly schools and colleges) are under tremendous pressure to continually improve their 'results' - i.e. the quantity and quality (measured in grades) of the qualifications that their learners obtain. Education Minister Ed Balls’ recent speech just underlines this further.

2. In a climate in which educational outcomes are measured by league tables, institutions have to repeatedly demonstrate through internal planning and external reporting and inspection how they are performing. Those that appear to be doing well are rewarded with ‘status marks’, brands, logos etc. Those that do badly are ‘named and shamed’ as failing schools, targeted for intervention and pilloried in the popular press. There’s an understandable concern at the heart of this that no child should be in a school that doesn’t give them an entitlement to high quality learning; it’s not the concern to give equal opportunity that I object to, more the preferred method of achieving it. Michael Fullan, in a recent Newsnight Scotland interview pointed out that the evidence is that collaborative approaches, in which professionals share and collaborate across schools according to particular strengths, and get involved in learning together, is more likely to lead to ‘raising standards’.

3. In my book I also pointed out that there is a central contradiction in exhorting schools to ‘collaborate’ when in a performative system they are pitted against each other, particularly in their competition to attract and retain the best kinds of students (i.e. the least risky in terms of their likelihood of failing qualifications). This prejudices the entire system against young people who, for reasons outside of their own control, are particularly challenged in the performance stakes.

4. So what is ‘performativity’? The phrase originates with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 report The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge. He argued that, with the breakdown of traditional forms of authority, the collapse of 19th century ‘grand narratives’, and the ending of a consensus that a cadre of elite, expert professionals could determine what counts as valid knowledge, (in part driven by the challenge to ‘normative’ knowledge mounted by the new social movements and by radical politics), instead the value placed upon knowledge is how it performs a function: “in postindustrial societies the normativity of laws is replaced by the performativity of procedures.” (1979, p. 46). In other words, knowledge, rather than being based on abstracted laws is validated – legitimated – insofar as it fits the stated aims and purposes for which it is being used.

5. In education performativity leads to an obsessive focus on 'attainment’, as measured in test scores and grades. Anything that is not seen as directly impacting on attainment measures is regarded as less important in the life of the school and harder to justify spending any time or money on. It also sends a message to children that the most significant part of their education is the grades and scores that they get at the end of the process. As Ken Robinson says:

"School reforms always emphasize standards and standardized testing, as if it's akin to a McDonald's franchise. But standardized testing demoralizes teachers, demoralizes students, and incents people to teach to the test. Standardized testing is based on the idea that we have to make education teacher-proof and I think we have to do the reverse".

6. We need to consider the psychological and health effects on learners and teachers of their exposure to this intensive audit culture. It could be regarded as a form of psychological warfare. The government talks about ‘partnership’ with the teaching profession but there is a lot of fear, anxiety and stress in the system which is inimical to fostering effective learning communities. We should be asking the question – what kinds of ‘ideal’ subjects – learners and teachers, young people and adults – do these kind of performativity discourses construct? And how do these performative identities play out in the social and pedagogic relations within schools and colleges?

7. Part of this is to do with how qualifications and forms of assessment which boil outcomes down to grades work. This is especially acute when 'outcomes' are measured by pen and paper tests or multiple choice examinations. Such forms of assessment, unless handled carefully, are blunt instruments that don't really measure anything other than students' drilled ability to pass such kinds of tests. They’re also often based on a pseudo-scientific paradigm that there are clearly right answers and wrong answers, correct and incorrect ways of doing things. That’s a much more difficult thing to show in the arts and humanities than it is in maths and the sciences. This is partly how maths and sciences get their reputation for ‘objectivity’ and ‘rigour’, whilst so called ‘expressive outcomes’ of the arts, other than when students are being asked to recall facts or perform analysis, get labelled as fuzzy and blurry and imprecise. It goes back to a mechanistic model of education in which ‘delivery’ is built on the notion that there are best practice models of efficient transmission of knowledge which can be effectively measured by outside authorities; paradoxically, a very 19th century way of thinking about knowledge and learning, which doesn’t really acknowledge just how complicated it has become to really prove any knowledge is likely to have longevity or legitimacy. In fact, enabling learners to apply and use a piece of knowledge (or a skill) is the key issue, not simply testing their ability to recall or reproduce it.

8. There’s some evidence that what has happened in the last ten years is that schools have become more adept at getting 'borderline' students to pass tests, which hasn’t necessarily impacted on the wider quality of educational outcomes. What is needed is a much more high quality approach to assessment which draws together a whole range of skills and abilities – the vocational curriculum is one attempt at this, the use of longer assessments which involve students using a whole range of skills another, the RSA's "Opening Minds" curriculum a third.

9. The biggest ‘risk’ that schools face is that they might try a new approach or change their curriculum and that this will somehow negatively affect their ‘bottom line’ – i.e. students’ test or exam scores. So performativity makes schools risk averse. Partly this is because schools are exhorted to guarantee an ‘entitlement’ for young people so that they all reach the required standard – ‘No Child Left Behind’, as the slogan from the US goes – but the flip side of this agenda is that focussing on children’s performance on a really narrow set of measures in literacy and numeracy runs the risk of leaving everything else that school could be about in the shade. There may be some grounds for optimism: the agendas around creativity, innovation and inclusion at least ‘mediate’ the standards agenda, as Dyson et al (2003) put it, “schools can and do open up spaces in the standards agenda”. There is plenty of evidence that a rich learning environment where attention is paid to relationships and informal learning is much more likely to lead to improved outcomes even in formal assessments. But if the central purpose of education is always expressed as if it were about narrow outcomes, or as Lyotard says elsewhere, based on demonstrating ‘skills’ rather than ‘ideals’, there’s always a risk that the debate gets polarised into which ‘teaching method’ leads to the ‘most effective outcome’, as if those terms haven’t always been the subject of centuries of debate, scholarship and contestation.

10. The pseudo-market created by a performative ‘standards’ agenda also has all sorts of other distorting effects – as Frank Coffield (2007) has pointed out it means that schools put huge attention onto the so-called ‘borderline’ learners – those who are likely with coaching to reach the 5 A – C standard, which may well negatively impact those young people who are either very ‘high achievers’ or very low achievers. Coffield points out that every year in the UK there are 300.000 school leavers who fail to gain places in any further education or training, who simply fall out of the system.

11. So long as the ‘standards’ agenda continues to be the dominant way of thinking about education and learning, we are in trouble. Innovation in schools is locked down by the obsession with measuring attainment, so that the power in terms of defining what constitutes ‘effective learning’ for young people, even if they have powerful experiences of social learning along the way, is reduced to very crude measures of attainment. When everything that a school does has to be justified in terms of its impact on attainment, the first question that springs to my mind at least is, what sort of attainment are we talking about anyway? I am not arguing that we shouldn’t have a qualifications system or a defined curriculum, but we need to teach and assess a much broader range of skills and expose young people to a much wider range of contexts than simply classroom based learning with a single teacher at the front of the room. If QCA’s proposals for a new approach to the secondary curriculum or the new 14- 19 diplomas are to succeed, they need a real focus on pedagogy and thinking about teaching and learning beyond preparation for performance in examinations.

12. In fact, there is tons of evidence that students become more confident learners and more highly skilled when they are nourished in a rich, varied and stimulating learning environment, in which they feel cared for, listened to and valued; in which students and staff are given opportunities to participate and lead, and when the whole school is configured as a learning organisation – a form of social architecture - in which enquiry and creativity are valued. But it is very hard to do this when there is such pressure to cover massive amounts of pre-determined learning content which is assessed in pre-determined ways under intensively timed and controlled conditions. These social textures are the stuff of learning, and failure to address this leads to a failure of imagination.

13. Is technology is an issue here? Probably, but too often it’s about being a ‘learning aid’ – i.e. about endorsing predetermined outcomes without really considering what the creative potential of ICT might be. Without really engaging with how culture and society are changing and shifting we will end up in a mess. Communications technologies are enabling new organisational and institutional forms and patterns to emerge. Ironically the debate about curriculum and assessment seems to be locked into a 19th century model of subjects and standards. If the government is serious about innovation then it needs to send a message to practitioners that it values experimentation and professional learning. Schools would be very different kinds of spaces and places if we really explored what a 21st century learning environment could look like. It certainly doesn’t have to be about the idea of a a single teacher in single classroom with a single group of students all of one age, rather it could take a much more networked and distributed form, just like learning does in the rest of the world...

14. More optimistically, schools and colleges are sites of contestation and in spite of the neat grids of central policies classrooms are messy and pragmatic places – so there’s always space for exploration and possibility. After all, isn’t that what learning is for? So the current situation could be perceived as a major opportunity for innovators, if they could just grab the agenda, wherever they are. To be fair, programmes like Creative Partnerships, some of the work formerly done under the banner of the NESTA Learning Programme, some of the SSAT's efforts to get schools to do peer-to-peer learning, some of NCSL's work and the Innovation Unit have all provided pointers, help and support for schools seeking to innovate. Not to mention the role of local authorities. But even that partial roll-call of overlapping agencies (and that's just for schools, never mind FE or HE) shows how unbelievably tangled, confusing and complex the English education system is.

15. Nothing less than a total rethink of how we measure attainment and approach teaching and learning will deliver a high quality education system. At a time of significant curriculum change in Scotland and England, there’s a real need to focus on teaching and learning, not just standards and outcomes. There are lots of curriculum prototypes and great projects from round the world that are attempting to broaden the agenda and open up learning to more imaginative approaches, but we need a more sophisticated way of articulating this rather than the very tired rhetoric of 'standards'. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we should disregard indicators of educational quality, or not ensure that qualifications provide learners with meaningful certification of what they can do, or make sure teachers learn from expert practitioners, or strive constantly to improve what we do, but we need a much more intelligent debate about how to do this than we are currently getting...


generalpraxis said...

I've just come across this conference in Sydney in which various UK champions of educational innovation (Tom Bentley, David Puttnam, Mick Waters) are speaking. The issues I'd love to see them address (but I'm not sure whether they will) are to do with the gaps between the rhetoric and the reality in UK education policy. We seem to have a system which practises what I called elsewhere 'megaphone innovation' where there is a huge rhetoric about the importance of change, school improvement, and 'new approaches' but at the same time we are wedded to ideas about assessment, testing and 'ability' that are completely past their use-by date. So practitioners are caught in the ideological crossfire between 'back to basics' and '21st century knowledge society.' David Cameron's ridiculous speech embodies the contradictions very well.

The issue seems to me to be centred on how you give practtioners and frontline staff the permission to innovate - for them to really believe that the authorities will value experimentation or curriculum development or pedagogic research. Currently the rhetoric cuts in two totally incompatible directions simultaneously.

generalpraxis said...

This piece from right-of-centre think-tank Reform seems as good an example as any of the opposing position to the one that I've set out here. I don't have the time to deconstruct it in detail, but here are just a couple of questions: what is the sort of competition between schools to drive up 'standards' that the author has in mind? Who is competing? Are they seriously suggesting that the demographic profile of a school's intake doesn't affect the likely educational outcomes? And is it acceptable to have an educational system which has the idea of 'winners' and 'losers' built into its DNA? We all lose if we don't do the best we possibly can for all of our young people.